I’ve been leading hiking groups on the Tour du Mont Blanc for exactly twenty years, and it’s always been a spectacular trip, with a climb of up to 1000m every morning, followed by a similar descent, as we make our way around the whole Mont Blanc massif in (as a rule) an anti-clockwise direction. The first day out of Chamonix, from Bellevue to Les Contamines, has always been busy, with the front of one group getting tangled up in the rear of the one in front and the rear getting tangled up in another coming up behind (not to mention individual hikers and family groups) – but the rest of the circuit has got much, much busier recently.
In the last five years or so, the TMB, already well established as a good hike, has somehow made its way onto half the world’s bucket list, on a par with the Camino de Santiago and the Inca Trail. It’s become much more crowded, and, specifically, much more anglophone, with lots of Americans and Australians, as well as groups from Japan, South Korea and even Malaysia. Sometimes I hear a European language which I just can’t recognise, probably Basque as a rule, given their love of the mountains, though there must be a few hikers from the Baltic states too.
In addition, there’s a new breed of skinny people out and about in the Alps – once upon a time, people who went to the mountains were mostly like me, big and hairy (including the women) and able to carry heavy rucksacks up big hills – but now all these other people – who’ve been occupying themselves with 5Ks and marathons and their PBs for the last decade or two – have started running up and down the mountains with ridiculous ease, wearing skimpy lycra, compression socks and minimal shoes and carrying virtually nothing but water and energy gels. There are lots of so-called ‘trail’ races now, such as Sierre-Zinal, the Mont-Blanc Marathon, and above all the Ultratrail du Mont-Blanc, which pretty much follows the course of the TMB. There simply isn’t enough room for hikers and runners, and mountainbikers too – geography dictates that essentially everyone has to go over the same passes, so even where variants are available elsewhere, everyone is still funnelled together at the pinchpoints. Not surprisingly, there’s very little wildlife to be seen now.
Working for the excellent Wilderness Travel, we do of course have our own cunning ways of avoiding the crowds in a few places. We used the balcony route from La Peule to Ferret long before it was marked on maps or signs – happily, it remains little used and is still lovely. More variants are needed – but not the Fenêtre d’Arpette (between Champex and Trient), which is in very bad condition, and is always a much tougher option than the Bovine route, and, to be honest, less attractive, if more macho. In parts, the path has been widened to allow mule-trekking, which doesn’t seem that popular at the moment, but it also encourages mountain bikers, alas.
Thinking of trail maintenance, I’m not clear how the TMB is managed by the three countries it passes through, and which benefit from the money it brings (see my previous comments on the Cornish Coast Path). It seems that some municipalities send their general maintenance guys out with strimmers and so on, but some stretches are in terrible condition (notably from the Col de Balme to Trient, where poor drainage has left a gully down the middle of the trail). On the other hand, just on the other side of Trient there’s a splendid new footbridge over the main road to the Col de Forclaz, built purely for hikers.
[I’ve just been on these trails again in July 2023 and can confirm that the TMB is still overcrowded, and there are lots of Americans hiking it – why on earth, when the Alps are full of amazing uncrowded trails? And yet somehow we managed to see an actual wolf crossing the Bovine path (part of both the TMB and the Haute Route). Nature is amazing.]
And the Haute Route
I went on to lead a group on the Haute Route, from Chamonix to Zermatt (which shares its first two days with the TMB, although in reverse). It’s no more crowded than it used to be, largely because access to the central section is limited by the capacity of the Mont-Fort, Louvie and Prafleuri huts, but also because the Prafleuri hut is temporarily closed (just for a few weeks – due to bedbugs, rumour has it…). But it’s a harder trip, so not a like-for-like alternative to the TMB. Part of the section from Mont-Fort to Prafleuri is now marked in blue (rather than red), to indicate that it’s a difficult trail, although there is a longer alternative path available.
Having seen no large wildlife on the TMB, we saw ibex in the places we’d expect to see them on the Haute Route, but no chamois – but that’s been the story of the last two decades, as we’ve seen fewer and fewer chamois. Likewise, we found edelweiss, but you do need an experienced leader to point it out (on the Haute Route, but not on the TMB).
I was also ‘researching’ wheat beers and noticed a spectrum from west to east, from the French-style bière blanche, refreshing but not that interesting, to the proper Bavarian Weissbier to be had in German-speaking Switzerland, which is properly satisfying. To be fair, many French brewers (even 1664) are producing new wheat beers, but I’m just not convinced. On the wine front, I’ve bravely sampled the Valais (Rhône Valley) wines for many years, but have finally come to the conclusion that French grapes are best (we had lovely bottles of Merlot-Cabernet and Viognier this time) rather than hoping that the local Swiss grape varieties (Humagne, Cornalin, Chasselas) will produce something better than average. Though I will make an exception for Fendant, the quintessential wine to have with raclette or fondu.
Finally, I went up to the Charles Kuonen Suspension Bridge, also (wrongly) known as the Europabrücke because it’s on the Europaweg, the stunning two-day balcony route up the Mattertal towards Zermatt. Opened in 2017, this is the world’s longest pedestrian suspension bridge, at 494 metres. It’s a 610m climb from the village of Randa, and if you take the southern option (ie an anticlockwise loop) it’s a pretty easy climb of one to two hours. The usual way down, to the north, is a dreadful path, however – particularly slow today due to the large number of overloaded climbers struggling up to the Europahütte. Presumably they missed the sharp right turn as you come up out of the old village of Randa, which confirms my views about most climbers not being that bright – though some do write beautifully. In fact if I did it again, I’d go up and down on the southern path – although the best thing would be to continue (southwards, ideally, for Matterhorn views) on the Europaweg.