Hiking the Tour du Mont Blanc [Part II]
Notes from the other side
In the end, most things turned out as I’d planned for my thru-hike of the Tour du Mont Blanc. We had fabulous weather, the people we met were friendly, and the food was delicious (definitely try the raclette in Switzerland). If you want to see more pictures and my daily blog posts, you can find them here. However, there were definitely some things I wished I’d known before heading out on the trail.
The guidebook “The Tour of Mont Blanc: a complete two-way trekking guide” by Kev Reynolds leaves much to be desired. Kev doesn’t understand what ‘technical hiking’ means; he doesn’t specify when a variente is a very technical hike and thus much slower. He would also provide intimately detailed instructions at some obvious points, but leave out anything about places where it was hard to figure out where the trail went (this was particularly true in and around towns, where signage was often scarce). And for what it’s worth, as a 2.3-MPH-average AT hiker, I sometimes had trouble making his “book time.” He provided no reasoning for his given time estimates (like, ‘my grandma hiked it in 5 hours’ versus ‘my ultramarathon friend ran it in 5 hours’), which irritated me to no end. For what it’s worth, while the number I saw thrown around was 30,000′, the elevation gain and loss totals from my GPS tracks equaled ~46,000 feet of elevation gain, with the same in subsequent loss; my hiking partner’s total was ~44,000′, as he took the main route one day and not the more difficult variente (specifically, the variente pictured below). In any case, it was a LOT more than 30,000′.
The guidebook also does not delineate what is included in the all-encompassing “refreshments” icon. There’s nothing specific like “bathroom” or “free water.” Many places fiercely restricted bathroom access to customers only, and many places had very limited hours or were closed on particular days. This might not be an issue on a more isolated trail or on trails with lots of tree cover, but on the TMB, it was extremely difficult to find a place to dig a cat hole or even pee without being within eyeshot of someone (or many someones…). We saw 100+ people almost every day. The terrain was predominantly above treeline, so there was little soil to be had for digging holes. And the few places there was soil to dig, it had frequently been used by past hikers, many of whom didn’t dig catholes at all… On a completely unrelated side note, I’d highly recommend working on your French skills for “where is the bathroom, please?”
And f****ing Kev doesn’t talk about water. Which seems completely asinine, given that we’re thru-hiking this trail and can’t afford to pay 5 euros for every half liter of water we need at the very occasional hostel/restaurant we passed by. Going counter-clockwise, there is fairly frequent potable water at nearly every hostel, town, and restaurant, in the form of a pipe emptying into a trough (unless stated as not potable, it’s potable). However, for the last few days of the trail, from Col de la Forclaz to Les Houches (pronounced “le zush“, as it turns out) (~25-30 miles), there was no potable water at all, unless you wanted to pay for bottled water. If I hadn’t brought water treatment drops and used the few water sources we passed by and treated the non-potable tap water at the hostel, we’d have been horrifically dehydrated.
Everything costs a LOT. Some of it is being in Europe; some of it is being in predominantly small towns that rely on tourism to survive. Italy is the cheapest, France is next, and Switzerland is by far the most expensive. Be sure to camel up on your groceries in Italy before crossing the border.
Know that Switzerland wants Francs (CHF). While you can get away with just using credit cards for the most part, if you want to buy something small at hostels or shops, they’ll take a 1-to-1 cash conversion between Francs and Euros. As of now, Euros are worth 14% more than Francs so it’s a total rip-off, but we’re a captive audience. If at all possible, just use plastic while in Switzerland.
So there’s something to be said for picking places to stay that are not the first ones listed in the Kev Reynolds book, and for picking places that are a little bit of a walk off-trail and thus less convenient to the masses. The quiet is worth the extra walk. Also, look at how many beds and dormitory spaces they have; the larger the place, the more people you’ll have to contend with. The earlier you reserve, the smaller the room will be, most likely. For example, at Refuge Bonhomme, we were in a 4-person bunk room; I saw 6- and 8- person bunkrooms and they also had two large dormitories, with maybe 30-40 beds in each. I didn’t pay more than anyone else in a bunk, but we reserved very early, so we got a lot more privacy.
Keep in mind that many of these places are mountain huts, where helicopters regularly deliver supplies (like beer!), so luxury is relative. That being said, they were all luxurious compared with the White Mountain huts. Every single one had showers; a blanket and pillow on every bunk; and beer, wine, and hot lunch to buy. They were all decently comfortable, and we never spent more than 70 euros a night per person for dinner, bed, and breakfast. The food was sometimes simple, but it was tasty and you were almost always offered seconds. However, I don’t think some of the travel guide companies warned people about what the conditions would be like. We saw a couple lose their shit at Elisabetta – there was a line for the shower, there was no soap, and the bunk room held 24 people on a huge 3-high bunk bed. Granted, if I’d paid $5,000+, I would expect more too!
