The morning of our 7th day on the Tour du Mont Blanc, we woke up in our luxurious hotel in Switzerland. We were staying in the small town of Chapex Lac and had just completed the two most challenging days of the tour. Suffice to say, we were shattered. We properly took our time this morning enjoying the luxury of our hotel room. We also had a full load of laundry still drying on the balcony so we happily used the excuse of our drying socks as a reason to stay wrapped up in bed a bit longer. We lazed around looking at pictures, writing and letting our bodies gradually wake up. We eventually ventured out of bed and head downstairs to the dining room for breakfast.
Breakfast at the hotel was incredible and deeply nourishing to our recovering bodies. A spread of various types of croissants and breads, four different flavours of homemade jam and a chocolate-hazelnut spread lined the buffet table. As if that wasn’t enough there was yogurt with muesli, various types of cheeses and meats galore. The tables were beautifully set and we settled into a small table in the corner and then headed to the buffet to pour ourselves a coffee. The coffee hit my lips and slipped down my throat and I immediately felt better. Almost as if they could read our mind, a large sign on the side of the table read ‘Do Not Pack Away Food’. I snuck a croissant in my pocket when I was sure no one was looking but that was about all I could manage. I guess the more expensive the hotel the more strict they are on their food policies.
Once full from breakfast and back in our room, we both took our time bandaging up our feet, using the last of the hotel wifi (you never know how long it’s going to be until you get it again). Finally at nearly 10am we actually headed out - the latest we had ever set out.
Again, there were two options for the days route, the regular route would take us to Col de la Forclaz (where the stage would technically end) and then on to the small village of Trient, where we would be staying that evening just 30 minutes further. The alternative option sounded spectacular but the guide book had a warning attached to this route labelling it as the ‘toughest of the whole tour’. It was a good 2 1/2 hours longer and would include steep slopes of grit. For the first, and only time of the whole trip we chose the easier option. We had struggled through two long days and our bodies were begging us to take it a bit easier. We thought if God needed to rest on day 7 surely, we should take it easy as well. We wanted to walk through the day with ease, taking our time and arriving at our next auberge not too late. Today would be our Sabbath. Skip ahead 10 hours, we ran into our Belgium friends we had spent dinner with our second night (what seemed like years ago). They had taken the hard route and had broken weary bodies to show for it. After our two days of hard and intense walking we were happy with our decision.
With our bags packed and our spirits flying high, we waved farewell to our delightfully expensive hotel. It was a beautiful sunny morning and as we walked up into the town of Champex we saw what we had missed the night before. A beautiful large lake was the centrepiece of the town. The towns name Champex-Lac made much more sense now. People were hanging around the lake, paddleboarding or dipping in for a swim. A few restaurants and cafés lined the waterfront which, if we had ventured out the night before, we would have likely tried. The town was calm and serene and I noted the next time we were back we’d make sure to explore Champex Lac a bit more thoroughly. For now though, we were back into walking mode.
There was a small store in town. Since we were fresh out of food for the day, and almost out of sunscreen we quickly popped in to buy the most expensive sun screen I’ve ever seen (helloooo Switzerland!) and some lunch for the trail. We walked through the town, past campsites and under the ski lifts until we came to the trail head where the TMB continued en route to Trient. The first section of the trail alternated between quiet roads lined with chalets and gîtes, meadows and tree-lined wooded paths. It was nice to have a bit of a slower day, enjoying the trails and not having to focus as much on getting to the next landmark. Our walking was more relaxed and laughter echoed across the trail. The trail turns into a footpath which lead us through beautiful woodland trails where we found ourselves walking alone.
After about an hour and a half of gentle walking with barely any incline we came to a farmhouse on a hill and decided to stop for a coffee. The views were spectacular as we sat drinking our coffee with a view overlooking the spectacular Rhône Valley. As it was already almost noon, many people were eating full refuge meals but we sipped our drinks, finding it hard to believe we were already on Day 7 of our 10 day adventure. Waking up and walking became the norm and it was hard to imagine life any other way. What would we even do when our trip came to a close?
Once we had finished our drinks we found the refuge's loo (which was guarded by angry dogs) and before we knew it were back on the trail, starting the long ascent we would spend most of the day making our way up. We rose steadily on an unsurfaced 4x4 track for about a mile before turning onto a footpath and entering wooded trail. As we climbed in height, so did the sun with the heat rising with each step we took. We moved in and out of shaded trees and were grateful for the streams we crossed. We passed hikers taking rests in the streams and we followed by dipping our hats and buffs into the cold stream water and then allowing the cold water to drip down our faces. The trail wasn’t overly technical and we moved at an easy pace we knew we could sustain.
