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Walking with Giants, Tour de Mont Blanc

A Follow on from Travel Lite

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David Tolcher

An enthusiast who enjoys having photography as an excuse to get out in to the wilds.



I recently wrote an article discussing the range of options available to the serious walker & landscape photographer (Travelling Light). In the article I extolled the virtues of the current crop of mirrorless cameras and their suitability for long distance walking. I recently completed the Tour de Mont Blanc (TMB) over a 2 week period covering a distance of approximately 200km and 10000m of ascent (and descent !) staying in a mixture of huts and hotels. It has a reputation of being one of the toughest long distance walks in Europe but also one of the most scenically enjoyable. In context, Ben Nevis is 1344m high so we would average a Ben Nevis every day & half of walking ! The opportunity to walk through France, Italy and Switzerland around the Mont Blanc massif excited my photographic instincts but also gave a conundrum as to what to carry. Did I follow my own prescription ? What worked and what would I do differently next time ?

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  • Adam Pierzchala

    David, thanks for bringing back some very happy memories for me of mountaineering in my youth! I know some parts of the area quite well though I have never done the circular walk. Most of my climbing was from the top of the Mer de Glace and the Argentiere glacier, but also from the Ref Torino on the Italian side. Sunset from the Flegere is a must-see but what about the availability of beds? From recent experience I saw that the refuges are very crowded, at least in summer, far more so than in the days I used to climb in the region. Perhaps in September things calm down?
    I am interested in why you think that Val Veni is so spectacular for photography. It struck me as being rather barren and chaotic for – at least I remember lots of boulders randomly strewn around the valley floor. The upper reaches are perhaps better but I have not been high up. Val Ferret is really lovely, very serene and picturesque with its view westward onto the east/Brenva side of Mont Blanc – as in your dawn shots.
    It’s interesting also to hear your experiences with the limited camera gear. But why was the 35mm lens not suitable for landscapes? Was this a fault with the lens? Rgds., Adam

    • Hi Adam, thanks for the feedback. Your climbing is much more serious than I am in to !

      Your right about the summer months in the popular refuges, very busy. Even mid September Elisabetta was full to the point of people sleeping on the floors, Flegere had 50 school kids in the night before we stayed so it isnt always good.

      We may have been lucky in the walk down the Italian side of the MB massif in that the weather was very pleasant and the time of year perfect. Sun angle was good on the south side with all the interest being nicely lit. For us the early and late part of the day was civilised and the heavy dew was especially nice on the foliage. We didnt walk in the bottom of the valley but on the balcony so I suspect your comments may be true for that part, everything is up and chaotic.
      Wit regards to the 35mm lens, it had sombrero DOF which meant that trying to hyperfocal focus gave very poor results. Central infinity was sharp but 30% out wasnt. Corners were bottom of bottle territory at infinity. Nice lens but not £1400ukp worth IMVHO for what I would do with it. I thought I had a bad copy but apparantly not.

  • Bobpar


    As Adam puts it, Thanks for bringing back happy memories of
    mountaineering in my youth. My memories are of a not particularly successful trip to Chamonix way back(4 peaks attemptd, 1 memorably successful). We climbed mainly in the Mer de Glace-Leschaux area but I well remember the walk down Val Ferret to Champex after an aborted attempt on M. Dolent, returning to Chamonix by road and train (recommended after 10 days climbing) Sadly, most of my trannies (Kodachrome 1) have been lost but the few that I still have are printable

    All your images are great, particularly the Peuteret Arete and the Moody Drus images.

    Is a book forthcoming?


  • Adam Long

    Great stuff David, like Adam I’ve done various sections as part of climbing trips but never the full circuit. I shot sunset from Lac Blanc a couple of years back by taking the last ‘pherique up Flegere and then jogging down to Argentiere by headtorch. Worth knowing you can hit one of the most photogenic spots with little time or logistics. I also got some good shots from up by the Torino hut – even if you’ve no mountaineering experience the lift goes straight to the hut and there are great opportunities for high mountain and glacier shots within a few hundred yards and few crevasses.

  • danfascia

    Great article David, it really brought back nice memories of my trip there just before you went last year. I must also agree that Val Veni is the most spectacular photographic location of the trip.

