After an amazing time on the John Muir Trail, Zan and I were in search of an extended adventure that included a challenging thru-hike. We’d heard murmurs about a trek around Europe’s highest peak, Mount Blanc. It featured the stunning French, Italian and Swiss Alps with opportunities for hot showers, warm meals and soft beds along the way.
And that is how, in the fall of 2016, we found ourselves on the 110 mile Tour du Mont Blanc trail.
LES HOUCHES, FRance > Les Contamines, FR / 10 MILES
Our trek began midway through a seven week trip across Europe (more blogs coming soon!) We arrived in Chamonix, France for a few, plush days in the world’s fanciest basecamp, then waved goodbye to our historic chalet as we boarded a bus to the nearby town of Les Houches to begin the hike.
We followed a collection of color-coded signs up and out of civilization and slowly, then all at once, found ourselves high above the valley surrounded by glorious, alpine views that stretched to infinity.
For lunch, we carved a winding descent to Refuge de Miage where we handily consumed all of their dessert because, well, calories don’t exist on a thru-hike. Riding our sugar buzz into Les Contamines, we arrived at our room for the night — a historic, lovingly restored farmhouse once used for sheltering swine. Good news: the renovated home was immaculate and picturesque. Bad news: dinner was a bust as we failed to negotiate French menus and settled for store-bought potato chips and hummus.
Luckily, we woke to a full, fireside breakfast complete with homemade nutella for which we generously lavished oohhh’s and aahhh’s. Happy and full, we set out for day two.
Les Contamines, FR > Les Chapieux, FR / 11.2 MILES
Our second day of hiking followed meandering brooks flowing with a milky-teal colored water. We hit a big climb early in the morning, crossed an ancient stone bridge, then traversed a beautiful valley to a refuge near Col du Bonhomme.
We carbo-loaded with abandon before noticing the hundreds of wax-covered wine bottles that were used to illuminate the shelter once the generators were turned off at dark. If it hadn’t been for dorm style bunks and community bathrooms, we might have stayed for an unforgettably flickery evening. Instead, I stole a quick nap in the sun while Zan photographed the inspiring panorama, then we hiked on to our next stop at les Chambres du Soleil.
Dirty and a little damaged, we washed our bodies and clothes in the shower then joined the other guests for a family style dinner in the main dining room. We shared a table with two ultra distance athletes from the UK as well as a group of Parisian day trippers who arrived by car. The magical evening was aptly capped when our host offered his family’s homemade genever, a botanical spirit made from local juniper berries.
Sated after such a generous meal, it was clear that even with — or perhaps because of? — the daily creature comforts, the hike was going to be more rigorous than we imagined.
And that is how, only two days into our TMB hike, we decided to drop pack weight.
We ruthlessly curated our bandaid selection, ditched a disappointing stash of chocolate from Spain and snapped the handle off my comb. There were, however, a few things I refused to surrender as though what I chose to keep would somehow signify the kind of person I was to a future rescue party:
“Now hear this, I am the type of woman that carries watercolor brushes up and over mountains!” Or fodder for a colorful epitaph, along the lines of, “She left this world alongside her dearest, carrying only the bare essentials, a heavy sack of art supplies and, what’s this?, an eyelash curler.”
Les Chapieux, FR > Courmayeur, ITaly / 20.5 MILES
The next morning, after turning down shuttle arrangements from our host, he pressed, “So you will walk the entire way?”
“Of course!,” we assured.
“Wow, you really are des montagnes!” he declared.
It seemed funny at the time — why would we travel all this way and not hike the whole thing? But somehow just knowing that we could cable car / helicopter tour / high-def YouTube much of the hike, it grew harder to justify walking all the miles, especially once our bodies started saying mean things to our brains.
Egos checked, we got an early start for our miles to the magnificent Col de la Seigne. That afternoon, we crossed the invisible border into Italy, traversed a scenic valley then trudged halfway to the heavens for lunch at Rifugio Elisabetta.
“We are of the mountains” became an anthem propelling us up and over the steep ascents. Thankfully, delicious homemade Italian pasta, soup and bread quickly changed our mantra to #worthit as, stinky but satisfied, we continued winding our way to Courmayer.
The last leg of our big day followed a sketchy section of highway that left us almost as disoriented as seeing our accommodations for the night. When we finally reached Hotel Bouton d’Or we found it enveloped by a full set of ketchup and mustard-colored Ferraris.
We apologetically checked our dirty bodies into the cleanest hotel in the universe then promptly showered, dressed, and made our way to dinner. Just down the street from our hotel, we spotted a tiny Italian shop where we proceeded to keep the proprietor busy by eating our weight in potato pizza.
