The Tour du Mont Blanc is a 110 mile circular hike through the Swiss, French, and Italian Alps. It is a loop that circles Mont Blanc, the highest peak in Western Europe. This backpacking excursion took us just under 2 weeks. Although it does not involve climbing Mont Blanc itself, overall the height gain/loss through the route amounts to 35,000 feet. In other words, we weren’t rock climbing, but we could definitely tell we were going up and down mountains. It is probably the hardest challenge I’ve ever set myself. It was also the most magical, beautiful, inspiring, and rewarding part of my life to date.
While calling it a “challenge” is putting it lightly, I will say that it IS doable! I had never done anything like this before. I’d gone on day-hikes; I’d stayed at campsites. But I had never traversed mountains with my food and shelter on my back, packing it all up in the morning and walking all day, hoping to get to my next tent pitch before dark. And I made it! But, it turned out that I was NOT as ready for it (or in as good physical shape) as I thought I was. Turns out, TMB preparations are not to be taken lightly.
So, here is my breakdown of how we tackled the Tour du Mont Blanc. (Buckle up, folks, it’s a long one!)
PART 1: DOING OUR HOMEWORK
The TMB was a major part of our trip that we did plan before leaving the U.S. We researched, and we bought what proved to be one of our most invaluable resources on this trek: our TMB guidebook: “Tour du Mont Blanc” by Jim Manthorpe.
There are at least 2 official English-language guidebooks to the TMB—this one, and another: “The Tour of Mont Blanc (Complete Two-Way Trekking Guide)” by Kev Reynolds. A solid 99% of the folks who, like us, were undertaking the journey on their own rather than as part of a group led by a tour guide, had one of these two books. These books are incredible. They lay out the route, the towns you’ll pass through and what amenities they have, where you can stay and how much it will cost, modes of transport, and even suggestions about how and what to pack. The maps show elevation and terrain, and the writing describes which sections are especially tough, and which sections are especially beautiful (though truly, they all were).
And our guidebook—unlike the other version—also had hand-drawn maps of the trail that were literal life-savers (proving, in my humble opinion, which guidebook is superior). Although in general the trail is well-marked and well-trodden, there were a couple of exceptions.
A few days in, we got a bit disoriented leaving our campsite in the pitch dark at 5am. There weren’t a whole lot of landmarks around. No TMB trail markers. We walked with our headlamps lighting the way, getting a bit worried that perhaps this road didn’t seem quite right. But we pushed onward, trying to make good time. Then we reached a fork in the road. It didn’t appear on the map at all. For a little while, we argued about it. Maybe it was an oversight, and we should just keep going straight? Finally, we bit the bullet and agreed to turn around. Better to admit our mistake and lose an hour than to pretend everything was fine only to get completely lost…. And sure enough, just a bit beyond the very campsite where we’d started, we finally saw the TMB sign. It told us beyond a doubt that we’d begun our morning by walking 45 minutes in the wrong direction. We’d lost some time, and some pride. But we rallied, and we re-started our day with the sunrise.
There was a reason we were so reluctant to turn around that day. All three TMB countries have pretty strict rules about wild camping, but none more so than Italy. Certain areas of France and Switzerland will allow you to put up a temporary makeshift shelter at night (an emergency bivouac), as long as you set up after dark, leave at dawn, and leave no trace. But authorities in Italy are much more likely to actually fine you (a lot) for pitching your tent outside of a designated campsite. And unfortunately, there are NOT that many official campsites in certain stretches of Italy.
Without the option to wild camp, we were left with some necessarily LONG days of walking to get somewhere that we could safely count on sleeping. And when I say “LONG,” I mean, “Not sure if we can make it,” type of long. But we did make it. We made it purely because we knew we’d have to pack up camp and head out before the sun rose. And because we’d left a bit of buffer time for those mishaps along the way. Which leads me to:
Lodging must be booked in advance! This doesn’t apply to tent pitches at campsites, which is mostly what we did. They are first-come-first-served; but there was always enough room for another little tent. However, it absolutely applies to reserving beds at refuges (also called “huts”), chateaus, and hotels.
We stayed in two refuges over the course of our trip, and they were pretty awesome. Refuges are the most affordable option apart from camping. Although they aren’t super cheap, you get to sleep on an actual mattress, and you get to take a shower. When you pay for what’s called half-board (which was definitely the way to go), you also get a hot dinner and breakfast included. Most refuges also offered a bag lunch for an additional price. Many of them had a bar, or at least some wine and beer available at dinner along with the food (which thankfully, they did not skimp on). There were private rooms if you paid extra (if there are any left when you book), but we went for beds in the dorms. In general, half-board for one person in a dorm ranged from €55-€85. Comparitively, a pitch at a campsite was generally €25-€35 for a pitch; and many campsites also had shops where you could get some food items. But it was so nice to break up our camping with a night in a heated room, a real bed, and a hot meal that we didn’t have to make over our tiny camp stove. Plus it was a great opportunity to make new friends.
We should have booked those beds months in advance though, instead of just 3 weeks ahead of time. We snagged them by the skin of our teeth, thanks to a few panicked days of many phone calls. Neither of the two refuges that had space for us was our first choice. Don’t get me wrong, both were fantastic. But both resulted in those extremely long days of walking (which we were just BARELY capable of).
We did meet one woman at the dinner table of our first refuge who had managed to talk her way into staying there without a reservation. She was friendly and self-possessed; the more time we spent talking with her, the more we observed that she was simply one of those people for whom things just seem to fall into place, as if by magic. We encountered her a few more times on our trip, and came to affectionately refer to her as ‘Princess.’ She was doing the whole TMB on a whim, having planned none of it in advance—the opportunity arose at the end of a completely separate trip, and she was making it through by a combination of luck, and the kindness of strangers. Further along the route, Princess would spend the night in the beautiful lakeside attic apartment of a local in one of the towns, after a different refuge couldn’t make room for her.
