The Tour du Mont Blanc is honestly one of the most incredible hike we’ve ever experienced. That’s saying something since we’ve done some really incredible hikes in Alaska, the Rockies, the Cascades, Glacier National Park, Yosemite, New Zealand, and Hawaii, just to name a few.
What makes this experience so unique and incredible in comparison to other hikes around the world is the combination of easy access to refuges, going in and out of towns and cities, and the stunning beauty of all the snowcapped mountains and glaciers.
When I first started planning the Tour du Mont Blanc, it was overwhelming to say the least and it was hard to find the right information to help me plan my itinerary, especially when it came to camping. In our blog, Planning a Tour du Mont Blanc, I’ve included everything you need to know about getting to Mont Blanc, how long it is, how many stages, safety, and so much more.
If you don’t know much about the Tour du Mont Blanc, it might help to read the Planning Guide first (blog coming soon) to orient yourself and then use this to help you plan.
But, if you are just looking for some inspiration, want to find out how you can hike this incredible trail in only 7 days, or want to hear our story of how epic the Tour du Mont Blanc was then please, read on. And for pure inspiration, you’ll want to check out Our 35 Favorite Photos From The TMB.
Hiking the TMB was certainly a life changing experience for me.
For starters, it was way more strenuous than I expected and like always, I tend to bite off more than I can chew. This meant that we ended up combining stages, which made it even more exhausting. That’s not to say I’d do it differently. I just want you to make sure you plan accordingly.
I’ve broken up my account of our hiking experience with tips and recommendations for those planning on trying to fast track this wonderful trek.
If I skipped something or left any stone unturned or question unanswered, please, ask us in the comments section below. I want to make sure you can have the best possible experience hiking the Tour du Mont Blanc.
I found it interesting that while hiking the Tour du Mont Blanc, so few people knew what a travel blog was. While I guess originally blogging was a means of journaling your experience along your travels, in the past few years it has turned into a highly detailed description for travel and thus I want you to know that this blog here that you’re reading is meant to help you have the best possible travel experience possible.
I’m not here to talk about my story, I’m using my story to help you have an epic Tour du Mont Blanc trip. Let’s get started!
Just a heads up, I will be using the abbreviation TMB on this blog occasionally. It’s kinda self explanatory but TMB stands for Tour du Mont Blanc.
Also, if you don’t have time to read this whole blog (or even if you just want to save this blog for later), you can save any one of the photos on this blog to your Pinterest boards. All you got to do is click the Pin it button in the corner of each image (if you’re on a mobile device, click on the photo first then the Pin it button will appear.)
Day 1 on the Tour du Mont Blanc: Le Brévent to Refuge de la Balme
- Total miles/kilometers hiked: 10 mi/6 km
- Total elevation gain: 800m/2600ft
- Total elevation loss: 1500m/4900ft
- Stages covered: Half of Stage 11, bypass Stage 1, partial Stage 2
Hiking Times + Distances
- Brévent to Refuge de Bellachat: 1 hour
- Refuge de Bellachat to Les Houches train station: 2 hours and 45 minutes
- Public Transport from Les Houches to Notre Dame de la Gorge
- Notre Dame de la Gorge to Refuge Nant Borrant: 40 minutes
- Refuge Nant Borrant to Refuge de la Balme: 50 minutes
Chamonix Mont Blanc
We chose to begin our TMB journey at the summit of Le Brévent.
Traditionally you would start and finish the TMB in Les Houches so that you get the most dramatic views of Mont Blanc for the grand finale, stage 11.
The weather forecast was predicting overcast with a chance of rain for the day we’d be finishing the TMB projected and the day we woke up to start the Tour, the weather was perfectly clear and too gorgeous to pass up. We decided to take the good weather when we could get it so we could guarantee amazing views on the iconic 11th stage.
In addition, we happened to be in Chamonix at the same time as the UTMB (the Ultra Tour Du Mont Blanc race). The race follows the very same TMB route hikers follow so it can get crowded on the trail. We were beginning our trek two days before the big race started and we wanted to get out ahead of the runners if that makes sense.
After grabbing pastries and cafe in town, plus some snacks for the way, we walked north out of town center to the cable car.
The price to ride the cable car to Brévent one way was €25 adults and €20 kids under 15.
I was a bit reluctant to pay so much and contemplated just hiking up to Brévent but was so very happy that I spent the money as it is an extremely steep ascent and would have trashed our legs for the descent from Brévent to Les Houches that we were about to do.
Taking the cable car up provides you with amazing views and it’s super easy to find the gondola from the center of Chamonix. Just follow the signs.
Taking the cable car up is a two part ordeal. The first part is a gondola ride to Plan Praz, which is at 2000 meters. From here you get off the gondola and follow the signs with the picture of the cable car that in the winter, takes you to the black diamond runs in the resort. It’s very simple.
There is a cafe here if you want to grab a coffee while taking in the views or you can wait to get panoramic views from the smaller cafe at the summit of Le Brévent after the second cable car ride.
The cable car ride from Plan Praz to Brévent was interesting as it is a larger car that fits 30 + people standing in it and takes you all up together to Brévent at 2525 meters. It was exhilarating!
After you take in the views, which do tend to be clouded in from this high of altitude, it’s time to start the hike down to Les Houches. Remember, if you choose to do this the traditional way, this will be your final push of the tour and it is steep, so leave a little in the legs for this part.
Le Brévent to Refuge de Bellachat – Stage 11
The first section of trail was a rocky but a gradual decline. You’re above treeline here and get incredible views of not only Mont Blanc but also the mountain ranges far in the distance.
The views at Refuge de Bellachat are some of the best on the entire tour. If it fits into your itinerary, I highly recommend staying here. It was a little to early in our day to stop and eat here, but like all the refuges along the way, it did serve coffee, drinks and food. There are toilets here but only for paying customers.
Refuge de Bellachat to Les Houches – Stage 11
Just a bit after leaving the refuge the trail gets steep. Very steep.
There isn’t a lot of exposure so fear of heights isn’t a huge worry but the amount of single leg squats you feel like you are doing is hard. Our legs were shaking most of the way down, which is rare for us.
Hiking sticks would probably be a good idea if you have any past knee issues. Keep in mind, the trail remains steep pretty much the entire way down to Les Houches.
