We’re not ashamed to say it: We underestimated the TMB. Before our self guided Tour du Mont Blanc hike in September 2019, we felt we were in relatively good shape. In the previous year alone, we had been on several trips to Nepal, including reaching +5,500 meters on the Everest Base Camp trek. We had conquered Rysy in the High Tatras (the highest peak in Poland) as well as traversed the Icelandic Highlands carrying heavy backpacks filled to the brim with food and equipment.
Still, we weren’t prepared for the struggles of the Tour du Mont Blanc trail. In fact, it turned out to be the toughest hike of our lives. Of course, in the end, it was all worth it!
We chose to camp our way through the TMB. However, even if you are planning on hiking from hut to hut, you’ll benefit from reading this report. We aim to paint a realistic picture of how it really is to hike the TMB, including the hardships and mental battles you will encounter along the route. It turns out that before we went on our trip, we had mostly been reading overly positive blog posts about the experience. There’s a lot of things which we didn’t expect, and that’s why we have written this article. We hope it will help you in your preparations for one of the toughest but most epic hikes in the world!
This is not exactly a short post. If you are in a hurry, or just don’t like reading, then check out our travel video below. It was filmed during our TMB hike in September 2019, and we think it captures the essence of the trip quite well. Hope you like it!
What is Tour du Mont Blanc?
The Tour du Mont Blanc (or TMB) is a famous long-distance hike in the Alps covering about 170 kilometers. It’s an immensely beautiful trail, taking you in a loop around the entire Mont Blanc massif. The traditional route starts in the little cozy French town of Chamonix, taking you through Italy and Switzerland before returning to France. On the way, you’ll cross various mountain passes, and in total, you will need to conquer over 10,000 meters of elevation gain. This means you’ll have to climb Mount Everest from sea level, and then some, and you also need to get back down again!
People usually spend anywhere between 8-12 days on the trail. We are slow hikers ourselves, and we were carrying a lot of weight, so we were targeting the far end of that spectrum. Most sources agree that the traditional route goes something like the below:
Stage 1: Chamonix to Les Contamines
Stage 2: Les Contamines to Les Chapieux
Stage 3: Les Chapieux to Refugio Elisabetta
Stage 4: Refugio Elisabetta to Courmayeur
Stage 5: Courmayeur to Refugio Bonatti
Stage 6: Refugio Bonatti to La Fouly
Stage 7: La Fouly to Lac Champex
Stage 8: Lac Champex to Trient
Stage 9: Trient to Tre-le-Champ
Stage 10: Tre-le-Champ to Le Flegere
Stage 11: Le Flegere to Chamonix
Typically, you would spend a leisurely rest day in Courmayeur in Italy between stages 4 and 5. That brings the total amount of days needed up to 12. We also suggest you spend a little time in Chamonix after your hike, so we would recommend having at least 2 full weeks at your disposal.
TMB Elevation Profile
Because the stages above are featured in the more or less official guidebooks, people have a tendency to think that the itinerary is conservative. It is not. Finishing the TMB hike in 12 days will require a good level of fitness, steadfast determination, and strong willpower. Take a look at the elevation profile we created below if you don’t believe us!
Tour du Mont Blanc Guidebook
If you want to follow the traditional route, buy the Cicerone guidebook. In fact, you should probably get the guidebook in any case. We didn’t have it, and it would have helped us on several occasions. However, we managed without it, and there are significant holes in its content. Again, this is exactly why we have decided to share our personal trip report – to give you a true feel from real travelers. It will complement the guidebook very well and should help you take better, more informed decisions.
What can you expect on the TMB?
Hiking the TMB is a tough endeavor, so it’s important that you are motivated. You need to know what you are going into, and even after taking the expected hardships into account, you should be dying to go. Here’s a little overview of what you might expect:
What's covered in this post?
This post is all about our personal day-by-day experiences on the trek. To avoid making it super long (sorry, it already is), we have had to split our TMB content into a few different posts. So far, we have written the following other articles related to our experiences on the Tour du Mont Blanc hike and in Chamonix valley:
Camping the Tour du Mont Blanc: This post talks about where and how to camp on the TMB, going through all the campsites we used ourselves and recommend.
TMB – Your Questions Answered: Here’s a short and sweet little Q&A about the most common questions regarding the Tour du Mont Blanc. We answer questions such as “when is the best time to visit?” and “can you wild camp on the TMB?”.
What to see & do in Chamonix: This post includes all the best things to see & do in Chamonix after the trek. Let’s say this up front: There are plenty of possibilities!
Paragliding in Chamonix: Read the full travel story about our favorite experience in Chamonix. It even includes another awesome travel video!