It may have worked for Princess, but plenty of others—some of whom had even been walking the trail with Princess—were turned away from the refuge the day we met her. They had to walk two more hours in the dark in hopes of reaching the nearest campsite beyond our hut. So yeah, booking in advance was the way to go.
In order to book so far in advance, we needed to determine our time-frame. We ended up moving our TMB plans from August (the initial idea before we left the U.S.) to September (due to routing, ensuring time for Greece, and making sure we were actually prepared by the time we arrived in the alps). But we were only able to do that successfully because we knew beforehand how much time we would need: 2 weeks, to be certain we wouldn’t have to rush or worry, especially knowing that we’d each be carrying 40+ pounds on our backs the whole time.
We also had to account for route and refuge closures. They were doing construction on one of the cable cars while we hiked the TMB. It resulted in a re-routing of the trail and the closing of a nearby hut as well—for the entire season. All the surrounding refuges were (unsurprisingly) booked solid. There was really nowhere we could legally stay the night on that stretch of the TMB. We considered risking a night of wild camping. Or trying to pack the last 2 days of hiking into one (which I am SO glad we did NOT attempt). Instead, one of our new friends—Princess, in fact—pointed out a better way. There was a different cable car, a bit further along than the one that was closed for renovation, that was still open. As long as we made it there before 5pm on our penultimate day, it would take us down into the Chamonix valley, where our TMB circuit started and ended. We could pitch at the campsite there, and then ride the same cable car back up in the morning to finish the hike down the mountain, back into Chamonix (true, we could have just skipped that last day altogether, but we decided that would have been cheating). This solved our shelter problem, and allowed us to leave our tent and our big bags at the Chamonix campsite for that final day of hiking, thus returning to a pitch that we’d already set up the day before. That one day of hiking with only a day pack, instead of our 40-pounders, was utterly luxurious. Because (I can’t stress this enough), we were not in as good shape as we thought.
Aaron and I tried (and kind of failed) to do some training before tackling the TMB. Before we even left Philadelphia, we took walks with our backpacks; we loaded them full of laundry and extra weight, took miles-long routes to get to the laundromat, and made a day out of it. Then, while we were in Milan for a few days right before we went to the alps, we explored the city while wearing our backpacks. We even came up with a system to try and get some “climbing” in (because unfortunately, both Philadelphia and Milan are extremely flat): every time we missed the green light at a crosswalk, we had to do 10 squats (keeping our backpacks on, of course).
While all of this proved helpful for getting used to long journeys with our backpacks, two days into the TMB we realized that we were NOT prepared for this. Those consecutive long days, and particularly the constant UP AND DOWN, UP AND DOWN, were grueling to the point that sometimes we truly didn’t think we were going to make it. The climb and descent part, which we’d neglected, was what we should have been prepping for the most. I wished we’d planned more local hiking trips before we’d left, or even just done a bunch of stair-master workouts. Clearly we managed anyway, but, the less time you spend on the trails feeling like you want to (or are going to) die, the more energy you have to appreciate the experience.
PACKING OUR GEAR
The guidebook also contained really helpful information on this front, and this was another prep item before we left the States. The TMB was a deciding factor in determining what we needed to get: we needed not just any camping gear, but TMB-worthy camping gear. We referenced our guidebook, visited REI and talked with the knowledgeable salespeople, read LOTS of online reviews, and ordered a whole lot of stuff from steepandcheap.com, where we found some massive bargains.
I’ve got to acknowledge, though, that even with those bargains, all this gear wasn’t exactly cheap. This stuff was our means of living for three straight months: our tent was our shelter, our stove provided food, our sleeping bags were our beds, and our backpacks were with us every single day. These things enabled us to spend much less on the trip itself: paying for campsites instead of hotel rooms or beds in a refuge, cooking for ourselves instead of eating out for every meal, and walking plenty instead of paying for a ride, etc. But it would be ridiculous not to acknowledge that our opportunity to hike the TMB was a privilege afforded to us by our access to the gear we needed, as well as our ability to keep our puppet show in a self-storage locker while we hiked, and then pick it up again before our festival performances at the end of our time in Europe. All of this is to say, we have a lot to be grateful for.
Now back to the actual packing list. Here’s a glimpse of ours:
- Tent (lightweight, 2-person, rated for cold weather). We also split it up to carry it (based on a clever recommendation from one of the staff at REI): I carried the poles and the footprint (which goes beneath the tent to protect it from water and mud), and Aaron carried the tent itself and the rain fly.
- Sleeping bags (rated for cold weather). Aaron had one of those mummy-style bags, and I had one with a drawstring rated for temperatures below freezing. This was VERY important. Most nights on the TMB we slept zipped up tight and wearing just about all of our clothing.
- Air mats for below our sleeping bags. They roll up nice and tight, and are also a MUST so that the ground doesn’t freeze you overnight.
- Blow up pillows that also roll up nice and tight.
- Headlamps. Very important for those nighttime bathroom runs. Plus the many other times we needed to see in the dark: walking, packing up or setting up the tent, etc.
- Camping stove and gas. These items come with a saga.The camp stove we’d been using throughout our trip was the MSR Whisperlite International. It’s a burner with a snakelike fuel line that you hook into a refillable gas canister. We got it from REI, recommended by one of the workers there for its universality. Primarily it uses white gas, but, contrary to what we were told, nobody in Europe had any idea where to get white gas. Instead, we filled our canister with regular gasoline. This gas (also called petrol or benzine) was dirtier than white gas would have been, but it worked just fine (with the glaring exception of Calais, France; you can find that story here). But on the TMB, gas stations are much harder to come by. Even with all of the sports stores in every town and city, not a single person could tell us where we might be able to fill up our canister. Oh, they could sell us fuel. But that fuel was always in its own container which was not compatible with our stove (and those containers were, reasonably, not built to open up and pour the gas out, so we couldn’t transfer the gas to our own container). In desperation, I even walked ten minutes along a highway in Cormayeur, Italy—the city about halfway along the TMB circuit—to reach a gas station, only to find that they did not have regular gasoline, only Super and Super Plus. Those types won’t safely work for a stove, so I asked the attendant where I could find regular gasoline. The answer was “another 10 kilometers up the highway.”So we did the only thing that was reasonably left to do. We bought another camping stove: the Pocket Rocket type. And this ended up being the best idea ever. This tiny little burner took up a fraction of the space and a fraction of the weight of our old stove. It folds into a container that fits in the palm of your hand. It leaves no mess, no leaking gas, no residue (unlike our other stove). And it screws directly into the containers of fuel that are sold in every sports store (and, on the TMB, every convenience store, grocery store, campsite, and refuge). It also cost about a third of what we’d paid for the Whisperlite. Our camping evenings were certainly easier from there on out. It was hard not to wish we’d just gone with the Pocket Rocket all along.