20 minutes after leaving the refuge, the trail winds into the forest and provides a nice respite from the intense sun rays. Eventually you arrive at a fence and follow along the outskirts of it until reaching the entrance to the Zoo, Merlet.
After Merlet, we followed the yellow TMB signs left, winding down the Zoo’s access road until eventually turning left on the TMB trail about 30 min down the road again.
According to the book, when you get to the zoo, there was a road to the right that put you on the TMB trail right away, however, we totally didn’t see it and walking the road for awhile was a nice break for our feet. There were also picnic tables on the road where we walked that provided a nice place to rest and eat.
The trail puts you out right at the train station and if this the end of your trek as a traditional Stage 11, it’s super easy to hop on the train back to Chamonix. If you choose to fastback as we did, you may want to hop on the train here to skip Stage 1.
Les Houches to Les Contamines – Skipping Stage 1
Since stage 1 of the TMB, which goes from Les Houches to Les Contamines, isn’t as gorgeous as the other stages, we decided to skip it, but mostly because we wanted to get ahead of the UTMB runners who would be starting their race the next night, which meant we needed to get to Les Contamines so we could enjoy beautiful stage 3 without crazy crowds.
I don’t necessarily recommend skipping stage 1 but we did because we weren’t going to be able to take the alternate/high route.
The traditional path of stage 1 involves a lot of road walking and didn’t seem worth it for us since doing Stage 1 would set us back a day.
Plus, there is a variant to Stage 1 that takes you up higher and closer to the glaciers but isn’t recommended early in the season or with inclement weather. There was a chance of thunderstorms that afternoon so we chose to take it easy and ride the train/bus to Contamines.
Train and Bus Passes
The Carte d’Hôte pass allows you to ride any bus or train between Servoz and Vallorcine.
We received one of these passes for free from staying at Camping Des Arroles. I’m pretty sure all of the campgrounds in Chamonix provide these, some hotels also offer them free of charge, or you can get one for 2 euros from the tourist office in Chamonix.
The train runs about every hour, click here for full schedule. We took the train west to Saint Gervais where we then hopped on Bus 84 to Les Contamines. This bus is not included in the Carte d’Hôte pass and tickets were €5.50 per person. It was a very nice bus ride in an air conditioned tour bus and the incredible views along the way made what little guilt I had for skipping a section of the TMB quickly disappear as I stared out the oversized windows at the rolling green French countryside.
The tourist office in Les Contamines has outlets to charge your phone and free WiFi which was nice.
We also picked up food for our dinner (we weren’t eating diner at the refuges since we were camping) at the small grocery store across from the tourist office in Les Contimines: a baguette, arugula, salami, and butter to make sandwiches for dinner as well as a yogurt and a pastries each for dessert, plus a chocolate croissant for breakfast the next morning.
There is a bigger grocery store in town and plenty of restaurants to eat at. I highly recommend the ice cream (glacée) at the bakery directly across the street from the tourist office.
Les Contamines to Notre Dame de la Gorge – Free Shuttle
We chose to skip the first 45 minutes of hiking stage 2 since it’s mostly near the road and while the scenery is pleasant, it was nice to just cut out this section of town. There is a free shuttle bus that takes you from the tourist office in Les Contamines to Notre Dame de la Gorge, a beautiful church in the middle of rolling green countryside. There is food here and the church is worth taking a peak inside of.
Notre Dame de la Gorge to Refuge de la Balme – Begin Stage 2
Leaving Notre Dame de la Gorge the trail immediately begins to climb and doesn’t let up all the way to Refuge de la Balme, where we chose to camp that night.
It actually doesn’t let up until the next refuge, Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme and if I had started earlier, not combined stages, or wasn’t camping, I would recommend to stay at Refuge du Bonhomme mainly so that you don’t have to start with such an intense climb the next morning when you leave Refuge de la Balme.
We were camping though and not only was the camping free at Refuge de la Balme, but the views were some of the best and reminded me a lot of being in the Dolomites.
Eating at the Refuges
Since we were not guests at the refuges (we were tent camping, remember) we were able to order drinks at Chalet Refuge de la Balme but not dinner.
If we had needed dinner, Refuge Nant Borrant looked like you could just walk in and order but for Refuge de la Balme, we would’ve had to call ahead to request dinner since they only make enough food for the people paying half board.
According to people I asked on the trail, they said the food wasn’t very good at Refuge de la Balme anyway. Refuge Nant Borrant supposedly has incredible food but while it’s a location is quaint and lovely, the views at the refuge and 2 nearby camping areas aren’t the best.
Having camped at the stunning camping area at Refuge de la Balme, we got coffee at Refuge du Balme the next morning but I do not recommend it. The coffee was horrible, overpriced, and we had to wait until the guests were served before getting a cup of coffee which put us on the trail much later than I had hoped.
Overall Tips for Day 1
To fastback like we did, take the cable car from Chamonix to Brévent, hike down to Les Houches, hop on train from Les Houches to Saint Gervais and then a bus from Saint Gervais to Les Contamines.
Total public transport costs per person is about 33 euros per person
Use the free shuttle (picks up right in front of the Tourism Office) to go from Les Contamines to Notre Dame de la Gorge.
If you time the trains and buses perfectly, it is possible to get to Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme within a day but you’d have to hustle and if you aren’t camping, I’ve heard that Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme is pretty bad.
Day 2: Refuge de la Balme to Refuge Elisabetta via Variante Route
- Total miles/kilometers hiked: 19.5 km/12 mi
- Total elevation gain: 1400 m/4600 ft
- Total elevation loss: 1000 m/3300 ft
- Stages covered: Stage 2 w/ Col de Fours Variant + Stage 3
Hiking Times + Distances
- Refuge de la Balme to Col du Bonhomme: 1 hour and 30 minutes
- Col du Bonhomme to Col de la Croix: 40 minutes
- Col de la Croix to Col des Fours: 1 hour and 15 minutes,
- Col des Fours to Refuge des Mottets: 3 hours,
- Refuge des Mottets to Col de la Seigne: 1 hour and 15 minutes,
- Col de la Seigne to Refugio Elisabetta: 1 hour and 15 minutes
Refuge de la Balme to Col de la Croix – Stage 2 Ascent
We left Refuge de la Balme at 8 a.m. on the dot with a dozen or so fellow hikers on our tail which pushed our pace quite a bit. It’s a fairly steep and consistent climb from Refuge de la Balme to Col du Bonhomme and quite a shock to start your morning with such a hard exertion. Little did we know that that was just going to be a warm up for us.
