The Alps aren’t just for skiing, says Fergal O’Keeffe, whose last trip before the pandemic was a family hike on the Tour du Mont Blanc
Little did I know when I began the mammoth task of planning a hiking trip on the Tour du Mont Blanc for our family of six that it would be our last trip abroad.
The Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB), a bucket-list hiking route since the 1760s, goes through the French, Italian and Swiss Alps, passing snow-capped peaks, glaciers, deep river valleys and wildflower-strewn meadows. The full route measures 170km and is usually trekked in 12 days. In July 2019, we planned to tackle 90km from Chamonix, France, to Courmayeur, Italy, on the same Alpine paths used by Roman soldiers over 2,000 years before.
I’ve always loved walking. The simple act of putting one foot in front of the other and freeing the mind of all superfluous thoughts. With my wife, Eimer, I’ve trekked all over the world, from Patagonia to Nepal, Kilimanjaro and Machu Picchu — and we hoped to pass that love on to our children, Paddy (14), Daisy (11), Harry (12) and Finn (7).
All four are naturally fit from playing sports, but we still spent every weekend that winter doing long treks with backpacks in the nearby Comeragh and Galtee mountains before setting off for Chamonix, the TMB starting base. Lots of local companies offer guides, bag-forwarding and refuge/hut-booking services here, but you can expect to pay up to €1,000pp more for a guided tour. We were doing it unguided so packed lightly, as we had to carry our own gear for six full days.
On our first morning, we took the Bellevue gondola from Les Houches to start the hike. I was a little apprehensive but once we stepped into the crisp Alpine air, with little pockets of snow sprinkled on the trail ahead and wildflower meadows surrounded by snow-capped mountains, I knew we’d made the right decision.
The path ahead was quiet, save for a few bell-clanging cows. We descended for three hours through pine forests to the tiny hamlet of Bionnassay to experience our first night in a refuge. Throughout the evening, tired hikers arrived at the hut to create a buzz of accents and excitement. Refuges are basic but, at 7pm every night, they host a family-style meal in a communal dining room where travellers share stories. Part of the route’s appeal is that it takes you through three cultures and three cuisines.
That first night, our kids were not impressed. “This is basically prison food,” Daisy said. “By the end of the week, you’ll love it,” I smiled. “Hunger is a great sauce.” They were all devouring the meals by day two.
Refuges have their own rhythm. Going to bed and rising with the sun is the norm for hikers on the TBM (we were lucky to always get a six-bed dorm). My kids were horrified when I told them, “No phones after nine o’clock.” But they got used to it, along with rising at 6am to my cheery “rise and shine!”.
The days began with a hearty breakfast. Then a leg-burning walk up a steep trail, only stopping to refuel on jellies and offer encouragement to a chorus of: “I can’t believe you do this for fun!” We’d stop to eat local bread stuffed with local cheese at snowy passes. We refilled our water bottles from streams and, each day, I would point out a different mountain and proclaim it to be Mont Blanc.
One morning, we set out in a deep mist. As it evaporated in the morning sun, the outline of a snow-covered pass appeared over 1km above us. After an arduous four-hour hike, we arrived exhausted at the unmanned border crossing between France and Italy. Mont Blanc turned into Monte Bianco, hikers’ greetings changed from “Bonjour” to “Buongiorno” and lunch from crusty baguettes to oily focaccia. As we descended, the kids rushed ahead and I got talking to an American couple who had seen no other kids on the trail, and thought ours were great. “I know, but I fear they are getting cocky,” I replied. Just minutes later, my words proved prophetic as we traversed a very steep section of smooth shale rock. Whilst running across a very narrow path with a sheer drop, my youngest son, Finn, slipped but was luckily grabbed by Paddy and pulled to safety before he fell off.
That was the only time on the trip I was scared.
We wore in our boots in Ireland so there were no issues with blisters or sore feet, but the days were long, and everyone had a meltdown at some point each day. We learned to leave that person alone during their “moment”... and of the healing powers of chocolate.
On our last morning, Eimer and I rose before dawn to watch the sunrise together. Cold night turned to crisp morning and we spotted a horned ibex on a ridge and felt the sun’s warmth on our faces. Eimer asked me did I think we had converted our kids to walking. “It may take them 20 years to realise it, but I hope so,” I joked.
We spent our last day walking along a wildflower-covered ridge with Mont Blanc in view. In Courmayeur, our final destination, the luxury of a hotel room with a soft bed and hot shower was a welcome treat. The town centre came alive that night as Italians took their “passeggiata” along Via Roma, and we wolfed down well-earned pizza.
When times are difficult in lockdown, I often refer to that day over the snowy pass and remind my kids that if they got through that, they can get through anything. Another lesson in a busy lockdown house? When you’re having a “moment”, take some space and time out for yourself. It will pass. So will lockdown. Then we can look forward to finishing the second half of the Tour du Mont Blanc.
Fergal O’Keeffe launched a podcast, Travel Tales with Fergal, in 2020 to conjure up memories of past trips and fuel dreams of future travel. Listen out for season two, coming February 2 on all platforms.
You can get all the information you need to plan future trips on the Tour du Mont Blanc from official website autourdumontblanc.com, including handily working out daily distances with nearby accommodation. Another good guide is found at kevreynolds.co.uk.
Chamonix is a good place to start and finish your walk, being just an hour from Geneva. We left our main bags at a hotel there to collect after the hike, just a 30-minute taxi ride back through the Mont Blanc tunnel from Courmayeur in Italy.