- Pot, pan, bowls, and sporks. The pot, pan, and bowls came in a set along with a little wooden spoon and tiny scrubber, and they packed up inside each other.
- Knife. Aaron got us a pretty sweet folding knife. Very versatile, used often.
- Toilet paper. Seriously. You NEED your own.
- Towel. Our quick-dry towels (we each had one) were AMAZING. They’re thin so they pack up small, but they get the job DONE, and they live up to the “quick-dry” advertising. (I should’ve followed the directions and washed it before the first use, though…that first time, it shed all over me).
- Hydration sleeve and refillable plastic water bottle. We drank so. Much. Water. You need it with that much exertion, the altitude, and those stretches of hot, open mountain and valley. There were refill stations along the trail; and any restaurant or hut that we passed by was happy to top off our refillable plastic bottles for us. It was great to have that hydration sleeve with its tube snaking out over my shoulder, so I could sip as I walked.
The only thing was, with the sleeve nestled securely in my pack, I rarely knew how much water was left. We set out each morning with plenty, but we still learned the hard way to keep a frequent eye on our water supply. For maybe the first half of our trek, filling those 3L hydro-packs each morning was more than enough to get us through each day. Until one very long day when, still with miles to go before reaching that night’s destination, I sipped from my tube and got only a few stuttering spits of water, and then nothing. (I was astounded at how little warning I had that the sleeve was close to empty). Maybe half an hour later, Aaron’s sleeve was out too. The afternoon sun beat down with no shade to be found. The clear streams we’d passed by a few hours before—and walked right past, even while we saw plenty of others dunk their bottles in among the smooth-polished stones for a refill—were by this time a distant memory. The earth was just rocks and scrubby grass as far as we could see. We finally came upon a tiny run-off that seemed, in theory, safe to drink. We stopped so Aaron could collect some water from the little mountain trickle as a last resort. We could filter out the larger contaminants, and use our portable water purifiers. (After all, there were plenty of cows, goats, sheep, and marmots in the mountains; you never know, they could have been doing their business just upstream of us.) Thankfully, we both had a little bit of water left in our plastic bottles as well, and we made it to our refuge just before those ran out. After that, we resolved never to let ourselves have such a close call again.
- Clothing layers. Now, I will definitely say that I overpacked when it came to clothing. But I definitely needed 3-4 pairs of underwear and good hiking socks. 2 T-shirts. (It was a great bonus that all of that was quick-dry.) 1 long sleeve shirt (Underarmor). I had one zip-up sweatshirt and one fleece; Aaron had a zip-up and a down vest. 2 pairs of pants (ours zipped off into shorts, so that was two birds with one stone). 1 pair of long johns. I took 3 bras, but I could have gotten away with 2. I brought a bit more than is listed here, and I regretted it. A lot of stuff just stayed shoved deep down in my pack, taking up space and adding weight. And I quickly found that I needed every spare inch of carrying capacity for FOOD.
- Gloves. Aaron made it without them, but those freezing early mornings gripping my trekking poles were honestly PAINFUL for me, so I caved and bought myself a pair. It was a very good decision.
- Scarf. I made it without one, but my fleece had a high neck; and Aaron’s scarf definitely got a lot of use.
- Hats. One knit cap for when it’s cold, one baseball cap to protect our faces from the sun and heat.
- Rain jacket. We each had a really lightweight one that is basically a shell. That way it was useful in heat, as well as functional with our other layers in the cold. It was also good to have as an outer layer for wind breaking. Ours were from The North Face, and had armpit vents, hoods with brims and drawstrings, and folded up into their own pockets for storage, which was nice.
- Rain fly (or garbage bag) for backpack. Gotta keep your gear dry.
- Bandannas. SO USEFUL. MY NEW BEST FRIENDS. They were sweat-catches, heat/sun protectors, oven mits, and just all-purpose saviors. We had 2 each.
- Sunglasses and SUNSCREEN. We kept our sunscreen in easy reach at the top of our bags so we wouldn’t forget to use it. We’d wake up feeling cold, and often spent the better part of the morning in the shadow of the mountains. But as soon as the sun burst over those peaks, it was powerful. And even on overcast, chilly days, I’d be sunburnt in the blink of an eye at those high altitudes. It would not have been fun walking every day with my sweaty clothes and backpack chafing burnt skin.
- Hiking boots. Good, sturdy, and waterproof.
- Flip flops. Necessary for showers and quick midnight bathroom trips.
- Sneakers. Once we arrived somewhere, we needed a break from our sweaty, gross hiking boots, and flip flops don’t always cut it.
- Small first aid kit. With PAINKILLERS in it. Advil/Ibuprofen was a must. Muscle rub like Icy Hot also came in handy.
- Knee braces. It was no surprise that, after two weeks hiking the mountains, we would be sore. But even with two knee braces (and, after a few days, we ended up buying a couple more, so that Aaron and I would EACH have two), I didn’t expect how much my knees would hurt. Those descents really taught us a lesson.
- Trekking poles. See above. Before we left for our trip, I thought they would maybe be frivolous. “I’m young and strong, I don’t need to spend money on an unnecessary thing like walking poles.” Oh how VERY wrong I was. I’m pretty sure our trekking poles literally saved our lives a couple of times. They stopped us from falling, warned us of loose stones, and provided much needed assistance not just in climbing, but especially in going downhill, which turns out is the real hard part. Our trekking poles folded down so we could strap them to our packs whenever we weren’t using them, and came with removable rubber bottoms (which were better for any stretches of concrete).