You’ll only have access to a washing machine in larger towns that are occupied year-round, like Courmayeur, Les Houches, and Chamonix. No hostels we stayed at had laundry machines, though almost all had a place to hang clothes to dry. Some places had designated sinks where you could wash clothes. Thankfully, the air there is much more dry than the northeast US; clothes would dry fairly quickly, especially if it was windy (there was almost always a breeze). We only washed our clothes in a washing machine once, in Courmayeur. Other than that, we hand-washed our clothes every few days and made sure they dried out each night, even if not washed. Between that, the dry air, and showering daily, our clothes only got to mildly stinky.
Expect some squat toilets. It’s easier than digging a hole and it was surprising how quickly I became blasé about it. Interestingly, around half of the bathrooms and showers on the TMB weren’t separated by gender, and the places that separated by gender had much longer lines. At the same time, European bathroom stalls have full walls all the way to the ceiling and floor, and a substantial door. Almost all showers are set up in the same way, with full walls and a full door that locked, so I was never uncomfortable.
Hostels and restaurants
For food restrictions, it’s best if you speak French well. Many places won’t understand you in English. They often struggled with providing basic ovo-lacto vegetarian dinners. One dinner, we were served broth soup with some vegetables, bread, white rice, and creamed spinach… It’s worth noting that if you’re not okay with mostly raw eggs (like liquid yolks and whites), you should never order ‘fried eggs;’ go with an omelet instead. We did inform each hostel that we were vegetarians when we contacted them for a reservation, and confirmed it when we checked in. Know that eating out in Europe is different than in the US – you will have to ask for the check; as it turns out, telling them you’re done with your meal will not prompt them to bring you the check.
Also, breakfast in France and Italy tends to be fairly light; we’re talking a (fresh baked) croissant and some bread, with jam, butter, and nutella available as spreads, and OJ and coffee to drink (Italy also provides breakfast cookies). Switzerland had a heartier breakfast, adding in muesli, corn flakes, yogurt, and very occasionally boiled eggs. We traveled with a jar of peanut butter from home to supplement breakfast, as my partner requires protein with breakfast to maintain his blood sugar.
So for the entire 110 miles, there’re really only 5 places to get groceries and they’re more stacked towards the beginning: Les Houches (beginning/end), Les Contamines (stage 1), Courmayeur (stage 4), La Fouly (stage 6), and Champex (stage 7, in Switzerland and expensive). Col de la Forclaz (stage 8) did have a small, very expensive tourist shop with ice cream (think 5 euros for an ice cream sandwich) and a few snacks, but it didn’t really count. Of course, there are hostels/mountain huts along the way, and most of them sell small (expensive) snacks, like Pringles and candy bars, in addition to hot food. If you need anything beyond food, Courmayeur is your best bet, since it’s the largest town you pass through that isn’t Les Houches.
In Europe, grocery stories are a lot smaller and mainly carry food. We did manage to find sunscreen at one, but they only had two options to choose from. As a rule, you need to go to a pharmacy to get anything vaguely medical. And we also found out, if you need anything for contact lenses, you’ll need to go to an optical shop, as pharmacies don’t carry those products.
4: Environment and navigation
Sun (and rain)
On the TMB, the sun is a harsh presence. The trail is almost exclusively above treeline and the sun can do some serious damage. Unlike the AT, you’ll need to pack a good stash of sunscreen, enough to be applying it 3-5 times a day. We ended up buying more sunscreen when we were in Courmayeur, but the cheapest sunscreen we could find was 14 euros, so it’s a good idea to bring enough of your own if you can. Sunglasses and a big hat that covers your ears and neck, and possibly a long-sleeve sun shirt, would be helpful. Additionally, in July and August, thunderheads tend to form around the highest mountains in the afternoon, bringing early evening storms. We were only out in these twice, and on both occasions, we were hiking past 5pm. There’s not a lot of options for shelter in a storm, so we just hoofed it down the trail as quickly as we could to get to lower elevation.
As a general rule, the signage on the TMB is sufficient to navigate the trail. However, I found it very helpful to have GPS tracks (I used GaiaGPS as it’s free and functional), particularly in town as well as in Switzerland where the signage was often non-existent (signs would often be ‘hikers this way, mountain bikers that way,’ with no information about which way anyone was going). Most signage does not differentiate between the main TMB and its many varientes, so signage can lead you astray from your desired path if you aren’t reading the guide book every step of the way. I took to taking pictures of the day’s guide book pages so I could quickly reference it, without pulling out the book itself.
French is the language of the TMB, full stop. While there were places that speak predominantly Italian, like Courmayeur, most places’ go-to was French. And due to many different factors, many French speakers did not speak or understand English well. Be prepared for most conversations in English to have limited levels of comprehension. Be sure to use simpler words, avoid colloquialisms and metaphors, and speak slower than you might otherwise. And in the end, despite any frustrations, I reminded myself that I was in their country and their English was way better than my French!
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