Things learnt on the Tour du Mont Blanc

Walking the Tour du Mont Blanc was quite a different experience to the multi-day walks I’ve done in New Zealand and Australia. Rather than staying in a basic hut or camping there were refuges providing three course dinners, instead of wilderness you were never that far from a house or road, and it was rare to walk for more than 15 minutes without seeing someone else on the track.

Here are a few other things I learnt walking the track, some I had read about beforehand, others I discovered as I went.

The most important thing I learnt is to book the refuges well in advance. I’d read online that toward the end of the season in September (the refuges are only open June to mid September) that there is no need to book or that you can do so the night before, which is rubbish.

Luckily while walking the Larapinta Trail I met someone who had walked the Tour a previous September, had seen similar advice online, and had had real issues with accommodation. So straight after the Larapinta, two months before walking the Tour I got booking. Some areas were fine and there was choice, but other parts (particularly Stages 5 and 6) there was literally no accommodation. This meant I had to walk 38km in one day as all the refuges were booked up along the way.

Some more refuge related learnings

Food
– Dinner is usually at 7pm and breakfast from 7am
– You usually have an allocated table to sit at for both meals, generally based on groups / nationality. My last night I sat at a table with an Australian couple, a Spanish lady, a Dutch lady, and a pair from Malaysia!
– Dinner is typically three courses, a starter (soup or salad), a main (pasta or meat with rice perhaps) and dessert (often chocolate cake)
– Breakfast is typically cereal, bread, cheese and meats
– Most refuges will also sell you a packed lunch, typically a sandwich and a few goodies, though I didn’t bother, most people I’d met who had bought them were underwhelmed. A better option I found (if time and planning allows) is to stop at a refuge for lunch, similar price to the packed lunches, but more variety and higher quality
– The staple foods at the refuges are cheese and bread, filling but a bit much after a week

Sleeping
– All refuges have dorm rooms sleeping between 4 and 40 people based on my experience, and many also have smaller shared rooms and even single rooms available, though at a higher price and they tend to book up first
– Ear plugs are a must as there are always snorers, and an eye mask helps
– Duvets / blankets and pillows are provided, but you must bring a sleeping bag liner to sleep in
– It’s amazing the amount of heat a sleeping person generates, I usually was too hot in the night, even with windows open
– Set up your bed before dinner to avoid disturbing others / having to do it in the dark after dinner
– Everyone is usually in bed between 9pm and 9.30pm
– The chances of sleeping past 7am are slim, and you’d miss breakfast if you did. Almost everyone leaves straight after breakfast, refuges are usually close to empty shortly after 8am

Practical
– Take cash as many refuges don’t accept cards
– All refuges will accept Euro, even those in Switzerland where they use the Swiss Franc, so just bring enough Euro for accommodation and any extra food / drinks
– Expect to pay between €40 and €60 a night for half board (usually pay after dinner), and around €15-20 for lunch or €10-12 for packed lunch
– Most refuges have hot showers, but they may not be hot in the mornings if they’re solar powered, bring your own towel
– They always have power sockets but their number and accessibility varies significantly, best charge when you can
– Many refuges have wifi, though it usually slows down to the point of being unusable once everyone has arrived
– Take your boots off when you arrive and use the refuge slippers provided, or bring your own slippers / jandels

A few learnings relating to the track itself…
– It is very well sign posted, usually with timings, though less often in Switzerland oddly
– Almost everyone walking the Tour seemed to have a copy of Kev Reynolds blue guide book, which only has high level maps, but combined with the description they are enough to navigate the Tour fine
– The track has a real mixture of surfaces, from roads to boulders, but is generally non-technical, though a few sections (particularly the variants) have trickier conditions underfoot
– On Stages 10 and 11 there are a few ladders (which can be avoided) but they’re pretty tame and straightforward to climb
– The track is busiest first thing in the morning when everyone leaves the refuges after breakfast, but the crowds thin out over the course of the day. People are usually very good at letting faster people by
– There are a number of variants to the main route, which usually involve more ascent and descent, with correspondingly better views, but should only be tackled in fine weather (particularly Fenetre d’Arpette) and if you’ve got the time / energy for them. If you do though they will be among your highlights of the Tour

Final learning if you’re finishing in Chamonix is to check whether the cable cars are running. I, and others I met in the refuges, had been looking forward to finishing the Tour by taking the Midi cable car up from Chamonix, or coming down from Le Brevent by cable car to avoid the steep descent. Both were out of action by the second week of September for repairs and maintenance…

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