From here the signs point you left and it’s another 40 minutes of easier climbing to get to the Col de la Croix. The views are nice on this section and a good warm up for the spectacular views that are coming ahead.
Col de la Croix to Refuge des Mottets – Col de Fours Stage 2/3 Variant
When you reach Col de la Croix you are also at the Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme. If you are contemplating staying here these are the things I’d consider.
- Sometimes it’s not safe to take the Col de Fours variante which is what I’m going to explain in a minute.
- This alternate route does provide a nice view of Mont Blanc and Aiguille des Glaciers, but there are way better views ahead in my opinion and you get to see the Aiguille des Glaciers for a long time from Mottets to Col de la Seigne.
- The descent down from Col de Fours to Refuge des Mottets is steep. Doing such a steep descent on back to back days destroyed Gabi’s knees and so if you go this way, don’t forget hiking sticks.
- Your odds of having clearer weather are much better earlier in the day so if you really want to do this variante, then starting from Refuge de la Croix might be a smarter option.
Another thing to keep in mind is that you can skip the Col de Fours variant and hike downhill to Les Chapieux and then catch a bus from Le Chapieux to Ville des Glaciers (which is only a 30 minute hike from Mottets) or directly to Mottets parking lot. It’s cheap and runs often throughout the day in July and August.
Since the weather was so clear, we chose to skip Chapieux and took the variant which was another 30 minutes of steep climbing, but the views of Aguilles de Glaciers and Mont Blanc made it quite worth the over 2.5 hours of climbing we had just done.
The TMB guidebook and signs mention that it’s a 20 minute detour to get to the Tete Fours, a summit to the left, but it didn’t look worth it to me. We had already climbed so much and had great views from the Col de Fours.
If you were only walking to Mottets from here and it’s a clear day, then it may be worth the extra push to Tete Fours.
Now, the rough part. The descent down from Col de Fours is brutal. It’s a very steep descent that takes 2 and a half hours. You do get nice views of the glaciers which is wonderful but you spend most of the time watching where your next footstep will be.
The bottom of the descent puts you at a car park with toilets. Use them if you aren’t planning on stopping at Mottets (which would be almost a sin since the food at Mottets is so delicious) since the toilets there are only for paying customers.
Getting to Mottets requires a 30 minute climb that is fairly gradual but still quite hard, especially after the five and a half hours we’d already walked that day.
Refuge des Mottets
I had in my mind that Mottets was going to be a mediocre pit stop for us and was completely wrong. It’s in a gorgeous location sitting below glaciers and waterfalls and looks down into the valley heading toward Chapieux. We stopped and had lunch here and the food was amazing.
We were under the impression from other blogs we read that you could camp at Mottets however it’s not a suitable place to make camp before sunset. They people that run the refuge probably don’t mind if you set up camp late in the day up just past the refuge out of sight from the guests BUT there is a sign that says no camping on the refuge property.
Since it was early in the day we decided to push on but doing so was definitely biting off more than we should’ve chewed as the next 4 hours of hiking is grueling.
Refuge des Mottets to Col de la Seigne – Stage 3 Ascent
Hiking from Mottets to Col de la Seigne is steep even with fresh legs, but we had already climbed up 1500 feet and down the same so this climb of over 2000 feet hurt.
When we started the weather was clear, but as it got closer to the top the storm clouds began condensing over the mountain peaks and the occasional boom of thunder kept up our tempo so that we’d get over the Col before the storm.
Luckily the clouds seemed happy to stay attached to the highest peaks and as we summited Col de la Seigne an hour and a half after leaving Mottets, we were greeted with great views of Val Veni in the distance.
Col de la Seigne to Rifugio Elisabetta – Stage 3 Descent
After capturing pictures of the views, we began another demanding descent that was not quite as steep as the one earlier that day but still significantly challenging, especially because our legs were beat up from an already long day of hiking.
Each step sent waves of pain to our knees, calves, and very tender feet and so it took us almost an hour and a half to get to Refugio Elisabetta.
I knew ahead of time that Elisabetta was located in a beautiful location but when we rounded the last corner and saw the three story rocky exterior of the hut surrounded be two enormous glaciers with braided waterfalls running off of them, we were so awestruck I thought we were dreaming.
Italy in general doesn’t allow wild camping unless you are above 3,000 meters and you’re making camp at sunset. Of course, if you are camping on private land and have consent from the owner it is allowed.
For the entire descent from Col de la Seigne all I had been thinking about was I really hope Elisabetta lets us camp outside their Refugio. But when I saw how beautiful the views were here at the refuge, all I could think of on the five minutes of steep climbing up the road to get to the refuge was “please have 3 beds for us.”
Of course, manifestation works and sure enough within 30 minutes we were showered and sitting down at a large table with wine, bruschetta, risotto, meat, veggies, potatoes, and a creamy tiramisu dessert.
What started as a gorgeous day with views under Dolomite-like spires of rock and a bad cup of coffee, turned into an athletic feat the two girls and I will forever be proud of, crossing two 2500 meter (8200 ft) cols, gaining a total of 1800 meters (5900 ft), and losing 1100 meters (3600 ft), all while experiencing culinary treats and epic views of glaciers, waterfalls, and the most textured and jagged peaks you can imagine.
As the day quickly came to an end I remember thinking, Did all that just happen? But the pain in our lower legs reminded us of our accomplishments as we hobbled to the bathroom to brush our teeth and go to bed.
Overall Tips for Day 2
Going from Refuge de la Balme to Refugio Elisabetta is hard but doable. It ended up taking us from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. with a 30 minute rest at Col de Fours and an hour lunch at Mottets, but the rest of the time was pretty steady hiking.
If you choose to go the Chapieux side, you may want to double check if the bus is running to cut off some time, especially since you really won’t miss much by skipping that section from Chapieux to Mottets.
Staying at either Mottets or Elisabetta are both great choices and while the food at both was incredible, if you are tight on time or Elisabetta is full, Lac Combal is 30 minutes further and is also stunning. It’s supposedly a more iconic refuge experience and some prefer it over Elisabetta since it can be really crowded at Elisabetta in peak season. Staying at Lac Combal would also put you closer to starting tomorrows climb.
