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Earlier this month we received this incredible journal from a customer and we loved it so much we have asked to repost! Karl purchased a Hilleberg Soulo from us at the beginning of February and quickly put it through its paces - completing the Tour Du Mont Blanc in seven greulling days. Find out how he got on and his thoughts on the tent below. Many thanks to Karl for sending this in and if you have had an adventure you want to tell us about please get in touch at [email protected] You can also follow Karl's adventures on his Instagram @explorertressler

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It was 4am on Monday 3rd August 2020 and I awoke to the sound of ‘Heart London’ radio signalling the time to get up. After months of planning and uncertainty due to the COVID pandemic the time had finally come to embark on a lifelong wish of an expedition to the ALPS! After an eventful taxi ride with my neighbour Maciej discussing ‘cars & guns’ I arrived at Gatwick airport to check in my duffel bag and
prepare for departure.

After a short flight I landed at a very wet Geneva airport in Switzerland where I had booked a bus transfer to take me across the border to Chamonix in France.

The challenge I had set myself was to hike the entire ‘Tour Du Mont Blanc’ (TMB), which is a route that circles the entire Mont Blanc Massif mountain range. The trail, which passes through 3 alpine regions in France, Italy and Switzerland, is roughly 170km long with around 10,000m of cumulative ascent and descent. The hike would draw my eyes constantly to snow capped summits, incredibly high mountain passes (Cols), magnificent valleys, exquisite alpine pastures full of wild flowers and sparkling azure lakes.

TMD

The challenge for me was to complete the long distance hike completely self sustained in just 7 days. This would mean carrying all of my kit and supplies in a rucksack weighing on average 18kg and wild camping along the route in a range of epic spots only to be identified once on foot. The plan was to carry an average 2-3 days worth of food at each given time meaning that I would need to schedule ‘fuel stops’ several times along the route.

As my whole expedition would last a full two weeks I had made the decision to have the luxury of the first two nights in a hostel in Chamonix and furthermore take full advantage of their luggage storage facilities so that I could leave my excess kit behind whilst I was on the trail, knowing that it would be safe and secure. Once checked into the hostel I spent the next 36 hours exploring a very wet and cloudy Chamonix, preparing my kit and buying my first few days of food ready for embarking on the TMB. On my final evening in the hostel my local club Brentford FC were due to play Fulham FC in the championship play off final for a place in the Premiership so I watched this over a drink with a Finnish girl called Eda whom I had met earlier on in  the day and struck up a short term friendship with. Disappointingly it was defeat for Brentford but a great evening with Eda nonetheless chatting away!


Stage 1


After a nights sleep i sprung out of bed eager to take full advantage of the ‘free’ hostel breakfast and make my final kit preparations. It was now Wednesday 5th August 2020 and the weather had taken a dramatic turn from thick cloud and heavy rain to clear blue skies and glaring sunshine. It was the first opportunity I had had to see the magnificent ice capped peaks and glaciers that had been shrouded in cloud for the past 2 days and get my first sighting of Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in Europe standing at 4810m. The nerves were now setting in as I thought about the enormity of the challenge facing me but I was incredibly excited and focused by the challenge! After a short journey down the valley by bus whilst applying my factor 30
sun cream I arrived at the TMB’s starting point in Les Houches, a small French settlement at the bottom of the Chamonix valley.

After a few pictures and a check of the map I walked through the starting arch, started my Garmin GPS tracking and commenced the Tour Du Mont Blanc shortly after 10am.The first day on the TMB was a really tough day clocking some serious distance combined with a lot of ascent. The majority of the day was spent at around the 1000m mark passing through beautifully quaint French villages and settlements along with lots of woodland allowing me to get a feel for the terrain, the map and the general surroundings. Soon out of Les Houches i was hiking through dormant ski slopes and lifts that during the height of winter would be bustling with winter sports enthusiasts. I stopped off in Les Contamines for a few basic snacks having purchased the majority of my first few days of food in Chamonix and had some lunch taking shade from the strong sunshine.

 

After leaving Les Contamines (1161m) the ascent began as I hiked up the valley with a gradual climb to refuge de Nant Borrant and onto la Balme at 1706m. From here the terrain changed from coniferous forests to more rocky and mountainous terrain as I made the final push to my first camp spot at Lacs Jovet. In order to reach my epic camp spot I had to leave the TMB trail and ascend a further 473m to 2179m which was really tough going after a long first day on the trail with a heavy pack. As I neared the lake I made my first spotting of Marmots, which for those of you that don’t know are relatively large ground squirrels that live at high altitude in burrows. These fascinating animals measure between 40-80cm in length and have a very distinctive calling sound similar to a loud whistle.