Courmayeur, IT > La Fouly, SWitzerland (CH) / 19.8 MILES
On Day 4 we were greeted with the most amazing breakfast spread ever. Stations of sweet and savory spanned rooms which rapidly filled with racers for the start of the 2016 Ultra TMB.
We hadn’t planned to be in the midst of a world-class ultra but luckily our route took us in a different direction than the race course. We politely shimmied our way through the crowds, leaving Italy and the announcers behind, turning toward, then over, the breathtaking alpine pass of Col Ferret.
Descending into Switzerland, we reached Hotel Edelweiss and traded our muddy shoes for plastic clogs then cleaned up for dinner. Fortunately, (or unfortunately depending on how you look at it) we were carrying all of the gear (laptops, cameras, etc) and clothing that we brought with us for seven weeks in Europe. While the extra pack weight was generally a drag, it was nice to feel fancy in our fine denim at dinner.
The next morning we swiftly grabbed an early breakfast and left the hotel with a scant half-day hike until our next stop.
La Fouly, CH > Champex Lac, CH / 9.3 MILES
We hiked quietly through an ancient, pristine Swiss village called Praz de Fort excited to reach our accommodations for the night. Having booked our stays ahead of time, we needed to make our miles each day to avoid cowboy camping under the stars but with less than ten gentle miles to cover, the day revealed itself to us like a gift.
Our short day was made sweeter by the promise of a home-cooked meal. Our half Swiss / half Sicilian hostess graciously opened her home to us and we spent our time together bonding over a mutual passion for food, travel and art. Upon sharing our post-TMB plans, she expertly recommended seeking out Nero d’Avola once we made our way to Sicily.
Lying in bed that night, a breeze blowing softly through the trees, I was overcome with gratitude for the special humans that have opened their hearts and homes to us over our years of wandering.
Champex Lac, CH > Vallorcine, FR / 20.2 MILES
We relished in a private breakfast overlooking a charming alpine lake situated in the center of a charming alpine town. Rested and well fed, we made great time to Col de la Forclaz where we dined at a roadside restaurant for lunch. We arrived with black feet and sore knees but that didn’t stop us from twirling our fancy pasta and devouring our raspberry tart with delight. An espresso for the road was all we needed to tick off the miles to the town of Vallorcine.
When we finally found the Bellevue Alpine Lodge we were surprised to learn that it was on the verge of closing for winter. We were its only and final guests for the season. Closing the doors behind us, our hosts welcomed us to wash in the immense, dorm-style bathrooms while they got to work preparing our private steak dinner.
Sleep came easy and deep our last night on the trail.
Vallorcine, FR > Les Houches, FR / 19 MILES
On our final day, we followed the road out of town, through a campground and back to the main trail. Zan’s knee had been hurting intermittently for much of the hike so we took our time passing “future frozen cable cars” to Flégère with views of Mount Blanc’s sadly receding glaciers.
The last few miles were the most intense. Zan was wobbly and exhausted so I did my best imitation of a human crutch to help him reach our cabin for the night. Once he was settled, I walked back through town to a grocery store for dinner.
Less than an hour later, I returned to our cabin with frozen lasagna, a baguette and chocolate dessert plus buckets and buckets of rain.
The rain didn’t let up for three, long days.
Back in Chamonix, we hunkered down for a few days, licking our wounds in a tiny French mountain hut, or mazot. We only dared escape our cozy cottage to restock our supply of bread and cheese or to refuel in a nearby café.
Rushing through the village between giant raindrops, I couldn’t begin to imagine how difficult our journey would have been if we had to hike cold, wet and without incredible views to lure us forward. It was then that our mantra turned to a question. Are we really “of the mountain?” Could we have resisted the temptation to give up or give in under less stellar weather conditions?
More than two years later, I’m still figuring out how to unpack this.
Outside of being forced to race these miles, I have no way of knowing how our hike compares. What I do know is that we greeted fellow travelers, including sheep and cows and herd dogs, with all the patience and kindness our tired souls could muster. From bonjour to buonasera, we did our best to speak in their native language and, when words escaped us, we offered a friendly, universal smile.
We treaded lightly, leaving nature as we found it, pristine and breathtaking, and were giddy, yet courteous guests in every home and hostel and hotel we visited.
And that is how we’ve learned to move through this world — earnest, grateful and willing to sacrifice simple comforts. As for what we are, I only hope it includes incomprehensible views, the company of others having a similar, transcendent experience, and the satisfaction of doing what’s hard but good.