About halfway up the ascent we decided to break for some lunch. We found two nice flat rocks that would do well as seats so we dropped our bags and lay out what we had for the day. Two peaches, a bag of crisps, one croissant (stolen from the hotel) and a cliff bar. Healthy right? Somehow it managed to fill us up, but goodness how we missed our vegetables!. As we sat on the side of the trail eating our lunch, families passed us on day hikes. Each time a child passed the following conversation would occur on repeat:
Child: “Bon Appetite”
Next child about 10 seconds later:
Child: “Bon Appetite”
Us: “Merci” … etc etc etc.
I’m surprised we even got a bite in with the incredible politeness of the Swiss children. After a while the novelty wore off and we truly just wanted some peace and quiet to eat our lunch, but we continued to people watch and respond accordingly to the hikers out for the afternoon. Once our food had gone down and we had sufficiently let our tired legs rest we hoisted our bags back up and continued up the mountain. Those first few steps were a slog as our bodies readjusted to moving.
As usual the sun was out strong and the incline was relentless but by day 7 we were used to it. We stumbled upon a French girl who looked like she was in her early 20s walking alone. We said hello and then realized we recognized her. We had seen her and her 3 friends (who we found out were her cousins) the day before as we were nearing the end of our day into Champex. As we were walking through one of the small hamlets we saw them huddled around a water fountain continuously pouring water over her leg. We went over to fill up our own bottles and learned that she had burnt herself badly on a parked motorcycle which was still hot from use. It looked pretty badly burned but when there wasn’t much else we could do we continued walking.
Reunited on the trail today, we asked her how her burn was and where her friends were. She told us she was doing the tour with her 3 cousins but they were faster walkers than her so she spent most of the day walking alone and they would wait for her at the top of the passes. We spent some time with her trying to have a conversation combining our broken french and her broken english but when she needed to stop and rest for the second time in 10 minutes we carried on and wished her well. We ran into her cousins a few minutes up the slope and confirmed she was on her way, albeit taking a bit of time. We continued up the path passing through more streams, each time dipping our hats and buffs into the icy cold water.
We continued this way for another hour or so before the smell of cows and manure let us know we had made it to Alp Bovine, a working dairy farm that overlooks the Rhône Valley. Bells rang and flies buzzed around us as we made our way up to the dairy farm. I couldn’t believe how many flies there were buzzing into the cows eyes and ears.
We plopped down our bags and each headed into the building to use the toilets. The views were spectacular but the flies were so intense we couldn’t linger long. We only had 53m to climb before hitting the height of the day, then it was all downhill into Trient. We had travelled approximately 11km and had 6km more to go - and it was all downhill. We stopped briefly at height to take one last view back at the Grand Combin. A tour group was at the top and we briefly paused to listen to the guide’s description of the view but seeing the single track ahead knew we it was best to get ahead the of the group rather than be trapped behind so we swiftly made our exit.
It was an uneventful hike down to Col de la Forclaz, the down hill path first feeling like a nice respite from the incline we had spent most of the day doing but eventually dragging on a little too long. Luke was a few meters ahead and I remember for one of the first times on the whole hike starting to think “seriously… more of this?”. But even with the physical and mental fatigue I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else. We made it to Col de la Forclaz which consisted of one restaurant bar and one accommodation. We had about 30 minutes more to travel but it consisted of over 300 meters of descent. We braced ourselves for a brutal and steep decline and the trail met our expectations. Down, down and down we went. Our feet ached, our blisters stung and our minds rebelled but without another option we knew we had to go through to get out. When we arrived at the base we saw the beautiful pink church welcoming us into the hamlet of Trient.
Auberge du Mont Blanc was in a large building at the edge of the town. The hamlet of Trient was so small we found it almost immediately. We checked in and were shown to our room, a small private room the size of two single beds with a window that looked out over the town. There was one washroom and shower per floor and the best part of all, a sauna in the basement! Luxury! We did a quick wash of the clothes we had worn that day and then headed to the basement to check out this infamous sauna.
As we lay down on the wooden benches and the heat overcame us I could immediately feel my muscles exhale. The heat was intense, that wonderful dry kind that engulfs you. Our breath slowed down and I could feel relaxation overcome me on a deep and powerful level. When the heat became too intense we stepped out into a cold shower washing off all the sweat and grit from the day. We then headed back in for a round two allowing the sauna heat to penetrate deeper and more powerfully.