When I finally reached Lacs Jovet I was blown away by the incredible scenery and after setting up camp right on the waters edge all the pain and struggles that I had endured were quickly forgotten as I enjoyed dinner whilst watching the sun setting!

In summary, stage 1 was a great day however as you will see from the stage 1 stats table below I did over commit leading to a long day in terms of km’s and the resulting exhaustion. Lac Jovel however was an incredibly beautiful spot to spend my first night under the stars and so worth it in the end. Others were also wild camped around the lake but as the lake was huge they weren’t noticeable.

Wild Camp – Lacs Jovel (2148m) - France



Stage 2


Stage two started with a rocky descent down to around 1900m before immediately climbing back up to Col du Bonhomme where there was fine views to be had looking over the French Alps. From here I
remained high level hiking over a ridge to refuge du Col de la Croix du Bonhomme where I made an unfortunate wrong turning and ended up at Col de la Sauce (2307m) some 1.5km away. Whilst it was
a brilliant hike across a high level ridge I found myself only to have to hike all the way back to the refuge once i had checked the map properly. A point to note here is that the TMB has many different variants to the route that have been created over the years making it therefore very easy to make the mistake that I did in taking a ‘variante’ trail off to the south west when I should have continued in a south easterly direction.

Once I had fully retraced my steps I made a very steep grassy decent into the tiny settlement of Les Champieux (1543m) where I was able to pick up a few snacks from a VERY basic shop. After a brief pit stop and a check of the map to look at potential pitch sights for the night I continued up the valley knowing that I needed to gain some elevation in order to be able to pitch up for the night. Having hiked along the river climbing up to 2125m I was completely exhausted once more and in desperate need of a suitable pitch. Unfortunately due to sheer physical and mental exhaustion I had to pitch my tent near a small
water source to ensure I had water for the evening, on a slopped hillside. At the time of pitching the gradient seemed ok however it wasn’t until I got inside the tent that I realised it was more of a slope than I thought with no other suitable spots to relocate to.

As I ate chilli & rice and watched the sun setting in yet more magical scenery I was greeted by more Marmots from afar keeping watch over me sounding out with there distinctive whistles. Unfortunately the sloped pitch made for an uncomfortable nights sleep as I kept slipping down in my tent and so had to sandwich the sleep mat between the inner tents groundsheet and footprint to provide some friction and
prevent slippage.

In summary it was another really testing day where I pushed a little too hard and overexerted. Temperature wise in scorching hot all day with zero cloud cover and wind which really added to the intensity.

Wild Camp - Above Chalet Refuge des Mottets (2115m) - France

Stage 3


After a really poor nights rest the day started with a continued high level climb for around 2km up to Col de la Seigne (2516m) which is the official border separating France and Italy. After an apple, banana and picture break I crossed into Italy and continued to hike high level dropping to around the 2000m for the next 10km through mountainous terrain where I reached refuge Maison Vielle. It was this point
that I started once again hiking through dormant ski slopes and lifts as I started my descent into the Italian Alpine ski resort of Courmayeur. The descent was viciously steep through dense forest and extremely taxing on the knees in particular. The altitude dropped around 1000m in the space of just 3km! Once in Courmayeur I found myself walking through quaint little Italian cobbled streets as I made my way to an Italian supermarket for my 2nd fuel stop of the expedition.

After an eventful shop in the supermarket making full use of ‘Google translate’ I was once again fully restocked for another 2-3 days. As I am sure you can imagine putting the rucksack back on to commence the hike felt incredibly heavy having just packed it full with food supplies.

Having looked at the map before setting off I knew that an incredibly steep climb out of Courmayeur faced me and one that I felt fresh legs were needed for after 3 very taxing days on the trail already. With this in mind I headed up the valley for around 1.5km and found some woodland by the side of some waterfalls. Although camped pretty close the trail the woodland was secluded enough and so the ideal spot to pitch up for the night before the terrain became too steep.

I was thankful to have a flat pitch however as I was camped a lot lower in terms of altitude and in woodland I had the bugs to contend with. After an evening of battling with giant ants and mosquitos hungry for my blood I retreated inside my tent behind the bug net so that I could fully relax and enjoy my pasta and fresh salami dinner.