Day 3: Refuge Elisabetta to Courmayeur/Val Ferret
- Total miles/kilometers hiked: 18km/11mi (13km/8mi if you get on the gondola at Plan Checrouit)
- Total elevation gain: 450m/1500ft
- Total elevation loss: 1600m/5200ft
- Stages covered: Stage 4
- Refugio Elisabetta to Mount Favre Spur: 3 hours and 30 minutes
- Mount Favre Spur to Courmayeur: 2 hours and 50 minutes
Rifugio Elisabetta to Mount Favre Spur – Stage 4 Ascent
Day 3 started out as a glorious morning and from the refuge you could see a line of UTMB runners coming down the hillside looking like a trail of ants. It was exciting to see and motivated us to get back on the trail (after 3 shots of espresso of course).
Staying at Elisabetta was comfortable with fluffy down comforters, good strong coffee, and a light breakfast of breads, cookies, and jams.
We left the Refugio feeling rested and ready for an easy day of hiking, or so we thought.
As you leave Elisabetta, prepare yourself for the most stunning section of the Tour du Mont Blanc
While the entire Tour du Mont Blanc is absolutely stunning, especially on stage 10 and 11, I find the Italian side from Rifugio Elisabetta to Rifugio Elena to be the most unique and spectacular section of hiking I’ve ever experienced.
The road from Elisabetta winds down for 25 minutes or so to a valley where our path then merged with the UTMB. It stayed flat for another 25 minutes before arriving at a fork. (Also, this is where Lac Combal Refugio is if you need a place to stay).
Now, normally the alternate route is the high route however, in this case, the classic TMB route takes the high road whereas the “alternate” stays left in the river valley.
If you go left/straight and opt for the bad weather route, you have the option to hop on a bus in La Visaille an hour of hiking later. This bus can pick you up and take you to Courmayeur.
The traditional route however, goes right up a narrow trail and here you will get some of the best views of your life.
Obviously we chose go right and I highly recommend you do too unless the weather is bad and in that case, take the low road.
Today was the day that the UTMB runners had finally caught up to us (they started about 12 hours ago in Chamonix) and as we followed the continuous line of runners up the hill for an hour and a half climb, we were greeted with picture perfect views of the glaciers across the valley for almost our entire day.
While this is not a difficult climb up to Mont Favre Spur, the downhill section from Mont Favre Spur to Col Chécrouit took us a long time (slower than the Cicerone guide pace) with our weary legs and aching joints.
If your legs are well trained or well rested, you will find this section quite pleasant.
Seeing the glaciers from so many angles might also have slowed our pace as we spent a lot of time stopping to try and capture the textures and gorgeous shades of colors of rock and ice.
Mount Favre Spur to Courmayeur – Stage 4 Descent
When you reach Col Chécrouit there’s a refuge here where you could eat and then continue another hour and a half down a steep trail through mostly forest to arrive at Courmayeur.
If the cable cars are running, I highly recommend skipping this section and taking the ride into town. It will cost €15 but is worth what it will save your knees and shins from not having to go down such a steep grade.
Optional: At Col Chécrouit you also have the option of going left around the north face of Mont Chétif.
When you reach the bottom and get off the gondola, walk down all the steps to get to street level, then cross the street that you see on your right and head north (to the left) across the bridge where you will see the TMB sign and continue under the highway and up one flight of stairs.
It’s a 10 minute walk that will bring you to the tourism office and main bus stop. It’s also where I started messing up in our itinerary.
Fatigue had set in and we were beginning to feel the affects of pushing so hard multiple days in a row. By the time we arrived in Courmayeur it was siesta time and all I could think of was how bad I needed a siesta. Not much was open for us to refuel our bodies with and grocery stores were closed so we couldn’t restock. Luckily the campground we were headed to was supposed to have a restaurant so we left Courmayeur in hopes of some rest and relaxation…turned out the restaurant was no longer open 🙁
Overall Tips for Day 3
I’d definitely cut off the downhill section from Col Chécrouit but note that the cable car only runs until 5:30 p.m.
If you are camping, see our Camping the TMB blog for details on your camping options nearby since there are no campgrounds in the town of Courmayeur.
If you are trying to fastpack the TMB you have a big dilemma.
Your dilemma is whether to skip Courmayeur in order to experience Bonatti or try to get to Bonatti and skip Courmayeur. As you’ll see in the next section, Bonatti really is amazing and I personally wouldn’t skip it.
From Courmayeur, you can get to Refugio Bonatti in about 3 hours by getting a bus ticket to the Ferret Valley and getting off close to Camping Grandes Jorasses. Then you walk the road a few more minutes and will see the familiar yellow trail signs that will point you toward La Leche and then onto Bonatti.
Going this way still gives you impressive views of Mont Blanc and the Jorasses but in less time than hiking straight from Courmayeur.
You can even cut more time off by riding the bus further to Lavachey and then taking the trail straight up to Bonatti, but I’d only do this as a last resort in bad weather since the views from the upper trail on the way to Bonatti are fantastic. Although, the views from Bonatti too are some of the best you’ll ever see.
Day 4: Val Ferret to Refugio Bonatti
- Total miles/kilometers hiked: 8km/5mi
- Total elevation gain: 300m/1000ft
- Total elevation loss: 100m/300ft
- Stages covered: Stage 5 (with modified start)
- Campground to Main TMB Trail: 1 hour
- Main TMB Trail Junction to Rifugio Bonatti: 1 hour
Val Ferret to Main TMB Trail Junction – Alternate Route
Back to how we fastpacked the TMB…We left the campground at 7 a.m. and within 5 minutes arrived at a river with the familiar yellow trail signs pointing us to La Leche.
There are several roads branching left and right but when in doubt, just stay on the main center road. In less than 20 minutes you’ll see a much smaller trail on the left side of the road. That’s the one you want. There’s a small sign on a rock pillar that says 30 min to La Leche. It took us closer to 45 minutes but that’s because we had clear views of Mont Blanc the entire way up and were constantly stopping to take pictures and admire the scenery.
La Leche is just an on old abandoned building, not too exciting, but marks the way and confirms that you are on the right trail.
