In September we undertook the challenge of biking “The Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB)”, a hiking and/or mountain biking circuit around Mont Blanc (4810m), the highest peak in Europe. The full tour is approx. 180 km in length and has an accumulated height gain and loss of around 8,000m. With 10 mountain passes, 7 valleys, 71 glaciers and 400 summits to go around it is no mean feat!
As a word of warning, it should only be attempted by bikers not afraid of long climbs with a generous serving of hike-a-bike; downhills can be technical in places, and the weather can be brutal at 2,500m+; however, if you have a good sense of adventure and enjoy a challenge you will be handsomely rewarded with breathtaking scenery, amazing food and culture and you’ll soon forget your pain!
Details of our tour;
We started the tour in Chamonix in France and followed the trail as it wound around the entire Mont Blanc Massiff in a clockwise direction passing through Switzerland into Italy and then back into France. Note that most hikers would do the track in the opposite direction. We chose this direction as when biking we prefer steep descents and gradual climbs.
As we had a large group and a couple of first time mountain bikers we did the tour in 6 days, which is slower than most bikers who will complete the circuit in 4 or 5 days. This allowed us to take our time each day and enjoy the amazing cuisine on offer at the various Rifugio’s overlooking grassy meadows and snow capped peaks. If you are an experienced biker it would not be difficult to do the tour in 4 days, however; you would need to be going at a good pace all day to do this.
Day 1 – Chamonix to Col de la Forclaz:
After arriving in Chamonix the previous night from various locations across Europe we met at a Camping ground, ‘Camping de la Mer de Glace’ (http://chamonix-camping.com/), where we stayed before and after the tour and left our cars at during the tour (they were happy to accommodate this providing we stayed the day & after our tour). The camping ground is around 3km from the centre of Chamonix and is easy to get to and from. From the camping ground we took the ‘Petit Balcon Nord’ track along the Chamonix valley to Argentiere, where we stopped at the bakery for lunch before heading on to Le Tour at the head of the valley under Col de Balme.
At Le Tour there is a cable car to Col de Balme that you can take advantage of for a quick 900 mtrs height gain. Before getting on the lift however, we enjoyed a quick dip in the glacier fed stream below Le Tour to cool off from the ride up the valley (this was one of the bonus challenges we set ourselves for the tour!!)
After the swim we went up the gondola to Col de Balme, doing a couple of laps of the bike park on the way.
From Col de Balme, the French to Swiss border, down to Trient the trail is fairly loose and rocky and takes a reasonable amount of skill. One of our crew got ejected over his handlebars and cracked his helmet. If you’re new to mountain biking take your time down this trail. After Trient it is a short climb up a trail next to the highway to Col de la Forclaz. We stayed the night here at Hotel Col de La Forclaz. The food at this Rifugio was amazing and everyone was full after two servings of the entrée and the main. For dessert we had homemade vanilla bean & strawberry ice-cream, yummy!
The track that we took can be found here – <Lachlan to insert link to viewranger here, when he gets the chance to!>
Day 2 – Col de La Forclaz to La Fouly:
From Col de la Forclaz the day starts with a hike-a-bike up 500m of steep rocky track. Once you reach the highest point the climb is well worth it with a fast flowy (and at times technical) descent to Lac Champex.
On the way down we ran into other bikers, some hikers & a group on horses! The horse poo was sometimes hard to dodge.
After stopping in Lac Champex for Lunch and a quick dip we continued down the valley towards Issert.
Part of the track to Issert was a highlight of the trip, it was about as steep as you can ride with deep loam. We could have lapped this track all day long!
From Issert we rode up the road 18km to La Fouly where we were staying for the second night. We spent the night at Rifugio Maya Joyie, where the highlight was unlimited Racalette. Another rule of the Tour came into affect on arrival to La Fouly, ‘if you used your phone at the breakfast or dinner table then your punishment was a shoey’ (define: a shoey, meaning that you had to take your shoe off after riding, pour a beer inside & down the contents) at the completion of that day. Ben Tingey took the honours on day 2!
Day 3 – La Fouly to Rifugio Walter Bonatti
Day 3 was our favorite and perhaps the most breath-taking day of the whole tour. Starting in La Fouly the trail ascends to Col Ferrett with a total rise of 1,000mtrs.
