The monarch of mountains

With the trekking season fast approaching, we take a closer look at the Tour du Mont Blanc – the classic hiking trip of Europe.

“Mont Blanc is the monarch of mountains,” Lord Byron, the English poet, wrote in his 1817 poem Manfred. “They crown’d him long ago, on a throne of rocks, in a robe of clouds, with a diadem of snow.” Exactly when this unofficial crowning took place, only Byron will know. But as far as hiking is concerned, Mont Blanc remains the undisputed king of mountain walks; the quintessential tour of the Alps.

The mountain is the highest in western Europe, standing at 4,807 metres. But that is only part of its charm. Its classic tour, which circumnavigates the massif, goes via three countries – France, Italy and Switzerland. Along the way, there are glaciers, snow-clad peaks, deep valleys, pristine meadows. Parts of the mountain are permanently covered in snow and ice, hence its name ‘White Mountain’. Its small villages and wooden huts encapsulate the classic Alpine culture. “Each day it has something different to offer that is pretty stunning,” says Sara Haley, owner of Mont Blanc Treks, a specialist guide for hiking in the Alps. “You never get tired of it.”

For centuries, before anyone had climbed its summit, Mont Blanc had intrigued local people. Myths and legends evolved about what might reside on the top. They were finally put to bed in 1786. The man who sparked the achievement was Horace-Bènèdict de Saussure, an aristocrat and Alpine traveller. In 1760 he hiked to Mont Blanc from his hometown Geneva, located on the western tip of Switzerland. He reached Le Brévent, a nearby peak at about 2,500 metres, from where he caught a glimpse of Mont Blanc’s summit. Excited by what he had seen, he rushed down to Chamonix, a French valley town at the foot of the mountain. There, he offered a cash prize to whoever could find an accessible path up the summit.

The announcement alerted Jaques Balmat, an ambitious crystal collector, and a skilled climber, who was tempted by the cash offered. He teamed up with another excellent mountaineer; Gabriel Paccard, a local doctor in the village, who wanted to carry a barometer to the summit in order to take a reading. (He had tried several times before, without success.) Together they scaled the mountain on 8 August 1786, bringing fame to Chamonix. Saussure, encouraged by the achievement, reached the summit himself the year after on a scientific expedition. Having spurred the first ascent, the Swiss was credited with having started the culture of mountaineering.

Today that same culture each year drives thousands of people to the top. But a more common route, for those without climbing experience, is the classic tour around the summit. It stretches across 250 kilometres (155 miles) and crosses seven alpine passes. Most travellers spend seven to 10 days completing it, walking five to eight hours per day. As in the 18th century, the starting point is often Chamonix, whose 10,000 residents include a score of skiers, mountaineers and explorers. (The town also hosted the first winter Olympics in 1924.) The journey then goes anti-clockwise before returning to Chamonix.

En route, there is much to take in. “One of the attractions with it is that it goes into three different countries,” says Pam Twaddel, of Distant Journeys, a hiking specialist. “The scenery is very beautiful, and you see different views of Mont Blanc all the way around.” Part of the charm are the rustic huts and hostels, located about 16 kilometres (10 miles) apart. They offer basic accommodation with beds, shared bunkrooms, breakfast and hot showers. Traditional Alpine cuisine is put on the table, including wild mushroom polenta, coq au vin and fondue.

Is the tour demanding? Most experts rank it at medium difficulty. The path stays clear of the most brutal ascents and, apart from a couple of rocky areas, the trip is technically possible for anyone to complete. But physical shape counts. “You still need a reasonable level of fitness and some experience of trekking in the mountains,” says Haley. “You are trekking each day, so it is sustained effort over a couple of weeks. People are okay after one or two days, but if you are not reasonably fit, that’s when it shows.”

Another potential test is the weather, which can vary wildly in the altitudes of the Alps. “You need to know what the mountain weather can throw at you,” Haley says. “You can be walking in July in 28˚C – then within 24 hours it can be snowing. There is snow there all year around, and you are trekking just below the snow line.” Then again many trekkers eventually find that, for witnessing the monarch of mountains at close range, weathering a storm or two is a small price to pay.

Photos: Igor Plotnikov, Skouatroulio, Zocchi [all via].

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