Hiking the TMB with Gadventures

Shortly after I started hiking & backpacking, I started dreaming of following some of the most beautiful trails in the world.  It didn’t take long for the Tour du Mont Blanc, affectionately known as the TMB, to end up on my Hiking Bucket List.  The TMB is widely considered one of the ten best hikes in the world.  The trail circles the Mont Blanc massif covering over one-hundred miles of mountainous terrain.

I consider myself, at best, an intermediate hiker with only a slightly above average level of fitness.  As a result, I decided to be smart and book a guided trek with Gadventures rather than attempting it solo.  I had used G for my first international trip, a 3-week overlanding tour through southern Africa, and was incredibly pleased with their services.  So, I booked their first tour of the season leaving Chamonix, France in mid-June without hesitation.

Trek

There are two primary ways to complete the Tour du Mont Blanc. The first is traditional backpacking where you carry your pack, tent, and food and camp each night.  The other option is to travel lighter and sleep in mountain refuges.  Tent camping and cooking your own meals saves money and makes you more of a badass.  However, it misses out on one of the most important aspects of hiking through France, Italy, and Switzerland that the refuges provide: the food!  That, in itself, should be enough to convince even the most hardcore elitist backpackers to consider bunking in a refuge.

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Getting ready to start the TMB in Chamonix, France!

TMB: G Adventures Version

I knew my skill and fitness levels weren’t up to the task of traditional backpacking a route this strenuous, so I went the refuge route.

The typical TMB hike starts in Les Houches, France and proceeds in a counterclockwise direction.  There are countless options regarding where to begin, have lunch, and sleep.  There are even multiple variations of the trail; some avoiding major inclines, flat sections, and walking on paved roads.

The version that Gadvenures offers is a condensed version of the TMB.  It covers between seventy and eighty miles while eliminating a couple large inclines and a significant amount of flat/paved trail.  G’s TMB is 10 total days: the initial meeting day, 7 hiking days, one rest day, and the departure day.  The reason behind this is that many trekkers (specifically Americans) simply don’t have the vacation time for a full 10-11 days of hiking with the additional days factored in.

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One of the benefits of taking a guided tour of the TMB is having an incredibly knowledgeable guide like Tom here.

Hit the Trail

The first two hiking days of the G-version TMB are considered the most challenging.  Day one is over 12 miles of non-stop ups and downs through various mountain passes.  Day two on the other hand feels like you’re summiting a mountain; a huge uphill morning followed by steep descent in the afternoon.  On day three you cross into Italy and reach Courmayeur.  It’s on this day that you take a bus to the trail head (cutting about 3 miles of pavement walking) and another to the center of town.  Courmayeur is where you spend day four as a free day.  It’s a beautiful little city with several options for things to do: go on an Italian food binge (as was my preference), take the cable car up to a nearby glacier, or hit the spa for some R&R.

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Enjoying a flat portion of the TMB before Courmayeur, Italy

After the rest day, day five starts off with a brutal uphill but levels out for most of the afternoon.  The last few hundred meters is a steep incline but you’re rewarded with one of the most magnificent vistas on the TMB at Refugio Bonatti.  Day six carries you through another morning up and afternoon down type day into your third country of the trek as you settle in for the evening in La Fouly, Switzerland.

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Afternoon on Day 5 is a rolling hills section with gorgeous views the entire way

The next morning starts with about an hour bus ride to the next trail head.  This ride cuts out a significant distance of walking up large hill on a mildly busy paved road.  The hike is a very steep uphill, but the incredible lunch at the top is worth it!  Day eight is the final hiking day.  It’s a fairly short and easy walk to the French border overlooking Chamonix.  Here, you have the option of walking down the hill (used for downhill mountain biking) or taking the chairlift.

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Celebrating the completion of the TMB at the final border crossing back into France at Chamonix!

After the easy day of hiking, you check back into your hotel and have the option of going out for a nice French dinner of raclette (my choice), fondue, or other local specialties.  This concludes the tour and the following day is when most people tend to depart for home or on to their next destination.

Refuges & Food

The mountain refuges are essentially hostels in remote (or semi-remote) areas of the Alps.  Fortunately, they’re not overrun with the college crowd looking to party, rather tired trekkers looking forward to a cold beer and a hot meal.  All of the rooms are dorms varying in size.  We shared rooms with only our group, though there is the potential to split a room with other trekkers.

