The Annapurna Circuit in Nepal, the Wonderland Trail in the US, the Salcantay Trek in Peru. What do they have in common? They’re all classic treks of this world. There are dozens more, like the Tour du Mont Blanc, or TMB. It needs no introduction. Its story has been told many times. With its Nepali, American and Peruvian siblings, it’s one of the most popular multi-day treks in the world.
First conquered at the end of the 18th century, Mont Blanc now sees thousands of tourists from around the world flock to its base every year for the trek in the French, Italian and Swiss Alps. While I was there, I met Israelis, Canadians, Americans, Brits, Germans, Spaniards, Swiss, French, Italians, Austrians, Aussies and Belarusians. Despite this being low season and most huts being closed, all had come specifically for this trek.
Maps are cool
There are many ways to hike the TMB. Whatever the plan, the trail is well-marked and numerous huts make for comfortable stops. All you need is about 7-12 days, depending on how you tackle it, and a map – throw in a guidebook if you want, though the consensus on the trail was that they were lacking in useful information. The classic route is about 155km (95 miles), but there are plenty of alternate routes to explore that can bring the total mileage to over 200km (125 miles).
Maps give a sense of perspective a guidebook and a GPS can’t really provide, they help identify the surrounding landscape features and they usually include all trails in an area. To be honest, doing the “regular” TMB is cool, but hitting the side attractions makes it so much better that you’d miss out on a lot if you ignored them.
Alternate trails offer great opportunities to get off the beaten track – though they are well beat on the TMB – and see more lakes, peaks, ridges and valleys. In a nutshell, they give you more bang for your buck. Like I said, they increase the mileage, and I should also point out they will significantly increase the elevation gain. Your thighs are warned.
Day 1: Les Houches to Le Pontet
Alternate route: Col du Tricot, Chalets de Miage, Chalets du Truc, Mont du Truc, Le Pontet
Instead of staying in the valley and going through villages, this alternate route takes you through 1 col, 2 peaks and 3 huts. The cloud cover was low and dense, so I didn’t get any views, but the potential is obvious.
Mileage: 21.2 km (13.2 miles)
Elevation gain: 1,371 m (4,500 ft)
Day 2: Le Pontet to Le Refuge du Col de la Croix du Bonhomme
Alternate route: Lacs Jovet
Not many options on this day, but the lakes are well worth the side trip. Also, from the refuge, head on the ridge you can make out clearly from the front porch for a few kilometers and come back. The views are stunning. That is where the GR5 splits from the TMB. Don’t know what the GR5 is? Look it up and send me a postcard from France!
Mileage: 21.1 km (13.1 miles)
Elevation gain: 1,521 m (5,000 ft)
Day 3: Le Refuge du Col de la Croix du Bonhomme to Rifugio Elisabetta (Italy)
Alternate route: Col des Fours, Tête des Fours, Lac Mya.
From the refuge, skip Les Chapieux and take the Col des Fours instead. There are also options to climb a sub-peak for better views from the Col de la Seigne, the border between France and Italy. There are directions at the col and the terrain is treeless. I was sick and a few consecutive sleepless nights were starting to drain my energy so I settled for the col.
Mileage: 22.9 km (14.2 miles)
Elevation gain: 1,280 m (4,200 ft)
Day 4: Rifugio Elisabetta to Rifugio Maison Vieille
Alternate routes: Lake Miage, Mont Fortin, Mont Favre, Colle de Youla
In my opinion, this is the best alternate route of the trek. Make the detour to Lake Miage. The main lake’s color is not very appealing, but the scenery around it more than makes up for it.
Get back on the trail and follow the directions for Mont Fortin. It’s not advertised in the traditional guidebooks, but it’s on the map. From the junction, the ridge looks intimidating, but the trail is on the other side and is easy. Follow the ridge from Mont Fortin to Mont Favre and Colle de Youla. From the ridge, see another valley, two glaciated lakes and get an up-close and personal view of Monte Berio Blanco.
At the col, follow directions down to the main trail, which you can clearly see. From the bottom, Rifugio Maison Vieille is reached in an hour. At the rifugio, you can stay for the night, summit Mont Chétif or truck on to Courmayeur and spend the night there.
Mileage: 19.4 km (12.1 miles)
Elevation gain: 1,240 m (4,070 ft)
Day 5: Rifugio Maison Vieille to Rifugio Bonatti
Alternate routes: Explore Courmayeur, Testa Bernarda
The Testa Bernarda route actually used to be the main route. It was substituted by an easier one that has less elevation gain and goes straighter to Rifugio Bonatti. From Rifugio Bertone, the Testa Bernarda trail goes through 2400m+ mountains covered with golden grass. There’s a col at the end from where the trail descends straight to Rifugio Bonatti, a beautiful wood and stone refuge with some of the best food to be had on this trek.
Mileage: 24 km (14.9 miles)
Elevation gain: 1,685 m (5,530 ft)