The first half is on the road making for easy riding. From halfway you follow a wide trail, which is 80% rideable to the Col. Emerging over the crest of Col Ferret is an incredible moment as the VAL FERRET opens up infront of you with spectacular views of the Mont Blanc Massif draped in Glaciers and snow laden peaks!
The track descending into Val Ferret from Col Ferret is at times very technical with a number of water drains which dissect the trail made from slate which nip ominously at your wheels looking to give you a snake bite. At the end of the main descent is Rifugio Elena, a perfect place to stop for an Italian lunch of pasta and coffee.
The trail continues down the valley from Refugio Elana to Rifugio Walter Bonatti, our favourite Rifugio of the entire trip. Lachlan had to complete a Birthday Shoey here to bring in the Big birthday of ‘30’.
If you do the tour, be sure to check out this Rifugio – http://www.rifugiobonatti.it/
Pictures from Rifugio Bonatti & our birthday cake. Yummo!
Day 4 – Rifugio Bonatti to Rifugio Elizabetta:
This was our longest day on the tour and was split into two parts allowing us the opportunity to cut a section depending on the weather and how the crew’s bodies were holding out. As the forecast was for cold temperatures, high winds and rain all day we chose to not do the first part of the day and instead take the road down Val Ferret to Courmayeur in the morning.
After a quick stop in Courmayeur we set off on the second part of the day which took us up a ski resort road to Rifugio Maison Vielle, along a hiking trail and down into Val Veny and along to Rifugio Elizabeta. It rained continuously during our ride up the road to Rifugio Maison Vielle making the warm dry funky vibe of the Rifugio extra welcoming. We were even lucky enough to catch the end of the, All Blacks game against Argentina! They must of known we were coming! Rifugio Maison Vielle is well known for its outstanding food, and so we settled in for a couple of hours of thick hot chocolates with cream of course, espresso, numerous pastas and other assortments of amazing Italian food.
After leaving the Rifugio we followed a hiking track along the valley rising another 500mtrs. The rain really set in by the time we left the Rifugio adding to the adventure on this leg of the trip. The descent down to Rifugio Elizabeta was wet and wild, in the dry the track would be phenominal!
After riding the last few kms in diving rain and snow flurries everyone was pretty happy to make it to Rifugio Elizabeta to be able to dry off & defrost.
Day 5 – Rifugio Elizabetta to Rifugio Bonhomme:
We awoke on Day 5 to clear skies and cold temperatures, thankful that we did not have to face another day in the rain. The snow line was down below Col de Signe, our first pass of the day making for a cold crisp start on the bikes for the 400m climb to Col De Signe.
After crossing back into France at Col De Signe we flew down the wide flowey trail on the other side to the small village of Les Chapieux. We were planning on arriving for lunch in Les Chapieux, so getting in at 10.30am we brought some saucission, local fromage, baguettes & crossiants from the local shop to fuel up for the 1,000mtr climb to Rifugio Bonhomme.
The climb starts on the road for the first 300mtrs and then switches to a hiking track. We took a quick dip before the hiking track and then set off on the hike-a-bike for 700mtrs.
Amac, Timmy & Pj completing their shoey’s for doing something naughty!
The hike-a-bike up to Rifugio Bonhomme was the most intense of the trip, not helped by a bitter wind whipping down the valley. It was smiles all round once everyone reached the hut and sucked down the first of many delicious beers for the night.
Day 6 – Rifugio Bonhomme to Chamonix
The final day starts with a 1,300mtr descent from Refugio Bonhomme to Les Contamaines. The trail starts off with some mega technical areas where everyone in the crew had to walk at some points. Slowly the trail opens up to become more ride able with the final 400mtrs of descent down one of the rowdiest 4wd tracks I have ever been on, super fun!
We had our final, and coldest, swim halfway down the descent, it was cold! We all sat in for a 30 second count.
After Les Contamines we skipped the section of the track around Mont Truc and went straight down the road to Le Chapel. From Le Chapel we followed the trail over Col De Voza for a final descent to Les Houches and a quick ride up the valley to Chamonix and the end of the Tour!
The trail down to Les Houches follows an abandoned mountain biking track where all of the north shores have started to rot, so be careful, some of this trail is phenomenally steep with deep loam.
The Tour of Mont Blanc is perhaps the most enjoyable adventure we have ever completed; We would consider it a bucket list trail with some of the most amazing scenery that Europe has to offer. If you ever get the chance to do it, you should jump on board without a seconds hesitation!