- Backpack. Especially since we were camping and carrying so much, thank goodness we invested in high quality backpacks that fit us. Aaron and I visited REI a few times to try on different brands and learn how to tighten all the straps, and then went online and used coupons to actually buy the packs. And as I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts, it still took a few weeks of being on the trip before we found our comfortable backpack-tightness sweet spots. My backpack also had a smaller, removable day pack that was part of it. If yours doesn’t come with one, it’s worth having a separate one; Aaron and I found day packs that fold up into little pouches for easy storage when they aren’t in use.
- Wilderness Wash. We only discovered this existed at the END of our trip, and we were super sad we missed the boat on it. It is an all-in-one, biodegradable, environmentally friendly soap, good for washing yourself AND your clothes AND your dishes. We’d been using bar soap for all of the above, which was less than ideal. Oh how we wished we had known.
- A few other essential toiletries (toothbrush, toothpaste, nail clipper. Contacts and solution for me. Small hairbrush…also for me.)
Folks who didn’t camp their way through the TMB (you can do it staying it huts and hotels throughout) didn’t need a lot of this stuff. But they still had a daypack with things like lots of water, sunglasses, sunscreen, hats (both knit and cap style), rain jacket, a few clothing layers, a change of socks, gloves, a headlamp, a towel, knee braces, a first aid kit, shower shoes, a few toiletries, some tissues, a plastic bag (for trash, but also it just ends up being handy), trail snacks, and of course, trekking poles and the TMB guidebook.
To get to the TMB, most folks fly into the Geneva, Switzerland airport, and then take public transit or a shuttle bus to Chamonix, France. Chamonix is sort of the main TMB hub, where the most lodging is available. Aaron and I did not fly there. We had a more roundabout, definitely longer, but ultimately successful (and more affordable) journey.
We had just spent a week in Greece, and we had a few days’ buffer time to get to Chamonix, France. We also needed to get back up to Milan, Italy first: we had placed our puppet show and some other things (like our cold-weather gear) in a storage unit there while we explored Southern Italy and Greece. So our process was as follows:
- An overnight ferry from Corfu, Greece to Bari, Italy. This was the reverse journey of how we got to Greece, but I have to say, the conditions of the two overnight ferry rides were quite different. On the first overnight ferry (the one that brought us from Italy to Greece), we paid for what they call “airplane seats.” Airplane seats are what they sound like—there was a room on one of the upper ferry decks that looked like the inside of an airplane, only wider. It was not an especially comfortable sleeping arrangement, because just like on airplanes, the seats only recline so far. Lots of people surrounding us were “deck passengers,” meaning they had no seat at all. On paper, we thought at least we had it better than they did; after all, we paid a bit more for the seats, so, that must mean they’re better than “standing room,” right? In this case, wrong. All of the deck passengers were spread out on the carpet of the deck wherever they found a spot, all set up with their pillows and blankets. Admittedly, they raced each other for the best locations, but at least they had the option of lying down to sleep. Then, on our ferry ride back to Italy, there had been no option left for us but being deck passengers. (Sure, we could have paid for a private cabin, but that is HUNDREDS of dollars, so, we were content to make do with one uncomfortable night). But, from what we observed on our first ferry, we figured it wouldn’t be so terribly uncomfortable, right? Wrong again. On the ferry from Greece to Italy, there was NO indoor deck space. Instead, we curled up on top of the life-raft containers, trying not to fall to the hard, sticky floor and trying to stay sheltered from the constant sea-spray, clipping our inflatable pillows to our backpacks so the wind wouldn’t carry them away, until the sun rose and we could give up the pretense of trying to sleep.
- The overnight ferry was immediately followed by an overnight train! Oh joy! We spent the day wandering around Bari, playing cards on park benches while we waited for our train. The train itself was a bit more comfortable than the ferry, it’s true. But it came with its own challenges. Each cabin had six seats—three on each side, facing each other (in my mind, à la Hogwarts Express). And the seats did recline into an almost-lying-down position. But there’s not room for all of them to do that when the cabin is full, which ours was. So Aaron and I, sitting across from each other, swapped off which of us reclined throughout the night. We also had some oddball cabin-mates. There was a father and teenage son already in the cabin when we boarded the train. They were pretty chill. The father had quite the hacking cough, but hey, that’s not really his fault. It was the other two, who boarded a few stops after Aaron and me, that really tried our patience. They were an older white couple, and from the get-go it was clear that although they were polite and friendly, they were accustomed to a level of privilege. They left it up to the rest of us to lift and reorganize all of the luggage to fit theirs inside (they each had two bags), refusing to keep a big suitcase just outside the cabin door. We finally managed it by shoving and stacking our own backpacks on top of each other. They thanked us for doing this; and to be fair, I can understand their desire to keep their stuff inside the cabin while they would be trying to sleep, and therefore unable to keep an eye on it. The real surprise came when, without asking any of the rest of us, they whipped out a bunch of packing tape and covered all of the vents in the cabin. I guess they were cold? But I mean, it’s cool, no need to check that the rest of us are okay, not just with temperature but also ventilation…
- We arrived in Milan safe and sound and honestly, quite proud of ourselves, if incredibly tired. We had some time to kill before checking into our hostel, so we wandered around…and got nailed by a huge downpour. Thankfully, with nowhere else to go, the hostel took pity on us and allowed us to wait in the warm, dry common area until our room was ready. It was odd—there were a lot of police milling about the area, but we didn’t think too much of it. They weren’t bothering us, and we didn’t have much energy for curiosity. Oh how wonderful laying in a bed would be…and just a few more hours to wait before we could nap…. When we finally got into our room, we met one of our roommates. And she had a story to tell. She had been relocated to our room after sleeping in a different one the past couple of nights. Then she’d gotten a call while she was out in the city, asking her to come back to the hostel and talk to the police. A young man who had been sharing her dorm had been found dead in the basement. It looked like the result of a drug deal gone wrong. Maybe an overdose, maybe a suicide…possibly even a homicide…. She wasn’t a suspect; they just wanted to hear anything she might be able to tell them. But she was, understandably, pretty freaked out. (Of course, none of this was the hostel’s fault. In general it was in a relatively safe part of town, not much different than any of the other numerous hostels we’d been staying in.) But just making our way to the TMB was sure proving to be an unexpected adventure in and of itself.
