The Alpine walking season is rapidly approaching and, since I have spent much of the winter and spring making trekking guidebooks, I am a little out of shape. So after some serious thought, I decided that the best way to get some trekking fitness back would be to do a trek! And as it was too early for the high mountains, I decided upon the Mallorca GR221: 140km of rugged and beautiful walking. Over the next few weeks, I am going to blog about my experiences.
A last minute flight to Mallorca, and a bus ride, later, I started the trek under a cloudless sky and blazing sunshine. The first climb was tough in the heat but this is the result.....
Even though it is May, and Spring is fully underway, it snowed in the Chamonix Valley yesterday: 20cm at 1000 metres. And in fact, around Mont Blanc there is still 2.6m of snow at 2500m (around the maximum altitude on the TMB). Now that does not necessarily mean that there are going to be major problems for early season TMB trekkers as warm weather between now and June should bring on a rapid thaw. However, it is fair to say that it is too early to tell and that we are not out of the woods yet.
With that in mind, I thought it would be useful to put together a list of places on the TMB where snow can be problematic: a list of snow hotspots, if you like. Now this list will never be exhaustive as conditions vary from year to year: wind directions and microclimatic local conditions have a major impact on exactly where snow will have accumulated at greater depths. Nevertheless, there are some places where typically snow is slower to clear. Furthermore, snow will generally be slowest to clear on north facing slopes.
This article is not intended to worry you. Rather it will empower you, helping you to be aware of some key sections which snow makes problematic. Use this information to ask the right questions of the accommodation managers before you set out in the morning: they are likely to know what has been happening on the trail and if walkers have previously been forced to turn back. Remember that it is not the end of the world if you have to avoid a small section of the TMB: it is 174km long so there will still be a huge amount of trail that you can travel safely.
So what follows is a list of some of those places, described in an anti-clockwise direction starting in les Houches. The stage numbers referred to are the stage numbers used in my book, Tour du Mont Blanc.
1. Col de Tricot Variant (Stage v1a): the crossing is north to south or vice versa so there can be a great difference in snow pack between the two sides. In particular, take care on the north side of the col. The good news is the col (at 2120m) is not one of the highest so snow does clear earlier here than in other places. Early season hikers should ask about conditions in les Houches before setting out: if in doubt take the main TMB route (Stage 1a) which is much lower.
2. Col de Bonhomme & Col de la Croix de Bonhomme (Stage 2c): take care on the entire section between the northern approach to Col de Bonhomme and Refuge de la Croix de Bonhomme. Altitudes are high and snow lies pretty late. The climb to Col de Bonhomme is steep and north facing so can be slippery in snowy conditions. Also, take great care on the exposed traverse straight after Col de Bonhomme: the slope is steep and a fall could be serious. I felt very happy having an ice axe there in early June last year although few other people were carrying them. After Col de Bonhomme, navigation can be tricky if the path has been obscured by snow.
3. Col des Fours (Stage v2d): the joint-highest place on the TMB. Do not attempt this in snowy conditions. The eastern side is extremely step and if you slip you could slide all the way to the bottom. Navigation would also be a serious undertaking here in snowy conditions.
4. Col de la Seigne (Stage 3b): another high col where snow can lie late. It is not as steep (on either side) as some other cols but still watch your footing: I witnessed a foolish group last year descending in very snowy conditions in tennis shoes with no grip. They were lucky. In a heavy year, snow can remain in June almost all the way from the col to Rifugio Elisabetta. Normally, the route is well tracked by others before you but just take care over your navigation.
5. Combal to Rifugio Maison Vieille (Stage 4b): this balcony path has many traverses with steep drops. In snowy conditions these can be treacherous. You may find that the traverses have been tracked by others but do not follow these footprints slavishly. It is not axiomatic that the people before you have selected the correct and safest crossing. A fall on one of the traverses, which can be icy, could be serious.
6. Rifugio Bertone to Rifugio Bonatti (Stage 5b): a series of streams are crossed on this stage and snow bridges tend to form across them. Take great care crossing snow bridges: if one collapsed with you on it then you could be seriously injured. Again, do not necessarily follow the tracked path. Look for the thickest part of the snow pack to cross. If it look dangerous head up or down stream until you find a safe place to cross.
7. Mont de la Saxe Variant (Stage v5b): avoid this variant in snowy conditions when navigation is tricky. After Tête de la Tronche, snow often lies late into the season.
