The Tour du Mont Blanc – No 5 in the list of my 10 favourite mountain treks – takes me back to my origins, to my first real extended hike. It was an accidental kind of journey that sprang from the desperation of the ABC – Another Bloody City – of my European backpacking days. This walk truly cured all, introducing me to one of the world’s classic mountain hikes and seeding my passion for mountains and the outdoors.
5. Tour du Mont Blanc (France/Italy/Switzerland)
First loves are hard to forget, and the tri-nation Tour du Mont Blanc was one of the experiences that shaped my love of the outdoors. It was the late 1990s and I was into my second year of backpacking through Europe, dawdling through Munich. Somehow this city became the proverbial straw on my proverbial back. I stood in Marienplatz one summer afternoon, watching the Glockenspiel do its thing and realised I didn’t want to be there. Or in any city or town.
“Let’s hike the Tour du Mont Blanc,” I muttered to my companion, and away we went, driving across Europe to Chamonix, though we’d never really discussed ever hiking the TMB before that moment. It would be the first time I’d hiked for more than a week.
Circuiting the European Alps’ highest mountain – 4807m Mont Blanc – the TMB is arguably Europe’s pin-up hiking trail. Les Houches, a short distance from Chamonix, is the popular and appropriate starting point – at 1008m above sea level, it’s the lowest point of the hike. We walked anticlockwise, following the advice that this way the views would become steadily more impressive.
Photo: JR Guillaumin
Completing the circuit is like hiking around a giant mountain starfish with its arms splayed wide. To walk the 170km of the TMB, you have to climb up and over each of these arms, racking up ascents totalling more than 10,000m. You brush past glaciers, rise to passes and seamlessly switch from country to country – France to Italy to Switzerland and back to France. One memorable morning I stood above a sheet of cloud on a ridge outside of Courmayeur, peering across at the icy fins of Mont Blanc piercing the same cloud. Within an hour the cloud had burned away from everywhere but my memory.
The advice was spot-on. Each day the scenery and the natural drama seemed to exceed that of its predecessors, until finally the TMB swung into its home straight along the Aiguilles Rouges, the Tour’s crowning moment. Stand anywhere here – Lac Blanc, La Flegere, Le Brevent – looking over the Chamonix Valley to Mont Blanc, with its glaciers like the arms of an octopus, and it’s easy to see why the French side of Mont Blanc has earned its reputation as the side of Mont Blanc.