For our hike, we planned to follow the traditional itinerary, but not everything went as expected. There were several contributing factors to why that is, including that we carried way too much weight, had difficulty finding camping spots, unfortunate weather, and the fact that we were out of shape. If you, like the majority of people, decide to sleep in refuges you won’t have to worry about the first 2 points. However, when all was said and done, we wouldn’t have done it any other way and we had an amazing experience roughing it in our tent the whole way.
Also, we aren’t ashamed to say that we cheated on several occasions. As we go through the days below, we will explain why and how we did that. Whether you have a different mindset about cheating or not, you will get a realistic picture of what kind of situations you can expect on the trek.
Our self guided Tour du Mont Blanc itinerary
This was how our itinerary (unintentionally) ended up
Day 1: Arriving in Chamonix
Day 2: Les Houches to Refuge de la Balme (via Les Contamines)
Day 3: Refuge de la Balme to Les Chapieux (via Col du Bonhomme)
Day 4: Les Chapieux to Courmayeur (including a bus ride!)
Day 5: Rest day in Courmayeur (sweet!)
Day 6: Courmayeur to Val Ferret (almost via Rifugio Bonatti)
Day 7: Val Ferret to Lac Champex (via 4 busses)
Day 8: Lac Champex to Col de la Forclaz (via Fenetre d‘Arpette)
Day 9: Col de la Forclaz to Argentiere (via Col de Balme)
Day 10-14: Having a blast in Chamonix
Day 1: Arriving in Chamonix
We arrived on an absolutely stunning day, with plenty of sunshine and not a cloud in the sky. We were bummed out, though. We had sat on the wrong side of the plane from Budapest to Geneva, meaning we had only been able to skim epic mountain views for the entire flight. To make matters worse, all the lucky schmucks sitting on the right side of the plane didn’t even look out the window. We took comfort from the fact that all we had planned for the next two weeks was mountain vistas.
We took the bus from Geneva airport to Chamonix and checked into a hotel. The reason for not sleeping in our tent on the first night is an interesting one. We had been on a 3-week trip throughout Eastern Europe before arriving in Chamonix, and so we were carrying a lot of excess luggage. It turns out that booking a single night in a hotel, before and after the hike, was the cheapest possible way to get this stored. At the same time, it gave us a real bed to sleep in when we got back from the trek. Sweet!
Day 2: Chamonix to Refuge de la Balme (via Les Contamines)
We were supposed to try paragliding for the first time on this day, but the weather didn’t cooperate. Instead, we had to move our booking to the other end of the hike and hope for the best. No problem, we knew this was likely to happen, and we were just eager to get out on the trail then. Another problem haunted us, though. A few days prior, our Therm-a-rest sleeping mat had exploded on us, almost literally. During our visit to the High Tatras of Slovakia we were first woken up by teenagers playing bear sounds on a loudspeaker at the campground, before being woken up again by gunshots. Although, just like the growling bear sounds, the gunshots weren’t exactly real. They came from our own tent, right below our ears, actually, as our sleeping mat decided to delaminate in a dramatic fashion. We weren’t able to get it replaced then and there, so the problem was pushed to Chamonix. This was another good excuse for sleeping in a hotel on the first night!
Luckily the little town was filled to the brim with sports and activewear stores, and we quickly managed to find a replacement sleeping mat. It would later explode on us as well, but that’s another story. Being fully equipped, it was time for us to board a bus from Chamonix to the starting point of the TMB in Les Houches. It’s only about 10 minutes away, but because of our shopping detour, the clock was already approaching midday. That’s when we decided to cheat a little for the first time.
In Les Houches, you can save time (and your legs) by skipping the first steep uphill section. Instead, you hop in the Bellevue Cable Car, carrying you straight to 1.800 meters (5,900 feet). Taking the cable car saves you a tremendous effort, but this would still prove to be a very tough day.
At the top of Bellueve, there were some beautiful views of the surrounding mountains. This was our first small taste of the beautiful natural landscape on the TMB. However, the weather on this particular day was all downhill from there. Naturally, due to the short cut we took, it was all also all downhill in terms of elevation. We were descending for the next few hours towards the little town of Les Contamines, where people who sleep in huts usually stop for the day. If you are one of them, day 1 shouldn’t be too tough. For us, poor campers, though, it is another story. After Les Contamines, there is a long flat section, passing by Les Pontets campground. Of course, we decided to skip that one and press on. We knew the second day would likely be tough, and since we had cheated in the morning, we felt we should cover some more ground. Immediately after taking this decision, we passed by a beautiful old church. Then (quite fittingly) the trail started leading straight into heaven. Okay, maybe it wasn’t exactly vertical, but it was a steep ascent for sure.
