Aaron Johnson | Tour du Mont Blanc

Tour du Mont Blanc

September 11, 2015  •  3 Comments

After CTR, I barely had enough time to unpack before I headed off to Europe for a couple weeks of mountain adventures. The plan was to check out Zermatt and the Matterhorn, spending a few days backpacking solo around the area, before heading to Chamonix to do the Tour du Mont Blanc by mountain bike for my friend Ryan's birthday - one big loop around Europe's highest mountain, 100 miles and more than 30,000 feet of climbing, spread over 3 days.

Camping high above Zermatt

I arrived in Zermatt with no plans, other than to roughly follow a 35-mile loop around the surrounding area and do some stealth backcountry camping (I was unclear if backcountry camping was allowed - I think not, but saw tons of people out there camping). After stocking up on food and supplies, I headed out into the beautiful evening, up a ridiculously steep trail out of town, and found a gorgeous little ledge to camp on, 2,000 feet directly above the town.

Morning above Zermatt

I was woken up by two curious hikers, literally peering inside my tent and speaking loudly in German. Little unnerving. The day started beautiful and clear, getting progressively more cloudy as I approached the Matterhorn.

Curious, hilarious mountain sheep. Aggressively followed me every which way

Looking at the Matterhorn, it is almost impossible to comprehend its sheer size, towering 7,000 feet above me. Definitely the most impressive lump of rock I've laid my eyes on.

That night, camped in a rather exposed part of the ski area, above treeline, the skies finally opened up, and I was hammered all night by the worst rain, wind, and lightning I've ever been out in. I was in a just-purchased, ultralight Tarptent - doesn't even have its own poles, you set it up using your trekking poles - and was pretty worried that it wouldn't withstand the storm. Luckily, I had done a really good job with the stakes and guylines, and the tent proved to be bombproof all night, not a drop of water inside at all. Little to no sleep was had that night, regardless - more exciting than scary, though.

My campsite, just before the storm hit

Misty mountains towering above Zermatt

Matterhorn looms over a church

The bad weather lingered for the rest of my time in Zermatt. I nixed my plans to complete the 35 mile loop with all my backpacking gear, not wanting to spend another night up high with the storms, and headed back down to town and got a spot at the town campground. The next few days were spent hiking all over the surrounding mountains hoping for big views, but getting only clouds, rain, and even snow. I came back down to town each evening cold, wet, exhausted, but I had found an awesome little hotel restaurant with drying racks, fast internet, and cheap, delicious food, and spent several hours there each night, warming up and stuffing my face. Despite the bad weather and not getting to see the big views I had hoped for, I had a blast in Zermatt.

On to France!

Pretty much summarizes day 1

Tour du Mont Blanc. This famous route makes a grand circle around the Mont Blanc massif, which our group was set to complete over 4 days. I, unfortunately, had a flight to catch in Geneva on the morning of the 4th day, so I was going to have to combine days 3 and 4 into one massive day. The bad weather followed me from Switzerland, and the first day was nothing but fog, drizzle, and mud, as we slowly made our way around the northern tip of the mountain and climbed up to our first refugio - Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme.

Ibex battle

Dinner at the refuge

Morning, day 2. Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme

Day 2 dawned bright and clear. We were elated to finally get to see the alps!

We followed a predictable pattern - hour or two long hike-a-bike to a col, bomb down an incredible descent, food/beer/cappuccino at a refugio, repeat. A glorious cycle. Several in our group were experienced adventure racers, and we all agreed how unbelievably *nice* it was to be on an adventure in the mountains and not be racing! Wait, we can actually just sit here and drink a beer? Take a nap in the sun if we want? Not be in constant pain and discomfort? Full night's sleep?? Wow....such luxuries did not go unappreciated!

The backside of Mont Blanc, huge rock spires and melting glaciers, towered above us.

Start of the long climb to Col de la Siegne

Nearing Col de la Siegne

Col de la Siegne

Ryan descends off Col de la Siegne

Lunch number 3

Lots of this happened

Courmayeur - beautiful little town

Evening view from our refugio

Day 2 was quite a bit longer than day 1, and we were sufficiently worked and ready to feast by the time we made it to Rifugio Alpino Walter Bonatti, our home for the night.

Dinner at Rifugio Alpino Walter Bonatti


Rifugio Alpino Walter Bonatti, morning day 3

Day 3 dawned another beauty of a day. Onward!

Big ass hike up to the Swiss border

Switzerland is up there

Chad delivers the goods

Dip in the Lac de Champex

We made it to Champex around 3pm, and I sadly had to bid adieu to the group as they headed off to gorge themselves at their refugio for the night. I had a tough 25 miles to cover with 2 big passes, hopefully before dark! The Bovine climb is legendary for its difficulty, and it was one of the steepest hike-a-bikes yet, but I made it over without too much trouble, save for a herd of extremely curious cows who blocked the trail every chance they got. It's called Bovine for a good reason!

After a fast, steep, rooty descent down to Col de la Forclaz, I could see my final massive climb up to Col de Balme. I was running out of daylight and set a goal to be at the top by 8pm. After another steep hike-a-bike, followed by a somewhat rideable section above treeline, I found myself staring down at an incredible sunset above the Chamonix valley right at 8pm sharp. Yes! I should be done before dark!

An incredible, 3000 foot descent on swoopy trails through a ski resort got me back down to the hustle bustle of Chamonix right as darkness fell. What an incredible trip - much more difficult than I expected, but also more rewarding! Thank you to the Van Gorders for organizing, and to the whole group for an unforgettable few days.



Thanks for the amazing Van Gogh!
Mats J(non-registered)
Wow, that was some trip! Been in the area in the winter time, but this made me want to visit in the summer. Bucket list entry made...thanks for sharing.
Thanks for joining us on a trip of a lifetime!!!
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