The Tour du Mt Blanc (TMB) is one of the most popular long-distance hikes in Europe. More than 10,000 walkers complete its 170km each year, enjoying the splendid alpine scenery of Switzerland, France and Italy. Normally taking seven to 10 days, the walk traverses mountain passes and seven major river valleys, offering postcard views of Mt Blanc - western Europe's highest mountain - along with other alpine peaks, glaciers, forests and small villages.
The TMB is popular enough to have its own internet sites, guidebooks and style of signposts, and there is a range of accommodation styles along the route to suit most walkers. Carrying your own camping equipment is an option for the fittest but for those more mature in years or with greater common sense there are companies that can arrange the transport of most baggage, plus accommodation.
Walkers can choose guides, or be self-guided, with the companies providing the necessary maps. Average days of four to six hours are not beyond the capabilities of most weekend walkers, although sensible footwear and all-weather clothing is essential.
Approaching 50 and being rich in common sense, I choose the option of a company to transport most luggage, leaving me to carry a day pack with extra clothing and waterproofs, water, lunch and valuables. However, I retained a level of adventure by choosing the self-guided option.
Starting in La Tour, just north of Chamonix in France, I begin apprehensively, consulting the map every 100m, despite the path being well marked and in heavy use. After just a few hours, my confidence grows - reading a map is really the same whatever country you are in - and it becomes obvious that alternatives to the main TMB need to be taken to maximise its enjoyment.
The official route of the TMB has had many changes over the years and there are now several alternative routes, or "variantes", marked both on the maps and on the ground.
On my first day, I take a variante to climb a ridgeline to the Col de Balme rather than proceeding along the main TMB in the river valley below. The contrast between the two paths is marked. There are large numbers of walkers on the TMB below, intermingling with day trippers using the cable cars, contrasting with the relative solitude of occasional walkers on the parallel variante.
Another variante I take is the Champignons Trail. This trail, to the south of Champex, is named after the interesting fungi in the area and provides an insight into the importance and conservation of various mushrooms in the surrounding forests. The countryside also contains interesting war-time refuges, and the scarcity of walkers enables me meet friendly local farmers and wildlife.
Side trips from the TMB are equally satisfying. At the Col de la Seigne, just west of Courmayeur, a walk along a ridgeline affords exhilarating views of two valleys and sightings of ibex, marmots and falcons - all within sight of the main TMB trail. On the same day, another side trip takes me to Lac Mirage, a blue glacial lake at the end of a retreating glacier.
But the highlight of the trip is on the last day, when I approach the Col de Bonhomme to the south of Contamines in France. For three- and-a-half hours I walk in the company of only one local couple along a path that at times is cut into mountainsides and through steep valleys. Only at the Col de Bonhomme do I rejoin the throngs of people doing the TMB. And the only reason I'd taken the trail was my planned accommodation was fully booked due to a wedding and I had been transferred to another hotel off the main TMB route.
The TMB richly deserves its status as one of the greatest treks in Europe and the views along the trail are truly spectacular. But, as with all great walks that are so labelled, its popularity can diminish some of its beauty. Severely eroded paths, large numbers of people, indifferent locals and white tissue paper (why always white?) on the side of the trail are common sights along some sections of the trail. Yet take a variante or a side trip, or venture off the guidebook circuit, and you suddenly lose the crowds, restore the relative solitude and meet friendly people and wildlife.
By taking the trail less travelled, your journey can be so much more worthwhile.