In February 2019, 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 for some time.
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 more than 2,000 years ago.
I have 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 Pichu - and we hoped to pass that love on to our children Paddy (then aged 14 ), Daisy (11 ), Harry (12 ), and Finn (seven ). The TMB starts in Chamonix, the birthplace of modern mountaineering, which is a great base to start and finish the walk and is only an hour from Geneva. We left our main bags at a hotel in Chamonix to collect after the walk. It is just a 30 minute taxi back to Chamonix through the Mont Blanc tunnel from Courmayeur in Italy.
There are many local companies offering guides, bag carrying, and refuge booking services, but you can expect to pay up to €1,000 per person for a guided tour. We were doing it unguided, so we packed lightly as we each had to carry all our own gear for six full days walking from hut to hut.
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 had made the right decision.
People stay in refuges that are spread out all along the route. We were lucky to always get six bed dorms. The refuges can be spartan, but they make up for it with amazingly scenic locations.
After a long day walking you would welcome the sight of your refuge for the night. Throughout the early evening tired hikers would arrive to create a buzz of cosmopolitan hospitality. At 7pm every evening we gathered in the communal dining room to share family-style meals and swap stories with fellow travellers. Part of the mystique of the route is that it takes hikers through three cultures and three cuisines.
That first night our kids were not impressed with the local cuisine. “This food is basically prison food,” my daughter Daisy said. “By the end of the week you’ll love it,” I smiled. “Hunger is a great sauce”. They were all devouring it by day two.
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.
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 if I thought we had converted our children 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 children 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 de Mont Blanc.