- Finally, we had a few days in Milan before leaving for Chamonix. As I mentioned previously, we did our “Milan training walks,” and visited our storage unit to re-pack our bags (we left plenty behind and still took way too much). Then we took a Flixbus from Milan directly to Chamonix (they run once a day in each direction, which is pretty handy).
PART 2: LESSONS IN THE EARLY DAYS
And so our journey began.
Most folks hiking the full TMB start in Les Houches, France, and take the counter-clockwise circuit. That’s what we did, and it was lovely. But when we arrived in the area, we were staying our first night in Chamonix, France (which I mentioned is France’s major TMB hub).
So we did what many people do: we started the Tour the day after we arrived in the area, and spent that first day in Chamonix getting ready. We decided we’d try to get a good night’s sleep, and wake up with the sun. We took the local bus to Les Houches, and from there took a cable car up to the trail ( some folks hike all of this, but the cable car saved us some very grueling uphill miles right at the start, allowing us to get our feet wet a little more slowly, and not instantly jump to exhaustion and panic about making it to the next campsite before nightfall).
In those first 3-4 days of our circuit, we had to learn our pace. We paid attention not just to the time the miles took us, but also how much time we liked to spend breaking for lunch or stopping for pictures. We began to develop a more accurate gauge of how long each chunk of walking would take, and plan our wake-up times, lunch spots, etc. accordingly. And it really paid off to leave a LOT more time than we thought we’d need. An extra buffer of at least an hour—a few hours, if we could manage it—meant that if something unexpected happened, or if we just wanted to spend a little longer resting beside a stunning view, we wouldn’t have to panic later.
We found it useful to check which towns had which amenities beforehand. That way, we could make sure we had enough time to stop and do what we needed to do. Finding ATMs, for instance. We didn’t want to be walking around with thousands of dollars of paper money at once, but cash was very necessary to always have on hand: lots of food and lodging spots on the TMB are not able to take card payments. We also had to be aware of when we’d be crossing into another country—France and Italy are both on the euro, but Switzerland uses the franc. Although a lot of Swiss places also take euros, it was good to have francs on hand too, just in case. And man, Switzerland is expensive. It was unavoidable to spend some money there, of course. But Aaron and I did our best to stock up on groceries right before entering Switzerland, to minimize the damage.
So we also had to plan our grocery shops. We had to make sure we had enough time to shop, and enough food to get us there. We tried to always have a bit more food than we strictly needed. Sometimes we needed that buffer if the day’s hike took longer than expected. And sometimes, stores were closed or sold out by the time we arrived.
There are a decent handful of small cities that the TMB route passes through—Chamonix, France and Cormayeur, Italy being the biggest hubs. They were often mid-siesta if we reached them between 11:30 and 4. Usually it wasn’t so terrible to wait around for the shops to open, but if we were out of food or if we had lots of walking left to do, it could certainly throw a wrench in the works. And those wrenches could be pretty rough for us, because Aaron and I were (without a shadow of a doubt) slowpokes.
In order to make it through, we constantly had to strive not to be intimidated by the paces of others on the trail. It was tempting to feel discouraged sometimes: to feel inferior to the couple who were old-hat at mountain backpacking trips, who would start out hours after we did, and still pass us before lunch. Or to the guy we nicknamed 5-Days, because he was completing the full TMB circuit in only the 5 days he had in between a business trip and his flight home. Or to the folks in their sixties who surpassed us like it was nothing. It was tempting to wonder whether we should even keep going. But when we checked our judgment at the door and stopped making assumptions about, or comparing ourselves to, anyone else, we saw that it didn’t matter that we were slower. We were doing it, that’s what counts.
CARING FOR OUR BODIES
We had to adjust our eating habits on the trail, to make sure we were getting enough. Both meals and trail snacks were vital—our bodies used so much energy each day. We also wanted to strike a balance between feeling safe in our stores, but not adding a crazy amount of extra weight. In general, we erred on the side of ‘safe in our stores’.
Protein bars, apples, and especially trail mix with nuts, granola, and dried fruits were great trail snacks. We had a pretty successful sandwich-packing trick for lunches: we would make an entire loaf of sandwiches (either PB&J or pepperoni and cheese), and then stack all the sandwiches right back in the loaf’s plastic bag for easy packing. This also meant we didn’t have to make our lunch the next morning or while we were out on the trail; three days’ worth of lunches were already ready to go.
We often cooked dehydrated meal packs for dinner (these are amazing; you just boil some water and pour it in. Huge bang for your buck nutrition-wise. And they’re easy to carry—light and compact). Our more traditional camp stove dinners were rice with cured meat like sausage (or chicken if we’d just come from the store), and peppers or broccoli. Cooking our own meals was WAY cheaper than buying meals from refuges and restaurants along the way. Plus, there wasn’t always a good place to stop and buy a meal; or we may not have had the extra time for table-service in the middle of a long day of hiking, with miles still to go and the sun dropping steadily lower.
But, even on our budget, it was great to treat ourselves to one sit down meal at a refuge every few days at least. The opportunity to go inside and warm up by a fire with a hot lunch can truly be a saving grace. Sometimes, those meals even provided us with (rather less luxurious, but gloriously fitting) leftovers!
