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A few weeks after the Camino finished, something wholly unexpected occurred: I was itching to get back on the road with my rucksack, and to have another adventure before going back to work.  I suppose you could say that I’ve caught the walking bug, and you’d be right.

This time, my Camino buddy and I decided we’d like to try a different sort of challenge: the Camino was challenging in terms of the sheer longevity of it – comparable to a marathon, let’s say; this time, however, we fancied something akin to a sprint – a shorter walk, but on tougher terrain.  The Tour du Mont Blanc was the perfect solution.

The Tour du Mont Blanc, or the TMB as many call it, is a 170km trek around the Mont Blanc massif; it takes the walker through France, Italy and Switzerland in around eleven days, with almost 10,000 metres of sheer uphill elevation throughout this time. Unlike the Camino, the accommodation is slightly pricy in places, as many of the mountain refuges are simply very high up, and transporting food and goods up there – and taking all the waste back down – is a costly business. As result, we decided to do it au naturel and wild camp for the majority of the trek.  This meant that our rucksacks were quite significantly heavier than what we’d experienced on the Camino due to the new camping gear, as well as lots of food (there are no supermarkets in the middle of the mountains, believe it or not).  It’s worth mentioning that you’re not technically allowed to wild camp in many sections of the TMB – especially in Italy, where you need to be above 2000 metres (I think?)  We made sure we found sheltered areas, high up where possible, and took great care to leave no litter behind.

Rather than talk you through every last detail of our walk, I wanted to share what became our itinerary (we don’t tend to plan in advance!), and one of the memorable highlights that we experienced each day. These memories all have something in common, but I’ll leave you to guess what their common factor could be. Answers at the end!

I’ll mention now that we didn’t complete the whole of the TMB in the end: we probably had about three days left on the Swiss section, which we might go back and complete at some point soon.  The reason for our early departure was that it had rained non-stop over the final few days of walking. Visibility up high was very poor, and all of our available clothing was simply soaked through. Generally you wash your clothes on an evening and hang them out to dry for the following day. When it’s raining buckets, however, they NEVER GET DRY…. We had a wet tent, wet trousers, wet tops, wet fleeces, wet boots (wet boots = blisters)… you name it!  We came to the conclusion that instead of trudging uphill in wet shoes for another few days, we’d come back when the rains had cleared and when the beautiful views could be seen.  Prior to walking the Camino, I’d probably have been really disappointed at not having ‘completed’ the TMB. I’d have gritted my teeth, got my head down and kept on walking until the end, despite seeing only fog and mist.  Now, though, I think “to what end?” If you start not enjoying something, then why are you doing it?

Day 1: Les Houches – Bionnassay

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Here we wild camped by the waterfall of glacier water that thunders down the mountain.  This was my first wild camping experience, and it was such fun to have a ‘shower’ in one of the little streams that trickles through the walking path.  As the sun went down, I sat on the rope bridge that crosses the waterfall and watched the snow of the glacier turn pink in the evening light. Soon the stars came out, clear and silent, and we lit a bonfire to keep us warm.

Day 2: Bionnassay – Les Contamines Montjoie

The day begun with an uphill trek in the scorching heat, and ended with a downhill scramble through thunder, lightning and driving rain.  The lightning began when we were high up in a forest, so it was key to make it to lower ground as soon as we could. Upon reaching Contamines we were both soaked through, with every item of clothing sodden and sticking to our skin.  Squinting at each other through the curtains of rain, we decided to grab a hot chocolate in a local bar and wait out the end of the rain before we put up our tent.  Upon leaving the bar, we crossed a woman in her seventies who was smoking outside.

“Are you doing the Tour du Mont Blanc?” she asked, taking a drag on her cigarette.

“Yeah we are” we replied, smiling wearingly.

“Where are you staying tonight?” she continued.

“We’re at the local campsite” my Camino buddy answered, reaching down to grab his rucksack.

“In this weather?”

We nodded.  She raised her eyebrows doubtfully and shook her head.

“Come to my place, I’ve got spare mattresses, and you can see whether you’d prefer it.”

Not quite believing our luck, we followed the lady across the road and into her apartment. That night, she and her husband were having a party with guests, and they set two extra chairs at the table for us. After a hot shower, we shared champagne, a delicious meal, and plenty of anecdotes with their numerous guests – many of whom had walked the TMB. Later, we were free to make ourselves at home amongst cotton sheets and pillows in their attic room.

The following morning, over a breakfast of freshly-baked croissants and bowls of hot coffee, I asked the lady’s husband a question:

“Why did you both offer to look after us for the night?”