8. Rifugio Bonatti to Rifugio Elena (Stage 6a and 6b): there are more steep traverses. The comments above apply here also.
9. Rifugio Elena to Grand Col Ferret (Stage 6c): Take care on the entire climb to and descent from the col. In particular, the first part of the climb just after Rifugio Elena is treacherous in snowy conditions.
10. Fenêtre d’Arpette (Stage v8): I will be blunt here: avoid this entirely if there snow still lying. You could die. Navigating the boulder crossings in snowy conditions is for adequately equipped walkers with good winter skills only.
11. Col de Balme (Stage 9b): It is not the highest col so is unlikely to be the worst thing you undertake but take care anyway if snow is lying.
12. Aiguillette des Posettes (Stage 9c): There are steep drops along the ridge and the descent is long and very steep. Avoid this section in snowy conditions and take the safer variant (Stage v9c) instead.
13. Lac Blanc (Stage v10): Snow can remain into early summer. Some of the sections of the approach to the lake are steep: these become slippery and treacherous in the snow. Ask locally before setting out on this variant.
14. Col du Brévent (Stage 11a): the section between Planpraz and le Brévent is very difficult to navigate in snowy conditions. It passes through some remote terrain and it would be easy to get lost. Snow tends to accumulate around the col and can be some of the last snow to melt on the TMB. I was very glad of my ice axe there in mid-June last year.
I hope that you found this helpful. If you have any further questions then please post them on the Facebook group “Tour du Mont Blanc”. As regards winter equipment, skills and technique, you could write a whole book on that so it is beyond the scope of this article.
You don’t need trekking poles on the Tour du Mont Blanc. In fact, you don’t need trekking poles anywhere. Plenty of people hike all over the world without them and have few problems. However, in my opinion, they are desirable: a very good idea indeed whether on the Tour du Mont Blanc or any other mountain hike. And here’s why:
So what are the downsides of using poles?
Well some people find that they get in the way: if you do not place them right then you can trip over them. However, I believe that is just a matter of a little practice. Others say that they make you burn more calories so you need to carry more food. This seems logical but I do not think that it makes that big a difference. And then there is the matter of the extra weight but with the introduction of carbon poles this is not a massive issue. In summary, I believe that these issues are vastly outweighed by the benefits.
One pole or two?
If you have taken on board what I have said above, then it will seem obvious that two poles are best. However, one pole is definitely better than none. In fact, I only walk with one pole these days. A few years ago, I had a shoulder operation and I got into the habit of using only one while going through rehab. I am always concerned about giving that shoulder too much work so I still use one, swapping between arms periodically. The advantage of using one is that you always have a hand free. But if I could, I would use two without hesitation.
Should I use the wrist straps?
My answer is emphatically yes! The straps can be used to take most of the weight off your fingers and hands, reducing strain. Your wrists, which are stronger, do much of the work. Straps also help reduce blisters on your fingers and palms because you do not need to grip the pole so tightly. However, poor quality straps can also cause chaffing.
The straps should be worn the same way as those on ski poles: you put your hands up through the straps rather than down. This means that if you fall then you are less likely to break your wrist as your hands can come free of the poles more easily.
Telescopic poles or folding poles?
Telescopic poles collapse by pushing the sections into one another. Normally there are three sections and they tend to be very robust, lasting for years. Folding poles usually have four sections connected by plastic covered string. The sections do not fold up beside each other and so the folded pole is wider than the collapsed telescopic pole and tends to be less durable.
For decades, I used telescopic poles but once I bought a folding set, I never looked back. Although, they are less durable, the folding pole has two key advantages:
What are anti-shock poles?
Anti-shock poles have shock absorbers built in so that the stress on your arms and wrists is reduced. There are various different mechanisms: one of the earliest was basically to have a spring within the pole. This was quite heavy. However, nowadays there are some really cool lightweight systems. My poles have a neat piece of shock-absorbing rubber within the tip and it really works. Some say that the shock absorber affects your contact with the ground but I have never found that.
What is the best material for the handles?
In simple terms, there are three types: cork, rubber and foam. Cork (its rarely real cork these days) is the nicest to use: very comfortable and less likely to give you blisters. But it is quite heavy. Rubber handles, in my opinion, are the worst. I find them uncomfortable to use for long periods and most likely to cause rubbing. I hate them. Foam used to be horrible but these days if you buy good quality poles, you should get good foam. My current poles have foam handles and they are excellent: I have walked thousands of km with them and I have never had a problem.