For instance, after a cold and wet climb to the top of our first peak, we stopped a bit further along for some hot food and drink at a refuge. We’d already eaten lunch (peanut butter and jelly sandwiches), but we needed to warm ourselves up, so we ordered some soup and pasta and sat inside in the warmth. When the pasta came, it was WAY more than we could manage to eat. But we were loathe to waste it. So, we pulled out one of our handy ziplock bags and dumped the rest inside. When we finally arrived at our campsite that night, the little bread shop across the way was all out of bread. But our dinner was still pretty perfect. We sat in our tent and ate alternating bites from wheels of French cheese, and leftover pasta straight out of the plastic bag. No need to be classy on the TMB; but getting creative (unabashedly) will serve you well.
We found that stretching was super important (even though we usually didn’t want to do it). We’d arrive at our destination knowing that we still needed to pitch our tent, set up our sleeping bags, get the stove going, cook, eat, and clean up before we could finally rest. We did not want to take the time to stretch. But our bodies and our spirits thanked us for doing it. The next day, certainly, we felt much better. But even that very night, as I lay on the cold ground curled up in a ball in my sleeping bag, my tense muscles were grateful that I’d given them a little love. Plus, it can be pretty majestic to do some light stretching and a sun salutation on the mountainside, with your feet finally freed from their stifling hiking boots, toes in the soft grass, breeze kissing your skin. Worth it.
Taking rest days was another of the absolute best things we did for ourselves. Plenty of people do the whole TMB without stopping, but we were so glad we budgeted the time to take 2 days off mid-journey. For one thing it gave our bodies some much needed time to recover from exhaustion and injury. A few times while we hiked, we were in enough pain to consider stopping our trek altogether. And there would have been no shame in that. Safety first may be a cliche, but safety has to be the top priority. We learned quickly that we would pay big time for hiking multiple days on an injured leg or foot. In addition to our aching knees, Aaron’s Achilles tendon was causing him more and more pain. So we took our first full rest day at a beautiful campsite nestled in the mountains, and used it as an opportunity to heal.
Generous amounts of pain rub and a day of rest were just what the doctor ordered. Rejuvenated, we pushed on, and we were so glad we did. When we got back on the trail, we were hurting a little less, had a bit more stamina to get through the days, and were therefore able to appreciate the joy of the walk much more.
Additionally, we managed to avoid both hiking through a massive snow storm, and hiking while sick, by staying an extra night at a campsite halfway through the circuit. Instead of slogging through the wind and snow, we spent the day in the common area cabin, eating soup, drinking tea, taking pain killers and stoking the glorious wood stove Plus, when we set out again the next day in crisp, clear skies, we saw STUNNING views that, if we’d passed them the day before, we never would have been able to see through the storm.
And, because we took 13 days to finish, we met more people. In all, there were 3 different collections of folks who would be around our same locations for days at a time, so we made a whole bunch of new friends!
Those friendships occurred, as always, in a variety of ways. Our tried-and-true standby of sharing a bottle of wine proved itself once again; and the Tour du Mont Blanc was, just as much as youth hostels, an opportunity to meet a beautifully diverse subset of people. There was a huge range of ages on the TMB, from teenagers up to folks who were almost certainly in their eighties. There were people not just from Western European countries but from all over: we had a really fascinating conversation on our first night, at the Chamonix campsite, with a group of 20-somethings from Russia, and a guy from Portugal. There were folks from Canada and South America and an entire cycling team from China. We were also interested to find that the vast majority of other Americans we met worked in finance (strange coincidence, say I. But maybe not so strange. Most of them seemed kind of lukewarm about their jobs; but they were glad those jobs enabled them to take trips like this as a getaway).
There was one day of walking, in our second week, that Aaron and I think of as “Best Day”. It somehow had everything. We began along a forest ridge, a creek beside us, and a river below us, gurgling along the rocks. We crossed a bridge before the river’s waterfall, and climbed golden, meadowy hills. At the top of those hills, we scrambled across rock fall, awakening our spirit of adventure. Across multiple ridges, a lone hut gave a warm and toasty table to stop for lunch, as a chill wind came in to blow some cloud cover across the beating sun. Then upward, to a peak covered in deep red, purple, and pink brush and wildflowers. Then down into the distant valley, by way of open hills and wooded paths. And all of this with a new true-blue hiking buddy: Olivia. Her pace fit right in with ours. We talked and got to know each other, but were comfortable in silences, just walking and watching. She was from New York. She was hiking the TMB alone. And it felt like we’d known each other forever.
Meeting and talking to people was more than just fun. We felt much safer. Everyone poured over their maps together at the campsites each evening. And we were more confident knowing that other people were aware of us, and knew that we were somewhere on the trail. The night before our first VERY long day—the first time we worried we might not make it to our destination—the two ladies camping across from us were tackling that same long distance the next morning. The four of us agreed that if we didn’t see each other again by dinner, we would let somebody know. This way, even if something went wrong, no one would be stranded overnight; somebody would know to look for us.
Also, there were times when we simply had to ask for help. Sometimes it was as simple as a little extra encouragement to keep walking, or someone to take a picture of us in the beautiful landscape. Sometimes it was another opinion on which way to go. Especially whenever we compared our book with someone who had the other edition, with our powers combined we became the Not Lost Or Stranded Hikers! We even got help finding a backup place to crash for the World Puppetry Festival (the next and final part of our Grand Adventure). At the time, we weren’t sure where we’d be sleeping for two of the seven days we’d be performing in Charleville-Mezieres, France—our initial plan had fallen through. We sat at the same table one lunchtime with a woman whose sister lived in that very city, and she reached out to her sister for us. We were so glad we chose that table and decided to say hello! (There was also something lovely about the way that everyone said hello when we passed on the trail, and no matter where you’re from, everyone swaps languages when they cross country borders; Bonjour to Ciao to Bonjour again).
