Tour de Mont Blanc

The Tour de Mont Blanc is a trail that circles the Mont Blanc massif (as the name suggests!).  Mont Blanc itself stands proud at 4,809m, with the TMB varying from 1000m in the lower valleys up to 2600m cols.  Along with Shane and Heather Ohly, we completed the TMB in early September 2015, as a run (where gradient and energy permitted!), taking it in 4 stages and staying overnight in mountain refuges / huts. 
Our days were as follows:

  • Day 1: Les Houches to Refuge des Mottets – 42km, +3727m, 8hrs10
  • Day 2: Refuge des Mottets to Refuge Walter Bonatti – 39km, +2942m, 7hrs20
  • Day 3: Refuge Walter Bonatti to Relais d’Arpette – 37km, +1835m, 5hr34
  • Day 4: Relais d’Arpette to Les Houches – 49km, +4072m, 9hr55TOTAL:  167km and 12,500m ascent in 31 hours spread over 4 days.

Some of you may also be familiar with the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB).  That is a single-stage ultra-marathon race, around a variation of the TMB route.  It is held each year and has a limit of 2300 competitors (and applications usually exceed that – it is very popular, so much so they have strict entry criteria requiring qualifying points from other races).  To put our attempt into context, the UTMB has a record of just over 20 hours – simply amazing!  But you can also guarantee the UTMB is a gruelling challenge, and much of it will pass in a blur of exhaustion , if not darkness.  Much nicer I think to take a bit more time over the route and enjoy the spectacular scenery.

Day 2 Duncan contemplating the trail to Courmayer (credit: Shane Ohly)

The TMB actually has a number of variations.  We chose the highest, most exciting, and most scenic routes where possible (and sensible!).  Particular highlights:

  • From Col de Voza we continued to Bellevue and Col de Tricot, and stayed high through the woods past Refuge de Tré la Téte, rather than through the somewhat more boring (but less ascent) valley route through Contamines.
  • From Col de Croix du Bonhomme we continued up to Col des Fours and down to Refuge des Mottets, rather than two sides of a triangle via Les Chapieux.
  • From Refuge Bertoni (after the climb out of Courmayeur), we continued along the ridge through two more cols, rather than traversing round to the Walter Bonatti hut.
  • We stayed in the Relais d’Arpette (many stay down in Champex), and then continued up to the Fenêtre d’Arpette, then down and up again to the Col de Balme, rather than round the lower route to Col de Forclaz and Trient.  I highly recommend this variation – the valley climb is pleasant if long, and the views when you pop through the Fenêtre (“window”) are excellent.
  • From Col de Balme we continued over Aigulette des Posettes, through Col des Montets, up beneath the Aiguilles Rouge (although not as high as Lac Blanc), past Flegere, up to the Brévent, and down to Les Houches.  There are a number of variations around here, with some people dropping to Chamonix and missing the Aiguille Rouges completely.

The running is generally on good trails, mostly single width paths, and some 4×4 tracks.  Some of the traversing trails provide truly delightful running, especially so on day 2 above and before Courmayeur (see picture), and on day 4 approaching the Col de Balme, and again below the Aiguilles Rouges and Brévent.

Most people seem to go anti-clockwise, and when running this makes a lot of sense as you end up with more steep climbs (we found we were walking any sort of climb so you may as well get it over with) and more gradual descents (which you can really enjoy, compared to thigh burning steep descents).  The best gradual descents were on day 2 from Col de la Seigne, and day 3 from Col des Grand Mullets.  Lightweight walking poles can be handy.  I actually didn’t take any (to save some weight), but Shane and Heather did, and a couple of times they would have been handy.  When the gradient periodically offers running possibilities, or if the terrain is particularly rocky, they can get in the way, but I’d say the slower you are going, the more useful they become.

Day 2 Shane and Duncan (identical twins!) above Bertone hut

Early September seemed an ideal time to go.  If you go too soon in the summer (e.g. May or June) you are likely to encounter snow patches on the high passes, which require care or additional equipment (e.g. mini-crampons).  In high season you would encounter a LOT of people, the midday heat could be oppressive, and there is a greater risk of afternoon thunderstorms.  So September seemed the best of all worlds, although early mornings were almost frosty in the valleys (but most mornings started straight uphill to warm you up!), and it is still best to pre-book the huts.  To be fair though we got incredibly lucky with the weather, with four days of sunshine (and drizzle/rain on the days either side).