It turned out that the steep ascent would continue for the remainder of the day. To make matters worse, the weather was becoming increasingly grey and cloudy, and the threat of rain was looming over us. We pushed on, and luckily this was our very first hiking day, so our legs were still relatively fresh. On the other hand, we were still getting used to our backpacks. We had too much weight on, and our shoulders, back, and hips were already hurting pretty bad. There was nothing to do but hope our bodies would eventually adjust to the load.
After what felt like an endless climb, we passed by the first refuge. They had put up a sign indicating that there would be a campsite about 10 minutes further ahead. We contemplated eating dinner here and calling it a day, but because we still had an hour of daylight left, we continued on.
Soon after passing the campsite, we started regretting our decision. Drops had begun to fall, and we were getting cold and hungry. By now, we were doubting whether we would get to the next campsite before dark. Barely had we started developing these thoughts before the rain increased in intensity, and all of a sudden, it developed into a proper downpour.
Needless to say, the views were non-existent, and we could do nothing else but race to our final destination. About 30 minutes before getting there, we could see the Refuge de la Balme in the distance. It was like someone dangled a carrot in front of us. Together with the thought of a hot meal to end our struggles, we moved at a great pace. Unfortunately, upon arrival, our dreams were immediately shattered. While there was plenty of room at the campground, they could not serve food outside due to the weather, and the dining room was already completely full of people spending the night in the refuge. There was no room (or food) for us there. At the same time, the sun had completely disappeared in the horizon, and darkness was quickly descending on the campsite. We had yet to put up our tent! We promptly went to work, but the rain was pounding down hard meaning everything got wet. If we thought we were tired, wet, and hungry earlier, it was nothing compared to how we felt now.
We ended the day being miserable, trying to cook some instant noodles half inside the tent and complaining to each other about how unlucky we were with the weather. This was definitely not why we had wanted to hike the TMB!
Day 2 stats
Time: 7.5 hours
Distance: 21 km / 13 miles
Lowest point: 1.014 m / 3,326 feet
Highest point: 1.798 m / 5,899 feet
Ascent: 818 m / 2,684 feet
Descent: 1.007 m / 3,304 feet
Day 2 notes
Day 3: Refuge de la Balme to Les Chapieux (via Col du Bonhomme)
On the plus side, when you’ve had a long and miserable day like we had, you sleep like a baby. We must have gone to bed at 8 pm, so when we woke up at 6 am this morning, we were feeling well-rested and ready for a new day.
Unfortunately, the weather had barely improved. It wasn’t raining anymore, but a thick blanket of fog covered the campsite, rendering any hope of stunning mountain views completely hopeless. This was a bit of a setback because we knew that today was supposedly one of the most beautiful on the entire trek. This fact didn’t exactly motivate us to get going, but we still had about 160 km left on the TMB, so we quickly packed down our soaking wet tent and got moving.
The day started as the previous day had ended. By ascending steeply. We moved past patches of snow on the way to the top of Col du Bonhomme, the first mountain pass of the trip. Would you take a look at this epic view up there at 2.500 meters (8200 feet)?
At least the toughest part of the day was already done, and it would be mostly downhill from here. Before getting to that, though, it was time for lunch. About half an hour further on, just before getting to Col de la Croix, there was a small refuge called Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme, which we, well, took refuge in. Our moods were extremely dark at this point. We were cursing the weather to hell and were angry about the poor shape we were both in as well. We were discussing how we’d managed to prepare so poorly and why we hadn’t been training more with our backpacks. Honestly, already here on the second stage, did we want to give up and go home. We couldn’t comprehend why anyone would put themselves through this misery when there was absolutely no reward to be had. Walking all day to reach the top of a mountain just isn’t very exciting when there is nothing to see up there. We started to fear that our entire two weeks would go down like this, us trodding through the mud, feeling cold, hungry, and sad day in and day out. Of course, that never happened, but it really felt like it would. We were in a deep dark hole that we couldn’t seem to pull ourselves out of.
Something eventually managed to change our moods… dramatically. We were served one of the best bowls of Spaghetti Carbonara we’ve ever had and a cold pint on the side.
That was just what we needed!
It was like drinking a magic potion, and we were back to our old selves in no time. The weather didn’t improve at all, but our spirits remained high throughout the day. The downhill section of the afternoon was tough on our knees, but nowhere near as tough as the ascent. We made quick work of it and found ourselves at the bottom of the valley sooner than expected. We had even arrived early enough to buy ourselves a sandwich and another beer in the small kiosk in Les Chapieux.
Up went our tent in the large grass field right next to the tourist office. Best news of the day? It was completely free. We went to sleep early, dreaming of better weather and a first real glimpse of the epic mountains we had traveled all the way to the Alps for.
