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THIS IS MY TRAIL
Tobias Mews
Tobias Mews is one of the UK’s leading extreme endurance athletes. After six years in the British Army, Tobias embarked on a new career as a journalist, combining his passion for adventure sports with his enthusiasm for writing and filmmaking.

Tour du Mont Blanc

Our Alpha takes on one of the
greatest long-distance trails
in the world

start

Europe's Greatest Trail

The Alps - France, Switzerland & Italy

The Tour du Mont Blanc is one of the greatest long-distance trails in the world. The 103-mile (170km) route circumnavigates Europe’s highest mountain, passing through three countries, seven valleys, and ten mountain passes with an accumulated climb the equivalent height of Mount Everest. It’s the course of the brutal Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc trail run, but most choose to hike the route in two weeks. Tobias Mews and his girlfriend Zayne had just five days.

  • Trail length: 103mi
  • Climb: +31,000ft
  • Fastest known time: 20h 05m
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A trek like no other

‘Can we stop?’ I ask my girlfriend Zayne, ‘I really need to stretch.’ We’re barely ten minutes into five days running and hiking around Mont Blanc and this is the latest in a sudden onset of niggles: tightness in my calves, backpack sitting uncomfortably, a stone in my trail running shoes, knees hurting. It’s as though my body is rebelling from what it’s about to go through. After all, with almost 10,000m of ascent, the Tour du Mont Blanc is not for the faint of heart.

Although I’ve competed in multi-stage endurances races that have taken me across deserts, mountain ranges, jungles and entire countries, this is my first ‘DIY adventure’ - one with no race entry fee, no checkpoint cut-offs, no rules and no one trying to compete with me. Our only goals are to ensure we arrive at our pre-booked refuges by nightfall and don’t argue too much. So why am I feeling so nervous?

“It’s alright,” said Zayne, jogging on the spot with a mischievous smile. “Take all the time you want. I can wait.”

I’m blessed with a partner who shares my love for the outdoors – but this is a fairly epic way to spend our first holiday together. As we run out of Chamonix in the direction of Les Houches, we both feel as though we are going on a personal adventure that will see us discover something new about ourselves – and each other. But neither of us mentions the fact that this could make or break our relationship. We will either finish as best friends for life or one of us would be getting an early flight home.
    

TRAVELING LIGHT ON THE TRAIL

Because we only have 5 days and want to run as much of the route as possible, we’ve adopted the ‘light is right’ approach with a 20-liter running pack containing a change of clothes, toothbrush, first aid kit, camera, waterproofs and some food. We plan to refill our water bottles from the plentiful streams. And with loads of refuges en route – not to mention a few hotels – it shouldn’t be too risky to lose the tent. It’s wonderfully liberating.

You can’t help but be in open-mouthed awe as you soak up the beauty and majesty of the Mont Blanc Massif. It’s a brute of a mountain - almost otherworldly in its snow capped appearance, dripping with gigantic, ancient glaciers that appear to be creeping down the mountain like a frozen avalanche.

Despite all that exhilaration, the first day is exhausting. Constantly stopping to take photos or dipping our feet in the refreshing streams and rivers means that we don’t arrive at our first refuge until late afternoon.

"Because we want to run as much of the route as possible, we're only carrying 20-liter packs. It's wonderfully liberating."

Beer and cheese

The mountain refuges began life in the 18th century, offering basic shelters for alpine travelers. At the beginning of our route they are simple structures, miles from civilization. But as you go further into Italy and then Switzerland, they become more like hotels.

La Balme is a charming but simple chalet nestled midway up the Col du Bonhomme, offering panoramic views back down the mountains. After 30kms and six hours of running, we deposit ourselves on the terrace and ravenously consume a refreshing beer while studying the next day’s route.

One of the highlights of staying in a refuge is the communal dinner. All the guests congregate and exchange stories about what they’ve seen on the world’s most iconic hiking trail. Lasting friendships are forged over beer and cheese. Then it’s back to country hopping.
 

HAVE PASSPORT, WILL RUN

There’s something thrilling about the thought of carrying your passport on a run. It’s almost disappointing when we’re not asked to present it as we summit the Col du la Seigne, the border to Italy and the point at which the landscape suddenly changes. No longer are we saying ‘Bonjour’ to passers by, but ‘Buengiorno’.

The Italian part of the route is more dramatic than the French section. Lush green grass covers the mountains, with the ever-present snow capped Mount Blanc reminding us of its presence. The climbs are long but the views from the summits are worth every ounce of sweat. It’s breathtaking in every sense of the word.

We grow stronger with every day that ticks by. As I’m training for the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, a fearsome trail race along much of the same route, Zayne lets me dart off up the mountain, making me promise, on pain of death, that I’ll wait for her at the top. It’s a chance for me to stretch my legs and see what I’m made of.
 

The final descent

Our final day is tinged with sadness. The adventure is almost over. We stop for drinks and ice creams at every opportunity we get - keen to make the moment last as long as possible. Our legs feel fresh and our skin has a healthy glow thanks to the glorious sunshine that we’ve been blessed with.

Making the final descent into Chamonix, five days and 103 miles after we set off, we feel like explorers returning to base camp. We run through the town, expecting nods of respect and the odd cheer. But we might as well be invisible. Because for anyone living in the Alps, the Tour du Mont Blanc is a rite of passage – it’s not quite as everyday as returning from a run around your local park, but it isn’t far off.

What any casual passer-by would’ve seen was a couple running hand in hand, sporting Cheshire Cat grins. We hadn’t just completed the trail – we’d done so without a single argument. Indeed, if I was to look back on the defining moments in my relationship with Zayne – who several months later I proposed to – running the Tour du Mont Blanc was without doubt the most significant. Some trails stay with you for life.

photo credits: hikers on Tour de Mont Blanc by Mako10 / CC BY. Modified from original.Outside Refuge Col de Balme looking towards Mont Blanc by Heatheronhertravels.com / CC BY. Modified from original.
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"The trail passes through three countries. There's something thrilling about the thought of carrying your passport on a run."

View Tour du Mont Blanc- Mont Blanc Treks full tour in a larger map

Plan your travel

Our guide to planning your journey – plus essential links to find out more

When to go
July to September. Refuges are only open in summer season. High chance of snow outside of summer months.
How to get there
The closest airport is Geneva, from where you can get either get a train to Chamonix
Visa
No visa is required for US citizens for visits up to 90 days in a 180-day period.
Gear
French, Italian and English
Length of Trip
11-12 days to hike it the TMB. 3-5 days if running it. Elite runners can do it less than 24hrs.
Difficulty
Hard. Although not technical, there is plenty of climbing and descending. Running it requires a high level of fitness.
Accommodation
There are plenty of refuges en route, but it's advisable to reserve in advance. Camping is permitted at specific locations. More info: AutourduMontBlanc.com
Food and Drinks
You can get water from any of the mountain streams or drinking taps. You can eat at refuges or buy local food in towns and villages.