Hike the Tour du Mont Blanc

Considered by many to be the most beautiful hike in western Europe (and some would argue the WORLD!), this epic hike takes you through three countries:  France, Italy and Switzerland on a magnificent 110 miles (170km).  You’ll walk through alpine meadows, historic villages and forests all while gazing at the stunning granite peaks of the European Alps of the Mont Blanc Massif (mountain range)!

One night you can splurge on a gourmet French meal and the next day, after a day’s hike, be relishing a fabulous pasta dish in Italy!  You’ll cross borders, encounter multiple languages (mostly French and Italian, and some German), and experience multiple cultures, food and customs.

Our guest today is Linda Cohen Dickens, who with her husband, Harry, hiked the Tour du Mont Blanc with Active Adventures (this is one of their signature tours).  In the podcast (there’s a link to listen at the top of the page), she describes the scenery, the challenges and the wonderful food she ate and the interesting people she met.

This is a difficult hike (ATA rating of 4-5) but IT IS DOABLE if you are in shape and you train (see my training schedule below)!  This is not a hike to ‘learn on the job’.  No technical skills are required, but there are some steep ascents and descents (bring your poles!!!).  Also, like most mountains, even in the summer, you need to always be prepared for extreme weather conditions and sudden changes.

One great thing about this trip is that you can tailor it to both your time AND budget!  You can do it on the cheap by backpacking or camping (forwarding your pack), you can stay in the mountain huts, or upgrade to pensions and hotels (some legs you will need to use the hut or skip ahead).  If you go with a guided tour like Linda and her husband did with Active Adventures–they make all the arrangements for you – see links on the free Travel Planner for guidance.

Our guest today, Linda, used my affiliate Active Adventures for her trip. In fact, she's the one who introduced me to this amazing company. Unlike traditional hiking tour companies, Active Adventures always adds a little twist to make it multi-sport. You'll often have the opportunity to kayak or cycle, or do other cool things as well as predominantly hiking. They make all the arrangements for you, so all you have to do is show up!

Typical

Itinerary

     

Avg 

 

Avg 

Ascent 

Descent 

 

Leg#

Start

Hours

Miles

 mph

KM

km/hr

meters

meters

% Killer

1

Les Houches

5:00

10

2.0

16 km

3.2

646

633

8%

2

Les Contamines

7:30

11

1.5

18 km

2.4

1316

929

13%

3

Les Chapieux

4:30

9

2.0

15 km

3.4

1004

258

9%

4

Rifugio Elisabetta

5:00

11

2.2

18 km

3.6

460

1560

11%

5

Courmayeur

4:30

8

1.8

12 km

2.7

860

101

8%

6

Rifugio Bonatti

6:30

12

1.9

20 km

3.1

895

1410

12%

7

La Fouly

4:00

9

2.3

15 km

3.8

420

565

7%

8

Champex

4:30

10

2.2

16 km

3.6

742

682

9%

9

Col de la Forclaz

5:30

8

1.5

13 km

2.4

1069

1178

18%

10

Tre-le-Champ

3:30

5

1.4

8 km

2.3

733

257

13%

11

Refuge Flegere

6:30

11

1.7

17 km

2.6

772

1546

14%

Total:

 

57h

110

2.0

168 km

2.9

8719

9119

 
 

Figures are rounded : use just to give you a general idea

       

1m = 3.3 feet

 

Typically started on Leg 1,2 or 8 above.  Note that if start at Leg 8, you get to the hardest part early.  Perhaps better to start at Leg 1 or 2, so your body is more acclimated and conditioned before the more killer sections.

   
             

Remember that you have ALL DAY to do it!  You can do this!!!  I’ve rounded up the daily time averages.  To use this chart, for example, Leg 1:  Les Houches, you would have all day to hike ten miles (16 km) , and during the course of the day, you will be climbing a total of  2120′ up (646 meters), and descending over the day 2075′ (633 meters ).  So of the 16 km (= 16000 meters) you are hiking that day, 646m + 633m = 1279m (1.3 km) of ascent or descent, which means about 8% of the hike you will be going up or down, and the rest of the time won’t be killer.  This does not tell you if you have sharp ascents or descents.  That’s where your guide book comes in handy.  The hours listed above can give you an idea, too.

‘When in Rome’…scratch that!  I mean France!  Linda explains about the tradition of drinking a special coffee with sugar, orange and lemon (often with Grand Marnier liquor) out of this unusual container called a Friendship Cup.   Coupe de l’amitié is the name of this unusual handcrafted cup used in the Aosta valley on the Italian/French border.  Your group MUST finish the cup, while toasting good health and happiness (or it’s bad luck!).  No complaints there!

The first person says this while passing the cup : “Le café valdotain dans la coupe de l’amitié “ [According to Google Translate: The Valdotain coffee in the cup of friendship.”]

The person receiving the cup responds, “Santé bonheur!  “Que grand bien te fasse” [Great health and happiness to you!].  And the cup continues to be passed around to ALL guests at the table counterclockwise until emptied.  The cup cannot rest on the table until it is finished to avoid “bad luck”.

This handcrafted cup is usually made from walnut or maple (I know:  I thought it was clay!) and the round top is often embellished with common alpine symbols such as ibex heads, snakes or edelweiss flowers.

One night, Linda saw this commendation hanging on the wall of her room.  Turns out a heroine once lived there.  This home she stayed in (now a hotel) has been in the family since the late 1800’s.  Now the granddaughter is the caretaker.  She explained to Linda that her grandmother risked her life to save Jews during the war.  One of the men she saved wrote a book about her grandmother and his story (author in the article above).

Here’s how I would train to hike the Mont Blanc circuit:

Ideally at least three months in advance (but really make sure that it’s at least two months), start taking walks or hikes with your pack two times per week for 30-60 minutes, and then on one day each week, hike 2-3 hours with your pack.  If you live where it’s flat like I do, you may need to do the short hikes on a treadmill on the incline and then find some hills for your longer hikes (or do more boring treadmills).

In addition, your body, especially your shoulders and feet, need to get used to carrying weight.  BUT DON’T ADD A LOT OF WEIGHT AT ONE TIME!!!  Ease into it.  Collect water bottles (I prefer the thicker walled juice containers with heavy caps because they are less likely to leak).  Fill the bottles with water.

I use a heavy duty trash compacter bag as a liner in my pack.  Put several of the filled water bottles to add some weight to your pack.  You may need to cushion them with a towel so they don’t poke you in the back.

Put the pack on and load with enough water bottles so that you FEEL the weight, but it doesn’t feel very heavy.  This is your start weight.  Then each week add no more than 10% more weight.  The goal is to build up and get used to carrying more weight than you’ll be carrying on the actual adventure so that when you are actually hiking the trail, your pack feels light.  This helps to compensate for not practicing with much elevation.

For example, if I find that my pack is going to weight about 20 pounds  (see my day pack packing guide), and I start feeling the weight at 15 pounds, here’s what my training weight might look like:

Training week

Pack weight

Pack weight

 

pounds

kg

1

15

7

2

16.5

7.5

3

18

8

4

20

9

5

22

10

6

24

11

7

26.5

12

8

29

13

DO NOT increase your weight more than 10% per week so your body can adapt easier.

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