Main TMB Trail Junction to Rifugio Bonatti – Stage 5
About 15 minutes later our trail merged with the main TMB trail and from here it’s an hour and fifteen to Rifugio Bonatti.
It was wonderful being on a mostly flat trail that weaves in and out of forest along the hillside while staring at the walls of rock and ice across the Ferret valley.
The only hard part that day was the 5 minute steep climb to Bonatti, but the views and food are worth the tiny effort.
We had heard great things about Refugio Bonatti both in terms of location and food. It was all true. The location trumps all the others we’ve been to, even Elisabetta, because it faces a huge glacial cirque.
There is a large grassy area in front with picnic tables but we used the space to spread out and do some Yoga for Hikers. This was our halfway point and we were hoping to do some major recovering in the next 22 hours before we hiked again.
Since we did spend the entire day here it was fun to watch all the other hikers come and go. This is the busiest hut I’d seen and since it’s only a four hour hike from Courmayeur, it gets a lot of day hikers in addition to the hikers doing the TMB.
Eating at Rifugio Bonatti
Let’s start with the coffee. One of the best parts about Italian rifugios is the espresso. Oh my! The espresso foam on the top is just amazing and I can’t get enough of it.
Then there’s the pastries. We arrived at the Refugio at 10 a.m. on an empty stomach and started by snacking on their homemade biscuits, which were really just shortbread cookies– but some of the best I’ve ever had–along with a few shots of amazing espresso.
For lunch, we split the homemade chocolate cake topped with walnuts and a blueberry shortbread cake because even though the antipasto salad was better than any I’ve ever seen—prosciutto, apples, and cheese on a bed of spring mix lettuces—the cakes looked like something we couldn’t get again and so we gobbled that up and washed it down with a glass of house red wine, all making for a perfect way to chill out while staring at the glaciers.
Then came dinnertime which started with a nice salad and bread followed by a vegetable and bean soup. Next, the main course, was a spinach frittata with mashed potatoes and a side of sautéed eggplant and a slice of brie cheese.
This was all washed down with a simple, yet delicious, dessert of yogurt, apples and granola. It was a nice finish to a big meal and while many people were grabbing their stomach and throwing in the towel from being overly full, I was finally just full. It felt like a perfect amount of food for me.
Reservations at Bonatti
We had reserved Rifugio Bonatti a week in advance when we saw rain in the forecast (even though it ended up never raining on us the entire time we hiked), and while it was a great place to stay, it ended up throwing off our timing a little bit and made us lose a day on the trail.
That being said, if you had to pick only one refuge to stay at on the whole Tour du Mont Blanc, Bonatti is the one to stay at.
Bonatti is family run and quaint but also delivers a high-end experience with 5 star service, beds, amenities, and a great mountain community.
As far as reservations, Refugio Bonatti is is a large refuge and we probably could’ve found a bed there even without reservations since it was later in the season. In fact, even though we only booked our beds a week in advance, we had to modify our reservation twice and they were able to change our dates easily.
If you don’t want to miss this Refugio, then I’d definitely say to reserve it ahead of time especially if you hike in July or August.
Other Tips on Rifugio Bonatti
The dorm style room that we slept in here was different than the semi private room we had at Elisabetta but like Elisabetta, it was a fairly comfy bed with actual sheets and a warm down comforter (and I happened to get lucky and get the bed by the window that looked out at Mont Blanc).
I had the best night sleep that I had had since arriving in Europe and woke up the next morning ready to charge.
- The cost for half board was 55 euros and included dinner, a bed in the dormitory for the night, breakfast, hot shower, and tea to take with you.
- You can pay 75 euros for half board if you’d like a private or semi private room.
- They don’t take credit cards so make sure to have cash.
- You don’t pay until after dinner, since alcohol isn’t included in the cost, and then you pay for everything when you are done “relaxing” for the evening.
- They say in the confirmation email that you are required to have sleeping sheet bag or rent one for 3 euros but that didn’t seem the case as I didn’t have one nor did anyone else in my dorm room.
- When you enter the refuge they ask you to take off your hiking shoes and either wear your flip flops/sandals or they have Crocs available for you to wear.
- You can make your reservation online here and they are usually very quick to respond.
Overall Tips for Day 4
If you are trying to fastpack the TMB and you really want to experience Bonatti, then skip Courmayeur and either start your stage 4 early in the morning so you have time to get to Bonatti on the main trail, which is about 4 hours after Courmayeur or hop on a bus to cut off some of this time. Or…
If you are trying to fastpack the TMB and you want to experience a night in Courmayeur, then combine stage 5 with stage 6 either by getting an early start since it will be about a 10 hour day of hiking, or shorten it quite a bit by busing to the end of Val Ferret and then rejoining the trail. You can also cut almost an hour off by getting a bus from Ferret to La Fouly in Switzerland.
Day 5: Refugio Bonatti to Champex
- Total miles/kilometers hiked: 29km/18mi
- Total elevation gain: 900m/3000ft
- Total elevation loss: 1900m/6200ft
- Stages covered: Stage 6 and partial Stage 7
- Rifugio Bonatti to Rifugio Elena: 2 hours and 15 minutes
- Rifugio Elena to Ferret: 3 hours
- Ferret to La Fouly: 30 minutes
- La Fouly to Praz-de-Fort: 3 hours and 30 minutes
Rifugio Bonatti to Rifugio Elena – Stage 6
We really had no intention of “fastpacking” the TMB when we were leaving Bonatti.
We wanted to take the alt stage 8 AKA high route to cross Fenettre d’Arpette on a sunny day since it is so high and steep. The best weather in the forecast was for the following day (day 6) and so that meant we would need to squeeze two stages together on day 5.
The first part of stage 6 started out with great weather and a good pace but by the time we got to Rifugio Elena, the fog was so thick and the wind so strong that we had to take a quick break inside the refuge.
Be warned that stage 6 may not seem like it has much elevation gain based on the elevation profile in the Cicerone guidebook, but it’s still a solid amount of climbing.
You actually have to descend a small hillside to the base of the valley before you start your climb up to the Grand Col Ferret.
We stepped into Refugio Elena and were so glad we did. We warm up with coffee, a slice of blueberry pie, and the best hot chocolate we’ve ever tasted before attacking the only pass on the day, Grand Col Ferret.