    The thing for me about this trek is that it is at times quite challenging in its own right (I walked it in 7 days) and I found that sticking to my schedule (~30km/day) to some extent limited my photographic opportunities. It also meant for me that I had to go ultralight and just took the LX5, gorilla pod SLR and some ND filters.

    Personally I would love to go back with more time on my hands and treat sections of this trek as a dedicated photographic project rather than trying to do the whole Tour and take decent shots. This would also allow for more waiting for the light.

    • Thanks Dan, your help and advice before the trip was invaluable. Trying to get the balance right between time challenge and not making it too leisurely is quite tricky. We had a couple of days that were less challenging than the rest by taking 11 days. Not all the days benefitted from having extra time available !
      I agree that some sections are very tempting to go back and treat as a photo trip. 2 nts would be a minimum imo, e.g. walk into Elisabetta, stay 2 nts and walk out giving one full day on location and time in & out.

      Thanks again for your advice

      • danfascia

        Although, like you hint I think I would find a 2 night stay in Rif. Elisabetta verging on unbearable… And, for anybody who thinks we are being precious about this, take a look at the sardine conditions


        • Elisabetta is an ‘experience’ which if it wasnt in a wonderful location would not get on a must visit list due to the appalling conditions if you dont manage to get in one of the civilised private rooms or the non sardine dorms.

          • Your piccie is of one of the better dorms, the bunkhouse stacks 3 high with the top bunk less than 18in from the roof !

  • jennym

    Hi Dave,

    Lovely images of a cracking walk and the weather was certainly on your side. For a circular walk with good views all the way the TMB is hard to beat. I love your image of the Drus surrounded by swirling cloud, and Fig 18 with light on the Drus and the Mer De Glace.

    I agree the choice of kit in alpine scenery is always tricky. The decision will probably be based on the primary aim of your trip ie to walk or to take photographs. We have always walked and taken photos on the way, but even so my kit has changed over the last 25 years (that makes me feel old!). The challenge is always how much weight to carry in the mountains. Like you I now carry a lightweight tripod (Feisol 3442) with an acratech head, which works very well, but is a little heavier than your setup. A short length of lightweight guy line and a lightweight tent peg is also useful for adding a little security in the wind when attached to the hook on the tripod plate, and adds almost nothing in weight.

    I suggest gloves,hat and buff are also essential kit. We had significant snow in August while walking the Alta Via 2 this summer – the first hut to hut we had attempted with our boys aged 7 to 12 – and were found wanting with only one pair of gloves and one warm hat between the six of us as we headed over a 3000m pass! Thankfully with all our clothes on and with socks for gloves we had an exciting and memorable day with only Chamoix and Ibex for company! But we should have been better equipped and it was a reminder that even in summer the mountains should be respected.


  • kevin-allan

    Some fabulous images here. The nearest I have got to the TMB was buying a guidebook for the walk 25 years ago. My favourites of your images are numbers 16 and 17, both taken on the NEX; if I had to choose just one lens for landscapes then the 35mm equivalent would get my vote. I think if I was primary concentrating on walking I’d just take one camera with a 35mm equiv lens and a light tripod – the new full frame Sony RX1 looks very suitable for this role, at a price.

    • Thanks Kevin, yes it does look interesting although I would miss the short tele option. I walked the West Highland Way with just the 24mm and it was Ok but I got better pictures with the additional flexibility of the 50mm lens.

  • LShepherd

    What an amazing trip, Dave and beautiful images to show for it! I particularly like Les Drus and pre dawn over Mont Blanc.

    I was amused reading the various comments about pros and cons of mountain huts – it’s always been the one thing that has put me off some of these alpine treks, although I know that’s a pretty poor excuse! ;-)

    Interesting to note your choice of tripod as I’m on the lookout for a light alternative for longer days/trips out. I shall add the Feisol to the potential list. Redged are the other make I’ve read good things about of late. In terms of ballhead, a lot of people seem to rate the Markins Q3T – not the cheapest by any means but a plus point for me is that you can get it with a lever clamp.

  • John Robinson

    Hi David,

    Just wanted to say thanks for sharing this beautiful set of images. Some particularly stand out but I couldn’t possibly pick a favourite as they’re all fantastic!

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