When we had finally had enough, we wandered back up to our room, showered and dressed for the evening. Dinner wasn’t for another half hour so we took our books and a pack of cards and headed out to the back terrace. One of my favourite times of the day was that pre dinner drink we treated ourselves to almost every day of the hike. Tired, clean, and relaxed from our sauna we plopped ourselves down on the outside terrace with a cold beer in hand. We alternated between writing and chatting to two women from Bristol who were doing a portion of the TMB trail all the while staring up at the incredible hills surrounding us.
Once we were called in for dinner, we found our seats at a table with a group of German men. Dinner was lighthearted and social as we talked about our different travels and experiences in life. Upon meeting a Canadian most Europeans first question is "So … have you seen a bear?” People are obsessed with bears! Yes I’ve seen a bear. No they do not just wander around southern Ontario. Yes, we have mountains but they are far from where I live. etc. etc.
Dinner was as usual, heavy on the dairy consisting of bread and cheese as a starter, followed by a small vegetable soup and side salad. The main course was then served which was a large bowl of white potatoes and a huge steaming pot of melted cheese to pour on top. Delicious or disaster… I would soon find out, but with my attitude of ‘c’est la vie’ I popped in a digestive enzyme and enjoyed the melted deliciousness. If there wasn’t enough dairy in the meal a dessert of ice cream cake sure topped it off. Once we had finished eating we rolled ourselves out of our seats and decided to take an evening walk to explore the town and walk off some of the meal.
Exploring the town didn’t take long at all, which was a good thing as the sun was quickly starting to set in the sky. Saying that Trient was a dead town would be an understatement as not even a grocery store existed in the town. I thought it was quaint but Luke was less impressed. He mentioned multiple times that he would look forward to leaving this dreary town full of dilapidated buildings . We walked along the stream, up to the church and back, slowly allowing our muscles and joints to ease out from the day's effort.
We headed back to the auberge and settled into our room for the night. A full week on the trail had officially come to a close. I was enjoying our time on the trails so immensely I didn't want to think about it coming to an end. Tomorrow would be another day, with more km's to cover, more mountains to climb and views to experience. We kept the window slightly ajar and fell asleep to the sound of the wind and the feeling of the light breeze on our skin. We quickly feel asleep like the quiet and sleepy town of Trient.
Start: Champex (1470m)
End: Trient (1297m)
Distance: 17.11 km
Heigh gain: 859 m
Height loss: 1081m
Time hiking: 4:57:01
Total elapsed time: 6:56:59
To see the full data on the day's hike, you can find me on Strava
We woke to the sound of our alarm on day 6. I groggily rolled over in bed to stop the sound penetrating into my head. There was no way it was morning already, I could have sworn my head had just hit the pillow. I swung my legs out from under the covers and the second my feet hit the cold concrete floor it all came rushing back. We were staying in the little basement room at Chalet Val Ferret (likely all they had left due to our late arrival the night before - read TMB Day 5 if you’re interested in why). This morning was a huge milestone as it marked the halfway point of our TMB adventure. The room was freezing and the cold jolt of my feet hitting the floor made walking to the bathroom an adventure on its own. I hobbled over to the window to open the curtain exposing a magnificent full view of the mountains surrounding us. I took a second to soak it all in realizing our view back home of the No Frills parking lot would never quite compare to this. I wanted to fill up on the beauty and never let it go.
Day 5 of our Tour du Mont Blanc adventure was when things started to get interesting, and not in a way we had anticipated, or hoped for. This day ended up being our most challenging day both physically as well as mentally. Positivity and mental stamina were used in spades ... but that came later. Let’s start from the beginning.
We woke after a wonderful night sleep in Courmayeur. I had been worried I wouldn’t sleep well after our giant pizza dinner but I fell asleep almost immediately and my eyes didn’t open until morning. Breakfast didn't start until 7:45 am, much later than the typical 6:30 am breakfasts at the refuges so we planned to allow ourselves to sleep in a bit. No such luck though - our bodies were so used to waking up early, my eyes shot open long before the alarm sounded. We put our morning time to good use though, doing some Pilates, writing, reading through the days hiking directions and then headed down for breakfast. Staying a hotel, we were back to a luxurious full breakfast spread of yoghurt and granola, various breads and croissants, jams, cheeses, ham and... coffee. There were also hard boiled eggs which we both stashed in our pockets for lunch later that day. One of the true benefits to staying in a hotel were the substantially better breakfasts which allowed for some takeaways for lunch.