Refugio Elena seemed like a nice alternative to Refugio Bonatti. The pie wasn’t quite as amazing as the pastries we had at Bonatti but the atmosphere was nice and if we could have seen the entire mountain and glaciers across from the Refugio, I’m sure we would’ve been impressed however, the clouds were obstructing the view.
Rifugio Elena to La Fouly – Grand Col Ferret
Getting over Grand Col Ferret was harder than I expected. The climb was steep leaving Elena and the trail was actually busy.
We cleared the col in the fog so no views but we were thankful for a mellow descent into Switzerland. Really! The trail from Grand Col Ferret to Alpage de la Peule is so heavenly after the crazy steep trails we had hiked down on day two that I remember just being so happy and feeling like we were hiking though Scotland or Ireland since the vegetation changes significantly when you cross the col into Switzerland.
Alpage de la Peule is small but if you decide to stay a night in Courmayeur and want to get a full day of hiking in the next day, then stopping at Refugio Bonatti or Elena might make for too short of days. There’s not a lot to Alpage de la Peule but it would be a good place to rest and eat for the night.
When we left Alpage de la Peule we chose to stay on the road to hike down to Ferret. We were tired and it was easier on our sore feet. You could opt for the trail but the views aren’t much different.
Upon arriving in Ferret, the plan was to hop on the bus all the way to Champex so we’d be rested for the next day since it was going to be a tough one.
But when we got to Ferret, I didn’t understand the bus schedule at first and so we decided to walk another 45 min to La Fouly. The buses were also wayyyy pricier than I expected so I though if we hopped not the bus from La Fouly it’d be cheaper.
I have this tendency to make rash decisions and wing things. Sometimes it works out great and other times it doesn’t. In retrospect, we should’ve waited for the bus because this stretch from Ferret to La Fouly was underwhelming, as will be the stretch from La Fouly to Praz de Fort I’ll soon discover.
We thought we’d get food in La Fouly and then get on the bus but when we got to town the grocery store was closed for siesta. In fact, everything seemed closed for siesta. I was kind of shocked at how dead asleep the entire town felt.
We had just seen the bus pass on the road heading toward Ferret and figured we’d wait because it should be turning around at Ferret and heading back our way. But after waiting for a half hour I finally took the time to decipher the bus schedule and realized the bus too takes a siesta and wouldn’t be coming back for two more hours😩
We should’ve walked over to the campground and either set up our tents and called it a day or at least lay on the grass and stretch but no, our overzealous egos got all excited about hiking more and so we took off into the forest starting stage 7.
La Fouly to Champex – Begin Stage 7
Stage 7 is basically “The Flat Part of the TMB Through Switzerland “
Stage 7 is in theory an easy day. The thing is, an easy day on the TMB is still a pretty challenging day. It looks like it’s mostly flat and downhill. But there were a few short uphill sections that were calf burners and if you do the entire stage 7, the climb from Praz de Fort to Champex looked steep.
Easy if you do just stage 7 but not easy if you’re combining with another stage.
Two hours after leaving La Fouly, we couldn’t go any further. We hobbled into Praz de Fort and we’re overcome with joy and gratitude when the one restaurant in town was actually open.
If you are planning on camping the TMB, make sure to read that blog because we would’ve ended up in a huge bind if this one restaurant hadn’t been open.
We orders two pizzas to eat right then and six sandwiches to go which ended up saving us big time in the day to come.
From Praz de Fort it was easy to grab the bus since it was back to running once per hour in the evening.
We made it up to Champex right before nightfall with just enough time to snap a couple pics by the lake and get our tent set up.
Champex is a pleasant Swiss town and somewhere I would’ve liked to spend a day. If you choose not to fastpack the TMB, you should consider spending a day here. We met a wonderful couple who spend half their year living here and the other half in Phoenix, Arizona– talk about 2 extremes!!!
Overall Tips for Day 5
If you are fast packing, skip all of stage 7 but make sure you know the bus schedule ahead time so you can make it to Champex before the grocery stores close.
Champex is a much nicer area to rest in than Ferret or La Fouly in my opinion and having some time to rest your legs here before Stage 8 is highly recommended.
Day 6: Champex to Col de Balme
- Total miles/kilometers hiked: 20km/13mi
- Total elevation gain: 1800m/5900ft
- Total elevation loss: 1300m/4200ft
- Stages covered: Alternate Stage 8 and alternate Stage 9
- Champex to Fenêtre d’Arpette: 3 hours
- Fenêtre d’Arpette to Chalet du Glacier: 2 hours and 30 minutes
- Chalet du Glacier to Refuge Les Grandes: 1 hour and 15 minutes
- Refuge Les Grandes to Col de Balme: 1 hour and 30 minutes
Champex is a small town and it was only a 5 minute walk from the campground to a delicious bakery that, in addition to having wonderful pastries and bread, offers a breakfast buffet that may be the best deal in Switzerland. For 12 SF you get all you can eat bread with butter and jam, an assortment of cheeses and deli style meats. (I’m not sure if coffee is included in that.)
We are not big breakfast eaters so we just grabbed our coffee and pastries and a loaf of bread for later and began the variant (or alternative) to stage 8.
Champex to Fenêtre d’Arpette – Alt Stage 8 Ascent
The alternative stage 8 takes you up and over Fenêtre d’Arpette, the highest point on the TMB (along with Col des Fours). You gain and then lose on this route over 3500 feet, but the descent brings you quite close to the Trient Glacier.
The first 2 hours of this climb aren’t too bad, but then the last hour you are doing so many high steps. In some ways this was a nice break for our calves but it was hard on the glutes and quads and all the big steps keeps pushing your heart rate to 90% max exertion.
We chose this alternative thinking that the views were going to be outrageous but in my opinion, compared to the Val Veni and Val Ferret views, they were just mediocre.
You can see really far off into the distance and you do get pretty good views to the Trient glacier, however if you do alternate stage 9, which I highly recommend, you get just as good views without the torture that comes next for us.
Fenêtre d’Arpette to Chalet du Glacier – Alt Stage 8 Descent
The ascent is hard but feels good plus, there was a bit of scrambling over boulders which I loved. The descent however, was torture.
It’s super steep and there was a lot of scree (loose rock) that made your footing less stable. Luckily, there wasn’t much exposure so the worry was just in slipping, not falling to your death.
