|Mont Blanc// (c) 2011 Wikipedia|
Ulrike Koltermann, DPA, August 16, 2011
Climbing Mont Blanc is the dream of many climbers but even hiking around Europe's highest mountain is a real challenge and requires thorough preparation.
The Tour de Mont Blanc, known as TMB by hikers, is one of the classic long-distance hiking trails in the Alps.
The route, which takes approximately 10 days to complete, circles the Mont Blanc Massif covering a distance of roughly 160 kilometres and passes through parts of Switzerland, Italy and France.
The ski resort of Les Houches, located six kilometres to the west of Chamonix, is a favoured base for walking the TMB. It is also the starting point for the annual TMB mountain marathon, where top endurance athletes complete the 160km mountainous circuit in less than 24 hours.
Most people tackle the TMB at a more respectable pace, making a leisurely ascent of the Col de Voza. It's important to warm up correctly.
It's early morning and the massif is covered by a blanket of cloud with no sign of the high mountains. However, as noon approaches there is a break in the cloud cover, offering a first glimpse of the snow fields.
The 4,810-metre-high peak of Mont Blanc is still not visible from this side but the summit of the 4,052m Aiguille de Bionnassay rises majestically into view.
The village of Bionnassay consists of a handful of wooden houses with geranium-filled balconies and it was from here that the first expeditions to Mont Blanc started out.
The early pioneers carried long sticks to maintain grip on the snow fields, while the first women to tackle the mountain wore several quilted skirts over each other.
|Les Contamines// (c) 2011 Les Contamines|
We happily progressed with the help of telescopic walking sticks and functional shirts until reaching Les Contamines in the early evening.
The hiker's hostel serves up a healthy portion of spaghetti bolognese before we all settle down and try to sleep through the international snoring concert going on in the sleeping hall. Anyone who goes on a hiking tour without ear plugs has only themselves to blame.
The route to Col du Bonhomme on the following day leads through pine forests before the track becomes rougher and rockier. The trail narrows during the ascent and our lungs fill with fresh Alpine air.
Cows peacefully graze in the meadows, even though it can still snow in the pass during high summer.
The Col de la Seigne, which marks the border to Italy, is tackled the next day and finally offers a view of the Mont Blanc summit after days walking around the massif.
The cappuccino served in Rifugio Elisabetta, the first mountain refuge on the Italian side situated near a huge glacier, tastes as good as in any Roman cafe.
The TMB offers hikers a variety of routes, with the trail over the 2,758m-high Mont Fortin especially recommended as it takes in views of mountain lakes in which the snow-covered peaks are mirrored.
After a couple of days, some of the faces encountered become familiar as the same hikers are passed each day and also stay in the same hostel each night.
Just like the GR20 in Corsica, the TMB runs the risk of being a victim of its own success. The hostels are full to the seams during the summer and reservations are highly recommended even though no-one is turned away who could not make it to the next hostel.
The downhill walk to Courmayeur is tough on the knees and thigh muscles, and is followed by a 2,000m ascent to the Rifugio Bonatti, named after world-famous Italian climber Walter Bonatti.
Black and white photos of Bonatti climbing ice walls in the Andes and in a canoe on the Congo during the 1970s adorn the walls, while there are hooks for walking sticks, slippers and a heated drying room for wet clothes.
The homemade pizza bianca and the four-course evening meal on offer are simply the icing on the cake.
Switzerland is reached by the Col Ferret, which offers another view of the Mont Blanc summit. Hikers wanting to circumnavigate the entire massif still have the Ferret valley ahead of them.