O ur description of walking the TMB [northern half] commences in picture post-card Courmayeur. Each of you will have your own unique way of arriving in Courmayeur. We chose to stay in Chamonix for the night and took the SAT coach from just outside la gare Chamonix that travels through Mont Blanc tunnel – it’s a cheap, regular service and we were in our Courmayeur hotel within 50 minutes!
This description of walking the TMB [northern half] encompasses a trip through three countries in six days of walking – making it by far the more interesting of the two possible TMB mini-tours. There is no other way to walk it properly [i.e., anti-clockwise] than to commence in Courmayeur. And what a welcome contrast it is to the commercial and glitzy, so-called ‘French cradle of alpinism’ that is Chamonix. Its august Italian counterpart is nestled in the Val Veni on the other side of the Massif and welcomes the hiking fraternity in a much more under-stated manner. Reason enough in itself to start the full TMB tour here, although you also avoid the crowds by NOT starting in Les Houches, France. So enjoy a more moderate introduction to Le Tour itself: time to break yourself in gently and get up to speed, rather than hit the ground running with jet lag.
Courmayeur to Arnuva is the perfect start and a supreme day’s hiking in its own right; and juxtaposed with the ‘Balcon du Sud’ as the perfect ending, we believe our mini-tour is one heavenly sandwich.
We leave Courmayeur via the Mountain Guides’ Association building and, once off the tarmac, it is a 90-minute climb [punctuated by fine views back down valley to Courmayeur] until you get to the Bertone Refuge.
This is your first opportunity to enjoy a short break [drinks, WC, etc.] and the first fine belvedere of the day. Your sense of expectation is immediately whetted and you feel you can almost stretch out and touch the conical Mont de la Dome from the orientation table just above.
We opt for the moderate option from this point, ignoring the ‘are you nuts!’ variant via Col Sapin, and enjoy a fine, gently-undulating alpine ridge that hugs the contours of Mont de la Saxe with fine views off left along the Ferret valley and across valley to the massif and its peaks.
The ridge is quite exposed to start with, but tree cover is found after about 30 minutes as your path traverses juniper, billberry and larchwoods. You may cross a few day-hikers here on their way up and back to Bertone from Leuchey and La Vachy in the valley below. The immensely enjoyable and gently undulating subalpine trail provides superb views on all sides as you head NE along a trail punctuated by abandoned farms – Leche [1929 ms alt], Arminaz [2033 ms alt] and Secheron, before you commence your ascent to the fabulous vantage point that is home to the welcoming Bonatti Refuge, located on a lower terrace of the Vallon de Malatra.
The Grandes Jorasses [4208 ms alt.] and Aiguille de l’Eveque [3258 ms alt.] are directly opposite the Bonatti refuge, while Mont Blanc is still visible. You have progressed another two-and-a-half hours along the mythical trail since Bertone and it is time to enjoy a break for drinks and essentials and take in the splendor of this picturesque, middle-mountain stop-over. You are an hour-and-a-half away from Arnuva, with Refuge Elena a further hour from there.
After Bertone, you negotiate a bridge over a ravine and pass through the ruins of Gioe hamlet. A protracted climb follows that is never too steep until you round a bend and level out at 2000 ms to enjoy fine views of the Pre-de-Bar glacier. Your trail traverses alpenrose and billberry, with the water in the river Ferret below a magnificent pale green befitting of the finest aquamarine.
The descent to Arnuva commences as a saunter through classic alpine meadow, but steepens after a junction with some farm buildings. Thereafter, the trail becomes steep and quite degraded until you arrive at the valley bottom and your welcoming auberge, with open-air bar for that much-needed draught lager.
Day Two, Arnuva to La Fouly, kicks off with an hour’s climb up arguably the least interesting dirt track of the entire TMB. It is soon erased from the short-term memory as you reach Rifugio Elena, although it does allow the refuge to re-stock without recourse to a helicopter and your luggage to be transferred if you opt to stay the night there.
Elena is a slate-grey, functional-looking building overlooking Mont Dolent and the Pre-de-Bar glacier. Its rugged emplacement lacks the charm [and the fine terrace] of Bonatti, but it is nice inside, with a good mix of double rooms and large dormitories and refreshments and wholesome meals are available to all.
The highlight of today’s walking is the climb up to the Grand Col de Ferret with its orientation table on the Italian-Swiss frontier. Climbing sticks are ‘de rigeur’ and the ascent quite strenuous, steep, winding and crowded: take plenty of breaks and try to enjoy it! It is only [sic] 480 ms of ascent and the rest of the day is downhill; however, the surface is highly degraded, the trail more like a channel in places and can take around two hours. Mumble “arrivederci” under your breath as you enjoy the final views back down Ferret Valley and tentatively start to practice your yodeling skills.
