First things first, there’s TMB and UTMB. TMB is Tour du Mont Blanc, which is what we did and is a popular trail around Mont Blanc. UTMB is Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc which is a series of races around the mountain or massif, Mnt Blanc. For much of the circumnavigation, they share the same trail/route. TMB has multiple variations, we tended to opt for the higher passes as opposed to the lower trails. Some people opt to follow the UTMB route, which leads you through more towns providing you more food and beverage refills, and hotel options for lodging. This became an important distinction on at least one occasion. We had heard that there is plenty of food along the way and were told to not bring any running food. Being the minimalist packer I am, I adhered to this rule wholeheartedly. Well, when you opt to go the higher routes you bypass many of the villages and must rely on mountainous refuges (huts) for food and refreshments. The huts are far between and some are better stocked than others. Once this became apparent, we were able to plan accordingly and stocked up on candy and chips at the well-stocked huts. If I were to do the TMB again, I would do the high route, because I love climbing, the views were incredible, and the experience of the mountain huts was really fun. You will still experience views and huts if you do the UTMB route, and you also have more options in the villages.
The huts are an incredible deal. For approximately 60 euros a night per person you get what’s called a half board that includes dinner (generally at 1900), a bed (take a liner), usually a shower (spectrum of “hot” water), and breakfast. I’m a hungry person, not having enough food really stresses me out, luckily, all the huts except for one had good food and plenty of it (I’ll give you the deets on the one horrible hut, but you have to message me). We were able to make reservations at all the huts and a couple accepted credit cards (but we brought enough euros because we weren’t sure about the credit card situation). Huts slept anywhere from 6 to 20+ to a room. You usually had the option to pay more for a smaller room. Full board also gets you a brown bag lunch, which we did once because we knew we wouldn’t pass many (any) options that day for refueling. It is approximately 12 euros more and was substantial. I’m also a vegetarian, which wasn’t an issue with one exception. We have included a list of all the huts we stayed in below.
You also pass huts along the way. Many of them have some food, drinks, coffee, beer, etc. We really enjoyed stopping and getting Diabolos, which is sparkling water plus a flavored syrup. My preferred flavor was Strawberry. On more than one occasion a refreshing Diabolo kept us moving onward.
Animals. We saw tons of cows and sheep, which all wear bells and sound like church. But not church, so all was good. We also saw several marmots and different types of wild goats. Otherwise, the Europeans have wiped out the wildlife. Mosquitos were never an issue, maybe they wiped those out too. The wildflowers were INSANE during mid-July.
Navigating was easy, the trails were well marked even through the cities. The trail signs are cool because they are in times, not distance. We usually made the distance in half the time posted. We did the tour in 5 days which was totally doable and included lots of stops and hiking.
Because we stayed in mountain huts we took enough euros to pay for everything during the five-day tour. We brought 1000 euros for two people, used our credit card at every opportunity, and spent about half our cash.
Below is a list of all the gear I carried (we did not use a Sherpa service). I used everything except for one piece, my Arcteryx Norvan jacket. We got really lucky with the weather and I didn’t need it; I would take it again because you never know what the mountain will bring.
I honestly wasn’t sure how my body would react to running the most miles in one week ever. I definitely went into this undertrained due to a few lingering issues that had kept me from building up my strength completely. I had some shoulder issues due to the weight of my pack that I probably would not have had if I was properly trained. And while all of that tangentially matters, what matters more to me is that I still did it. The whole thing.
The route we took was put together by our dear friend Frederic, and, as Jameson mentioned, it was incredible. I struggled at times on some of the more technical climbs, but I will always hold the final push up to Col de Grand Ferret in my heart to use as a reminder of what is possible. We can do hard things!
We did have the course mapped out and downloaded in Gaia, as well as elevation profiles printed out (Thank you Frederic) with various huts and locations listed on it along with the mileage. As Jameson mentioned, the route is well marked so Gaia was only referenced a few times, but I would still have it downloaded just in case. We also had our Garmin inReach for emergencies but never turned them on. There is cell service throughout much of the route.
This area is incredibly popular, and while there were moments when we were the only people on the trail, those were rare. It did not detract from the experience, though, and everyone was courteous, moving to the side when we came up behind them.
While there are many fantastic experiences to choose from, my two favorites would be the final push up Col de Grand Ferret, and all of the love, patience, and support Jameson gave me throughout the adventure.
TMB Day 1: Les Houches to de la Croix du Bonhomme Refuge. 20.5 miles, 9000’ gain. 3 cols (passes): col de Voza, col de Tricot, and col du Bon Homme. Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme was at altitude, and all food was made from scratch: dinner was soup, bread, polenta, beef, quiche tart & salad, cheese, and chocolate cake. A proper french dinner even at a 9000’!
Matthew: We came across our first heard of sheep on day one. As we admired how cute they were, two Greatf Pyrenees came right up to the fence and sat down, staring at us. There are many signs about the importance of leaving the herds of sheep and cows alone as the danger of a guard dog biting you is real.
TMB day 2: Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme (France) > refuge Bertone (Courmayeur, Italy): 23.2 miles, 9000’ gain, 10,000’ loss. Col de Fort, col de Seigne (France/Italy border). This was the day of Diabolos! Breakfast included bread, butter, jam, honey, porridge, and coffee (in bowls). Dinner was pasta (all you can eat…more please), polenta & fontina, beef, peas, bread, and pannacotta for dessert.