Day 3 stats
Time: 6.5 hours
Distance: 12 km / 7.5 miles
Lowest point: 1.540 m / 5,052 feet
Highest point: 2.503 m / 8,212 feet
Ascent: 813 m / 2,667 feet
Descent: 953 m / 3,127 feet
Day 4: Les Chapieux to Courmayeur (including a bus ride)
As we awoke bright and early, we eagerly stuck our heads outside of the tent to see how the weather had progressed overnight. Unfortunately, not much had changed. There wasn’t any fog down here in the valley, at 1.500 meters, but the nearby (presumably beautiful) mountains disappeared up into the clouds.
We were slightly optimistic, though, because the weather forecast indicated that better times might lie ahead. On the menu today was crossing yet another mountain pass, but this one was a little special. It was the border between France and Italy. We were secretly hoping that the change of country would result in a change of fortune as well.
Most days on the TMB start deep down in a valley, crosses a mountain pass, and ends down in the next valley. Therefore, you almost always start by ascending steeply for the first part of the day and then spend the rest of the day going downhill. It’s not like you get a bit of relief once in a while – instead, it’s purely up, up, up followed by down, down down. This is extremely tough on your knees, thighs, and feet, and by now, we were really starting to feel it.
It couldn’t be helped, though, we just had to put in the miles, and then, hopefully, we would be able to reap the rewards at some point later on the trek.
The morning was tough, but the scenery interesting enough. Our favorite part was passing through a field full of Marmots. You know Marmots, right? They are big fat squirrels basically, about the size of a cat. Seeing those cute little creatures boosted our moods quite a lot, and we made light work of the initial ascent.
We took a lengthy break at the first refuge we encountered, called Les Mottes. Here we warmed ourselves inside, enjoying another one of the delicate local beers as well as an early lunch. Nick had a tasty portion of crepes with cheese, with the addition of a raw egg for some reason, and Kia had some curiously tasting, and even more curiously looking, Ravioli. However, at 1.850 meters (6,000 feet), Les Mottes was less than halfway up compared with the highest point of the day: Col de la Seigne. Even though we wanted to, we couldn’t spend all day here. It was time to go, Italy wouldn’t wait for us.
Right after Les Mottes, a series of switchbacks followed, and the ascent became incredibly steep. It was tough going, but we were somewhat motivated, seeing as the weather had improved a bit. We could look up to the mountain pass, and it seemed brighter up there. We might even have glimpsed a thin slice of blue skies.
The higher we came, the more beautiful the surroundings became. At the same time, we were lucky to spot an Alpine Ibex walking on a nearby ridge. It was a majestic beast of an animal with horns over a meter long. It was beautiful as it walked there, alone, as a perfect silhouette in stark contrast to the grey mountains behind. We also saw several massive Eagles on the hunt, rising high on thermals. It seemed so effortless for them to glide through the air – and of course, we felt jealous about how easy they had it!
There was nothing effortless about our ascent. But, as usual, we eventually made it to the top. Up there on Col de la Seigne, at 2.500 meters, we finally got what we came for. Vast, impressive, views opened up into Italy, and we were blown away by the sight. To top it all off, a bright rainbow presented itself, and it felt like everything started to come together.
The glorious moment lasted but a few minutes, before the clouds from the valley behind caught up with us. Of course, they brought rain and strong winds with them. We raced down on the other side of the pass, and the mountain offered good shelter from the elements. It seemed the weather was actually just better in Italy.
We didn’t complain.
We passed by Rifugio Elisabetta, and soon we found ourselves in the next valley. We were getting some pretty serious problems with our feet and our knees at this point, but getting down to level ground helped a lot. On the way down, we had been treated to some epic glacier views, which helped keep our spirits high. However, we had a small problem. We weren’t exactly sure about where we were going to sleep that night. We thought we might try our luck wild camping somewhere, but since that wasn’t exactly legal, we had to keep walking until after dark.
We soon came to a hut called Cabane du Combal and decided to see if we could get an early dinner. The kitchen was actually closed, but we could get a warm cheese toastie, and that felt like heaven to us. We also met some people we had chatted with earlier and shared a beer with them. They were also sleeping in tents, and when we spoke to them in the morning, they too had no idea where to pitch it tonight. Turns out, they had gotten the last room in this lodge. Lucky them.
However, our own luck was about to turn, as well. By talking to the local “innkeeper” here, we learned that we could grab a bus to a campsite about 45 minutes further ahead. We just had to turn away from the TMB and follow a proper tarmac road. The only problem was that the last bus of the day would depart in exactly 45 minutes. There was nothing to do but chug the rest of that beer and grab our toast to-go.