The other negative was that this is also a main stage of the Haute Route and so, while we were descending, the trail was very crowded with people climbing up and many places where you’d have to stop and wait for people to pass because the trail just isn’t wide enough for two.
This section beat up our knees quite a bit and I’d recommend just sticking with the regular stage 8 if you have any knee issues or if the weather isn’t great. However, if you love bragging rights, then this is your type of hike.
At the bottom of the climb you get to Chalet du Glacier, which is a small restaurant and a great place to sit and eat some food before either finishing your day in Trient, Col de la Forclaz, or Le Peuty or doing the insane like we did and tackle the alternate to stage 9 on the same day.
Water at Chalet du Glacier
This was our first time on the entire TMB to have to filter water. If we had just been going on to Trient we probably could’ve got by for the one hour hike with just beer and soda from the Chalet. But since we were going to be climbing again, we busted out our GoFlow Gravity Bag and filtered some water from the river.
Chalet du Glacier to Col de Balme – Alt Stage 9
The next stage was a really, really nice stage. We might have bit off a little more than we can chew, but it wasn’t too big of a bite.
The times in Cicerone guidebook book were pretty spot on and so it was an hour and a half climb up to Refuge Les Grandes from Chalet du Glacier where we sat and had a wonderful convo with a local who was manning the refuge for the weekend.
The views and ambiance here were so rad because you felt like you had discovered a hidden gem and had it all to yourself pretty much. I highly recommend this route.
The goal for the evening of day 6 was to get to Col de Balme and while it didn’t require crossing any more passes, because from here you just skirt the side of the mountains for a few kilometers, after already doing the oh so challenging arpette, this was a bit long and required more effort than we hoped (but what else is new on the TMB).
Thankfully we were rewarded with one of the best nights on the trail.
We walked into refuge Col de Balme and the owner instantly made us feel welcome. Because it was such a calm and clear night, we wild camped near the refuge and had the most incredible views of Mont Blanc and the surrounding mountains.
Normally the owner recommends trekkers go down a bit from the refuge just because of the weather.
The best part of the day was the delicious dinner we had at the refuge. This was our first time eating croute and it was better than anything I’d eaten so far on the TMB.
After finishing off our amazing dinner with the best cheesecake I’ve ever had, we retreated to the peace and solitude of our lone tent perched high on the col overlooking Mont Blanc and Chamonix Valley to the west and Trient to the east.
This was one of the most memorable nights of my life. The night sky was so clear and there are so few lights from here that I have never seen the Milky Way so creamy in my life (and I’ve camped in a lot of places). The density of stars just blew me away and my girls may never forgive me for not waking them up at 2 a.m. to soak it in.
But this peace and gratitude I felt that night is probably the reason I ended up kinda screwing up our next day by making a few bad decisions, which meant that instead of ending our TMB on a high note, we end up limping into Chamonix on the seventh day at 9 p.m. with feelings of frustration.
Overall Tips for Day 6
The most direct way to fastback these two stages is by doing the alternate route for both stages.
Go over the Fenêtre d’ Arpette and at Chalet du Glacier, cross the bridge to climb to Refuge Les Grandes. OR you can choose to save the knees and take the traditional route from Champex to Col de la Forclaz and then come around to Chalet du Glacier from the opposite direction before heading up to Refuge Les Grandes.
Time wise the latter (the classic stage 8 route) may be faster even though the distance is a few kilometers longer. Doing the Fenêtre d’ Arpette can be slow and tedious while the regular stage 8 has way less elevation gain or loss so you can keep a faster pace.
Day 7: Col de Balme to Chamonix
- Total miles/kilometers hiked: 20km/12.5mi
- Total elevation gain: 1000m/3300ft
- Total elevation loss: 2100m/6900ft
- Stages covered: Stage 10 with detour to Lac Blanc
- Col de Balme to L’Aiguillette des Posettes: 2 hours
- L’Aiguillette des Posettes to Tre-le-Champ: 1 hour and 45 minutes
- Tre-le-Champ to Lac Blanc: 2 hours and 45 minutes
Col de Balme to L’Aiguillette des Posettes – Begin Stage 10
We woke to a perfectly clear sky and the sunrise was simply incredible. The utter silence and complete stillness of the valley below was an experience we will never forget.
We took our time packing up and drinking our coffee that morning, probably more because of the fact that we loved the vibe and views up at the Refugio more than because we were exhausted from two days of intense hiking, but let’s be honest, we had to be pretty worn out at this point.
I’m sure the cortisol pumping through my body from the stoke factor made me not notice how tired I really was, but, just like the previous days, we threw our packs on our backs, excited to be on the trail again.
I think we might’ve started off on the wrong trail though.
Somehow we ended up summiting L’Aiguillette des Posettes from the wrong side and got a bit confused. It wasn’t a big deal, but probably set us back in time by 20 minutes or so. We thought we’d be camping at Lac Blanc that night and so we didn’t really worry about it.
It’s funny how much your expectation plays a role in your experience and I expected the day to be somewhat easy so I didn’t think much about how fast we were hiking or feel like there was a need to rush. In retrospect, we should’ve been on the trail earlier and paid more attention to the signs.
L’Aiguillette des Posettes to Tré-Le-Champ – Climbing and Ladders
The descent down to Tré-Le-Champ from Aiguilette was, you guessed it, harder than expected but not as bad as coming off the Arpette the previous day.
When you hit the road you see the trail that starts stage 10 and will take you to Flégère and Lac Blanc if you wish and so I was really tempted to just push on and get to Lac Blanc as quickly as possible but we only had a loaf of bread with us and I knew I should play it safe and stop for lunch just in case Lac Blanc doesn’t have food.
It was a good call because for one, the food at the restaurant we went to was really good and two, we end up getting to Lac Blanc after they’ve stopped serving lunch and so we didn’t get to eat again that day.
We played it safe and walked down the road for about 5 minutes to this restaurant that serves many many hikers along the TMB. The food really is incredible and it’s worth the detour if you have time.
After sitting to enjoy our meal for an hour, we put on our packs and I distinctly remember looking at my girls and saying, “I really need a nap.” Which is a huge rarity for me. I never nap.
But we pushed on anyways because that’s just what we do.
We hiked back up the road and began the steep climb to Aiguillette d’Argentière. It was fun walking past all the rock climbers and by the time we reached the ladders, I felt invigorated again.