In summary stage 3 was a great day on the trail experiencing some exceptional scenery and I was glad of my ‘tactical pitch’ at lower altitude to avoid a large energy sapping climb so late in the day. The weather was again blisteringly hot with little to no rest bite only when in the shade of the trees throughout the day.

Wild Camp – Woodland by the side of waterfalls North West of Courmayeur (1403m) - Italy


Stage 4


Stage 4 begin with the expected sharp climb out of the woodland where I was camped at around 1400m up to around 1900m in the space of just 1km where I reached refuge Bertone. For the majority of the day I remained high level at around 1900-2100m mark to make for a good days hiking. I then dropped to around 1750m and the tiny settlement of Arnuva hiking a further 2km up the valley to refuge Elena, which was still closed due to the COVID pandemic. After a review of the map I knew that I wanted to camp high level above 2000m to capitalise on the incredible views and so set my sights on Grand Col Ferret sitting at 2551m and separating Italy and Switzerland. With tired limbs I knew that this was going to be an incredibly tough ending to the day but one which I felt was worth it so after a short break drinking fresh filtered water from a tiny stream I began my short sharp ascent. I arrived at the col at around 6pm and was greeted by 360 degree panoramic views of the Italian and Swiss Alps. It was truly stunning!

I decided to pitch the tent right on the col and although a little windy I knew that this wouldn’t be a problem for my ‘Hilleberg Soulo’ tent which is designed to handle these conditions. A short while after pitching a couple of French guys came over for a chat and to admire my camp setup. After a short conversation they descended down to pitch their tents out of the wind at a lower altitude leaving me to enjoy the mountains in complete peace and solitude.

To summarise stage 4 was another fantastic day on the TMB, which was again very testing with my highest day of ascent since stage 1. Weather wise it remained very hot although as the day progressed a  light breeze gathered which was a welcome relief.

Wild camp - Grand Col Ferret (2551m) Right on the Italian/ Swiss border - Italy

Stage 5

After an incredible nights camp and feeling well rested the morning began by completing my second border crossing and entering my 3rd country on the trail, Switzerland. A long but gradual descent followed from here dropping around 1000m to the small Swiss settlement of la Fouly (1593m). This was my third and final opportunity to ‘refuel’ in a local supermarket. I had planned that this fuel stop would see me through to the finish line at the end of stage 7.

Have loaded up the rucksack I studied the map looking at how the elevation would change as the day progressed knowing that realistically I would need to be camped above 2000m. I however came across Lac de Champex which was a fair sized lake based in the settlement of Champex and set my sights on this being the spot that I would pitch up at for the night. I however knew this was a bit of a gamble due the fact that the lake sat at just 1486m and wouldn’t know if the risks were too great until I arrived at the lake. After a few hours of hiking through dense forestry at low level I arrived in Champex at around 6pm having already clocked 25km for the day only to be greeted by a thriving tourist hotspot full of people enjoying the fine Swiss weather sunbathing around the lake or even swimming in it! For me this was bad
news as there was just no way that I could possibly camp here. I had been informed that the fines that the Swiss authorities hand out to ‘wild campers’ could be
thousands of pounds so it wasn’t a risk that I was willing to take.

I resorted to studying the map carefully in order to assess my options with only one solution and that was to gain altitude and get above 2000m. What had so far been a good day of steady hiking soon turned into a mammoth ascent that was incredibly steep through dense forestry with absolutely no possibility of finding a place to pitch the tent. I knew that I had to just dig deep and keep going to get above the tree line even though I knew my body was screaming out at me to stop as the lactic acid filled my muscles. During my ascent I came across two French guys that had suffered the same fate as myself and were in pursuit of a suitable pitch too. We stopped for brief conversation however we were all fixated on getting to the top and finding a pitch so we pressed on.

Finally after 10 exhausting hours of hiking I made it to 2000m at roughly 8:15pm where I was able to find a suitable pitch before nightfall. Shortly after setting up camp and as I watched the Swiss city of  Martigny come alight as night fell I listened to the sound of cowbells as cattle descended from higher up the mountain which made for a soothing end to a long gruelling day.