We really, really wanted to make it to the bus in time, so we pretty much ran down. It was lucky that we took that approach because it seems the locals had been a tad optimistic in their time estimate.
We did catch our bus, but not by much. About 30 minutes later, we had found a campsite down in what’s known as Val Veny, pitched our tent, and received our first celebratory beer. Another day complete and one which had offered a few occasional glimpses of the extraordinary natural landscapes that we had come all the way to the Alps looking for.
Day 4 stats
Time: 8 hours
Distance: 20 km / 12.5 miles
Lowest point: 1.540 m / 5,052 feet
Highest point: 2.487 m / 8,159 feet
Ascent: 1.041 m / 3,415 feet
Descent: 899 m / 2,949 feet
Day 4 notes
We’ve later learned that we could have taken a shuttle from Les Chapieux to La Ville des Glaciers en route to Les Mottes. It would have cut out 90 minutes or so from our hike in the morning. We recommend you do that if you get the chance. The scenery is not so interesting on that stretch anyway.
Day 5: Rest day in Courmayeur (sweet!)
This day was actually supposed to be stage 4 of the TMB. The idea was to double back with the bus we took the day before, and reconnect to the official TMB trail back at Cabane du Combal. However, we outright skipped that. The weather forecast was horrible, we were beat, and we had no motivation. We just wanted to relax, so that is exactly what we did. Some people might judge us for not completing the TMB in its entirety, but we don’t care. Our trip got so much better thanks to this decision. We just slept in, spent the full day resting in Courmayeur, and went to bed early. Oh, the bliss…
Courmayeur was a cozy Italian town with plenty of bars and restaurants but not much else to see or do. We were lucky, though, to arrive just as the annual Tor des Géants trail run was about to start. The town was full of hundreds, if not thousands, of participating runners, and the atmosphere was superb. We soon discovered that this trail run was no mean feat because the runners had to overcome a jaw-dropping distance of 330 km (205 miles) and a vertical ascent of 24,000 m (80,000 feet). They would be on the move for 150 hours, with no scheduled time to eat or sleep. Having some experience already on what kind of trails you find around this area, we knew these people were facing an insane challenge. We had a huge admiration for the participants.
It also made us think a bit about our own struggles. You may recall we were having some motivational issues due to the weather, and the fact that we were busting our asses to get to all these beautiful viewpoints only to be met by grey clouds and poor visibility. We felt so unlucky because of this, and it just made us want to go home. Of course, we would never actually do that, but you get the point. We were miserable.
However, seeing all those determined athletes embarking on that crazy trail run sparked something in us. We realized that our own struggles were nothing compared to what they would face over the coming week. That we had it good. The weather couldn’t possibly continue down the same route either, and it would just be a question of time before the clear skies arrived. That’s the good thing about taking such a long trek, after all, you are almost guaranteed to have some awesome days at one point or another. There was nothing to do but just take things as they came and stay positive.
This realization, sparked by the awesome trail runners of the Tor des Geant, would help us tremendously over the coming days. Although we had never intended to become shrouded in negativity, it had somehow crept up on us. This was a necessary shift of mindset coming at just the right time.
Day 6: Courmayeur to Val Ferret (almost via Rifugio Bonatti)
The trail on day 6 started out in the city center of Courmayeur, moving through a residential neighborhood for a while. However, soon came the edge of town, and with it, a very steep ascent that would continue until lunchtime. There were endless switchbacks moving through a dense forest, and although the trees obstruct any possible mountain views, it was still beautiful. The weather had improved, and we could glimpse the sun and the blue sky through the canopy. Our mood was high, and we were looking forward to breaking through the tree line and out into the open. We were pretty sure the scenery up there would be epic.
This expectation helped fuel our legs, which were also fresh(er) after the rest day. We made good progress upwards and sooner than anticipated, we broke out into the open. We weren’t even remotely prepared for the amazing sight that met us up there.
Mont Blanc itself towered straight in front of us, and at last, there were no clouds to obstruct the wondrous view. It was still relatively early in the day, but we couldn’t help ourselves. We just had to stop around here for lunch. We passed by Refugio Bertone but didn’t need to eat there as we had brought our own food. Luckily, we quickly found the perfect spot for a little picnic.
Not a bad lunch spot, wouldn’t you agree?
The nutritional value of our choice is up for debate (albeit a very short one), but it was still one of the best lunches of our lives!
We sat there for hours, basking in the sun, and just letting that amazing view soak in. We weren’t in a hurry and were determined to enjoy this little piece of heaven for as long as possible. This experience was just what we needed, and it really renewed our motivation for hiking the TMB.
