By Marianne Bohr
Mother Nature always wins.
The Tour du Mont Blanc, affectionately known to its devotees as the TMB, is one of the world’s classic long-distance footpaths and is a capstone event on our European itinerary. Experiencing the Alpine wilderness in the presence of the dramatic ice-capped peaks is the proverbial icing on our backpacking, sabbatical-year cake. In seven days, we’ll hike seventy-five miles around Mont Blanc, the highest point in the Alps at 15,770 feet, undertake elevation gains and losses of over 36,000 feet, cross through three countries with seven companions, and complete one magnificent hike. We signed up for the hike before we left the States, having read about it in a hiking magazine years before. The writer did a good job of communicating his enthusiasm for not only the physical beauty of the TMB but also the excitement of the challenge and the thrill of doing it with a partner. Joe and I love undertaking personal challenges, as well as discovering new places, just the two of us. It’s like having secrets no one else knows and that only we share. Once we read about it, we knew the TMB would be one of those shared experiences.
The circular route goes from village to village, ascending through flower-filled meadows and up precipitous, barren mountain passes. It winds its way through vertiginous, scree-strewn elevations and descends through quaint hamlets into green valleys overlooked by intimidating glaciers in France, Italy, and Switzerland. The trail begins in the Chamonix Valley and traces its way through its international neighbors—the Val Ferret in Italy and the Trient Valley in Switzerland.
The complete 105-mile TMB requires a ten-day commitment. We’ll undertake a slightly abbreviated version by doing the “less interesting” legs, those that follow paved roads, in support vans. We’ll walk from France to Italy, on into Switzerland and then back to France, progressing from one rustic mountain refuge to the next. I find a wealth of information about the Mont Blanc loop on the Internet and have Kev Reynolds’s The Tour of Mont Blanc, the de facto Bible on this classic hike. Because the fair-weather season is so brief, the mountain refuges (some of which cannot be reserved) fill up quickly in summer. I read reports of hikers at the end of a long day of trekking fifteen-plus miles being stranded with no place to stay in sometimes-below-freezing night temperatures. This possibility, combined with fickle mountain weather, sealed the deal. We’ve opted for a guided TMB excursion with Boundless Journeys, an adventure outfitter.
Our TMB program is inaugurated at L’Oustalet, our comfortably rustic Chamonix inn, with drinks on the back lawn. Our tall, handsome French guide and quintessential outdoorsman, Eric, meets us with the understated enthusiasm we’ll come to expect from him. As our fellow hikers materialize one by one, we size each other up to see where we fall on the relative fitness scale. In the days leading up to the excursion, I was anxious. Will our companions for a week of intense trekking be older or younger? Will they be less or more in shape? Will we see their hard-body physiques and realize we’re in over our hiking heads?
As it turns out, our abilities, while not identical, are compatible, and, somewhat more important, our senses of humor are in sync. The fuzzy silhouettes of fellow hikers we imagined have now materialized as real people: a twentysomething Australian couple; a research librarian and her New York real estate husband; an attorney from Rhode Island; and Eric, our guide, a Chamonix native. It looks like the weeklong adventure will be not only physical but social as well for our affable ensemble of eight.
The morning of the mountain adventure we dreamed about for so long finally dawns. Despite how excited I am, I do my best not to sound too chirpy when we meet up with our group in the breakfast room—I don’t want them thinking I’m not serious about what we’re about to undertake. Our Grindelwald training hikes under our belts, well-broken-in boots supporting our feet, and trekking poles at the ready, we’re reasonably confident as we start the ascent of what is billed as our “TMB practice hike.” But the romantic images of gentle bucolic inclines through Alpine meadows are now very real rocky ascents rising defiantly in front of us, daring us to climb.
