It’s really best not to mess with the fixed itinerary; especially when you are as ‘directionally challenged’ as I am. I learned that lesson while trying to go rogue on the Tour du Mont Blanc.
The Tour du Mont Blanc, or TMB as it’s known to hikers, is one of the world’s classic treks. It circles the Mont Blanc Massif taking in areas of Switzerland, France and Italy. The full hike is around 170 kilometres long but there are a number of variations available on particular sections of the route and the route has changed a number of times since it was first established.
Things didn’t go according to plan when I tackled this famous trail with my partner. Tears were shed, trekking poles thrown; Swiss mountain towns ‘disappeared’ off maps (only to miraculously reappear on someone else’s copy of the same map) and borders were crossed by train and bus instead of on foot. Such were our adventures and misadventures on this famous mountain trail.
We got off to a bad start when our tour was cancelled. We had originally booked a guided hike with a well-known tour company. But just three weeks before we were due to fly out for Europe, the trip was cancelled, apparently due to lack of numbers.
When they said self-guided they meant it
With no alternative available to us on our travel dates, we re-booked with the same tour company on their self-guided hike. When they said ‘self-guided’ they meant it.
After spending a lovely few days enjoying Geneva and Chamonix, we arrived at the train station in Chamonix to receive our ‘comprehensive information pack.’ We waited for around half an hour and eventually a young man pulled up in a van and approached us. He said ‘Hi’ and handed us a brown paper envelope in which was a map of the region and an A4 page with bullet points listing each day’s itinerary. For example: From La Fouly to Elena ‘walk up to Val Ferret Valley by the normal route past La Peule then to Grand Ferret and Walk down to Elena.’ We were also given a list of the accommodations were to stay in each day, minus any addresses or description of how to find them from the hiking trail.
Now Chamonix is not strictly on the Tour du Mont Blanc route and we quickly realised that neither were we. Our comprehensive tour notes told us to walk to Le Tour, somewhere else that isn’t really part of the TMB route. That’s when we decided to go rogue.
We would ignore the instructions in our brown paper bag and using our Cicerone guidebook to deliver ourselves to Le Tour via the ‘proper’ TMB route, beginning five kilometres away in the village of Les Houches. Things went horribly wrong from the moment we boarded the train.
We got off at the wrong train station and had to walk into Les Houches and find the route. The guide book has two sections, one for those walking the route anticlockwise and the other for those walking clockwise. I opened the guidebook at the wrong section and began guiding us in the wrong direction. We walked for an hour before realising we were going in the wrong direction. We backtracked into Les Houches and caught a bus to Le Tour utterly deflated.
We blame Kev
Day two included both the highs and lows of our trip. We blame Kev*. Determined to re-take the route we’d missed yesterday, we took the cable car to La Flegere. The mission was to make up those lost kilometres to achieve our objective of hiking the whole trail without skipping bits.
Our goal was the Swiss village of Trient via a side trip to the famed Lac Blanc. The scenery was stunning all day with gorgeous views from every direction. The visit to Lac Blanc was definitely a highlight of the whole walk. We then descended the ladders down towards Tre Le Champ (after the missing the turn-off and again walking in the wrong direction for nearly an hour) and saw several Ibex on the way.
We had been walking some six hours by this stage and it was around 4pm. But according to Kev we were only at the two-hour mark of a seven-hour walk stage. My partner, in charge of the map, could not find Trient or figure out to get there. It quickly dawned on us that we were not going to be able to finish this stage under own steam. The day that started so well ended with us taking a train across the French-Swiss border and paying a café owner 20 Euros to drive us to our accommodation when daylight ran out. That was the end of our attempt to go rogue and ditch our instructions.
No more going rogue
After the stuff ups of the first two days we decided to just follow the instructions were given. This was a good move. We got to know our fellow travellers by keeping a similar schedule. Walking with our colleagues in sight or walking together meant we were able to relax and enjoy ourselves more.
Despite our misadventures, we walked around 120 kilometres of the trail and saw some amazing sites along the way. Our favourite sections of the walk were the early stages with the stunning views of the Mont Blanc massif and other mountains in the range.
The Bovine Way in Switzerland is aptly named as you will share it with many cows whose bells sound like the boom gates at a railway crossing. The green fields and wildflowers of Switzerland make a contrast to the jagged peaks with snow and ice that feature in the French and Italian stages. At times the route takes you right through the centre of small villages, particularly in the Swiss sections. The mixture of scenery and villages and the mountain accommodation mean that you never get bored on the walk.
The Cicerone Guide Tour of Mont Blanc by Kev Reynolds (no relation) was an excellent guide. It was quite amusing at times to see troupes of English speaking trekkers all walking along with copies of the same guide book. We discussed the merits of the book with fellow hikers several times. The consensus was that the guidebook was very accurate in terms of the markers it described and detailed instructions of the route. There was also consensus that Kev was either an army drill sergeant, hiking with no pack, never stopped for a rest or had consumed a lot of coffee when he set the time guidelines for each stage. Just about everyone agreed the times set were ambitious to say the least. We only found one crazy young Austrian who was hiking alone and carrying a 25 kilo pack who reckoned he could keep up with Kev.