The Mont Blanc Circuit

There are walkers and there are summit seekers, and Mont Blanc is like a siren’s call to the latter, being the highest peak in Western Europe. This towering temptress also calls out in several languages because, unbeknownst to many, it is a multinational massif, straddling France, Italy and Switzerland. And people respond in their droves, some wanting to conquer all 4,810m of it and others happy to circumnavigate it. It is the circumnavigation Mont Blanc Circuit that we focus on here and first thing to note is that this route does not involve summiting the mountain at all. That’s a whole other mountaineering ball game.
Tour de Mont Blanc, or TMB

Tour du Mont Blanc, or TMB

This circumnavigation must be one of the most magnificent long distance walking trails in the world, known as the Mont Blanc Circuit. Or, to respect all the great summit’s languages: Tour du Mont Blanc and Il Giro del Monte Bianco. Swiss Germans use the French name, and all regions use the well known abbreviation TMB. You will start dreaming about those three letters after a while if you take on this route, as they are the ones used painted in yellow on the trail’s waymark signs along the way.
Experienced tour operators doing the Mont Blanc Circuit will recommend doing it in two weeks, hiking for eleven but resting for three.

Tour du Mont Blanc route

The Tour du Mont Blanc or Mont Blanc Circuit is a 170km trail walking at the massif’s lower levels although certainly not without its ups and downs. This is no walk in the park as it does actually entail 10,000m of ascent. The route is usually divided into eleven daily stages with some trips going for it in a week, and others spreading it over eleven days so that they can include a few rest days. The most elevated point you reach is 2352m but if you do it in one week you go as high as 2537 metres. The week long version is pretty hard core, trekking over higher terrain and carrying your own bags from inn to inn. But the most important thing to know is that you will be trekking on well established and well marked paths through seven main valleys that emanate from the prestigious peak. The majority of guided trips start in the Chamonix Valley in France and follow an anti clockwise route. However, the clockwise routes tend to be quieter.
When you take on the TMB in a week, you climb higher and walk harder, because you usually carry your own bags on this version, staying in tiny rural accommodations along the way.

Tour du Mont Blanc accommodation

There are trips that cater for all budgets on the TMB because, unlike when you summit, there are all sorts of Alpine accommodations en route. Or just off the route. We always recommend guided vacations when doing the Mont Blanc Circuit, not only because you will have the vast experience of a qualified International Mountain Leader but also because, in most cases, will have your bags and camping gear transported for you.
However, camping on a col is not for everyone, especially when you can stay at hotels or small guesthouses proffering hot tub with a view of one instead. Another form of accommodation on the Mont Blanc Circuit is the mountain refuge which are scattered along the route in some of the more inaccessible spots. And often incredibly beautiful spots. You will stop at many of these for lunch along the way, but by sleeping at them you will feel as if you are being invited into a club of Alpine aficionados. You will stay up much later than planned and probably drink more wine than planned as you swap stories with fellow hikers and all round adventurers .
Most mountain refuges are owned by the Club Alpin Francais (CAF) and examples of ones that you might stay at along the TMB include Refuge Elena, where you can catch the morning glow off the Pre de Bar glacier. Or Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme, a perfect spot before embarking towards the eponymous col at 2483m. Booking mountain refuges is essential although your tour operator will organise all this for you.

Tour du Mont Blanc highlights

The best bits become a slight obsession for many hikers on the TMB. The best view, the best weather, the best refuge, the best meal, the best beer, the best sunrise, the best sunset. And of course the best fun, as you will meet many fellow trekkers along the way with their different stories, histories, injuries and personalities. Here are a few of our favourites, in chronological order if you are going in a clockwise direction, starting in Chamonix.
Bovine Route

1. Bovine Route

On the TMB you will follow some of this historic route that was used by farmers practising transhumance, and taking cows up to pasture in the heights during summer months. It runs between Col de La Forclaz and Champex and is a glorious trail through ancient woodland, with fragrant summer meadows and wildlife such as ibex jumping from rock to rock.

2. Chamonix

The starting point for many, this very ski chic town is an adventure hub all year round. As well as chilling out here before or after your trek, you can take the Aiguille du Midi Cable Car or else the Montenvers cog railway for some breathtaking panoramic views of your hiking terrain. The pretty, pedestrianised main street is a hub of outdoor shops for last minute purchases. If you want to relax those muscles after two weeks of walking, seek out Lac de Passy, a 20 minute drive away and a wonderful outdoor swimming spot with beaches.

3. Champex

Once you reach Champex, you will feel as if you have entered a metropolis in contrast with the Alpine landscapes you have seen up until now. This very pretty Swiss mountain town is often chosen as a perfect resting point for a day. It’s located on a lake, of course, because Switzerland only does pretty. And #chocolateboxchampex will make the perfect hashtag for your photos.
Col de Balme

4. Col de Balme

This col is at 2,191m but also marks the beginning of your journey from France into Switzerland, with views of the Aiguille d'Argentière and Aiguille du Tour and its glacier en route. The next stop is usually Trient, a small Swiss hamlet, but some do the whole col-to-col-in-a-day thing, and finish at the famous Col de la Forclaz at 1,527m, also in Switzerland. You will need a lot of Swiss chocolate rewards after that day of trekking.

