Travelogue: tour of mont blanc
The Tour du Mont Blanc, better known as the TMB, has fascinated walkers for several hundred years. Horace-Benedicte de Saussure, the famous Swiss botanist, was the first person to have circumnavigated the entire massif for scientific reasons. His first trip was in 1758 and this may well be the historical beginning of one of the world’s best known walks.
With the creation in 1947 of a French governmental body regulating walking in the Alps, which later became the French Ramblers Federation (FFRP), the first official GR, or Grande Randonnée around Mont Blanc was created in 1955. It is now officially known as the ‘GR 5’.
The ‘Espace Mont Blanc’ created in 1998 links three alpine countries: France, Italy and Switzerland. The main objectives of this project are to minimize the impact of mass tourism on the environment and to create a viable form of agriculture for those farmers still operating in the harsh alpine environment.
During our guided Tour du Mont Blanc, we come across several cheese factories, farms and shepherds, carrying on a timeless tradition of living off the land during the short alpine summer.
The complete circumnavigation of the Massif is about 220 km, taking between 7 to 14 days to accomplish. Below is an excerpt of what can be expected on this hiking trip:
Start: Col des Montets, Finish: Chamonix
The hike up to Lac Blanc and the Refuge du Lac Blanc is a classic and very popular hike within the Chamonix valley, so there are always lots of people. Lac Blanc is easily accessible via the Flégère cable car, and from the top station it is about a 1-2 hour hike.
In our opinion, the most beautiful way to hike up to Lac Blanc is via the Col des Montets.
It is a steep hike up at first, for about 30 minutes to an hour, but then it is a balcony walk following the contour lines into the Chamonix valley, and the views are spectacular, as the whole valley can be seen from here.
At the end is another steep, but short section, one has to climb up some ladders bolted to rock slabs, and some artificial steps and iron steps, which makes for a little bit of adventure, and is always fun.
For the way down we opt to traverse over to the top station of the Flégère cable car and then take the lift down to Les Praz, to save our knees, and then either walk to Chamonix, (another 20 minutes, but along the valley floor), or take a train/bus to Chamonix. Another option would be to walk from the top station of Flégère to Brévent, and then take the lift down from there straight to Chamonix.
FROM LES HOUCHES TO CHALET DE MIAGE
We skip the hike between Chamonix and Les Houches, as it is not as nice, and fairly short, and carry on with a quick transfer to Les Houches, From where we take the Bellevue cable car up to the Col de Voza, and begin our hike to the Chalet de Miage.
This is a fairly short day, which gives more time to relax at the Chalet de Miage, and also allows for a late start in the morning. The views from here are amazing, and the sunsets spectacular. The Refuge de Miage is a small, family-run mountain inn with small dormitories and shared bathrooms. The ‘lack’ of luxury is more than made up through the atmosphere and the surroundings.
We will have a late start so you can bring a packed lunch to eat at the Col du Tricot or at the Chalet de Miage.
CHALET DE MIAGE – NANT BORRANT
The day starts with a short climb before reaching a plateau, followed by a traverse under the dramatic peaks of the Aiguille du Glacier and of Tre-la-Tete. The trail follows a contour line with little altitude gain, meandering in and out of a lush pine and larch forests. Our home for the night is a privately run inn, one of the oldest in the area.
NANT BORRANT – COL DES CROIX DES BONHOMMES – LES CHAPIEUX
One of our longest hikes begins easily enough with a gentle climb along a wide jeep trail. On both sides of the path, the chime of cow bells can be heard and all around us we can hear marmots whistling their ‘warnings’. Our climb continues until we reach the Col du Bonhomme, then another uphill to get to the Col des Croix des Bonhommes, and then on to a French Alpine Club hut, nestled just below the pass, bearing the same name.
A short stop allows us to have a refreshing beverage and admire the Ibex, large mountain goats which are often found lounging near the hut. A steep descent takes us to the hamlet of Les Chapieux, a tiny hamlet mainly used as a base for shepherds and cheese makers.
LES CHAPIEUX – COURMAYEUR
We begin the day with a short mini-bus transfer or a hike up to Villes-des-Glacier where one can tour a small cheese factory producing one of the most famous cheeses in the French Alps, the Beaufort.
Six massive, 40 kilogram wheels of the “queen of the Alps” are produced each day on this small farm. Cheese tasting and a guided visit are offered. From the farm we head towards Italy and onto one of the oldest trading routes in the Western Alps. Crossing the Col de la Seigne we can actually have one foot in each country. We descend into Italy and Val Veny, and stop at the park cabin for an informational talk on flora and fauna of this area, before heading to the Rifugio Elisabetta for your first Italian coffee of the trip. A long, gentle descent leads to the medieval town of Courmayeur, a former Roman military garrison with a pedestrian only core.
Then it’s time to enjoy the gastronomic delights of Italy, the ancient stone streets of the town and the impressive south face of the Mont Blanc range with jagged peaks such as the Dent Du Geant, Grande Jorasses and Aiguille Noire de Peuterey jutting up above our heads.
COURMAYEUR – RIFUGIO BONATTI
Our hotel in Courmayeur is the Hotel Walser, which is centrally located.
Courmayeur is a quaint little town, spectacularly nestled into a narrow valley on the South side of Mont Blanc, which is more dramatic
and rugged than the Chamonix side.