Breakfasts and dinners were provided in each of the refuges and typically consisted of local specialties and ingredients.  Lunches were pay as you go at refuges or cafes along the trail.  These vary by trip, so I’m only including the locations at which we stayed the night (which are fairly standard).

France

Chalet Nant Borrant (Les Contamines)

A quaint little chalet with a great outdoor seating area overlooking a beautiful vista and fields of cows.  The meal here was exceptional.  A smooth, vegetable soup served with local cheese followed by locally-sourced sausages and a potato bake that put me in a food coma.  They also have a decent selection of local beers if you’re into that sort of thing…which obviously I am!

Auberge de la Nova (Les Chapieux)

This was one of my favorite refuges.  The showers were incredible.  The beer selection is the best I experienced on the TMB (albeit, expensive).  The staff was very friendly and helpful.  But above all, this place had the most fantastic dinner.  The pork cheek and roasted potatoes were, simply put, magnificent.

Italy

Rifugio Bonatti (Lavachey)

Of all the beautiful vistas on the TMB, Rifugio Bonatti has arguably the best.  It doesn’t even look real when you first see it.  It’s as if you’re gazing out over a giant painting.  The showers run on a token and have a pre-determined amount of water per token (you cannot buy more).  Therefore, you get either a quick, high-pressure shower or a longer dribble.  The dinner here was so-so at best.  The presentation was nice but the food simply wasn’t as impressive as some the previous refuges.  Fortunately, all was not a loss here as their fresh-made hot chocolate is simply divine.  Sipping on a cup and watching the sunset over the mountains was one of the big highlights of the TMB.

Switzerland

Auberges de Glaciers (La Fouly)

This was the first refuge we stayed in that’s actually in a small village.  It’s very conveniently located on the edge of town and above a small market if you need to reload your snack supply.  It has a very large outdoor patio with lots of seating and a bar.  The showers here were a big disappointment but the availability of various beers quelled that issue in short order.  The meal here was fairly forgettable (or maybe because I was buzzed).

La Grande Ourse (Trient)

Our final refuge prior to finishing the TMB, this accommodation is located on the far end of the town of Trient.  While not as visually spectacular as the other locations, it does have a bright pink church just down the road that makes for a nice photo op.  The bar here is small, limited in beer choices, and the staff didn’t seem to really know the prices of the beer (probably a new bartender). But, the outdoor seating area is comfortable. The meal presentation here was the most impressive in terms of appearance, but the comfort foods in the French refuges were simply much better.

The beginning, ending, and rest day accommodations were budget-friendly hotels to provide more comfort but also keep the price down.  These vary by tour and availability.

Highlights

This trek was the longest and most challenging that I’ve been on to date.  However, the pain was worth it for the incredible experience and magnificent views.  Not to mention some absolutely incredible food!  Some of my favorite highlights, not previously mentioned, include:

The view at lunch from Refuge de Miage (France)

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Our first lunch stop on the TMB really set the bar high

The view from Rifugio Elisabetta (Italy)

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Lunch views never seemed to disappoint on the TMB and Refugio Elisabetta was one of the best

 

Seeing a herd of ibex running right past us on the hike to La Fouly (Switzerland)

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Watching these ibex sprint down the mountain was an amazing experience

Rösti au Frommage at Alpage de Bovine – I could eat this every single day (Switzerland)

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Potato Perfection

 

Cost

The guided trek is not cheap; it ranges from $1,300 to $1,700 depending on discounts and timing. However, if you were to book all the refuges yourself and pay for all your meals individually, you’d likely eclipse the $1,000 mark anyways.

Lunches often cost upwards of $20 due to the remote location of the refuges you eat at.  Supplies have to be air dropped via helicopter, so that raises the price tag pretty quickly.  Beers are typically $6 to $8 each.

Recommendation

The Gadventures TMB trek is not for everyone.  Hardcore backpackers (especially the elitist types) will see it as a dumbed down version that doesn’t cover the full 100+ miles.  People with poor cardiovascular health and weak legs will struggle with the constant up and downs.  The better shape you’re in, the more you’ll enjoy it.

If you’re a regular hiker or simply “fit”, you’ll have what it takes to complete this trek AND enjoy it.  If you’re not caught up on the miles and are more there for the experience and the views, you’ll love hiking the TMB.