The ladders aren’t as scary as they sound but if you have any fear of heights, you should just take the alternative via Col de Montets.
If you are concerned about the ladders, my friend Mags at Family Freestylers has a great article about the difficulty of the ladders that you can read here.
With the fun behind us, we looked up the mountain and saw Refuge Lac Blanc that we were planning on finishing our day at. But we looked up?! For some reason I thought that when we finished the climb to Tête aux Vents that it would be a flat trail to Lac Blanc. I never really considered that it might be another grueling hour of climbing to get there.
I had nothing left.
I remember trying to appreciate the pain in every step, knowing how much I was going to miss this journey soon.
In addition, we had had so much good luck along the way that I made the error of assuming what was will always be. But our luck had run out.
A half hour before you arrive at Lac Blanc, you reach Lacs de Chésery. It was more crowded here than I expected and we ran into fellow hikers that we had met at Bonatti who said we should stop here and enjoy these lakes because they are prettier than Lac Blanc.
I thought about listening to their advice and even thought that it might be good to just set up camp here and then hike up to check out Lac Blanc but FOMO and hunger got the best of me.
We had read on other people’s blogs on camping the TMB and I thought we’d be able to camp at Lac Blanc. The view was supposed to be incredible there and I wanted to get to the refuge as fast as possible to make sure we’d be able to get food because we only had that loaf of bread left from two days ago (yummy!).
30 minutes of painful climbing later we arrive at the refuge only for the owner to tell me she’s done serving lunch, has no beds available for the night, and we can’t camp there.
She does offer to include us for dinner but at 25 euros per person, I was reluctant and the thought of sitting down to dinner with a bunch of strangers who would be nice and clean from their hot shower, made me uncomfortable seeing as we hadn’t showered since Bonatti, three nights ago.
It’s almost 6 pm and I’m beat. I just want to be done. I needed food, rest, and a hot shower. In retrospect I should’ve paid for dinner and not cared how smelly I was.
It’s going to replay in my mind so long.
Why didn’t I just pay for the dinner, get over myself for being stinky, and then hiked back down to the Chésery lakes, and enjoy one more night on the trail.
Forgiveness is hard especially forgiving yourself.
Instead, I looked at Google Maps and it says 2 hours walking time to get to the closest town of Les Bois, which is right next to Chamonix. I look at the girls and say Can we just be done? They reluctantly “agree” but moreover they just succumbed to my pleas to finish right now because they just want to make me happy. And so, we set off to complete the TMB in 7 days.
Lac Blanc to Chamonix – Partial Stage 10 and Le Flegere Alternative Descent
The first mistake was taking the most direct route to Flégère via a trail that was marked closed. It was being repaired and while we saw others take this route and the path wasn’t that bad, I did step on a loose wooden board that caused me to fall, almost cartwheeling off the side of the mountain. Luckily, I wasn’t hurt, but it was a bad start to an even worse finish.
When you get to Flégère you can go left more towards Les Tines or slightly to the right toward Chamonix and Les Bois. Normally the cable car is running and this would be the easiest option if you were fastpacking the TMB.
But this year the cable car was being repaired and so we had to hike off the mountain. To our surprise, the entire trail network near Flégère was closed and since night was falling we thought we should play it safe and stay on the road.
I have never seen a road this steep in my life.
I’m not sure how vehicles make their way up and down this road because even with 4wd and a low gear, I’d be afraid of losing control and ending up in the trees.
We practically scooted down on our butts for the 20 switchbacks in the first 2 kilometers. Google Maps was finally wrong.
It took us 3 painful hours to get down the mountains and another hour to hike to the campground.
The only positive to this horrendous evening of hiking was the absolutely beautiful sunset that graced Chamonix valley. The whole mountains was glowing and even in our frustrated stupor, we couldn’t help but stand there awestricken.
By 10 p.m. nothing was open and while the kind man at the campground reception offered us a can of ravioli, I was way too tired to eat cold noodles. We went to bed hungry and feeling defeated.
I know we missed out that night on what would’ve been the second most memorable night of my life.
We woke up though in good spirits and laughed it off. We may have messed up on our last day, but the sum total of the experience was perfect.
In fact, after showering and packing everything back into our packs, we walked to the train station to go get coffee and chocolate croissants in Chamonix planing out next years backpacking trip.
Will it be the Alta Via or the Haute route?
Overall Tips for Day 7
Basically don’t do what we did.
First of all, you should absolutely just ride the gondola down from Charamillon and Le Tour then walk the last bit to Tré-Le-Champ.
The views from L’Aiguillette des Posettes aren’t much different than the trail Col de Balme and and our legs would’ve felt so much better on stage 11 if we had skipped that section.
Second, reserve Lac Blanc if you are planning on doing a long day of hiking and want to stay there for the night because there are not any other food options along stage 11 until you get to Brévent or Refuge de Bellachat, and if you get there late they might not be open or they will be only serving food for their guests staying the night.
Lac Blanc was very beautiful and is rightfully known as one of the most scenic spots on the Tour du Mont Blanc. On a clear day, you get views of the jagged mountains towering above the crystal clear lake. So with that, I will say that it is worth the detour to come here.
If you’re camping just know that you’ll actually have to make camp at Lacs de Chésery and then go up and explore Lac Blanc. I probably would recommend calling in advance and paying to be apart of dinner unless you somehow have your own supply of food for the night.
For non-campers or if even campers, I highly recommend staying at the refuge. This refuge actually just re-opened after being closed for 2 years and supposedly it’s a really quaint but nice refuge with solid food.
Thanks for reading and I honestly hoped this helped you with planning your TMB trip! I hesitated to even share this post because I know it’s a little rambly but all the mistakes I made on our trek were because there wasn’t enough information on the internet for me to know ahead of time. My goal is to help you learn from my mistakes 🙂
If you haven’t already, be sure to check out related Tour du Mont Blanc blogs below!
Tour du Mont Blanc Resources
- 35 Photos to Inspire You to Hike The Tour du Mont Blanc
- Where to Stay in Chamonix, France
- Ultimate Tour du Mont Blanc Pack List
- The Ultimate Planning Guide to the Tour du Mont Blanc (coming soon)
- Tour du Mont Blanc Camping Guide (Coming soon)
- The Best Stages on the Tour du Mont Blanc (Coming soon)