In the vast, VAST majority of cases, the people that we met in our travels were one of the biggest blessings of the entire trip. But as humans, we aren’t going to click with everybody. Sometimes, you’re going to meet challenging personalities. For instance, we shared a table with a man and his family at one refuge breakfast, and there was a pot of coffee that the table was meant to share. Instead of waiting for the mugs to come out of the dishwasher, this man poured himself a full cereal bowl of coffee, and his daughters followed suit, leaving no coffee at all for the rest of the table. We figured it was an honest mistake, and asked the folks in the kitchen to please bring us out some more coffee. The mugs came out, and eventually a fresh coffee pot did too. And then the man poured himself a second BOWL of coffee, heedless of the newfound mugs and the fact that some folks hadn’t had any coffee yet at all.
There was also a woman who was very pleased with herself for being from Arizona. She had the loudest voice of anyone I’ve ever met, and was constantly using it to say to people, “Where are you from?” and then, without letting them answer, “I’m from Arizona.” Arizona seemed well-meaning enough, but she was oblivious to the point of being inconsiderate and even downright rude. If she was sitting behind you during a lunch break, she had no qualms about yelling over your head to talk to someone else ten feet away. She was a fast walker on the trail—she was in one of the guided groups who had most of their belongings carted by donkey to their next refuge, so she carried only a light daypack—but she stopped frequently to talk or take pictures. For about three days, we were ping-ponging back and forth with her on the trail. And whether she was taking a break or walking, she was just as loud, keeping up a constant monologue that was audible well before and after she was actually in our sight lines. It got to the point one morning that we recognized her voice a full 45 minutes before we actually saw her (it helped, too, that I was pretty sure I made out the word ‘Arizona’ in the din). That’s life, of course: you won’t always be able to find peace by sipping coffee and listening to mountain birds and mountain winds and mountain silence, even when you are in the mountains and there is a pot of coffee, because sometimes other people simply have other ideas. There is still peace to be found, though. And tolerance. Sometimes I just had to find it within myself.
PART 3: LESSONS IN THE THICK OF THINGS (Sticking With It!)
We hiked the TMB at the very beginning of September. And there was snow. All throughout the summer, there’s a solid chance of snow at the higher TMB elevations (and in June, some of the winter’s snow may still be lingering on the ground).
The first day we encountered snow was a grueling one. We were ascending to the top of Col de la Croix du Bonhomme. At the start of the day, when we were still at a lower elevation, we were dealing with a combination of rain and fog. We’d gotten up extra early to try and pack up our gear before the rain came (both for our own sake, and for the sake of keeping the tent mold-free and undamaged). But the overnight showers, along with the condensation that hadn’t dried in the overcast early morning, meant that we were still packing up a soggy tent, so we knew we’d have to dry it out later.
Walking into the fog felt like wandering through clouds; and when we climbed high enough, there were moments that we literally did enter a cloud. In both cases, we got utterly drenched. And in both cases, we couldn’t see anything outside of our personal 2-foot bubbles. It was a little disappointing, knowing that fantastic views were hidden by this blinding mist. But it was pretty neat to imagine that I’d walked all the way up to the sky.
So at first, I thought the fog was primarily a blessing: I couldn’t see the top of the peak, so I couldn’t be intimidated by how far away and high up it must be. After hours of uninterrupted, mist-blanketed climbing, however, I started to think, “Wow, I still don’t see the top. I’m pretty sure I’m not going to make it.” By the time the rain stopped, I was drenched from both precipitation and sweat, and my body was screaming at me with each step, my breath coming in gasps. The excitement of seeing our first snow piles on the ground as we picked our way over stones and boulders gave me a little extra push. But it wasn’t until a gust of wind blew away a portion of the cloud cover that I finally caught a glimpse of the peak, and realized I had a chance. Just another fifteen minutes or so, and we’d be there.
We pushed onward and upward. The wind threatened to bowl us over…but we were so close…and there, at the top of the peak, the sun was shining through. Finally (finally!) we reached the top. Clouds raced by over our heads and underfoot. We dropped our bags and stripped off our dripping rain jackets. We took a moment to rest, and celebrate, and pull out our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
The moment we stopped walking, the relentless wind suddenly felt freezing. It had blown away the storm, but there was no hiding from it. And we were still sopping wet. It got to the point that Aaron and I were both shaking violently, and even bundling back up in our insulation layers didn’t seem to help. There was a tiny wooden shack at the top of the peak where we were able to take momentary shelter, but even that wasn’t enough. Finally we had the presence of mind to strip off our wet clothes. Even having our bare skin to the cold air was instantly better than those wet clothes. And then putting on a dry T-shirt was like heaven. Later on, we realized what an awful mistake it could have been not to change our clothes: you can get hypothermia from wet fabric against your skin. From that day on, we were always prepared with a clean, dry backup T-shirt.
There was another symptom of wet weather to contend with: mud. It was surprisingly hazardous. On more than one steep downhill, our trekking poles were the only things that stood between us and sliding down the mountain, bashing our knees and butts on stones along the way.
After a long afternoon of slipping along this way, we ran into another mud-related surprise (and full-disclaimer on this one, it does NOT seem to be the usual experience). We were turned away from a refuge, Rifugio Elena, where we wanted to stop to buy a hot drink or some food, and get warm. From what I managed to gather based on the things they were yelling at me in Italian, we’d arrived a bit too late to be served an entree, and they were in the process of cleaning up the dining area, and we were therefore too muddy to be allowed inside, even just to sit at the bar right across from the doorway with the many other hikers who were already inside, and to give them our money. This was pretty tough for me to stomach, because it meant we had to stay outside in the chill wind. Plus, three-quarters of the tables in the dining area were still occupied by other hikers who, for some reason, were allowed inside. I still don’t have any idea how we could have remedied the situation (apart from learning to speak fluent Italian). But I will say, I was very grateful at that point that we had food with us, so we weren’t stranded without a lunch. So there was my lesson, I guess: always be prepared!
And then of course, there was the walking itself. Certain parts of the trail were harder than others. There’s the scrambling over rock falls, the steep ascents, the endless declines, the stepping stones across creeks and rivers, the narrow drop-offs where you hold to a chain nailed into the side of the mountain (just in case). All amidst breathtaking beauty and the spirit of adventure on the wind.