Alas, all good things must come to an end, and so we eventually had to move on. Luckily, great views would remain for the rest of the day. The trek continued along a high ridge, towards the famous Refugio Bonatti, and featured panoramic mountain views across from the Val Ferret valley below. The hike was an absolute joy, and we enjoyed every moment of it.
We didn’t even mind when the weather started acting up again. We had actually expected it, because, believe it or not, we obsessed about the forecast. We were in a bit of a pickle, though, as we knew there were no campsites on today’s route. The choice was between wild camping, illegally, or taking the “escape route” down from the ridge into the Val Ferret valley. There were campsites down there, and although it was the safe choice, it would make the following day much tougher.
The trail towards Rifugio Bonatti was longer than expected, and before we got all the way there, we took one of the paths leading down in the valley. We had spotted a campsite and decided to opt for the safe choice. About an hour later, we reached the valley floor, quickly found the campsite, and pitched our tent. Little did we know that this particular choice would eventually lead us to skip yet another stage of the TMB.
Day 6 stats
Time: 5 hours
Distance: 11 km / 7 miles
Highest point: 2.064 m / 6,772 feet
Lowest point: 1.239 m / 4,065 feet
Ascent: 792 m / 2,598 feet
Descent: 496 m / 1,627 feet
Day 7: Val Ferret to Champex (via 4 busses)
As you can see from the title above, we went on a bit of a public transport extravaganza on day 7. The weather had once again deteriorated and, although we thought the rest day had helped, we were struggling with some minor injuries. We decided it wasn’t worth it to risk them getting any worse when there were no views to be expected. The mountains were, once again, covered in clouds and the forecast showed heavy rain.
We discussed extensively whether we should complete today’s stage, as we had already missed out on one previously. Ultimately, we decided against it. We felt it was better that we had a good and happy experience, rather than use our remaining hiking juice on a substandard trek today. That would hopefully also mean we could put our small injuries behind us, and complete the rest of the trail. The weather forecast a couple of days into the future looked really promising, so we would rather save our energy for when there was a chance of real mountain views.
Trying to map a route via public transport from Val Ferret in Italy to Champex in Switzerland wasn’t exactly easy, but it could be done. We needed to combine four different busses and hope we didn’t miss any of the connections. We can only say, thank you, Google Maps, we wouldn’t know what to do without you.
The first bus went from our campsite in Val Ferret back to Courmayeur. Here we would change to a regional connection carrying us to the sizable Italian city of Aosta. We had never heard about that one before, but rightly so because it turned out to be quite a hole. That didn’t matter much to us though, because we would only get out for 10 minutes at the station changing into a Swiss bus. Seemingly, we were the only ones wanting to go to Switzerland because the bus was completely empty. That was surprising, especially since it came with the added bonus of getting to pet a cute German Shepherd puppy courtesy of Swiss police at the border. A quick note to all you drug traffickers out there: It’s probably better to hike over the Col Ferret alpine pass of the TMB, rather than cross the border by bus.
Eventually, we arrived in the lazy Swiss town of Orsières. Here we could probably have walked the final few kilometers to Champex, but now that we were getting accustomed to riding public transportation anyway, we might as well board the fourth bus of the day. We did do a tiny bit of walking this day because once we got to Champex, we had to get to our campsite, Relais d’Arpette. The total hiking time on day 7 thus amounted to around 45 minutes.
Day 7 notes
We didn’t think about it at the time, but taking public transportation from Val Ferret to Champex actually meant we skipped TWO stages of the TMB. Usually, people hike from Rifugio Bonatti to La Fouly on stage 6, and then from La Fouly to Champex on stage 7. The latter of those is supposedly the easiest on the entire TMB, but we will never be able to comment on that. Not everyone will agree with us, but we thought it was well worth skipping. As mentioned, we were tending to some minor injuries, trying to avoid them getting worse, and the poor weather meant any sort of mountain views were hidden away in the clouds. At the same time, we wanted to ensure we could handle Day 8, which would be particularly tough, but which also brought the promise of much better weather. We don’t suggest you go ahead and skip stages as we did. We are just trying to explain our personal choices and why it made sense to us. Your experience on the trek will be different from ours, but we still hope this serves as a good reality check on how it actually feels to hike and camp on the TMB. You shouldn’t expect that everything goes to plan, and it’s good to prepare yourself for having to make some changes. On the other hand, you may have the physical and mental strength to just push on and get through the whole thing end-to-end. In that case, we applaud you!
Day 8: Lac Champex to Col de la Forclaz (via Fenetre d‘Arpette)
Sleeping at Relais d’Arpette instead of at the campsite in Champex town was an excellent choice. Not only was the place really nice, but it was also located closer to our goal of day 8: The mountain pass known as Fenetre d’Arpette.