We woke up in Rifugio Elisabetta to one of the most beautiful sunrise views I’ve ever experienced. Once again, the refuge began stirring early as hikers started to get ready for their departure. It had been a cool night which was a refreshing change from the blistering heat we had been experiencing. Our small little room housed two single bunk beds so cuddling up in the night wasn't an option. We opened our window and watched the sun rise in the distance, the misty air and wispy clouds adding to the beautiful scene. I swear I stood there, mesmerized for ages before starting to dress.
The first few steps every morning were always uncomfortable as we took inventory of the last day’s damage:
Blisters: One on my heel, and one developing on my baby toe but still manageable
Feet: Bruised and painful on each step with a small stabbing feeling in the heel (likely a plantar fascia issue)
Quads: Tired and sore and not fully able to straighten but nothing a little massage and shakeout wouldn’t fix.
Shoulders: Feeling surprisingly okay! No permanent damage from the heavy bags we were lugging around.
Overall, we were feeling pretty good as we prepared for our 4th day hiking. We rolled out our feet and legs with our balls, did a few stretches once our muscles had warmed up and went down for breakfast.
We woke on our third morning after a very refreshed sleep at Auberge de la Nova, located in the small hamlet of Les Chapieux. We had allowed ourselves a little sleep in (7am woohoo!) however the refuge was alive and in full swing long before that, so we were both awake before the alarm sounded. Shortly upon waking we headed down to breakfast and were surprised to see the dining room almost empty and the breakfast quite depleted. People sure got up and left early around here! Luke and I preferred to take our time in the mornings and leave when the trails were a bit quieter.
Breakfast at the refuge was much simpler consisting of yogurt, granola and sliced baguette with butter and jam. And coffee... there was always coffee. We had clearly been spoiled by our multi-course hotel breakfasts the first two mornings. Nevertheless we still managed to eat more than enough to fuel us for the morning ahead. It was a quiet and peaceful morning and we took our time in the dining room letting our bodies wake up and our minds prepare for the day ahead.
Day 3 would take us out of France and into Italy. It was a slightly shorter day, but still demanding with over 1000m of elevation gain. We packed up our bags, picked up our packed lunch from the refuge (the only time we ordered one) and set off on day 3 of the Tour du Mont Blanc.
Our alarm sounded at 6:30am, and I groggily rolled over in bed. Despite being utterly exhausted, neither Luke or I slept well on that first night. I was sure I would fall asleep the second my head hit the pillow, but hour after hour passed without a hint of shut eye. When the alarm finally went off I was almost relieved that fretful night was over. Taking that first stop out of bed, I was immediately reminded of the day before’s efforts. Isn’t DOMS not supposed to kick in for 24-48 hours? Using every effort not to wimper, I hobbled my way to the bathroom. Staring into that mirror at myself, I almost laughed. What on earth did we think we were doing?
Eventually the legs started to ease out and life was brought back into my feet, but I knew only one day into our hike, we were in for it.
Leaving Luke to get himself up, I stumbled downstairs with coffee as my motivator. Breakfast didn’t start until 7am, but I went down a few minutes early to do some writing and mentally prepare for the day ahead. The mountain air was chilly as I sat in the back garden gathering my thoughts. By 7am there was a lineup of hikers outside the dining room eagerly awaiting for the doors to open. You would have thought food was being rationed here the way people were waiting; like hawks scoping out their prey. Most hikers were fully dressed with their bags packed, clearly ready to leave immediately after eating. I was so confused… did NONE of them need to go back to the comfort of their hotel room for their post coffee poo?
We woke to a sunny, blue skied Les Houches.
I bolted out of bed as the alarm went off after a wonderful night sleep. Luke wasn't as lucky with his sleep, waking multiple times throughout the night likely due to jet lag but he brushed it off saying he felt well rested. Denial and positivity were two strategies we both used repeatedly throughout our ten days hike.
With most of the packing and organizing done the night before, we headed right down to the hotel dining room for breakfast. Breakfast at the hotel was a giant spread of bread, jam, more bread, more jam, croissants, chocolate croissants and again more bread... mmm. There were also apricots and peaches, sliced cheese and meat and lots and lots of coffee. European breakfast buffets make North American hotel breakfasts look like child's play. There was a large tour group staying at our hotel the night before so when we got down to breakfast at 7:30am on the dot, the dining room was already bustling with middle aged French walkers. The dining room was packed so we headed out to the terrace, speckled with rain from the night before. Giving the table and chairs a quick wipe, we settled in for a deliciously glutinous breakfast with a view. The tour group quickly dispersed so we were left to enjoy the rest of our breakfast in silence, surrounded by the mountains. The cool morning air combined with the towering Mont Blanc sent shivers downs my spine. I wanted to bottle us this feeling and hold on to it forever.