The following morning I woke to the sound of distant cowbells that seemed to be getting louder, when all of a sudden a big black bull stuck its head into my tent in order to sniff and lick me. This was then followed in quick succession by a second black bull doing the same. Whilst this was an incredible experience my heart was also racing due to the size of these bulls and their potentially unpredictable nature. Within minutes my tent was completely surrounded by roughly 50 cows each with a cowbell that was ringing making for a pretty loud experience. It was at this point I opted to get out of the tent as I could feel the guylines switching as the cows became very inquisitive. One trip from a cow and I could have been crushed whilst in the tent still!

After a short period the cows continued grazing along the mountain and I was able to continue decamping. In summary day 5 turned into a gruelling day of mental and physical grit in hot temperatures but in the end all the struggles were quickly forgotten following my experience with the Swiss cows, WOW!!

Wild Camp - Above Foret des Cailleresses overlooking the Swiss city of Martigny (2006m) – Switzerland

 



Stage 6

After a late finish to stage 5 the previous evening and a truly memorable morning with the Swiss cattle stage 6 begin with a gradual decent through thick coniferous forestry down to 1526m. The weather was again glorious blue skies and sunshine as I reached the small Swiss settlement of Forclaz and progressed onto le Gilliod and Trient. From here I commenced back up the valley along the riverbank passing beautiful waterfalls as I began climbing through yet more dense Swiss forestry. The terrain was incredibly steep and unforgiving so set myself a target of reaching 2000m before stopping for a bite to eat.

As I ate tuna straight from the can the clouds began to sweep in which was something I had yet to see during my first 6 days on the trail as I had only had pure sunshine. The heavens soon opened with exceptionally heavy thunderstorms meaning I was forced to take cover under a tree, for around 30 minutes. A German girl descending the mountain then passed me and told me that a Swiss refuge was just 200m away behind the trees so with this information I made a quick dash for cover.

For around 40 minutes I took shelter in the refuge from the driving wind and rain as I began to feel the chill from the damp sweaty clothing stuck to my skin. Once the rain had subsided and after some small talk with some other Swiss hikers in the refuge I commenced on up the maintain to waves and high pitched cries of “au revoir” from the two young Swiss children of the refuge owners.

My next grid reference point was Col de Balme some 2km away sitting at an altitude of 2199m and also the border separating Switzerland and France. The weather at this point was still looking very unpredictable and with this in mind I studied the map further at the col looking to seek out potential camp locations for the night. Having clocked around 25km for the day already I wanted to notch a few more kilometres before pitching the tent in order to put me in a strong position for my 7th and final stage.

I remained high level (2000m+) for the next 2 hours of hiking before picking a great spot to wild camp at the end of the Chamonix valley. This was a tactical wild camp as I knew that commencing further would see me drop down to Col de Montets at 1416m only to come straight back up to around 2300m. Once pitched up the stormy weather continued to present itself right through the evening as I took shelter in the tent admiring my commanding views of the Mont Blanc massif mountain range.

In summary it was another great day on the TMB experiencing a mix of Swiss settlements, rivers, waterfalls, dense forest but very much a day of two halves weather wise as the heavy thunderstorms arrived early afternoon and remained for the rest of the day.

Wild Camp - Crox des Posettes (2116m) - France


Stage 7

After a good night of rest and recuperation I awoke to blue skies and sunshine (see pictures above) after what had been a very wet night with rain falling right through the night. Today was to be my final day on the TMB with the aim of reaching the finish line in Les Houches.

After a breakfast consisting of scrambled egg and croissants I began my sharp descent down to Col des Montets where I paused briefly to drink straight from a river before crossing the road to commence my ascent straight back up the other side of the valley as I proceeding further along the Chamonix valley. This ascent was to be an incredibly steep and energy sapping climb as I had opted to complete a ‘variante’ section up to Lac Blanc sitting at 2352m. It was here where the trail became very busy with day hikers that had either hiked directly up from Chamonix or used the Flegere cable car to elevate them the majority of the way up the mountain.

By the time I reached Lac Banc I felt badly dehydrated as my camelback bladder had dried up during the ascent and I was unable to locate any water sources from which to refill. Conveniently there was a  refuge next to the lake so after a quick energy boost from ‘2 cans of Orangina’ and a glug of fresh filtered mountain water from the lake I continued my traverse of the mountain eager to get to a quieter section of the trail. The sun was however blisteringly hot making it hard to stay hydrated as I continued to clock the distance. Having reached the Plan Praz cable car at 2075m I felt completely drained and was really feeling the effects of chronic mental and physical fatigue from 7 straight days of hiking and sleeping wild so stopped for a break. Plan Praz is a popular spot for Paragliders and so spent time watching as they propelled themselves from the mountainside and into the air!