We got started at 9am, first passing through an idyllic cow field. The atmosphere was incredibly Swiss-like. Then the ascent began. If you scroll down and take a look at the stats from day 8, you’ll see that we were facing quite an incline, and in fact, Fenetre d’Arpette would be the highest point we reached on the entire trek.
It was a super tough day, but we were well aware of this fact beforehand. Fenetre d’Arpette is described in all the guidebooks as a more strenuous variant compared to the original route and rightly so. However, we knew we had already skipped a number of stages on the trek, and the weather was excellent. We were ready to make an effort and, hopefully, finally, fall in love with the TMB.
And we did. Braving Fenetre d’Arpette was the toughest thing we did on the trip, but it was all worth it. The sense of achievement when reaching the top, and the glorious view of the glacier from up there, is hard to describe. It suffices to say, it was incredible. We had bought a packed lunch down at the refuge, and although we expected it to be rather boring (sorry, Swiss food just isn’t that exciting), it was extremely tasty! Of course, it was. Anything would taste good when enjoyed at over 2.600 meters (8.500 feet) of elevation and with that kind of view. It was fitting that sitting there enjoying our lunch at the highest point on the TMB, was also the highlight of our trip.
When the time came to hike down to Col de la Forclaz, it became apparent that the descent was even tougher than the way up. It completely destroyed us, and to make matters worse, we ran out of water. There was a roaring river that ran from the glacier just beside the trail, but it was out of reach. It was mocking us the entire way down. The sunshine that we so sorely missed during the first week on the TMB dried us out completely, and soon the only thing we could think about was a cup of water. Just as we had given up all hope of getting a sip, a small stream trickled across the path ahead. We managed to siphon some of that sweet, sweet glacier juice and could barely wait while our Steripen worked its magic.
The rest of the day was one long struggle, but as always, we eventually got where we had to go.
We pitched our tent outside of Hotel Col de la Forclaz, cooked a simple dinner, and went to sleep early. We were so exhausted that we barely noticed the kids who decided to party on the parking lot all night long, or the busy road just a few meters from our tent.
Day 8 stats
Time: 8 hours
Distance: 13 km / 8 miles
Lowest point: 1.543 m / 5,063 feet
Highest point: 2.660 m / 8,727 feet (Fenetre d’Arpette = highest point on the TMB)
Ascent: 958 m / 3,143 feet
Descent: 1.110 m / 3,642 feet
Day 8 notes
To pick Hotel de la Forclaz was a mistake. As we got down from Fenetre d’Arpette, we had the choice of going down into the valley towards Trient, or continue straight towards Col de la Forclaz. We should have gone into the valley. There we could have slept at a campsite in La Peuty, and this would have saved us an hour of walking the following day. If you chose the original route instead, you would pass directly by Hotel de la Forclaz. However, we would still recommend you keep walking on to La Peuty because the next day’s stage is quite tough.
Day 9: Col de la Forclaz to Argentiere (via Col de Balme)
It might have been because we were already worn out, but this day really felt like a killer. Looking at the stats further below, they seem to confirm the strenuous nature of the hike. 8 hours on the trail, covering more than 17 km (11 miles) and a combined elevation change of over 2.300 meters (7.700 feet), does not equal an easy day. Add to that a pair of destroyed legs from the Fenetre d’Arpette beast yesterday, and you got yourself a dangerous cocktail. We were dragging ourselves through it and honestly thought we might not make it.
The day started by getting down to the valley floor and thereby wasting about an hour. As mentioned in the notes for day 8, we should have slept in La Peuty instead. To make matters worse, down there, we took a wrong turn. It marked the first time on the TMB that we actually got lost. It was only for about 20 minutes, but it was enough to piss us off.
As soon as we were back on the trail, the ascent started. Up, up, up we went for hours and hours. First through what felt like an endless, damp, forest, and then later out into the open under a scorching sun. There were so many switchbacks on this day, we couldn’t keep count. As soon as we emerged from the woods, we could see the refuge in the distance where we were expecting to have lunch. It seemed so close but stayed out of reach for soooo long.
The refuge was located at the mountain pass Col de Balme, which also marked the border between Switzerland and France. The final approach to the top was the hardest of the entire trek. It was like all the struggles of the last week, came back all at once. Everything hurt. The weight of our packs, our blisters, our thighs, and our knees – nothing worked. The weather was finally amazing, but we cursed at the baking sun wishing for clouds.
