Every year, the Tour du Mont Blanc attracts hikers and trail runners from around the world. This 112 mile / 180 km loop of Mont Blanc, Europe's highest mountain, involves nearly 6.2 miles / 10 km of ascent and descent, runs through three countries (France, Italy and Switzerland), and crosses six major cols along the way. It is also the trip of a lifetime, as Charlie Boscoe explains.
There are higher peaks out there, and every other major mountain range on the planet is more remote, but the mountains of the Alps are steeped in history like nowhere else. The fact that the Alps are so accessible has been a double-edged sword—it's made them less secluded, but it's also enabled people to experience them in ways that are impossible anywhere else.
Cable cars, huts, and roads up even the most improbable valleys mean that climbers can push limits, and hikers can access terrain and see views they couldn't even contemplate in more remote ranges.
Name a famous mountaineer, hiker, or adventurer, and they will have spent time in the Alps, almost certainly in the Mont Blanc region. The mountains of the Alps' highest and most famous range are littered with faces, ridges, and features named after legendary figures, whether it's Bonatti, Croz, Cassin, or Whillans, and even modern-day mountain heroes like Ueli Steck and Kilian Jornet have left their marks on the area.
The Mont Blanc Massif is undoubtedly the most storied mountain range on Earth, and history alone would make trekking around it a "must-do," but the fact that it ranks as one of the most beautiful spots (mountainous or otherwise) anywhere in the world only makes it more desirable. The jagged rock spires of the Mont Blanc range are utterly spectacular, especially when set next to tumbling glaciers and huge, impossibly long ridgelines, and hiking beneath them should be on the bucket list of any mountain lover.
The Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB) goes all the way around the Mont Blanc Massif and, being a loop, can be started and finished anywhere. Most people who complete the hike base themselves out Chamonix, the most famous mountain town on the planet, and, with its plethora of gear shops, hotels, and restaurants, an ideal launching pad for an adventure. If you've never visited Chamonix before, then taking a few days to immerse yourself in its culture is recommended - indulge your mountain geekiness and spend some time seeking out the history that has made the town so celebrated.
The TMB can be done in either direction, but anti-clockwise is the more popular option. In my humble opinion (having done it a dozen times), going clockwise is better because that way, you go "against the flow" of hikers, can spend long periods of the day in relative solitude, and only pass other hikers in the middle of the day as you cross paths with the "anti-clockwisers." Reentering the Chamonix Valley from the south at the end of the trip is slightly less spectacular than coming in from the north, but you'd have to be picky to care!
Whether you go with the flow or against it, the TMB is all about views. One of the wonderful elements of the trip is that you see the same mountains for much of the route, but from different angles. From Chamonix, Mont Blanc is a rounded glaciated dome, but when you cross the Col de le Seigne between Les Chapieux and Courmayeur, you'll see a completely different, steeper, and more intimidating side of the mountain. The Grandes Jorasses, on the other hand, look impossibly unbreachable from the Chamonix side...and only slightly less so from the Courmayeur side! Other famous peaks under which you'll pass include Les Drus, the Aiguille Noire de Peuterey, Mont Dolent, and the Dent du Géant.
The route is lined with amenities, from luxury hotels to tiny mountain huts and everything in between. Whether you want to camp, stay in 4-star accommodation, or sleep in some of the famous alpine refuges, you can easily organise a trip to fit your preferences. Your choice of accommodation will have an impact on how long the TMB takes you, as will the amount of assistance you choose to use. If you take every cable car available and ride buses along the Vals Veni and Ferret, either side of Courmayeur, you could easily get the trip done in 6 days, but the purists out there will need to allow 10. Choose your level of comfort and ethical purism and plan accordingly!
Luckily for those seeking a fast and efficient trip, the trail on the TMB is obvious all the way and easy to follow. There are several variations to the trail (most notably the choice of whether to take the high route over the Col de la Fenêtre or the lower Bovine route to reach Champex-Lac), but with the amount of traffic the trails get and the ample signposting - it's hard to go too wrong. The wonderfully straightforward hiking means that you can get on with enjoying the views without too much navigational stress.
As well as easy navigation, ample amenities, and epic views every day on the trail, the TMB also has good weather going for it. Bad weather certainly isn't unheard of in the alpine summer (particularly in June), but if you're on trail for 10 days, you'd be unlucky if you got more than a couple of rainy days. The weather is good far more often than it's terrible, so you're in with a good shot of blue sky on most days. As a general rule, the weather improves as summer goes by, so June has the most rainy days, September the least. Going in September has the added advantage that the trail will be quiet, but if you push it too late into the month, then cold temperatures (and maybe even some snow high up) are possible. Going late enough in the season to get stable weather but not so late that it gets cold is a tough needle to thread! My recommendation is to do the TMB over the first couple of weeks of September, but I offer zero guarantees that you'll get perfect weather!