“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”
Okay, maybe this particular journey wasn’t a thousand miles, but over one hundred miles through the topsy-turvy, meandering Alps in the summer heat with a 15kg backpack strapped to you wasn’t exactly a walk in the park either. The ‘Tour Du Mont Blanc’ it was called – one of great long walks of the world that snakes its way around the Mont Blanc Massif as it passes through ridiculously pretty and bucolic regions of France, Italy and Switzerland. Following some research on the internet a few weeks before, I booked my flight, loaded up my backpack and set off to the Swiss city of Geneva where I caught a connecting bus to the French town of Chamonix that sat at the foot of the highest mountain in Western Europe – Mont Blanc. The aforementioned single step hit the tarmac as I immediately set off on my journey as I left the bus and began a short walk down the alpine valley to the charming French town of Les Houches – the official start-point of the tour. I lazed about all day catching up on sleep due to fruitlessly attempting to sleep in the airport the night before my 6.30am flight. A thunderstorm lashed down from above and I spent the first night cocooned in my tent before emerging enthusiastically the next morning ready to hike.
The first day was still littered with light rain and grey clouds obscuring the surrounding mountains I had came to see, and I made way up out of the valley alongside quiet roads that were lined with chalets and holiday homes. The summer season of course meant an end to the skiing and this was reflected in the quietness of the streets and the eerily empty ski fields where ski lifts gently swung in the valley breeze as they
solitarily awaited the distant return of snow. For now it was summer season – the season of hiking where people like me trudged up and down these valleys while sweating profusely. I reached the top of the valley (the ‘Col’ as they call it), ate a packed lunch and spent the second half of the first day descending to the bottom before meeting two Canadian girls Melanie and Sarah on their first trip to Europe. Being from British Columbia, they were no strangers to beautiful alpine mountains and we spent the afternoon chirping the usual traveller back-forth chat while walking through the quaint and picturesque scenery that was filled with rustic, stylish houses and settlements adorning colourful flowers and immaculately groomed gardens. The day ended again with me sheltering in my tent as a night storm battered down into the valley. Well, at least it’s at night hey.
Following a second day trudging up and down over my first 2500m Col in the now frustratingly gloomy weather, I was nestled in a beautiful French valley that exploded in the colour of green as the summer sun finally made an appearance. Doing the trek counter-clockwise (it can be done either way around), I was now in the tiny town of Les Chapieux and en route to climb the next Col to make my way into Italy where dramatic views of enormous, spiky rock faces awaited me on the southern side of the Mont Blanc Massif, not to mention an entirely different language (as if my few French phrases weren’t painful enough to the locals). I packed away my camping gear, ordered a couple of delicious French baguettes for lunch from a small shop and starting climbing into Italy. Over the border I was met with stupendous views of the now-clear mountain range where a stretching alpine valley snaked alongside an engulfing, jagged crowd of sky-piercing mountains and wrinkled hills. The scenery was incredible; the skies clear and blue; the paths filled with butterflies dancing to the rhythm of nature; and I, despite walking over 30km this day, was extremely content witnessing such beautiful scenes. When you’re an avid world traveller with a lust to ‘see the world’ it’s easy to neglect some places that seem close to home; the mental world map in your head pleads to be filled with travel and experiences from far-off places rather than those within a small circle of home – Europe, in my case. But this is a ridiculous philosophy I realised as the accompanying world-class and stunning, mountainous scenery lit up my eyes as good as anything in New Zealand, South America and even Nepal did. I had never even considered coming to the Alps a few weeks back, and yet here I was loving it.
Following a ten hour day of walking where I had teamed up again with the Canadian girls and an adventure-enthusiast, American-Australian called Brooke, I was slightly off course as relentless talk of pizza and ice cream had roped me in and took me off my planned path and towards the Italian mountain town of Courmayeur – a pleasant and supposedly posh settlement that lay cuddled in the surrounding hills and mountains which left me with an annoying accommodation problem.
As far as shelter goes, there are two main accommodation options for hikers undertaking the Tour Du Mont Blanc, and these were A) Refuges – the most popular option which were large houses essentially serving as hostels offering dormitory-style accommodation with meals, and B) Camping – the budget and, of course, most fun option. Being forever a budget traveller I was tactically following the camping sites around the trail, but a detour to Courmayeur meant tiredly wandering around the town in twilight at the end of a long day to find a refuge. I swiftly learned refuges could only be found in the mountains and that, also, there was nowhere to wild camp in a town surrounded by vertical landscapes. This left me reluctantly forking out for a hotel. Oh, the backpacker ego pain of becoming a tourist for one night! Still, c’est la vie I told myself; me and the three girls had a memorable day’s hike, good conversations and a bountiful dinner. Yes, eating a 15-inch pizza and drinking beer with brand new friends after a long day’s adventure in the mountains is how every day should finish I told myself. There may have been pain, sweat and more expense than I planned, but it’s the memories that count. In a world where people can get lost in numbers, money and possessions, always it’s the experience that is most important.