5. Courmayer

Although it doesn’t sound that Italian, this gorgeous town is the capital of all things Mont Blanc in Italy. And in pure Italian style, it does so with beauty and flair. Another great resting point on the TMB, you can sit and sip cappuccinos while taking in views not only of Mont Blanc but also 14 other peaks all around. There is a spectacular Aiguille du Midi cable car up to Glacier du Géant, and then over to Chamonix. Which is one heck of a short cut.
Grand Col Ferret

6. Grand Col Ferret

One of the highest points on the Mont Blanc Circuit at 2,536m, with views over to the White Lady herself, as local people sometimes call Mont Blanc. You will also get to see out across the Grandes Jorasses peaks which lie 600m below the main summit like guardians of the soul. The valley descending from here is called 'Val Ferret', in Italian. Andiamo – Italy is calling.
Lac Blanc

7. Lac Blanc

Located at 2,452m, this is a stunning first day achievement if you reach this height, with views from this glacial lake out across the massif in one direction and then catching its reflection on the turquoise waters below if the conditions are good. In winter Lac Blanc very much lives up to its name, but you will get to see it in its melted aquamarine form when you take on the TMB.
Les Houches

8. Les Houches

After trekking up to the Glacier de Bionnassay and crossing the Col de Voza (1,652m) you descend the Chamonix Valley in France, finishing up at Les Houches. This is the end or start point for many people of the Tour du Mont Blanc with stunning views up to the summit. You can also continue up through forested slopes to Brevent, where the mountain sides open up again at a fine elevation of 2,525m. And breathe. You are nearly done. There’s just one cable car trip back from nearby Plan Praz to Chamonix for a cold one.
Travel Team
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How hard is the Mont Blanc Circuit?

It is pretty tough, mainly because you need to sustain some serious stamina for many days. But it is fantastic. You don’t need technical climbing skills, but you do need to feel confident about walking uphill for three to four hours and then back down again for a similar amount of time. There are some steep sections too, so if you have an issue with vertigo, you may need to rethink. There are center based options, usually based in Chamonix, where you can take on different segments every day to suit your abilities.
How fit do you need to be?

How fit do you need to be?

Fit. And if you are going for the weeklong version where you carry your own backpack, very fit. Your tour operator will recommend a fitness plan, but be prepared for up to about eight weeks of training before you go. You want to be able to keep up with the group and the guides as best you can. If you can do, for example, a five hour walk every weekend on varied terrain for about three months before your trip, that will be good. But combine it with some gym work too, two or three times a week. Read more about training and gear that you need to consider for the Mont Blanc Circuit .
What will the weather be like?

What will the weather be like on the Mont Blanc Circuit?

Guided walking vacations usually start in June as the snow and ice is still thawing before then and there can still be a risk of avalanches. During the hiking months, the weather should be fair but unpredictable of course. You will need plenty of good gear so that you can layer up, but as you will only be carrying a daypack on organised trips, this makes packing easier. Temperatures will be on average between 15 – 25oC in the valleys but they can hit 30oC in the height of summer. Up at the mountain passes you can have a sudden drop in temperature as low as 5oC, particularly after sunset.

Mont Blanc Circuit customers’ great tips on taking on the TMB

The terrain for the walks is very very rough (rocks). You really must have proper mountain walking boots. My high class 'Hokka' trail running shoes were completely 'finished' after the week.
– Michael Cook
“Make sure you do loads of hills and long walking days to get fit.” – Barbara Heyers

“If you don't take hold luggage, buy a cheap kitchen knife in Chamonix. Take plenty of Factor 50 and a wide-brimmed hat – we had over 30 degrees a few days even quite high up. The food was excellent, much better than I'd expected and plenty of it.” – Susan Sandalls

“Take the fitness level seriously. This was a wonderfully challenging adventure. Also, try to be in Italy for a few days beforehand. We flew into Florence the week before and spent a week outside of Bologna first. We found flying in and out of Florence easy to do, getting both a bus and train to get to our destination.” – Leslie Keeney
The food was excellent, much better than I'd expected and plenty of it.
Susan Sandalls
Written by Catherine Mack
Photo credits: [Page banner: Heather Cowper] [Top box: Heather Cowper] [Tour de Mon Blanc sign: Jerome Bon] [Route: Heather Cowper] [TMB accommodation: Laurent Lebois ©] [Mountain refuge: Heather Cowper] [Highlights : Vasile Cotovanu] [Bovine Route : Jerome Bon] [Chamonix: Ruth Hartnup] [Champex: Alain Rouiller] [Col de Balme: Rick McCharles] [Courmayeur: raffaele sergi] [Grand Col Ferret: SNappa2006] [Lac Blanc : Robbie Shade] [Les Houches: eGuide Travel] [How hard is it?: simonsImages] [How fit?: simonsImages] [Weather: NKBV] [Review 1 - Michael Cook: Robert J Heath] [Review 2 - Susan Sandalls: Pug Girl]