And there was one particularly unique challenge: ladder day. It is what it sounds like. A stretch of trail that lasts about a day, in which our regularly scheduled programming was interspersed with the literal scaling of ladders. Steel ladders, hammered into the rocks, where our ascent became truly vertical. There is a longer, work-around path that you can take to avoid the ladders. But honestly, I loved the ladders; even with my giant backpack! Challenge accepted!
Speaking of my giant backpack, that was a physical challenge of its own accord. Especially when our hydration sleeves were filled with 3L of drinking water, those suckers were no joke. So on our very last day, when we were able to walk with only our day packs I truly felt light and free as a little mountain gazelle.
And I’m very grateful (and lucky) that I was carrying a lighter backpack that day. Because that was the day that a rock literally flew right out of the blue sky and hit me in the face. If I’d been wearing my full pack, the weight might have toppled me over the edge of the path when I fell, and then I would have been tumbling down the mountain right along with that rock.
We were climbing a section of steep switchbacks. I remember the briefest moment of hearing something coming toward me from the mountain above—so brief I was hardly even conscious of it. By pure instinct, I began turning my head to look, like how your reflexes pull your hands away from a hot stove the moment before you’re aware of feeling a burn. And then I was on the ground, my jaw and shoulder bleeding. I had the presence of mind to look down the mountain and see what had hit me. The rock was about the size of my closed fist. Thankfully, it was my shoulder, and not my head, that bore the brunt of the hit. And thankfully, the few folks on the lower levels of the switchbacks either saw what had happened, or heard me shout; so the rock did not have the pleasure of taking out any other hikers. We figured it was one of the flock of sheep we’d seen walking above us that had dislodged the stone; an accident of chance, which also explained why nobody had called down a warning. I was fine, and after washing off the blood, our last day was able to continue almost like nothing had happened. But I felt it was a reminder from the mountain not to get complacent, not to count my chickens just yet. I’d been acting, on that very last day, like I’d already conquered the TMB. But the mountain was telling me to remain on my toes. The mountain is never conquered. It just embraces us for a short while, if we’re wise enough to respect that it is untamable and wild.
APPRECIATING WHERE WE WERE
The beauty was constant. So much so that sometimes, we would almost (though never entirely) forget how utterly amazing it was. But then we’d see Mont Blanc in the distance, or a river or waterfall, or a copse of flowers, or an adorable cottage, and remember. We wondered about the people who live here in these little storybook mountain villages (they live there during the summer, anyway. Except for the major valley cities, everything along the trail becomes inaccessible in winter). Do they wake up and think, ‘Man, I’m pretty lucky to open my eyes every day and see this’? Or do they become accustomed to the beauty? Do they take it for granted, shrug it off as just part of the setting of their lives? If the latter were the case, Aaron and I imagined scolding them like a grandfather to a spoiled child. “Kid, these mountains don’t grow on trees.”
Of course, we still felt discouraged sometimes. Sometimes we were exhausted and aching. Sometimes we almost didn’t want to keep going. And sometimes we were angry with ourselves for feeling that way. But something amazing happened when I allowed myself to feel all of those things. When I gave myself permission. When I recognized it was okay that this was hard. These feelings allowed me to actually engage with what I was doing. I was climbing mountains. It reminded me that nothing lasts forever. This became my mantra. The pain, the exhaustion, the climbs that seem utterly endless—none of that is forever. That voice saying “I can’t make it,” eventually quiets. And after it quieted, it seemed like kind of a silly voice after all. I did make it, and I was that much prouder that I didn’t give up. It was also a reminder that the adventure itself was fleeting. The mountain wind lifting my sweaty hair from my forehead, the song of waterfalls in the distance, the snow-capped mountains on the horizon like ancient demi-gods, the soft and radiant sun-soaked valleys—my time with them would end. But so long as I was feeling that ache in my muscles, that meant it wasn’t over yet. That made me happy and appreciative, even joyful, in my moments of pain or fear.
PART 4: HIGHLIGHTS
Since this post is already over 10,000 words, and since no amount of gushing or even pictures can truly do justice to the Tour du Mont Blanc—its demanding and harsh nature or its incomparable cradling beauty—I’ll let this be a brief list of things to look out for, and accept my shortcomings in conveying the highlights in all their splendor.
- Paragliders. Those little brightly-colored, swirling specks above the mountain tops were amazing to watch. They looped and flipped and stayed airborne seemingly indefinitely. Some days they were almost right beside us as we hiked, like huge exotic birds. And if you have the time and money to actually learn to paraglide and do it over the Chamonix valley, I’m sure it would be epic, and you’ll have to tell me all about it.
- Wooden Sculptures. These little animals carved from tree trunks make the forest walks truly enchanting. Pretty sure they come to life when there aren’t any hikers around.
- Ponies. There were a whole bunch of Shetland ponies that came to say hello at the Maison Vielle refuge in Italy!
- Marmots. Super cute. (Didn’t manage to capture them in photos though).
- Views of the valley.
- Views of the mountain.
- Storybook villages.
- Amazing night skies.
- Ice cream. Still the best, always the best.
- That incomparable sense of accomplishment: we did it! At the end of each day—and then the big one, at the end of the trek—I felt like I met myself and my world anew. I’d done more than I knew I had in me. I was tired. But it was the best kind of tired. Earned tiredness. Our own feet carried us to the ground where we landed, so we felt connected to this place. We were connected to the people there, because they’d walked this ground too. I had reason to be proud. I felt so completely like a part of the world, like for those few days the earth had adopted me and was teaching me to see with a guiding hand both firm and gentle. And I felt like I was capable of learning. I felt like I was enough. And I felt pretty justified in patting myself on the back, in saying to Aaron, “We did a great job. I’m proud of us.”
All in all, hiking the Tour du Mont Blanc was a life-changing experience, one that I will be forever grateful for. And one that I will forever be encouraging people to try: if we can do it, so can you! And it is worth every second, every muscle ache, every chilly night. For me, it was a beautiful reminder of the endless possibilities of this earth, and the human beings on it.
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