A Fastpackers Guide to the Tour du Mont Blanc
“The only predator that lives in the Alps is VERT.”
It’s true, there are no bears, no lions, no venomous snakes in the Alps. The only thing to fear is the 30,000 ft of climbing along the (aprox) 110 miles of the TMB (Tour du Mont Blanc). And running out of fresh French bread that you have been savoring since the last village.
The TMB sends you through three countries - France, Italy and Switzerland. It dances between formative high alpine passes and beautiful European villages, offering their best local food and drinks.
This past June, myself and three dear friends (Willie, Brooke, and Heather) made the trip happen. We shook hands in January with full commitment and we all found a way to show up wide eyed and giddy in Chamonix in late June. While most attempt the route in 8-10 days, we took a fast packing approach and completed it in a challenging but rewarding 5 days. It makes this type of trip much more approachable for those with less time.
This is our tour and is intended to be a guide to ensure that you can make this a reality.Because you must.
Chapter 1: WHERE IS THE BEST PIZZA? AKA Getting There.
With planning any trip, one must start with the obvious, then plan the rest of the trip around where the best pizza spot is. In this case, the best pizza just so happens to be where you start and finish the TMB Tour. PIZZERIA DES MOULINS in Chamonix, France.
We all took different approaches to booking our flights. Willie and Brooke arrived in France early for a wedding, Heather- a few days early to travel, and I arrived the night before we started the Tour.
I was able to find an incredible rate for a flight. I used Scott's Cheap Flights (an email and text newsletter that informs you when prices drop to certain countries) I received a notification that there was major price drop going on in Europe. I used Google Flights to see what days where the cheapest, then booked a few hours later. I booked my round trip flight to Paris (Portland - Iceland - Paris) for $458. Then booked a 2nd round trip flight from Paris to Geneva ($112).
Geneva Airport is the ideal place to fly into. Once there, use Mountain Dropoffs to get you to Chamonix. They are a fantastic shuttle service with a kiosk in the Geneva Airport and will drop you off where ever you choose to stay. Same for the return. I recommend booking in advance.
Chapter 2: Chamonix: AKA ChamWOW
Chamonix is a DREAM. Once you arrive, avoid your room as if it is infested with Vert Bugs (a made up insect that makes your legs tired) and wander the iconic streets of Chamonix.
It wont take long to realize you have arrived in the mecca of outdoor recreation. You will hear languages from all over world- people all there for the same reason you are; To look up and to dream.
Let your eyes adjust and stare deep into the heart of the Alps, Mont Blanc Massif. It will look back at you and give you a slight nod to say welcome to the rooftop of Europe. It will be just enough to make you feel welcome, but also slightly uncomfortable- humbling no doubt.
Whether its the iconic races of UTMB or The Mont Blanc Marathon, there is always something happening there that exudes an electric buzz, stoking an already burning flame.
Here is a list of a few of our favorite places in Chamonix:
Food: Poco Loco: BURGERS and BEER
Bar: Micro Brasserie de Chamonix-MBC
Coffee: La Jonction Coffee
Cable Car: Make sure to utilize the cable cars that can take you up to the rooftop of Chamonix.
Grocery: Super U Chamonix.
Gear Shop: Inter Sport and Ravenel
Chapter 3: A Pint or a Liter? I’ll have the Liter. The Huts of the TMB
Our objective was to move as FAST and LIGHT as possible around the TMB. As Ultra Runners – we wanted to make this a trip that would be challenging, but also a trip where we could connect with the landscape, take photos, and eat/drink as much as possible.
We dove into the logistics and landed on a 5 day, 4 night - counter clockwise tour. We had to determine how many miles we wanted to travel each day and where we were going to stay each night. The availability and location of the huts helped shaped our itinerary and distance to be covered each day.
We used a great resource (link below) to help us. With over 50 huts to choose from along the TMB route, they provide detail into each huts accommodation and give contact info to reserve a spot.
We also got a little help from our friends over at Run The Alps. They offer a variety of trail running tours to meet a wide range of skills and interests. They can help set up your entire route and offer things that no one else can. Check out these GOOD and experienced people!
The huts not only give you shelter and a place to rest, they also offer dinner (Make sure to arrive no later than 7!), breakfast, showers, bedding, and cold draft beers or rose if you prefer. We recommend opting for the liter glass.
In addition to the huts you choose as your final stop for the day, you are able to stop in any while you are making your way along the tour. There is no other place in the world where you can travel 100 miles and not bring any food with you to the start. We took multiple hour-long pit stops each day, enjoyed the local foods, wine, coffee, and beer.
Sometimes we got a fresh baguette to go, slid it into our Ultimate Direction Fastpack water bottle sleeve and gnawed on it as we ascended one of the many infamous TMB passes.
The highest points on any variant of the trail are the Col des Fours in France and the Fenêtre d'Arpette in Switzerland, both at an altitude of 2,665 m (8,743 ft).
Chapter 4: We could have started in Chamonix, but we didn’t. AKA Our Route
Day 1. Night 1: We could have started in Chamonix, but we didn’t. We jumped on a bus and shuttled to the “TRUE” start of the TMB, Le Houches (LAY WHO-SHHH). From there we began our journey into the Alps.
Les Houches to La Balme (France).
