Trekking the TMB’s southern half
Surely no-one actually walks up to La Flegere when hiking to Les Houches? As an enlightened traveller, you certainly will not – let the cable car take the strain! Even if it is raining down in the Valley, you soon get above the cloud cover and pick up the legendary Grand Balcon du Sud with ease.
Col de Brevent
When trekking the TMB’s southern half, the first two hours to Planpraz are fairly easy going. What follows is a 45-minute climb up to a fine belvedere below the Col de Brevent. A photo-stop is in order before pushing onto the Col itself at 2368 metres altitude. Located at a junction with the GR5/Via Alpina, this is where you are likely to meet some snow cover.
Walking sticks are highly recommended. Once over the watershed, the sights off westwards are testimony to there being other walks worth considering in the Alps at a later date.
Clamber up the steps alongside the day trippers to Brevent and into the restaurant with the Panoramic terrace. Treat yourself to a 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 to Bel-Lachat and another belvedere. Then it is a protracted 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 trekking the TMB’s southern half.
Day Two of Trekking the TMB’s southern half takes you from Les Houches to Les Contamines. Once again you start with a short cable car transfer that cuts out arguably the most monotonous climb on Le Tour. At Bellevue [1801 m alt.], you can see the parting of the trails that comprises today’s choice.
Straight ahead for the more challenging and rewarding High Route via Col de Tricot. Alternatively, head right for the more leisurely Low Route via Col de Voza, especially in bad weather. Or why not add a night and walk both – well worth it and now part of our trip!
The Low Route
Walking the Low Route involves a fair percentage of minor road walking. Nevertheless, as is often the case, one can appreciate fine scenery from such quiet alpine roads. They 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. Then 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 High Route
The High/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, with the windswept col giving up fine panoramic views. Then you commence the steep and twisting 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, defer lunch for another hour. Climb majestically out of the valley and enjoy a hearty meal in the alpine meadows of Chalet du Truc. The descent to Les Contamines is measured until the lower reaches. Thereafter, the forestry trail mimics the steepness of the town’s own Baroque church steeple.
Notre Dame de la Gorge
Day Four of Trekking the TMB’s southern half, Les Contamines to Les Chapieux, commences with a gentle 90-minute stroll along the river bank until Notre Dame de la Gorge. The climb to Refuge de La Balme is measured, followed by a steeper 600-metre ascent to Col du Bonhomme [2329 ms alt]. The Col is pretty desolate and windswept, with no reason to linger other than to catch your breath. You might find a space in the shelter to escape from the gale.
A climb of a further 100 metres takes you to today’s high point, the Col de la Croix du Bonhomme. 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 is one of the least inviting of the entire TMB, second only to the pitiful Col de Balme experience!
The initial stages of the descent are gentle, but below 2000 metres the surface quality degenerates into a free-for-all. It’s every man and woman for his or herself. You ignore the surrounding countryside completely as you focus entirely on your footing and follow your own unique path. Without doubt the low point of the tour, and trying to be philosophical about it, all tours have their nadir.
But hey, good news! The recently-opened alternative decent makes for a pleasurable end of the day. And it drops you right at your auberge. 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 considered risky.
The no-frills overnight auberge is both charming and welcoming, with a perfect patio for sipping that thirst-quenching beer. The service is good and with a smile – and the commemorative t-shirt will last you for years!
Ville des Glaciers
Day Five of Trekking the TMB’s southern half, Les Chapieux to Refuge Elisabetta, starts with a 90-minute saunter up the Ville des Glaciers. Following a minor tarmac road where traffic is restricted to the local shuttle bus alone, the views are imperious. And with appropriate footwear, this stretch is most enjoyable, despite the macadam. We highly recommend you experience it, although it can be avoided by taking the shuttle bus.
From Ville des Glaciers it takes about 30 minutes to arrive at Refuge des Mottets, where drinks, snacks and WCs are available. The protracted climb up to the Italian border at Col de la Seigne takes about two hours and involves an elevation gain of 650 metres. It brings back memories of scaling Ben Nevis [for the Scottish 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. Elisabetta is approximately 45 minutes’ gentle walk away from here, so 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!
The final day of trekking the TMB’s southern half, from Refuge Elisabetta to Courmayeur, can be shortened by bus or cable car [July and August only]. However, unless you are in bad shape, bad company or bad weather, we suggest you see out the Tour du Mont Blanc in style.
It can get pretty blustery as you climb up through the ruins opposite the totally receded Miage Glacier. 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. Head in the direction of the conical Mont Chetif, thus closing the ethereal TMB loop.
Back to ‘normal’ life
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 Legendary 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 ‘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 2021
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 France self-guided walks, trails, trips, places & themes.