Everyone’s hands are different though so my advice is to go to a shop and try them out. It’s not the same as walking the 170km of the TMB with them but some comfort issues will be immediately obvious. Remember though that there are loads of cheap poles out there and the handles are unlikely to have been made with good stuff: when you have blisters after about 100km, you may wish that you had bought more expensive ones!
So there it is: one fool’s views on the use of a stick!
The Tour du Mont Blanc is an experience of a lifetime. No two ways about it. The scenery is exquisite, the refuges are just lovely and there is a wonderful sense of camaraderie amongst the TMB trekkers. Indeed, if the weather gods deliver clear blue skies and you are lucky enough to get accommodation, it will be an experience that you will never forget.
It is not a surprise therefore that you are competing with thousands of others to secure the gold dust that is bookings for the best refuges. And such is the popularity of this astounding trek that not everyone will get bookings. Nothing good in life is easy these days particularly when it comes to trekking and travel.
So what happens if you are one of the disappointed thousands? Do you simply wait until the end of the season and try to secure that alpine experience for the following year? Well that is what many do: the Tour du Mont Blanc is a famous bucket list trek after all. However, I think that is a shame. Now I am not suggesting that you should not try to book the TMB again the following year. What I am suggesting though is that the TMB is not the be all and end all of the Alps. I am telling you that there are plenty of other treks which are just as good if not better.
The TMB is the one that everybody knows about because it is a circumnavigation of the most famous peak in the Alps: the mighty Mont Blanc. The Mont Blanc Massif is the highest group of mountains in the French Alps. But can you tell me what is the second highest massif? Or the third highest? I didn’t think so. The Alpine chain is absolutely huge and the Mont Blanc Massif is only a tiny portion of it. I guarantee that if you did any one of a hundred treks in the Alps, it would be an experience just as rich and fulfilling as the TMB. And most of these treks do not attract the volume of visitors that descend upon the TMB: not because the scenery is inferior but because the TMB circles the highest mountain in Western Europe and bucket lists like the word “highest”.
So why wait for 12 months when you can have a magnificent Alpine experience straight away? The difficulty is knowing where to start so let me help you with a few suggestions.
Walker’s Haute Route
The obvious alternative, which many of you will have heard of, is the Walker’s Haute Route (WHR). This is often considered to be the sister trek to the TMB and many argue (with justification) that it is scenically superior to the Tour du Mont Blanc. It overlaps for a few days with the TMB but it is a linear route (rather than a circuit) taking you on an epic adventure between the two great mountaineering centres of the Alps. Starting in Chamonix beside Mont Blanc you walk all the way to Zermatt in Switzerland which is overlooked by the absolutely stunning Matterhorn. In between, you pass the greatest collection 4000m peaks in the Alps. And the glaciers! Oh the glaciers! They are everywhere!
That is the good news. The bad news is that the Haute Route is also quite busy. Not as busy as the TMB but busy all the same. But it is slightly easier to book the Haute Route so if you have failed to secure TMB accommodation, then often you can still get sorted on the WHR. It is, however, a bit harder than the TMB: 206km compared to the 170km of the TMB; with 14,000m of height gain as opposed to 10,000m for the TMB. It therefore takes longer than the TMB but you do not have to do all of it. It enjoys the same camaraderie between trekkers and I prefer it to the TMB. So don’t overlook this one.
Tour of the Ecrins National Park (GR54)
A less obvious alternative is the GR54. It is my favourite trek in all the world, making a circumnavigation of the Ecrins Massif, the second highest range in France. It may be second to the Mont Blanc Massif in terms of height but not by much. And once you see it, there is no chance that you will notice that, for this is majestic high mountain terrain. And in my opinion, it is a much more real Alpine experience than the TMB. Much of the trek heads through the pristine Ecrins National Park which inexplicably gets only a fraction of the visitors that cram the Mont Blanc Massif each season. It is a truly remarkable place: a wilderness of snowy peaks, lovely pastures, incredible lakes and beautiful hamlets and refuges. Furthermore, you are much more likely to see wildlife in this protected region: chamois and ibex are regularly spotted. The path is just as good as the TMB and it has been recently waymarked so I find it to be easier to navigate than the TMB.