Day 2. Night 2:
La Balme to Courmayer (Italy)
Courmayer is the cross border cousin to Chamonix. Known for its dramatic location and cobble stoned streets. Aside from Chamonix, this will be the largest towns along the TMB Tour.
PIZZA: Ristorante Pizzeria Du Tunnel
Bar: Caffe delle Guide
Day 3. Night 3.
Courmayer to La Fouly (Switzerland).
Hut: HOTEL DU COL DE FENETRE
This was one of the most challenging and beautiful sections of the tour. Also, it was full of amazing huts (I highly recommend stopping at Refuge Bonatti).
This was also the day that "PIZZA AND PASSES" became legendary. We took some left over slices from Courmayer, wrapped them in foil and had them locked and loaded for the perfect moment on the trail. When we arrived to the top of one of the biggest passes of the trip, we knew it was time. Then with every new pass we had our minds on another slice.
Day 4. Night 4.
La Fouly to Trient (Switzerland)
Trient to Chamonix (France)
The last day! Make sure to roll into Chamonix and head straight to PIZZERIA DES MOULINS, put in a reservation under the name "Vert", go shower and then come back and eat the best pizza(s) of your life.
Chapter 5: One Shirt. Two Pairs of Socks. And Foil for left over Pizza. AKA The GEAR.
The beauty of this type of trip is how crazy light you can go! No tents, no sleeping bags, no stoves, just the basics and some extra comfort items.
Packs: We all used Ultimate Direction Fast Packs. These packs are built for this type of movement and pursuit. Willie and I carried the original 30 liter packs. Brooke rocked the new 15 liter! And Heather had the new 35 liter! Perfect amount of storage inside and having cameras, water, and food easily accessible in the front, made these packs the perfect companion in the Alps. (The sweet spot might be the 25 Liter).
Sleeping bag liner: The huts all had bedding, pillows, and mattresses. We all brought a light sleeping bag liner to crawl into under the covers.
Water Filter: We all carried a water filter with us. While there are plenty of potable water fountains along the route, along with countless small streams and winter runoff. We opted to use the filters with the abundance of cattle roaming around the mountain sides. Filter of choice: KATADYN Bfree.
TERRITORY ALL DAY TEE: This was the first BIG test for the Territory ALL DAY TEE. I wore it for 5 straight days, unintentionally. Each day I figured I would need to wash it, but at the end of each I took it off hung it up and would do a sniff test. It passed. Every day.
Electronics: We recommend getting a European converter. At each hut we could have our own outlets or share a charging station.
POLES: A must have for the amount of climbing and descending the route throws at you. We all used the Black Diamond Z-Poles. After 30K of climbing, the poles become your closest friend and know your soul better than you do.
Lightweight Jacket/Pants: We only had to break these out a few times, as the weather was quite good to us. A few of the passes got a bit formative. It was nice to have some extra layers to keep the chill off. They also came in handy during our lunch breaks. I used Patagonia Houdini Jacket and Pants.
Technical Hats - LOOWIT Trucker and the Gorge Cap: We tested and approved the just released hats. The Loowit - A foam trucker style and the Gorge Cap - an unstructured quick drying nylon cap. Both served us well day in and day out. We could stuff them into our packs or shorts and pull them out quickly with no damage done to the shape of the hat.
Extra Clothes and Slippers: We carried some fresh clothes to change into in the evening. The huts also request to leave your shoes outside or in the "Shoe Room." So bringing a lightweight pair of flip flops or slippers is a must.
Camera: I used a Sony RX100. However, for this type of trip and the ability to go light, A large DSLR wouldn't be a bad idea!
- Guide Book: Detailed above.
- MAP: You can find maps of the TMB in Chamonix. They have several book stores where you can find more information on the route and the European Alps.
- Socks: I brought two pairs to use on the trail, rotating between each pair/each day. And a fresh pair to have at night in the hut.
- Toothbrush, soap, first aide kit.
- Rain Jacket. It is the ALPS. Unpredictable weather can roll in at anytime.
- wool long sleeve layer
- Running Shorts (only one pair. I hand washed every other night)
- Lightweight pants for the hut
- Internal Drybag. I used a dry bag to hold all of my clothes, electronics, and valuable items. I dropped that into my UD Fastpack. I also used ziplock bags to keep things dry and organized.
- Phone (3/4 huts had wifi to connect to. (Not recommended, but it is there if needed or desired)
- Passport (only needed them for checking in at each reserved hut)
- Money: Euro (France/Italy) and Swiss Franks (most larger towns have cash machines, but I got money at the airport before arriving to Chamonix). Some places (Chamonix/Courmayer) take credit cards, but the small huts along the TMB prefer cash.
Chapter 6. Who's coming with me next year? AKA Parting Words
For me, this trip was a portal into a completely different kind of movement. Instead of racing and having primarily internal views only, I was able to slow things down, see the land in which I was passing through and feel the power of the Alps deep into my bones. A connection that pulls you in like a magnet and hums sweet nothings into your quads like an out of tune lullaby. We met people from all over the world, connected with each other and ourselves.
The Alps provide us with a playground where we can create and express any form of movement in. To move fast, slow, long, or short. This will undoubtedly be an annual pilgrimage for me as the options are endless to plan and create a different tour around the Alps.
Classifieds: Will guide for pizza.
If you have any questions or need any recommendations, email me anytime or leave a comment below. Stay wild.
Territory Run Co. | Chief Creator | Jordan@territoryrun.co