T rekking the TMB’s southern half is arguably more challenging than its northern twin. Our trip commences near Chamonix; and surely no-one actually walks up to La Flegere when hiking from Les Praz de Chamonix to Les Houches? As an enlightened traveller, you certainly will not; and even if it is raining down in the Valley, you should hopefully get above the cloud cover and pick up the mythical Grand Balcon du Sud with ease.
When trekking the TMB’s southern half, the first two hours to Planpraz are fairly easy going, followed by a 45-minute climb up to a fine belvedere below the Col de Brevent and then the Col itself at 2368 metres altitude and a junction with the GR5/Via Alpina. If you are going to meet snow cover on the trail, then this is where it is likely to lay – and walking sticks are highly recommended. Once over the watershed, the sights off westwards make you realise that there are perhaps other walks in these parts that are worth considering at a later date.
Clamber up the steps alongside the day trippers to Brevent and into the restaurant with the Panoramic terrace and treat yourself to a plate of salad with French fries – so good they surely inspired Mr MacDonald himself. The service is complementary and the view across to the peak of Mont Blanc is difficult to beat – weather permitting.
Suitably fortified and rested, bid farewell to the concrete promontory and traverse a lunar-landscape-like surface to Bel-Lachat and another terrace panoramique. Then it is very much a downhill slalom past the animal park and statue of Christ to Les Houches and the comforts of your 3-star hotel. A great day’s hiking to get you up to speed with Part Two of this rite of passage.
Les Houches to Les Contamines starts once again with a short cable car transfer that cuts out arguably the most monotonous climb on Le Tour. Once up to Bellevue [1801 m alt.], you can see the parting of the trails that comprises today’s choice: ahead for more challenging and rewarding Haute Route via Col de Tricot, or right for the more leisurely route via Col de Voza, especially in bad weather. Or why not add a night and walk both – well worth it!
Trekking the TMB’s Low Route involves a fair percentage of minor road walking; but, as is often the case, one can enjoy fine scenery from such quiet alpine roads that link together the charming chalet-dominated hamlets and villages of Haute Savoie. The off-road is never challenging and the gite at Le Champel makes for a fine, if early, lunch spot. The closing straight sees you following a fine ledge along the side of the Bon Nant river before you haul yourself up from the valley bottom and arrive almost directly outside the Contamines tourist office – uncanny how they always get the best spots!
The Haute Route is a different kettle of fish entirely. A couple of minor staircase sections [with metal ropes] precede the descent to one of the highlights of the tour itself – the rope bridge below the Glacier de Bionassay.
There may be a small stretch of shallow snow to traverse below the Col du Tricot, but the windswept col offers fine panoramic views before you commence the steep descent to Les Chalets de Miage and a highly-recommended lunch spot. And when we say steep, we mean it: it helps to have been weaned on goats’ milk!
If you are still not hungry, wait another hour, climb majestically out of the valley and enjoy a hearty lunch in the alpine meadows of Chalet du Truc. Thereafter, the descent to Les Contamines is measured until the lower reaches, where the forestry trails mimic the steepness of the town’s own Baroque church.
Les Contamines to Les Chapieux commences with a gentle 90-minute stroll along the river bank until Notre Dame de la Gorge. Then climb to Refuge de La Balme followed by the 600-metre ascent to Col du Bonhomme [2329 ms alt]. The Col is pretty desolate and windswept, with nothing much to keep you there longer than the time to catch your breath – but you might find a space in the shelter to escape from the gale and catch your breath.
We climb a further 100 metres to today’s high point, the Col de la Croix du Bonhomme. Then it’s another scramble up to the Col’s professionally-built cairn, from where you can see the nearby refuge of the same name. Time for lunch – although the menu in our experience is one of the least inviting of Le Tour, only ousted from wooden-spoon position by the pitiful Col de Balme experience!
The initial stages of the descent are gentle but below 2000 metres the quality degenerates into a free-for-all in which you end up ignoring the surrounding countryside completely as you focus entirely on your footing. Without doubt the low point of the tour, and trying to be philosophical about it, all tours have their nadir. Sometimes avoidable, sometimes not, the variant from Col de la Croix du Bonhomme across to Les Mottets is alas not all-weather. Reaching 2665 metres altitude and taking at least an extra 30 to 45 minutes, it is even more ‘risqué’.
The no-frills overnight auberge is both charming and welcoming, with a perfect patio for sipping that thirst-quenching beer.
Les Chapieux to Refuge Elizabetta starts with a 90-minute saunter up the Vallee des Glaciers along a minor tarmac road where traffic is restricted to the local shuttle bus in season. With appropriate footwear, this stretch is most enjoyable, despite the macadam, and we highly recommend you experience it.
From Ville des Glaciers it takes about 30 minutes to arrive at Refuges des Mottets, where drinks, snacks and WCs are available. The protracted climb up to the Italian border at Col de la Seigne [two hour and 650 m elevation gain] brings back memories of scaling Ben Nevis [for the cognoscenti] and the sumptuous view down the Vallon de la Lee Blanche certainly makes the effort worthwhile.
At the Casermetta museum ten minutes later [whoever decided to build it here should be shot :)] you can start to identify some of the stunning peaks that are visible down both sides of the valley. Elizabetta is approximately 45 minutes’ gentle walk away from here, so do take your time and bask in the tranquility of one of Le Tour’s unforgettable moments. However, a word of caution: check in to the refuge as soon as you can, as latecomers are rewarded with a cold shower.
Refuge Elizabetta to Courmayeur can be shortened in two ways [see our tour dossier] but unless you are in bad shape, bad company or bad weather, we would urge you to see out Le Tour in style.
It can get pretty blustery as you climb up through the ruins opposite the totally receded Miage Glacier, but after attaining the spur at 2430 metres altitude, you descend to a picture-postcard boulder-and-mountain-pool ensemble before striding out across that ridge, in the direction of the conical Mont Chetif, thus closing the ethereal TMB loop.
Trekking the TMB’s southern half is a fine mini-tour. Whichever means you choose to arrive back in Courmayeur [sharp descent or cable-car], congratulations on completing one of the World’s Mythical Adventures and most talked about trails. So many memories and chance encounters, and so much enjoyment has been gained away from the hustle and bustle of your ‘normal’ life. You have visited three different countries and appreciated the differences between each one. You look and feel great and can now consider turning that mobile phone on again to make others envious of your achievements. Life’s great!
© The Enlightened Traveller 2016
To walk this TMB mini-tour, see:
To read about the less-challenging northern half of the TMB, see:
And to walk the northern 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.