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.....