We head out of Courmayeur to the Rifugio Bonatti via the Mont de la Saxe ridge. . Fairly long day but well worth it if the weather is clear! This is one of the highlights on the Tour du Mont Blanc!
Superb views of the South side of the range as you hike along the spine of the Mont de la Saxe.
Then via the Mont de la Saxe Ridge to the Rifugio Bonatti, which is one of the gems of the Alps. The rifugio has double rooms and shared bathrooms, and excellent food (and copious amounts thereof!
RIFUGIO BONATTI – COL GRAND FERRET – CHAMPEX-LAC
Continuing along the ridge for a short time, we descend to the Val Ferret only to climb again to the Rifugio Elena and possibly the best hot chocolate in the world! It is perfectly located for a late morning snack and the coffee is not bad, either!
Today’s climb is short and sweet with the last views of this side of the range. Once at the pass, we say ciao to Italy and bonjour to the Valais in Switzerland.
Weather permitting, we will scout the hills for Ibex before settling down for lunch, before enjoying the views at the pass, and our own picnic lunch.
A short descent brings us to a working farm where local cheese called ‘Raclette’ is produced and we can observe the milking of cows and the labour intensive process of making this famous cheese, which is mainly eaten melted over potatoes, cured hams, and cornichons. But the cheese-maker insists that it is just as good cold with a big piece of fresh bread! (We agree).
Then we head down to La Fouly, where we get on the Swiss Post Bus to Champex-Lac, our final destination for the night.
Champex-Lac, as the name says it, has a large, trout filled lake, which is the centre point of the village.
CHAMPEX-LAC – COL DE FORCLAZ
Leaving Champex-Lac, our trail takes us through forests and meadows on the Bovine trail, where herds of fighting cows from the Val d’Hérens graze lazily.
Lunch will be taken in the Bovine hut, overlooking the Rhone Valley, where Romans introduced vineyards over 2000 years ago, and the peaks in the direction of the Bernese Oberland. After lunch, two hours will be all we need to reach the Col de la Forclaz, where we will be staying for the night.
Another option is to climb up to the Fenêtre d’Arpette, which offers spectacular views, but should only be done in good weather, and if all hikers are in very good shape.
COL DE FORCLAZ to CHAMONIX
The final day, the Massif du Mont Blanc awaits, and the last challenge is the Col de Balme. The path winds its way through a forest before breaking above the trees to reveal the grassy slopes of the Col de Balme and the border with France. Golden Eagles are often spotted soaring the thermals above the path.
Once you reach the pass, the entire Chamonix Valley unfolds before you with Mont Blanc, Europe’s highest peak in the distance.
A gentle descent follows into the village of Le Tour and then into Argentière for a much-deserved beer, after which we will go and take the train for a very short ride to our Hotel in Chamonix, where our Tour du Mont Blanc ends.
There are obviously many variations one can hike, and many different places to stay, but these are definitely some of the highlights, and we enjoy visiting with old friends every year, be they hotel or hut owners, cheese makers, or shepherds taking care of their flock high up in the alpine.
If you have any questions in regards to the Tour du Mont Blanc, let us know, we are more than happy to answer them!!
Alpine Interface Team
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Animals are milked twice per day; once in the early morning and once mid-afternoon. Mobile milking stations, which can be driven to higher altitudes as the summer progresses saves time and keep milk production higher as cows do not have to move to be milked. Most small farms will make between 2 and 6 wheels of cheese per day, kept in ageing cellars for a few weeks and then moved lower in the valley for ageing which can take nearly a year. The wheels of cheese are placed in cheese cloth, then pressed for several hours in order to remove the moisture. Once this process is completed, the cheese is then placed in a brine solution in order to harden the rind. After that, cheese is rubbed with salt in order to protect the cheese from bacteria and harmful mould. Wheels are turned frequently and rubbed with salt to maintain a hard rind. Imagine rotating 80 pounds several times per day, over and over, month after month. No need to go to the gym after that.
If you enjoy a classic Savoyarde fondue, one of several smooth cheeses you taste will be the Beaufort, probably blended with a Comté and a Reblochon. Alert your taste buds for hints of the hundreds of herbs and flowers these lucky bovines consume to give the cheese its special fruity, delicate flavor. Eaten in hard form, it is often paired with white wine and served with smoked meat.
Cheese in France is highly prized and strict norms and rules are placed on farmers when it comes to traceability of the milk and the cows. Each wheel of cheese is dated with the seal of the manufacturer, herd and area where it was produced for complete transparency. Cheese in the Alps is always made with natural products such as naturally occurring rennet, made from a calf’s stomach. enzymes in rennet enables the milk to curdle and once heated, the whey is filtered out and the curd is kept to make the cheese. In the Alps, whey is used to make a soft, fresh cheese called Sérac, heated over an open fire in a copper cauldron, then poured in wooden molds to harden slightly. Best served on fresh bread with jam or honey. Yum!
A knowledgeable guide from Alpine Interface will enrich your Tour du Mont Blanc hiking trip. The TMB Express introduces you to some of its most characteristic small cheese-making enterprises, as part of the stunning beauty and peaceful way of life still found in the French Alps.
1. Cheese-France.Beaufort. Web.17 Jun. 2014.
2. Savoie-Mont-Blanc. Gastronomy and local produce/Discover our cheeses. Web. 17 Jun. 2014.
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