• The Mountains – My favorite scenic shots
• On the Trail – A chronological set of images taken as we hiked to try and capture the views and feel of hiking the TMB
• Over the Top – Although we did not climb Mont-Blanc, we did go almost over it… check out the views here
• Geneva – A few images from our final day on the trip
After returning from our 2007 Italy trip and getting a taste of “hut-to-hut hiking”, Gina and I decided to do an extended hut hiking trip during the summer of 2008. After considering a variety of options such as the Haute Route (from Zermatt Switzerland to Chamonix France) and some of the Alta Via hikes in the Italian Dolomites, we finally settled on the Tour du Mont Blanc (also known as the TMB) which makes a large loop around Mont Blanc and crosses through France, Italy, and Switzerland.
Before the trip Gina would be sure to emphasize to people we were going around Mont Blanc rather than over it. After the trip she now appreciates that going around it requires climbing and descending about 11,000 meters (about 33,000 feet) which is equivalent to climbing Mont Blanc almost 3 times (albeit spread out over a lot more days). Nearly every day involves hiking from a valley floor to a point high up on the surrounding ridge line and/or descending to the next valley. Total hiking distance is around 105 miles for the route we used and it took us 12 hiking days.
We went very early in the season, only 2 days after the official season start. The weeks before had been very cold in Chamonix with daily rain (or snow up high) so we were fortunate that all cleared out right before we arrived. There was still quite a bit of snow on the highest passes though and although it may look easy (and safe) to walk across, certain areas required a good amount of caution or else you might find yourself doing an unplanned (and potentially very dangerous) sled ride on your backpack.
We started training March 1st by doing nightly “neighborhood loops” and at least one longer hike a week on a local bike trail, going longer each week until we were doing 10 mile hikes in the evening after work. We also had a decent hill loop near work that we tried to do twice a week. Almost all our prep hikes were done with backpacks, increasing weight each week till we were at 25 pounds, substantially over our target hiking weight of 20 pounds (max). Altogether we did 240 miles of hiking to prepare and this went a long way towards making this the wonderful experience it was.
What We Took (and therefore carried)
No one will be surprised that I created a very detailed spreadsheet of everything we were considering taking with weights to .1 oz accuracy all carefully logged so I could easily compare different combinations of items. The toughest choices for me were the camera kit – by far the heaviest single item. Ultimately I decided on the D80 (25.6 oz), 18-200mm VR / 35mm F2 / polarizer (30.5 oz), and a Slik compact XL tripod that I heavily modified to have a small ball head and use 3 trekking poles for legs (15.8 oz). Fortunately SD cards are light so 28 Gb of memory cards only added 1.1 oz and allowed me to shoot RAW for almost everything. In hindsight I could have skipped the 35mm lens. Although the 18-200 is somewhat lacking in the image quality department, it proved the best choice for this trip.
The clothing we each took was (including what we were wearing):
• 2 pairs of convertible pants
• 1 long sleeve shirt
• 1 polartec 100 fleece
• 3 pairs of socks (2 would have been fine)
• 3 pairs underwear (2 would have been fine)
• 1 Gore-tex jacket
• 1 pair Frogg-Togg rain pants
• 1 pair hut sandals
• 1 pair of shell mitts (gloves)
• 1 buff
All clothes were lightweight synthetics (we looked like walking ads for Columbia products) that had worked very well for us in Italy. A few days into the hike Gina fessed up she had brought contraband – an extra pair of pants and shirt! Next time I double check what goes in her pack!
Gina took her 3lb 9oz Kelty Nimble 3500 (59L) pack and in my quest for weight reduction I got a new 2lb 13oz REI Venturi 40 (40L) pack that worked very well. I also bought a set of OpTech “Reporter” backpack straps that let me strap the D80 directly to my pack shoulder straps. This worked great – I had the camera out 98% of the time and it made it very easy to get the trail shots with just a quick stop.
Add in all the other things you need for two weeks of hiking in Europe and our total base weight (everything but food and water) was 14.7 pounds each including packs. With water and food our max weight target was 20 pounds. For those who wonder how you can go to Europe for 2.5 weeks with just 15 pounds on your back, you should try it. Very liberating and you can’t help but laugh at the people trying to deal with roller luggage on trains and cobblestone streets.
Thinking about going?
If you enjoy hiking, mountains, and Europe, doing this hike is a no-brainer… it is considered by many to be one of the finest treks in the world. There are several companies that offer guided tours that take care of a lot of the many planning details, especially if you are from the US and don’t speak French. It will cost quite a bit more though doing it this way and you probably won’t be able to do the actual full loop. Some of them also haul most of your belongings from one location to the next so all you have to carry is a very small day pack. We did it solo and were very glad we did, although we only encountered a couple other folks from the US doing it this way. For us, a big part of the accomplishment was carrying everything we took for a 2.5 week vacation in Europe on our backs for 105 miles.
If you are even remotely considering doing the TMB, you should immediately purchase The Tour of Mont Blanc by Kev Reynolds. It contains all the information you really need to do the hike. I photocopied and reduced the pages for just the direction we were going down to 19 8.5×11 pages (2.2 oz). We also carried the Rando Pays du Mont-Blanc 1:50,000 topographic map that covers the entire route and has it well marked. It was very helpful for route planning and tracking daily progress.
For more detailed planning information about the TMB, see the excellent site http://www.walkingthetmb.com.