We arrived to a grey and rainy Geneva. The past 24 hours seemed like a dream of wakeness and sleep and it was hard to keep straight what day it was. Most of this post was written by a jet-lagged, sleepless Hannah, who I’m pretty sure got tipsy off one glass of red wine.
We picked up our bags rather quickly and located the bus we would be taking to Les Houches, the small town outside of Chamonix where our hike would begin. We used a company called Alpy Bus which provides transports from Geneva airport all over the Alps. With a few minutes to spare before our bus departed, we had a rushed and very expensive coffee at the airport (our first hint as to the toll the Swiss portion of the hike would have to our wallets) and then settled into our seats for the 90 minute ride to Les Houches.
Driving to Les Houches we got our first glimpse of the mountains in the distance. Although desperately tired, I couldn't help but keep my eyes pealed on the landscape around us. As we drove closer and closer the mountains grew larger until they completely engulfed us. Taking pictures from the back of a van doesn’t do justice to their beauty and majestic size. Luckily, we'd get many more mountain shots over the next week and a half.
The initial idea to hike the Tour du Mont Blanc came in a rather round-about way. Luke and I wanted to plan a trip, something big and exciting - a real adventure before we started a family! Our initial idea was to venture to South America, however with the threat of Zika looming over so many places down south, we decided we would play this one safe and try to find a non-Zika infested location.
Our criteria for the trip was that we wanted it to be an active holiday, something we might not be able to do as easily with kids with a good dose of both nature and culture. One night we were at dinner at my parents house discussing our dilemma of where to go. My mom was the first to ask us if we had considered hiking in the Alps. We both immediately liked the sound of the idea. We were already planning a trip to London at the end of May to surprise Luke's parents for his Dad's 70th birthday so it was perfect! We would combine these trips together requiring only one transatlantic flight - it was perfect!
From there, I suggested we look into doing the Tour du Mont Blanc. I first became aware of the Tour du Mont Blanc when I became interested in trail running. Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) is an ultra marathon in which participants cover the ENTIRE 170km course in one race, with the fastest racers finishing in under 20 hours. Absolutely INSANE. But after seeing pictures and videos of the course I knew I wanted to do the hike one day. It seemed like the perfect opportunity.
On July 27th, 2018, my husband Luke and I set off on our biggest adventure to date: To hike the Tour du Mont Blanc.
My initial intention was to pack a notebook and pen, and journal our trip so future Hannah could re-read and re-relive the trip. Maybe it was the thin mountain air, the quiet evenings or the simplicity of life on the trail, but writing and documenting our journey became an integral part of the whole experience. Wherever we were, I was inspired to write. Whether perched at the top of Col de la Seigne looking out over Italy after a massive day’s climb, or curled up in the evening at our mountain refuge, clean and warm, sharing a beer with Luke. It became a way for me to process what I was feeling and crystallize some of the fleeting thoughts that passed through my mind while in motion.
Upon arriving back home, I've been surprised by how many people have actually contacted me asking questions about the hike and our experience. Although not my initial intention, I'm drawn to share my experience with anyone who is interested in listening, to give you a little taste into what it was like spending 10 days on the trail.
I’ll start by saying the Tour du Mont Blanc is not for everyone.
I’ll be completely honest, there were days that were hard. Our bodies hurt and there were times I wanted to curl up on the side of the trail and cry (and there were times Luke did... but that’s a story for day 5 you’ll have to wait for). It was also an electrifying experience and one that brought out a side of myself I loved. It made me dig deep, and brought back a confidence I felt had vanished over the past year. It was a reminder to re-prioritize my life and truly changed me on a deeper level.
In my recount I might swear, I will most definitely talk about poop, and I will hopefully illuminate my experience and the beauty of the mountains.
Written mostly as a story, if specifics are what you are after I am happy to share more of the details from the trip with whoever is interested. Where exactly we stayed, what sorts of costs we incured (hint: a lot!) or any other inquiries don't hesitate to contact me, I love to talk TMB!
One day, I hope to return to the TMB trail and run the route from start to finish… I’m just waiting for that lucky lottery ticket. For now, I’ll have to rely on these memories and daydream myself back to the trail.