Matthew: This is the day that I did a full-on face plant. Dirt in the teeth, cuts all over my face, and a super gnarly knee wound. It happened as we crossed into Italy, and I was distracted by wildflowers in a flat meadow. Luckily, everything was superficial, and it did not affect my ability to continue. At the end of day 2, we had our first chance to do some laundry. Most of the places we stayed at provided areas to do laundry, and a few had lines out to dry it on although we did bring our own which came in handy. As luck would have it, this was also the only night it started to rain. We were able to rescue the clothes and shoes that were outside before things got too drenched.
TMB day 3: Refuge Bertone > Git Bon Abri (Champex, Switzerland). 28.6 miles, 5900’ gain, 7700’ loss. Col de Grand Ferret (Italy/Switzerland border). The day started at 0200 with a thunderstorm, after Matthew rescued our drying (not drying) clothes, we slept for a few more hours, but had an early breakfast and headed out for our longest day. Refuge Elena was mid-way up our biggest climb of the day. We filled ourselves with cappuccino & chocolate tarts before Matthew lead the team to the top of Cod de Grand Ferret.
Matthew: that final push from Refuge Elena to the top of Col de Grand Ferret is one of my proudest accomplishments. Not to mention the views as we ran down into Switzerland as the fog slowly lifted away from the land were spectacular.
TMB day 4: Gite Bon Abri (Switzerland) > Gite Le Moulin (Tre Le Champ, France). 16 (HARD AF) miles, 10 hours (seriously DED), 7500′ gain, 7700′ loss. It was a three-pass day: Col d’Arpette (almost at 9000′), col de Balme (sweeping views), and Col des Posettes.
Even though this was our shortest day, it was one of the longest and the only one that we were running to make it in time for dinner. We, obviously, took our time, but Col d’Arpette was the most technical pass and slow going up and down. It had boulders, scree, snowfields, and a lot of gains. There were two goals: don’t die and make it to dinner. Day 4 felt like a real accomplishment when we made it to dinner, which was good because it was one of the best refuge dinners with a nice salad, all the bread you could eat and yummy lentils.
Matthew: At the bottom of d’Arpette there was a place that had fresh fruit tarts and some of the best sandwiches we had during the adventure. That was a fantastic reward after such a technical climb and descent, even if this hut did not have any potable water or Diabolos. It wasn’t until we reach Col de Balme that we finally had our Diabolo for the day. Because of this, I was shouting as I ran towards de Balme: “Deux Diabolos, s’il vous plait!” over and over!
TMB day 5: Gite Le Moulin > Les Houches. 16 miles, 6300′ gain, 7400′ loss. The climb up to Lac Blanc was the most significant of the day, but totally worth it. Lac Blanc, an alpine lake the color of the sea, sits at almost 8000′. Swimming in Lac Blanc was the highlight of the day (and maybe entire trip), but despite my best efforts, I was only able to convince 1 of the other 3 team members to jump in. #theirloss
The last day. It was obvious we were close to Chamonix and Les Houches because of the extra activity on the trail. I was overwhelmed with grief and disbelief that our journey was coming to an end and acted as an anchor, hanging in the back, trying to slow forward progress. Despite my best efforts, we made it to the finish line in Les Houches in plenty of time for dinner.
Matthew: Lac Blanc was in a beautiful area, but dang it was cold #noregrets. We definitely encountered many more people running today than any other day. In fact, it was one of the only days that other people passed us. The final Diabolo was had as we started our descent to Les Houches, a happy/sad moment.
- UD Her fastpack
- Leki poles – used (first) 3 of 5 days
- Coros Apex watch – I only had to charge it once!
- Wuru wool – game changer folks and I learned that you can leave the wool in your socks and re-wear it.
- Prevail Botanicals CBD salve – I used this every morning and every night on my legs.
- Two running kits
- Shorts – Oiselle Mac Roga’s, I like ‘em short!
- Sports bra
- Lightweight gloves – Nike
- Houdini jacket
- Hat – Territory Run Co. Gorge Cap
- Sleeves – Territory Run Co.
- Hut shoes – recommended by the reports we read, but not necessarily all huts had crocs to borrow. I ditched my pair of cheapo flops mid-way
- Coast headlamp – used minimally
- Puffy coat – used at the hut
- Sleeping bag liner
- Book – wouldn’t take again
- Nathan Journey 25L fastpack
- Leki poles – used most days except for the last climb up Col D’Arpette
- Garmin Fenix 3HR
- Lacrosse ball
- Running kit:
- Two running shorts
- One running shirt
- Lone Peaks
- Territory Bandana
- Medium gloves
- NWDC Territory hat
- Storm Racer – didn’t use but would still bring
- Territory Get Away Hoodie – didn’t use and probably wouldn’t bring
- Two pairs of Territory socks
- Hut kit
- One pair of shorts
- One T-shirt
- Warm socks – didn’t use and likely wouldn’t bring again
- REI Puffy
- Oofos – love these, but every hut had crocs so would ditch the extra weight next time
- Torrentshell pant – didn’t use but would still bring
- 4 GoPro batteries and charger
- External battery pack – definitely came in handy when I needed to charge my phone, but also have it next to me at night for the morning alarm
- inReach Mini – didn’t use but would still bring
- 4 port USB charger with standard US plug and European adaptor
- 2 port USB charger with a European plug
- Mont Blanc Book
- First day: Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme
- Second day: Refugio Bertone
- Third day: Gite Bon Abri
- Fourth day: Gite Le Moulin