A cable car deposits us beyond the tree line in the shadow of a bread-knife range of peaks on the northern side of the Chamonix valley. This inaugural time together allows Eric to assess our hiking abilities and helps us learn to trust his close personal relationship with the terrain. It doesn’t take long before we hang on his every word and take as gospel everything he says. If Eric predicts it will cool off, we soon feel a chilly breeze. If he suggests taking pictures from a certain promontory and we listen, we’re assured of photos with the absolute best backdrops. When Eric tells us to don foul-weather cover, it will start spritzing, guaranteed.
From the valley’s northern slope, we look across the rooftops of Chamonix far below to the pristine white dome of Mont Blanc rising on the southern side. We have an incredible view of the big guy, the imposing mass that anchors the corners of France, Switzerland, and Italy fifteen thousand feet in the sky. Our orientation day is graced by visits from sturdy ibex, wild goats with enormous backward-curving horns standing watch on rocky ledges. As they do in early summer, one adolescent is dutifully scratching off his long white winter cover against the stiff, bristly branches of scrub bushes, allowing his short, sandy summer coat to appear. We also spy the more elusive, graceful, and wiry chamois, an entirely different species of goat-antelope careering down a steep, rock-strewn slope. Alpine marmots—adorable, oversize ground squirrels—are our constant companions, always on the lookout beside their holes and sounding repeated whistling alarms whenever we approach.
We’re humbled by our first day’s exercise and talk excitedly about the days ahead with our companions over dinner.
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Our hike starts high above the village of Les Houches, where a cable car drops us in a flower-filled mountain meadow at the foot of a glacier. A vaporous mist puts the Chamonix valley below into soft focus, and we head up and around the mountain and then through the Col du Tricot toward our first night’s destination.
A hiking trifecta graces our first day. We feel the frosty spray of a mountain torrent and gushing waterfall; pass over a swollen, raging river on a bobbing suspension bridge; and witness a gossamer rainbow after gentle rain. Our picnic lunch in a green pasture studded with daisies is cut short by drizzle, but the sun soon returns and we pack away our slickers for the rest of the day. The scenery is reminiscent of Colorado, from the shaded trail through fragrant pines and groves of rustling aspens to the snowcapped vistas across the valley. Seven hours after starting, we reach our destination village nestled beside a noisy stream with just enough time for much-needed showers before dinner. Our day had plenty of literal ups and downs, but the difficulty level was manageable. I can do this, I think; I’m definitely ready for more.
As we come to expect each evening after dinner, our muscles protest getting up from the table after having relaxed and then tightened during our meal. The ascent to our room is a painful reminder of the miles we covered that day. On this first night, our room is three flights up and each step is successively more difficult. Eric warned that the weather report for the following day, reputed to be one of the most difficult legs of the TMB, is less than propitious and that we should make sure we’re prepared. Like obedient schoolchildren, we lay out our waterproof foul-weather layers, down some extra-strength Tylenol, and collapse into the tumble of duvets.
Eric is right, as always. About everything. The next leg of the hike is wet, cold, strenuous, and long. The morning dawned under light cloud cover, but by early afternoon, we’re making our way through gentle mist that turns to opaque fog as we reach the snow line. At one point midascent up steep, interminable slick rock, my overworked lungs burn a hole in my chest and I ask myself as I bend over, yet again, to fully catch my breath, Did we actually pay to put ourselves through this agony? The terrain changes from rocky to muddy to an increasingly thick cover of slushy snow over the course of just several hundred yards. Cold rain and scalpel-sharp winds soon follow, and the mist is so thick by now that we can see only the heels of fellow hikers’ boots in front of us. If ever we were crazy enough to think we could tackle the TMB independently, such delusional pretentions evaporate in the obscurity. The incline remains steep and all is eerily silent, save the slushy sounds of one boot being planted in front of the other in the prints Eric cut ahead of us in the snow. The fog thickens further as the rain pelts our slickers and soaks our pants. From the tail end of our string of hikers comes the plaintive query: “Have we reached Nepal yet?” The timing for a giggle is opportune, since the hiking hero in me is fading, succumbing to the elements in lonely frustration. Joe and I haven’t exchanged a word in hours, and I’m chilled to the bone, foul-weather paraphernalia notwithstanding. The backs of my heels have blistered despite significant applications of moleskin, and my pinkies are now simply two, chafed hot spots. I will myself to continue every step of the way as we draw closer to the elusive pass.