Having traversed the mountain side for around the last 5km staying between 1800-2100m and navigating a series of vertical ladders screwed into the mountain to help with navigating the steep sections it was now time to begin my descent. This would see me move from the open mountainous terrain back into dense coniferous forestry.

The descent that followed was incredibly steep in places as it zig zagged the mountainside dropping down to around 1300m. I continued to push hard along the Chamonix valley traversing through the forest as I clocked the last few kilometres to Les Houches!

At 7:30pm on Tuesday 11th August 2020 after covering an immensely tough final day of 32.5km I reached Les Houches and the finish line of the Tour Du Mont Blanc! It was an incredible feeling and one that I had envisaged for the last 4 months during my planning and preparations in the UK. After a few ‘selfies’ as I stood there beaming ear to ear it was time to hop on a bus that would take me back to a pre planned campsite in Chamonix where I was in desperate need of a wash after 8 days without one!

Later that evening as I started to feel more human again I got chatting to a Russian guy who was pitched up next to me following his long drive over the border from Germany. He was due to start the TMB the following morning and was planning to complete it solo and self sustained just like I had. It was great to be able to pass my knowledge and experiences on to him as he asked me a string of questions in order to help him prepare mentally and help with packing his rucksack.

 



Summary

It is very difficult to summarise here other than to say this was a truly incredible and unforgettable life experience. To date this has to be the toughest mental and physical challenge that I have ever completed. As highlighted in the summary table below to hike 195.77km (121.6 miles), climb a total of 10,377m and carry an 18kg rucksack all in the space of 7 days was extremely tough going and took sheer mental and physical grit to complete. An interesting point to make here that my cumulative ascent was 1529m more than the world’s tallest mountain, Mount Everest at 8848m. Looking at averages over the 7 days I distanced an average of 27.96km (17.37 miles) combined with ascending and descending 1,482m per day. Again, putting that into context the UK’s highest mountain Ben Nevis is 1345m!

Throughout my expedition I experienced many highs and lows but always remained focused and in ‘the zone’ as I was determined to complete this challenge within the parameter’s that I had set myself. Throughout this journal I have attempted to document my journey in the best way possible and support with photo’s, however it is very difficult to really capture the experience fully through photograph’s. Put simply photo’s do not highlight the other senses such as ‘sound and scent’, which played a huge role in the whole experience.

If I was to recall the key sounds it would have to be the Marmot’s high pitched whistles, the immensely loud sound of crickets and grasshoppers in the meadows or the sound of glacial water flowing! With regards scents it would have to be the fresh smell of Pine in the numerous coniferous forests or the fresh array of wild flowers as I passed through the pastures.

Special Thanks

Throughout my incredible hike through the French, Italian and Swiss Alps I came across many different types of rock but I would like to give special thanks to the toughest and most resilient ‘rock’ of all, my mum! My ‘Ma’ has always been a constant support to me and fully backs me in all the challenges that I have undertaken to date in my life so far, giving me the confidence to accomplish so thank you!

Hilleberg Soulo - Performance Review

Having been using tents for many years now i had always wanted a Hilleberg but had been put off due to the exceptionally high price tag however i finally made the purchase back in February of this year. What I can say is that this tent is worth every penny! The craftsmanship that goes into the design and build of this tent is phenomenal. During my 7 day expedition in the Alps the Soulo was my home and well and truly lived up to expectations in a variety of weather conditions. For a one man tent it is surprisingly spacious due to its 3 pole dome design which mean I could live comfortably within the tent during adverse weather. I am 6 foot tall and can comfortably sit up in the tent when cooking etc.

Once pitched the tent is incredibly strong due to its 3 pole design and 12 guy lines that wrap around the poles, it really did make light work of the heavy winds that i encountered during some of my more exposed pitches. The pegs are well made and didn't bend and the tents ability to pitch on a variety of terrain really helped me as the ground was often rocky in places. What i really like about the design is the ability to completely peg out the tent before placing any poles into the sleeves as during windy weather this made tent pitching 10 times easier. The process can then be carried out in reverse when taking the tent down. Also as the inner is clipped in this remains dry during wet weather pitching which is again a massive benefit. I would 100% recommend this tent as it will not let you down and the build quality means that it will last for many years to come.