Luckily, all good (and bad!) things come to an end, and so did our struggles that morning. We made it to the top of Col de Balme, and to our delight, Mont Blanc presented itself majestically to us for the first time since Courmayeur. We took our lunch right there, feasting on Swiss cheese and indulging with a chocolate bar and a beer for dessert. We basked in the sun, and one beer became two. Before we knew it, we had spent a couple of hours up there, and it was time to move on. We had almost forgotten that the day wasn’t over, and now well past midday, we were behind schedule. We had hoped that it would be all downhill from here, as was typically the case when you have conquered a mountain pass, but we were in for a surprise.
After a quick descent on slopes clearly intent for skiing, the trail suddenly started ascending again. It seems the TMB was pulling a final trick on us. We had gotten used to that, though, and were intent on pushing through whatever the trek presented us with. And we pressed on, not tirelessly, but at least we were moving forward.
As darkness slowly descended, so did we, into the mountaineering town of Argentiere. Here we brought some fresh pasta and pesto, to cook for dinner, found the campsite, and pitched our tent. We didn’t know it at the time, but this turned out to be the last meal on the TMB for us.
Day 9 stats
Time: 8 hours
Distance: 17.5 km / 11 miles
Lowest point: 1.234 m / 4,049 feet
Highest point: 2.201 m / 7,221 feet
Ascent: 1.041 m / 3,415 feet
Descent: 1.314 m / 4,311 feet
Day 10-14: Fun in Chamonix
We never got back on the trail. Instead, we went on some proper sightseeing around Chamonix, having a blast. We definitely suggest you keep some buffer days on hand and read our full guide to everything there is to see and do in this surprisingly charming town. We were also happy that the weather held up so that we got to try out paragliding for the very first time. Taking off from Aiguille du Midi at 3.700 meters was a legendary experience we will never forget.
Day 9 broke us completely. We enjoyed it, at times, and we had some killer views that we will always remember. However, we couldn’t possibly walk anymore. So we decided we wouldn’t. On the morning of day 10, we pulled the plug on the trek and took the bus from Argentiere back to Chamonix. We knew we were missing out hugely by skipping the beautiful final stage of the trek, but we were defeated. We had nothing left to shoot with, and we were content with that. At this point, what we had seen and achieved was enough for us. Physically and mentally, we had been pushed to the limit, and we were done. Now, much later, we are still not regretting that decision.
This may be different for you, but for us, it just wasn’t that important to see and conquer every single mile of the TMB. We are fine with the fact that we cheated a lot. If we didn’t, we would’ve had a miserable trip. Things might have been different if we had been better prepared, but we weren’t. There was nothing to do about that then. However, for the future, we will look at changing our approach. There are definitely things we could do to have a better hike on our next trip, and it would be foolish not to consider that.
One thing that we have thought about a lot since coming back from the TMB is how we never seemed capable of enjoying ourselves. There was always something wrong, either mentally or physically, and even during the trip, we were wondering why that could be. Writing this, it’s been quite a while since we hiked the TMB (or part of it), and by now, we have realized what caused our issues. It all boiled down to three things:
Too much weight, not enough physical training, and the fact that we weren’t properly mentally prepared.
When we try to compare the TMB with some of the other long(ish) hikes we’ve been one, what really seems to separate it is the long days. That you have to walk for so many hours each day basically. Thinking back on the Everest Base Camp trek, for example, you often only walk around 4-5 hours a day. On the TMB, we had plenty of days above 8-10 hours.
Then, on the Everest Base Camp trek, we didn’t carry anywhere near as many kilos. We had a porter, and we didn’t need to bring a tent and supplies. On the TMB, the weight of our backpacks really got to us. We had tried to carry this kind of weight before, on the Icelandic Laugavegur trek, but the days there were much shorter, and the elevation change much less. On the TMB, you pretty much need to hike 1,000 meters up, and 1,000 meters down each day, and it cannot be stressed enough how tough that is.
It would have been great to shave off some kilos in our backpacks, and for the future, we will focus hard on that. We also won’t make the mistake of not training enough beforehand. Our trip would just have been that much better, had we had the extra physical energy. When you are completely exhausted, fighting just to keep going, you aren’t always able to enjoy the beautiful views.
However, the crucial thing that could have changed everything for us would have been mental preparation. If we knew what we went into, how hard it would be, and that the weather wouldn’t constantly allow for postcard-pretty views, we would have been in a better place.
That’s our final tip to you: Please know what you are getting into! The TMB trek is not going to be easy, and there are probably going to be plenty of days without any mountain views whatsoever. However, it is epic, it is beautiful, and it will be a trip you remember for the rest of your life. Don’t give up on this bucket list adventure after reading our post! Just realize it will be tough, and that you should prepare properly beforehand. However, if you are reading this a little too late to make those preparations, you can definitely go anyway and work around your shortcomings! Just like we did.