The TMB is a popular hiking trail, and we met lots of people, hoping to complete the trail in 8-12 days.  You certainly get a lot of kudos from hikers in the huts, whose jaws drop when you say you are doing it in four days!  Some variously played by different rules, e.g. taking lifts, getting transits in the valleys, getting donkeys to carry their bags, etc.  Whatever makes you happy I guess, which the majority were, although we did see some weary souls.

We went fairly lightweight, but with slightly more comforts than a mountain marathon.  I started with about 5kg, including 4 days hill food and water, which reduced to less than 3kg by the end of the last day with no water or food left.  I was amazed by the size of most of the walkers’ sacs.  Hats off to those who were camping, but those staying in huts still had massive loads, even after some of them offloaded their overnight stuff onto a donkey or bus.  I was honestly curious to know what some of them were carrying!  I carried the following:

  • 20L OMM sac
  • Camelbak (1.5L full at the start of each day) plus empty water bottle (to fill from streams en route)
  • Lightweight waterproof jacket and trousers (never required!)
  • Hangar 18 windproof top – excellent for the chilly morning starts in the shade, and when it got breezy on some tops, but when I didn’t want a full waterproof
  • Running clothes: ¾ tights, t-shirt, socks, Inov-8 MudClaw 265 fell shoes (studs now quite worn down!)
  • Spare / evening clothes: short- and a long-sleeved thermal, furry leggings, Hangar 18 sleeveless down jacket (excellent for extra warmth, although most huts were warm enough especially when everyone sat down for dinner), one pair spare socks, hat, gloves.
  • Other bits: compass, maps, very lightweight survival bag, headtorch, small first aid kit, toothbrush, Vaseline, sun cream, lipsalve, mobile phone (signal in valleys but not most huts), GPS watch and charger (Garmin 610 but battery didn’t last through any of the days!), BMC insurance and EHIC cards, money, passport (not really needed although you do pass France, Italy and Switzerland)
  • Food: on average 2 Clif bars, 2 SIS Go bars, 1 Kendal mint cake, and electrolyte tablets during each day, and an SIS Rego sachet and protein bar for when I finished each day.  Main evening meal and breakfast provided by the hut.  On days 2 & 3 we also stopped in a café at Courmayeur and Champex respectively for additionally snacking!

The mountain hut experience is well worth it.  We had good recommendations from a friend and stayed in three very nice huts.  We had bunk beds in dorms or private rooms, with mattress/pillow/blanket so just requiring a sheet (silk) sleeping bag.  If you arrive mid-afternoon then you can usually relax out in the sun before everyone eats at 7pm.  The food was generally excellent and plentiful, and beer was available if you thought you’d earned it.  Most people retired for well-earned sleep soon after dinner (take ear plugs for the dorms…), before breakfast at 7am to get cracking on the next day.  My favourite was probably Refuge des Mottets with its curious artefacts on the walls, and the hostess wheeling out a music box for entertainment after dinner.

Celebratory beer at the end (credit: Shane Ohly)

So how does it feel to run a marathon with 3000m of climb, four days in a row?!  Tiring yes definitely, but if you are fit enough it isn’t that bad.  We weren’t racing, we walked all the uphills, and jogged most flats and downhills (not dissimilar to a brisk BGR pace maybe?).  Staying in huts allows you to recover enough for the next day.  However, there are some BIG steep single climbs (1000m), and with downhills and the distance thrown in you can be sure that any niggles will be amplified by the end (fortunately we faired ok).  We also stored up a monster fourth day, partly through taking hut advice from someone else who had done a different easier variant at the end.  But all in all it was a great experience.  You really feel like you have gone on a journey, circling the huge mountain massif, with amazing views into the massif (particularly on days 2 and 4) and looking back to where you have come from each day gives a huge sense of achievement.  I’d recommend the TMB to anyone, no matter what speed you choose to take it at.