It is about 180km so it is a bit harder than the TMB but not prohibitively so: it takes around the same length of time. And it is much easier to secure bookings. Or if you wish to camp then you will be delighted to learn that wild camping is permitted almost everywhere in the park: a rare thing these days. In my humble opinion, this is a bucket list trek. Your friends won’t know where it is but who cares as you will be doing something very special?
But I hear you say, I am new to trekking and do not want to do a trek even a little harder than the TMB. And I reply: “no problem! There are plenty of treks of similar difficulty or slightly easier. But you are going to have to wait until my next post to be appraised of this secret. To be continued.....
On the TMB you do not necessarily need to carry a stove or cooking equipment as there are plenty of shops and restaurants at which to buy food. That means that the minimum gear is as follows:
So that gives an additional total weight of.....wait for it.....1.65kg! The weight of a bottle of water! That’s it. I am pretty sure that I could extract 1.65kg of unnecessary weight from many people’s packs before adding that camping gear. For example, I mentioned a few weeks ago that I upgraded my pack itself for a weight saving of 0.7kg.
Now it is fair to say that lightweight gear tends to be more expensive than the heavier stuff. But these days the price difference is often not huge if you shop around. And when you compare the cost of the gear to the money you will spend on accommodation in refuges and gîtes, it becomes a completely reasonable proposition.
So to underline the point of this article: 1.65kg extra is not the end of the world, particularly if you can shave a few oz elsewhere. And therefore almost everyone can carry camping gear these days. So almost everyone can camp on the TMB. So almost everyone can do the TMB without advance booking. QED.
And in fact, with gear weighing so little, you could even carry the camping gear just for one or two nights’ camping. So, if there were a few places that you can’t get bookings for, then bring the tent for those nights.
Ok so there are plenty of you who don’t like camping but I can’t solve all the problems!
Well what do you think?
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.......................
I am not going to get into the kit list today: I will cover that in a future post. But I will say that there is a natural tendency to bring too much on your first trek. As your experience grows, the contents of your pack shrink. And it is a process that never stops: after 2 decades of Alpine trekking, I am still finding ways to reduce my load. The less you bring, the smaller pack size you can use. And the smaller the pack size, the lighter your load. And that brings me neatly to weight.....
Every item in your pack must be carried up and down every rise and fall on the TMB. That is of course obvious but what is less obvious is that your body is accustomed to carrying only its own weight and not heavy packs. As you trek up and down mountains with a heavy pack on your back, your muscles need to adjust to this shock to the system. For many, this adjustment will take place on the TMB itself rather than in training before the trek. And that is tough work. So the lighter you can make your pack, the less stress you place on your body and the more you will enjoy the TMB.
An oz here or there seems like a small thing but it all adds up. I will talk about saving weight generally in later posts so here let's concentrate on the weight of the pack itself. Surprisingly, there is a massive weight difference between different packs. Even packs of the same size can vary massively in weight. For years I used a Deuter Guide 35L pack which is a great rucksack: strong and reliable......and very heavy: it weighed 1.6kg which amounted to more than 20% of my total pack weight. At the end of its life, I bought an Osprey Talon 33L which weighs only 0.91kg, a saving of nearly 0.7kg just on one item. Much of the drive for weight saving packs comes from the US where 'through-hikers' on long trails have fuelled the demand for ever lighter gear.
In my opinion that Osprey pack is excellent. Packed with features and incredibly light. They also do a 44 litre version which is light too. But other brands make light packs too. Look for the lightest pack you can find that is comfortable for you: they are not always much more expensive. And that brings me to comfort.......
Unfortunately, size and weight are not the end of the matter. One final thing to consider is comfort. Ideally you want a pack with well-padded straps and hip-belt. The latter is the most important as you should carry most of the weight on your hips and not your shoulders. As a general rule of thumb, the lighter the pack the less padding you will get and the less comfortable it will be. But that is only part of the story: I think it is fair to say that the lighter you can make your pack, the less you need thick padding. The Osprey Talon for example saves weight by reducing padding, particularly around the waist area. Some find it uncomfortable but I do not: my pack is light so I do not need very thick padding around the waist. If you carry more then you will probably need more padding.
There are a lot of confusing variables here so my overall advice is as follows:
If you have any further queries you can ask me questions on our Facebook page "Tour du Mont Blanc Q&A".
blogs about life on the Knife Edge