I have two teenagers. And like all teenagers, they fluctuate wildly between being young adults and small children, both needing us and pushing us away, wanting to embrace life, but afraid of acting like they care too much about anything, curious about the world but not wanting to seem too curious, angry if you push them out of their comfort zone and angry if you don’t. And like all teenagers, they spend a good portion of their day staring at a device.
So the summer of 2018 when they were 14 & 16, my husband and I decided it was time to kick their asses a little bit – but not with lectures and rules, rather with physical and mental challenges. Inspired by my trip earlier that year to Patagonia, we chose, as a family, to hike the Tour Du Mont Blanc in Europe. The Tour Du Mont Blanc (TMB) is a long distance hike circling the Mont Blanc Massif in the Alps of Europe which spans across France, Italy and Switzerland and is usually started in Chamonix, France.
Up until this point, our kids had never hiked more than a few hours, and certainly not in mountains like the Alps. We chose to do our hike with a French company called Compagnie des Guides – Chamonix. The tour would include six full days of hiking, covering more than 65 miles with roughly 3 miles of ascent and 3.5 miles of descent. The company also arranged for one night stays at various refuges nestled within the mountains along the way. Breakfast and dinner would be served at the refuge. And lunch was picnic style on the hike.
The full tour is usually done in 9-10 days and is 110 miles long. While we completed the full circle, there were two sections which we were driven to by van, thereby cutting our trip to 6 full days of hiking instead of 9. If you plan to hike it without a guide, be sure to get the guide book by Kev Reynolds before you go.
While the well marked trails of the Tour Du Mont Blanc can be done without a guide, we chose to use Compagnie des Guides- Chamonix for several reasons. First, we were warned that weather can be tricky (even in August) and we wanted an expert in case there were sudden changes. As it turned out, we were very grateful to have our guides because the unusually warm weather caused a major rock slide along the route and having experienced guides with a van helped us circumvent the dangerous area. Second, since our kids were new at this, we weren’t sure they would be able to enjoy it if they had to carry their own bags with a weeks worth of equipment. Compagnie des Guides has a well run system where they would pick up our bags from the refuge in the am and deliver them to our next destination that evening. We carried a day bag throughout the day which had spare layers for the ever changing weather, snacks and water (plus the group lunch, which everyone helped carry).
Getting there: Packing for a trip like this can be daunting. The key is to be prepared for all sorts of weather. We were plenty prepared for cold, rain and wind but due to a heat wave in Europe at the time, we found we were actually too warm most of the time! My packing tips for hiking in Patagonia fit here as well. Most people leave for the TMB from Chamonix, France. Flights to Geneva and transfers to Chamonix are pretty easy to come by. Transfers are best arranged in advance but are frequent enough to be done last minute.
We arrived in Chamonix a few days ahead of our departure to give us a chance to get over our jet lag. A stay at Hotel Le Chamonix right in the town center was perfect. They let us store any extra luggage we had while we hiked. If you cannot store your luggage at a hotel, there are luggage storage spots in town for just that purpose.
After meeting with our guide team the night before, we arrived early the first morning at the town center to set off on our adventure! Bags were packed into the van and we were shuttled to Les Houches to the Bellevue cable car where we would begin our hike at mid mountain range (walking to this spot would have added almost a full day to the trip and it’s not that pretty – I highly recommend the cable car). Within one hour of our hike, we were faced with a long suspended bridge over the rough waters of the Bionnassay torrent. Seeing this right in the beginning set my husband in a bit of a panic since both he and the kids are afraid of heights. We didn’t know this at the time, but it turned out there were really only 2 or 3 spots during the entire hike that might be scary from a height perspective. Encountering the first one during the first hour was a little daunting since we had no idea what we were getting into! Note: the highest peak is around 8,000 ft. and is not high enough to cause altitude sickness for most people.
The second scary spot was also on our first day of hiking where a narrow path was carved out of the mountainside and we held on to metal chains that were nailed into the rock with hundreds of feet of cliff below. In retrospect, I am glad we got those done on the first day! After a very long descent (which was very hard on the knees), we spent our first night in a refuge in the Val Montjoie.
Where to stay: there are many beautiful refuges to stay at in the Alps. Some are dormitory rooms, some are individual rooms. Some have shared baths, and some have private baths. Most offer family meals in the evening and breakfast in the morning and are family run. You really can’t go wrong with the refuge you choose. The food, atmosphere and company are always good! The tour company gives you the option to have a private room or a dormitory room – price differs, obviously. We chose private rooms and were always really pleased with our accommodations. They were simple, clean and effective – with a mountain atmosphere that’s hard to beat!
The structure of a day: The night before each hike, we would meet with the guide to review the next day’s adventure. The guides would discuss the ascent and descent, any areas of caution, how much water we should plan to carry (sometimes we had access to fresh streams, sometimes not), and where there might be restrooms available. Our day began with an early rise (between 6 & 7am) and breakfast at the refuge. One of the guides would have already gathered a plethora of yummy offerings for lunch including meats, cheeses, bread, fruits, nuts and veggies. Everyone would share the burden of carrying a little bit of the lunch offerings in their day bags for the first half of the day.
Sometimes there was a short 10-15 minute drive to the starting point of our trail, and sometimes we could leave directly from the hotel. We would usually start our hike by 8am, break for a picnic lunch between 12 & 1pm, and finish around 5pm. Typically there was a point during the day where we would pass by a refuge with a bathroom and an opportunity for a coffee, beer, snack, etc. We averaged 12 miles per day and I can’t really point to one day being any harder than the rest. At times they were all hard. Personally, I preferred the climbs to the descents as I found the descents painful on my knees. Someone else might find the climbs to be harder. The weather is very unpredictable. Some hours were hot and sunny and some were cold and rainy – and storms come in extremely quickly. With experienced guides, you will have some warning but on your own, they may catch you by surprise. You have to be prepared for all of it. Arriving at the refuge at the end of the day, we would find our bags in the lobby and head for showers and relaxing for an hour or two. Dinner would be served at 7pm and we would all pass out by 9pm! Wifi was available at some of the refuges but wasn’t always great.
Overall, my teens complained surprisingly little. The 14yr old definitely didn’t like it while it was happening but she kept her moaning to a minimum and turned out to be the biggest cheerleader when someone else was feeling too tired or injured to continue – see her perspective on our trip here. The 16yr old, who loves the outdoors, loved it and despite severe knee pain powered on. Neither child loved the fact that they had to unplug. The beauty and serenity however was hard to beat and had us all in awe. Sometimes we were working too hard to think about anything except for that next step! Sometimes we would go hours without saying a word to one another and just enjoying (or regretting) the experience. Sometimes we would play little family games while we walked. Lots of great conversations were had and lots of great quality time was spent. Each night as we finished the hike, we would contemplate taking a “day off” the following day. Then after the evening meeting where we reviewed the trail for the next day we would decide “that doesn’t sound so bad”, and we would pledge to hike. Note: Since the guide company is driving your bags from one destination to another, you have the option of riding with them and spending the day relaxing at the next refuge- nobody did it but it was nice to know the option was available!
Results: The feeling of euphoria and camaraderie that we all felt at the end of that last day was something we will never forget. We were so proud of ourselves and one another for having accomplished this giant task as a family. The feeling of accomplishment and joy lasted days. Within weeks of the trip my teens started talking about another long family hike. And still now, more than one year later, with the pain and injuries faded, we regularly discuss how soon we can do it all again!