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.
We started to do some research, and it soon became clear the timing wouldn't work as May is too early to safely do the full hike. Aside from the very practical issue that most of the mountain refuges don't open until June, there were also the safety issues of hiking that early in the season. There was a good chance much of the trail would still be covered in snow and there's the danger of avalanches. When reading about early summer hiking, sentences like "conditions like this are dangerous due to the likelihood of a slip and also the chance of being swallowed up into the deep snow: some trekkers have literally fallen into deep ‘man-holes’ of snow and taken a very long time to get out" were enough to re-asses our travel plans.
But it was too late. Our hearts were set on the TMB. It looked like we would be back to two transatlantic flights this summer. And so the planning began!
Without the May date to influence our travel plans we then had to decide when to take the trip. The UTMB trail race takes place at the end of August and although we considered taking our holiday around that time to see the race in action, we decided we preferred a quieter trip and chose to do it before the trail runners all swarmed to the Alps. And by a 'quieter trip' I mean we went at the absolute busiest time of the year, the beginning of August when all the Europeans are on holiday. Whoops.
We ended up still seeing some trail runners out on the course training for the UTMB which was really cool. I had some 'celebrity sighting' moments where my jaw dropped as famous American trail runners passed us by. It was inspiring and motivating during those long days on the trail.
In typical Hannah / Luke style, planning occurred in a rather relaxed fashion and in some ways it felt like we jumped into this adventure with blind faith. Had either of us done any major hiking in the past? Nope. Had either of us ever done any mountain trekking? Nope. Had either of us done any multi-stage hikes that required day after day of 6+ hours of hiking (some days up to 9 or 10 hours of hiking) with over 1,000m of ascent each day? Nooooooooooope :) But we're young, we're healthy, and we're both pretty fit so with trust in our abilities we jumped into the trip of a lifetime.
*I use the term we loosely... there aren't enough museums in the Alps for this to be Luke's 'trip of a lifetime', but when I first brought it up as a honeymoon option, he jumped on board and was fully invested ever since.
Let's start with a little background on the Tour du Mont Blanc.
Mont blanc is the largest mountain range in Europe standing at 4808m above sea level. The Tour du Mont Blanc is a challenging alpine trek that circumnavigates Mont Blanc. Totally 170km in distance and over 10,000m of total ascent, it is likely the most famous long distance mountain trek in Europe with travellers arriving from all over the world to experience the beautiful, picturesque views.
The traverse around Mont Blanc takes hikers through France, Italy and Switzerland offering multiple different views of the gorgeous snow peaked mountain as well as a bit of a smorgasbord of culture and culinary experiences. It is typically broken up into 11 stages however we chose to do it over 10 days (9 nights) because the trek just wasn't challenging enough (and the flights worked out better with this timing ;)
Although as hikers you never reach higher than 2,600m of altitude, elevation changes are abundant over the 10 days with our longest day consisting of over 29km in distance and over 1500m of height gain and loss. In many ways the downhill sections are harder than the uphill as the ground is rocky and uneven at times and if you're not careful you can very quickly trash your quads. The hiking poles we purchased were extremely handy in taking some of the pressure off of our legs.
The classic TMB hike starts in Chamonix valley in France; a ski resort town and travels counter clockwise. We chose to do the classic anti-clockwise route and combining stages 5, 6 and 7 into two days.
After some deliberation, we decided we would do the self-guided version of the hike, meaning we wouldn't be travelling with a guide or group. This also meant everything we wanted over the 10 days we would have to carry on our backs. We decided against camping to lighten the load on our backs, and because staying in the mountain refuges' along the trail seemed like part of the trekking experience... and warm showers and a comfy bed after a long day of hiking didn't sound too bad.
We did a bit of research, reading blogs and trip reports and narrowed down a packing list to include the following items:
The weekend before our departure we did a 'practice' hike around High Park with our bags fully packed and trekking poles in hand (High Park has the same elevation profile as the Alps RIGHT?!). We made a few alterations to our packing list - adding our yoga tune-up balls to the list for some sore muscles - and were pretty much ready to go. So when July 27th rolled around with naivety and a good dose of blind faith, we hopped on a flight to Geneva to begin our Alpine adventure. And that's where the story began...