He smiled, gazing out onto the balcony which overlooked the snowy mountains.

“There’s a real mountain spirit here in Alps, and we just want to keep it alive.”

Day 3: Les Contamines Montjoie – Refuge du Col de la Croix du Bonhomme

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Here we camped at 2,443 metres on the side of the mountain, within walking distance of the Refuge. The night was a cold one, as our tent was constantly battered by the wind and the rain! I had made a slight mistake in bringing a smaller, lightweight sleeping bag (mainly as the larger one wouldn’t fit in my rucksack) and so slept fully-clothed (including hat and gloves!) in order to keep warm.  It just goes to show that even in the height of summer, it can get pretty chilly when you are camping at a high altitude!  The guys at the nearby refuge were wonderful, and allowed us to take a hot shower and use their facilities for free. The next morning, shivering from lack of sleep, we decided to be indulgent and buy our breakfast there, which was a great idea. If there’s anything that lifts the spirits of a hiker, it’s the prospect of something good to eat.

Day 4: Refuge du Col de la Croix du Bonhomme – Refuge Elisabetta

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We’d reached Italy on day four, and were hoping to camp by Refuge Elisabetta. Upon entering the refuge to enquire, however, we discovered that the Italian police are hot on the tail of campers who do not camp higher than the 2,000 metre rule. As a result, we were told we’d have to hike back uphill in order to find a place to sleep.  That clearly wasn’t happening, so we decided to sample a night in a refuge for a change. It was wonderful. It was warm.  The highlight, for me, was meeting lots of interesting people from all over the world at that evening’s dinner. I felt as if I were on the Camino all over again.

Day 5: Refuge Elisabetta – Courmayeur (somewhere in the woods above Courmayeur)

After a copious lunch in Courmayeur, a delightful Italian Alpine town, we trekked in the afternoon heat up the hill and into the woods beyond. Spotting a cool river cascading down the hillside, we decided it would be the perfect place to camp for the night, provided we were well-hidden.  That evening I lay on the rocks by the water, taking in the remainder of the afternoon sunshine.  Camping is lovely when the weather holds out!

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Day 6: Courmayeur – just before Refuge Elena

Again, we wild camped on the side of a mountain overlooking the peak of Mont Blanc.  The evening was sunny and I was itching to take a wash in the river that ran alongside our camping spot.  I grabbed my bar of soap, and wrapped myself in a towel before scrambling barefoot over the rocks towards a little pool of water, ideal for bathing in. I winced each time my foot slipped into the river, as the water was icy cold – this was going to be fun. In a moment of carelessness my bar of soap slipped out of my hand and into the river. I scrambled desperately to retrieve it, but it floated away from me, slipping down cascades and bobbing its way down the mountain, leaving a soapy trail behind.

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Day 7: Refuge Elena – La Fouly

We’d finally arrived in Switzerland, and decided to go ‘luxe’ and camp in an actual campsite with actual showers.  Here we reconnected with the friends we’d made on the route and in the refuge some days previously.  The night went relatively smoothly, apart from a moment of terror, when I discovered a HUGE spider chilling on my arm in the tent. It was about 11pm at night, and I can only apologise to my fellow campers for the blood-curdling scream that they will have heard, emanating from our little tent.

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Day 8: La Fouly  – Champex

A rainy day of ascent through forest terrain. That night we arrived in Champex and decided, once again, to camp in a campsite.  The rain had gotten to us, and our fellow TMB-ers at this point. I channelled my inner Englishness, and suggested we drown our sorrows in the local pub.  So there we found ourselves in the middle of the Swiss Alps, drinking beers and complaining about the weather.  That’s when we decided to call it a day. We’d got what we’d came for – which was an adventure and a wild-camping experience, and we were happy knowing that this alone was enough.

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So there you have it, my TMB experience.  Did you manage to guess what my highlights had in common? When I think back to the memorable times on my walking trips, I always come to the same conclusion: the best parts of the trip, the bits that will stick in my mind forever, were the unexpected surprises that DIDN’T COST A THING.  There you go.

So, what’s next on the cards?  I am going back to work next week after a wonderful six months of hiatus (I am so very lucky, that I know!) but am already thinking ahead to what next summer might bring.  I’d like to do some more hiking, maybe even actual mountaineering this time, or discover a new place that I’ve never been to before. We will see!

Where are you next itching to go to?

If you’d like to read a fantastic article on the TMB, look no further than this one, which appeared on the Guardian’s site recently.

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