The next two days I made my way out of the Italian section of the tour and into the Swiss section. Another long day’s 30km+ walk out of Courmayeur further along the south side of the Massif had left me with painful blisters on my feet and the usual weight-loss I had experienced twice already this year on my multi-day hikes in Nepal. A few tinned cans of spaghetti and tuna with a load of biscuits and fruit wasn’t exactly enough for long days spent in the sun climbing over 2500m passes with a 15kg backpack. But still, there was always time to recover. And if you’re going to take a day off to recover, eat and drain blisters on your feet then why not do it in one of the most beautiful towns you’ve ever seen. In this case, Champex – a gorgeous and relatively small tourist town in Switzerland that had a lake in its centre filled with crystal clear water reflecting the blue sky – the perfect place to laze, gaze into the mountains, read and drink some wine. I arrived here with my new hiking friend from the Ukraine – a family man and aerospace engineer who had started the hike the same day as me and was eager to power through to the end. Having never met anyone from the Ukraine, I was eager to speak with him and share the experience. He proved to be an extremely friendly and all-round good person – eagerly sharing stories, offering food and drink and informing me about wild fruits as he foraged for small, edible berries along the trail. Following the first night in Champex where we drank wine, ate and chatted as the sun went down behind the enveloping hills, we parted ways as he pressed on and I took the day off, taking it easy before resuming the second half of the trail the next day. Three more days of hiking left I noted, as I studied the map and guide.
Walking alone on this hike proved to be a great decision so far. On one hand I had lots of time to solitarily wander, marvel at the mountainous expanse and listen to music while letting my mind wander; conversely on the other hand – because the hike was so popular with people of all group sizes, ages and shapes – there were also plenty of opportunities to speak to and team up with friendly hikers alongside the trail. As I made my way up and over the highest pass of the whole trek, I met Noam – a young Israeli guy who was also solo trekking. Like Ukraine, Israeli was a nationality of person I had never really encountered (at least not one on one) and ongoing chat showed that – despite borders, governments, cultures, religions, language and whatever else separates us – people are inherently similar and looking for the same things in life: usually to live their lives well with a sense of purpose, peace, community and fulfilment. We talked life and philosophy before sharing lunch atop the pass, gazing out at the spectacular view of the cutting valley and the dazzling glacier and white-watered river that streamed down into it. There below we camped and were joined again by Brooke – the American, Australian girl I had walked with previously to Courmayeur. With just two days left and the same way to go, we now had a trio of us to undertake the final miles as we headed back to the northern side and French valley that sat in the shadow of the Mont Blanc mountain. The end was nearing.
Following a relatively easy day’s walking of around ten miles, we rested, loaded up on food from the first supermarket in two days, and got tipsy off ‘hammer wine’ – 3 euros of low-quality, grape-filled goodness. My stomach was demanding calories as I hastily assembled an enormous French baguette and filled it with ridiculously cheap cheese (1.50 for 350g of Camembert!). This alongside the merriness of wine and good company meant a pleasant evening before undertaking the final day where we would climb up the mountain above to get the best panoramic views of the Mont Blanc Massif. Now joined by another friendly Israeli guy called Omer, we loaded up for the final time and immediately began a steep ascent of over 1000 vertical metres. Over the course of the trail, a hiker ascends and descends a total of 10,000m and this final day would make up a good portion of that with its relentless climb that even included vertical ladders and steps at one point. Climbing up an old rusty ladder on the side of a mountain with a big backpack and no safety harness really made you feel like Lara Croft or something.
Finally all four of us made it to the top and took a short detour to the lakes beside us. We arrived here sweaty and exhausted after the thigh-stabbing final ascent and immediately sank down besides the rocks to eat, drink and rest. The scenery around us was breath-taking; the first lake was surrounded by shining green grass and lay directly in front of a panoramic and cinematic view of the Mont Blanc massif where enormous distant spikes and mountain faces zig-zagged their way along the horizon as they displayed their snowy peaks and glaciers. An array of colours dazzled my eyes in a dreamy dance of blue skies, white snow, green grass and reflective, crystal-clear waters. Mont Blanc stood gleaming clear opposite us across the valley.
I had the privilege of seeing a few spectacular views this year, but this was right up as the most stunning alongside the close-up view of Mount Everest and its surrounding peaks. The world and our reality truly is a work of art, and I could never get bored of this universal painting. Like a tourist in a gallery, I observed and marvelled at the views some more before me, Brooke and Omer jumped in and swam within the icy cold glacier water of Lac Blanc – much to the amusement of surrounding, photo-snapping tourists. We swiftly emerged freezing and refreshed, ready to head down the mountain and conclude the trek where it started – in the town of Chamonix. It, sadly, was the end of this adventure. C’est la vie; c’est la vie.
And so after eleven days, eight days of hiking, three countries and over 110 miles of good experiences, sites and people, I sat at the foot of my tent sipping beer and staring up into the mountains once more. I was alone again having said goodbye to the others – a natural and forever common occurrence in the world of backpacking. The last days had been exactly what I would call a perfect equilibrium of existence while we go about passing the time as we live and breathe on this floating rock in space. Days spent in beautiful natural environments, with changing landscapes, new faces, few worries and good memories is what it is all about.
My trekking adventures this year had helped steady the fire that burns inside a restless, young soul wanting to experience the beautiful gift of reality we have found ourselves with. And the Alps and this hike had been an experience that surpassed expectations.
Les Alps, it is Au Revoir for now, but surely not for good.