The Tour du Mont Blanc, affectionately known to its devotees as the TMB, is one of the world's classic long-distance footpaths. It was a capstone event on our itinerary that provided us with a pinnacle adventure to anticipate and there is no doubt that the TMB will endure as one of the highlights of our year. Experiencing the alpine wilderness and being in the presence of the dramatic ice-capped peaks was the sugary icing on our sabbatical year cake.
The numbers: In seven days we hiked 75 miles around Mont Blanc, the highest peak in the Alps at 15,770 feet, survived elevation gains and losses of over 36,000 feet, crossed through three countries with six companions and completed one magnificent hike. The circular path took us from village to village, ascending through flower-filled meadows and then up precipitously to barren mountain passes. It wound its way through vertiginous scree-strewn elevations and then descended through quaint hamlets into green valleys overlooked by gigantic glaciers in France, Italy and Switzerland. The trail begins in the Chamonix Valley and then traces its way through its international neighbors -- the Val Ferret in Italy and the Trient Valley in Switzerland. The views are spectacular, the effort substantial and the flora and fauna unforgettable.
The complete 105-mile TMB requires a commitment of 10 days.
We undertook a slightly abbreviated version of the full-length hike with the “less-interesting legs,” which follow paved roads, traveled in comfortable shuttles into which we collapsed after reaching the trail’s waypoints. Weather conditions around Mont Blanc can shift in a matter of minutes from punishing sun to wet snow and whipping winds, even in the middle of summer. It was for these very reasons – the fickle Alpine weather and the sheer force of nature -- that we opted for a guided TMB excursion with Boundless Journeys, an adventure outfitter based in Stowe, Vermont. They provide the food, make all necessary arrangements and reserve accommodations so that all hikers have to worry about is being properly equipped, putting one foot in front of the other and marveling at the breathtaking scenery. The Boundless Journeys itinerary starts high above the village of Les Houches, just down the road and west of Chamonix, and zigzags counterclockwise through France and a sharp ascent to the Col de la Croix-du-Bonhomme until Italy comes into view at the next pass, the Col de la Seigne. The circuit then follows the Vallon de la Lée Blanche flats until it reaches the fashionable ski town of Courmayeur before rising in Switzerland's Val Ferret and over the pass. After long stretches of lofty snowfields, the trail descends sharply and then climbs back up to the lake resort of Champex. Subsequent inclines and declines get closer together until the route passes through the Col de la Forclaz and then the Col du Balme for the final descent back into France and down to Chamonix. A support van picks up your bags every morning, except for daypacks stuffed with lunch, daily provisions and extra layers of clothing, and meets you each evening at that day’s destination.
Our formal TMB program was inaugurated at L’Oustalet, our comfortably rustic Chamonix inn, with drinks on the lawn. Our tall, handsome guide and quintessential outdoorsman, Eric, met us with the understated enthusiasm we would come to expect from him. As our fellow hikers materialized one by one, we sized each other up to see where we fell on the relative fitness scale. I have to admit that in the days leading up to the excursion, I was somewhat anxious. Will our companions for a week of intense trekking be older or younger than us? Will they be less or more in shape? Will we see their hard-body physiques and realize we’re in over our hiking heads? As it turned out, our abilities, while not identical, were definitely compatible and somewhat more importantly, our senses of humor were in synch. The fuzzy silhouettes of yet-unknown fellow hikers we’d imagined had now materialized as real people: a 20-something Australian couple who work for the police department in Canberra, a research librarian from New York City who works for the NY Post and her real estate entrepreneur husband, a financial planning attorney from Pawtucket, Rhode Island and our fantastic French guide, a native of Chamonix. It looked like the weeklong adventure ahead was not only going to be physical but sociable as well with an affable ensemble of eight.
Pictures of our adventures: http://gapyeargirlgoestoeurope.shutterfly.com