Possibility 1: Walk in the early or late season avoiding the high summer completely. Yes you are right that sounds obvious but why then do so few people do this?
It is fair to say that both June and September get busier and busier each year as TMB numbers steadily increase and bookings are squeezed out either side of the July/August window. However, I have found that (with a few exceptions) it is still perfectly possible to set out on the TMB without booking far ahead. Now every year is different and there are no guarantees but if you can be a little flexible then it can be done.
In June 2018, I walked the TMB in 6 and half days, starting in les Chapieux (where I parked my car). I booked no more than one day ahead and never had any problem finding accommodation. I stayed in the following places:
I also booked, and cancelled, various places as I travelled, making up my itinerary day-to-day based upon how I felt. The only place where I felt booking was difficult was Hotel du Col de la Forclaz. But this is always a pressure point as the TMB and Walker’s Haute Route both use it and it is also popular with large guided groups. In any case, now that the nearby (and newly refurbished) Refuge du Peuty has started serving meals, if you cannot get a booking at Forclaz then there is another option.
June is a fabulous month: long days, plenty of snow on the peaks and amazing wild flowers. So why are there fewer people? Well it has a lot to do with snow. As you would expect it snows a lot in the Alps and it takes a while for winter snow to melt. It melts first low down and the snow line gradually gets higher as the spring progresses. Normally, snow clears from high altitude passes (cols) at some point in June. Often it is early June but on occasion the cols do not clear until early July. In July and August, the high altitude passes on the TMB are almost always passable. Normally, by mid-June they are snow free but there is a risk that they might not be. And that deters many people.
However, even if there is some snow this is not necessarily a deal-breaker. Just because there is some snow on the cols does not automatically make them impassable: it is usually moist spring snow by June, which softens during the day and is usually OK to walk on by late morning if you take care. In addition, the TMB is usually well tracked with footprints long before you get there. However, it is not for everyone and you need to be aware of your own abilities and experience before walking in such conditions. The risk of slips or falls increases in snowy conditions. Take advice from your refuge or gîte before proceeding each day: they should be fully aware of the local conditions. Also, trail conditions in June are regularly updated at www.autourdumontblanc.com so you can check beforehand if it is safe. If you have not booked ahead then you can make a decision at the last minute.
If there is to be a lot of snow then make sure that you have crampons and/or an ice axe or at the very least microspikes. There are now some incredibly light crampons for occasional use on alpine treks such as Petzl’s Leopards, which weigh just over 300g so you will hardly notice that you are carrying them.
But snow may not even be an issue: in most years conditions will be pretty normal from mid-June onwards. And one word of warning: the later in June, the busier the TMB will get and the harder it is to get accommodation.
June is great but my favourite season is September. The weather is often more settled than in the summer. The days are still warm but the crowds have gone. And the light! Oh the light! It has to be seen to be believed. Once the Ultra TMB race has finished at the start of September, numbers drop considerably and booking is normally easy (except perhaps at weekends). I have yet to find a trek in all of the Alps which needs to be booked more than a few days ahead after the first week of September. I would, however, pre-book Hotel du Col de la Forclaz if you really want to stay there. And perhaps Rifugio Bonatti too. Also pre-book weekends in September a bit further in advance if you can: often locals (who work during the week) are out for a last weekend hiking blitz before the colder weather arrives.
Now I cannot guarantee that you will have the same experiences as me: my opinion is based upon having walked the TMB a number of times during June and September. And I am sure that there are plenty out there who will disagree, having had different experiences. But I can assure you that the TMB can still be done without much pre-booking in June and September. Nevertheless, numbers increase each year and I expect that there will come a time when June and September are just as busy as July.
To be continued.......................
blogs about life on the Knife Edge