After all the sweat expended in reaching this ‘grand col’, one has to feel a little disappointed with the non-descript nature of the ‘table d’orientation’ – obviously built to last and vandal proof. Don’t join the queue, but do spend some time picking out Arnuva in the valley below.
Once you have finished marveling at your arrival in Switzerland by stealth, you are rewarded with the first sight of the grassy and gently-undulating trail that takes you all the way to Refuge La Peule and lunch, about an hour’s walk away. Surely one of those nice people at IGN.fr has forgotten to turn on the green tint on this section of the map? For what you anticipate as being bare rock and scree is, in fact, more like the setting for ‘The Sound of Music’ – the hills are very much alive with the sights and sounds of all sorts of vegetation and creatures [watch out for accompanied mules passing you in the opposite direction].
The yellow and black lozenges and TMB Capitals have now been replaced by white poles sporting red, white and black rings; and whilst Mont-Blanc is now lost until Col de Balme in 3-days’ time, one now has the sensation of being a privileged participant amidst mountain ranges rather than a passive and awestruck observer of a static block.
The gentle descent to La Peule can be savoured as much as the bouillon served up at this summer farmstead, neatly served up with a doorstop of freshly-baked bread. From here we err on the side of caution and opt for the less demanding, all-weather trail that takes us down to Les Ars and along the Swiss Val Ferret. It takes around an hour to arrive in Ferret, a charming frontier village that merits a quick look around before you retrace your steps to the hamlet’s entrance and cross over the raging torrent that is La Drance de Ferret. Failure to do so means missing that picture-book chapel – a must irrespective of your faith or beliefs. The sentier des Bergers is the final delight of the day before you enter La Fouly and enjoy an evening in your 3-star hotel.
Day Three, or La Fouly to Champex, starts with a quick look at the weather outlook at the Tourism Office before you depart past the ramshackle internet café/chalet, cross the Torrent again and strike out northwards alongside the attractive banks of ‘La Drance’. On this most gentle of stages, relatively-speaking of course, the day commences without the habitual climb – although do save a bit of energy for the early-afternoon ascent to Lac Champex. This takes you from 1055 to 1473 ms alt along the Sentier de Champignons: an invitation to learn-as-you-hike, so to speak, rather than gather-as-you-go.
The walking is quite varied today: there’s an open ledge reminiscent of the Gorges du Tarn; an enclosed and tree-lined embankment; a pastoral stroll on a minor tarmacked path with nothing to obscure the views of the fabulous mountain scenery including Le Catogne; not to mention the human interest on offer between the villages of Praz de Fort and Issert. Consider lunching in the latter before enjoying several fine belvederes en route to ethereal Champex.
Champex encapsulates everything good about Switzerland – quality of life, organization, tranquility and welcoming: everyone you pass around the lakeside makes a point of saying ‘bonjour’. The adjectives ‘picturesque’ and ‘quaint’ were most likely coined here. “Little Canada” may well be an apt label, but ‘Swiss country life in microcosm’ is another. Do arrive as early as you can in order to imbibe the good life and enjoy a lakeside saunter.
Nestled in the shadow of mont “La Breya” at 1500 metres altitude, Champex lies in Switzerland’s largest canton, Valais, reputed for its fine wines and cuisine. It has a long history of welcoming visitors to its peaceful lakeside hotels. The village is little more than a linear settlement stretched out along the eastern shores of the lake, but there is everything here you need.
Champex to Col du Forclaz [Day 4] sees you bid farewell to the mist-covered lake and head north-west for some sixty minutes on tarmac or light stony trails en route to the Auberge de Bon Abri and Plain de l’Au, where there is a small bar for drinks and snacks.
From here the main challenge of the day commences – a climb of 660 ms to the working dairy farm of Bovine [alt 1987 ms.] The ascent is in stages, so opportunities abound for taking breathers; and any morning mist will have dissipated by the time you get above the tree-line and start the approach to Bovine itself along a fine ridge of gentle gradient.
As you approach, the sub-alpine air is rich with bovine aromas and the sound of cow bells. Enjoy the splendid views down valley to Martigny and the sight of Grand Combin in the distance. The food is nutritious, too; especially the vegetable soup (bouillon), omelets and fondue. You may have to queue for access to the one available toilet before you continue on your way with a short climb up to a gateway at Collet Portalo(u) [alt 2050 ms].
From here onwards to Col du Forclaz, a descent of 500 ms, it is inevitably nearly all downhill. It is rocky, tree-knurled, relatively-steep and tree-covered to start with, but gets gentler and more open as you progress. The sound of traffic announces your arrival at the Col and its welcoming auberge and general store. Enjoy a drink on the popular outside terrace and your last chance to purchase those priceless Swiss souvenirs. You have reached the most northerly point of the TMB trail and the furthest away from Mont Blanc itself.
With your fifth day, from Col du Forclaz to Argentiere, the challenge is ratcheted up a notch as you descend to the charming village of Trient with its prominent Romanesque church, before striding out on the tarmac to Le Peuty for 15 minutes. Shortly after your boots grace earth once again as you cross a field of yellow gentians and arrive at and cross the raging Nant Noir that signals the commencement of a three-hundred-meter climb in the shade, but with no views to appease your panting lungs.
From approximately 1745 ms alt, the path becomes a little less steep and the open nature of the countryside is guaranteed to occupy the mind. From the base of a rock staircase, you get your first fine views back down the Trient Valley as well as a glimpse of the refuge de Col de Balme up ahead in the distance, the day’s highest point and obvious lunch spot. Sitting on the skyline nearly 450 metres above, this refuge boasts the TMB’s worst toilet, some of its most expensive canned drinks and begrudging service, to boot. There’s only bottled water available and the exposed terrace is designed to ensure hikers refrain from lingering for too long – not the best welcome to France!
Despite the refuge, then, you can congratulate yourself for reaching the giddy heights of Col de Balme [alt 2191 ms] and arriving at the Swiss-French border. From here the views down along the Arve valley are quite stunning and you catch first sight of Mont Blanc’s snow-covered dome itself.
We follow the direction to the Col de Possettes and at the main junction [alt 1997 ms] opt for the lower, all-weather path (dir. Tre Le Champs) that passes above the Chalet de Balme [refreshments] but avoids the Aiguillette des Possettes, which can be quite tricky, especially under poor meteorological conditions.
You have now done the day’s hard work and the rest of the trail is fairly easy-going, with the accent on gentle descents. You traverse some delightful alpine countryside and enjoy views off left down to Le Tour on the river Arve.
When you eventually reach the main road connecting Argentiere to Col de Montets, you walk an embankment and then alongside the Arve river itself. The gite at Tre-Le- Champs has a welcoming garden terrace for drinks before you continue the gentle walk down into Argentiere and the comfort of your fine hotel in the main street of this busy little settlement.
The final day of your Mont Blanc experience, Argentiere to Les Praz de Chamonix, gives you a choice according to personal tastes that may also be influenced by the prevailing weather conditions. For those who suffer any vertigo-related symptoms, and if visibility is poor or rain predicted, take the red and yellow GRP from Col de Montets and climb the steep ascent to the remarkable ‘Grand Balcon du Sud’ and traverse the Massif des Aiguilles Rouges.
Alternatively, if metallic ladders pose you no problems [and they are quite modest and used by most] then opt for the main TMB route [GR], comprising a much gentler gradient, and enjoy the sites of roaming ibex on the way up to the impressive triangular-cum-needle-like rock outcrop known as Les Aiguilettes – and a bird’s eye view of Argentiere, 800 metres below. The first section of ladders are quite steep, but they are very sturdy and the grab handles along the ledges excellent, allowing you to negotiate the challenge with minimum difficulty with the addition of platforms and timber steps. The photos below should help you decide whether the GR is the right option for you.
Whichever route you take, you will enjoy the finest views there are along the entire western side of the Mont Blanc massif. You converge on Lac Blanc and its fine refuge for a memorable terrace or lakeside lunch followed by a stroll round some of the tarn’s shores, space permitting! The walk to La Flagere takes about 90 minutes from here, so enjoy your last moments of the trail on the fabulous ‘Balcon du Sud’ but do make sure you reach the cable car station by 17.45 at the latest or you’ll be bedding down in the very basic refuge here until the next day instead of enjoying a celebratory evening meal in the valley below – Chamonix itself can wait!
© The Enlightened Traveller 2015
To walk this TMB mini-tour, see:
To read about the more challenging southern half of the TMB, see:
And to walk the southern half of the TMB, see:
For the whole Tour du Mont Blanc, see:
For short, 4-night taster tours see:
Click to visit The French Hiker’s Guide to Holidaying in the Hexagon and the Best French Self-guided walks, trails, trips, places & themes.