The fog is such that had we been on our own, we surely would have missed the trail markers and been hopelessly lost—a dangerous proposition at over eight thousand feet. Even my ordinarily reliable sense of direction would have failed us. But just as my last reserves of will are waning and my spirits are about to hit rock bottom, the Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme miraculously appears out of the mist at the pass. The rustic wooden hut with a central potbellied stove is the oasis I visualized over these cold, wet hours, and a mug of hot tea never tasted so good. The refuge is filled with the cheerful energy of grateful, shivering hikers sipping steaming beverages, resting in various stages of undress on long wooden benches, outer layers drying on clotheslines overhead. The atmosphere is festive, the room humid, and the windows fogged; no one is anxious to head back into the elements.
After we’ve spent an hour warming ourselves with a couple doses of brew, Eric rounds us up and announces the weather has cleared. We pile on still-damp layers for the sharp descent to L’Auberge de la Nova. The fog has indeed lifted, the rain has slowed to a drizzle, and soon after we leave the hut, patches of blue sky appear and the valley below becomes visible. Initially thrilled to be finally heading down, I’m soon lamenting the direction change as my knees scream in pain. I was worried that the hike would reignite my premarathon hip pain but never imagined it my knees would cause me problems. Keeping them intact and successfully negotiating the slick, muddy trails down the slope amid melting snow patches requires serious assistance from my trekking poles. So lean on them I do as I make the balance of the trip down among grazing cows.
We reach a hamlet of old stone buildings, and to our spent bodies it’s paradise. Our simple hiker’s inn with one toilet and one shower shared by the dozen guests on our floor is as comfortable as a five-star resort. It provides a hearty dinner and a functional bed—all we need.
Subsequent days take us from Les Chapieux, France, to Courmayeur, Italy, and on to Finhaut, Switzerland. While hiking becomes slightly less difficult (is it because the weather is perfect, or could it be that we’re getting used to the daily exertion, the tempo of our steps, and the catastrophes that are our feet?), it never gets easy. As precarious as the day’s weather on the climb to the Croix du Bonhomme pass was, the balance of our days on the TMB are scrumptious: skittering cotton-candy clouds in a pure blue sky, and just enough cool breeze to moderate the sun.
Each morning we awaken to the familiar tick-tick-tick of trekking poles as hikers getting an early start pass our open windows. I spend my first few waking moments wishing I could bypass the day’s daunting climb, but my dogged spirit prevails (either that or I’m too embarrassed to say, “Today I’ll take the shuttle”). We acclimate to the rhythm of our days: on the trail by 9:00 a.m. and at our destination by late afternoon. Mornings start with relentless, lung-searing, uphill climbs, until we’re beyond the canopy of trees to the stunning view from a barren col, and we anticipate the promise of lush scenery over the crest, in the middle of which we’ll have a picnic lunch. We fill our water bottles and CamelBak bladders with pure glacier output from rushing streams and have our midday repasts in the company of whistling marmots, shrieking swifts, and squeaking, diving pipits, eerie cracks of glaciers in the distance. We then embark on the welcome dip into a new valley, always in the presence of the sleeping Mont Blanc giant, losing all the elevation we gained that morning.
One day, while trudging through a cow-filled pasture on our way up to that day’s pass, we stop at a dairy farm to watch sharp, grassy-flavored Beaufort cheese being made. The cows are milked in the pasture as they munch away, and then the milk is brought to the dairy and dumped into a gargantuan copper pot. From inside the damp cheese shed, whose nutty, moldy aroma is most pleasant, Eric buys a sizable chunk from a gargantuan cheese wheel that we demolish as part of our lunch. He always surprises us with new local specialties, but I draw the line at lardo, an Aosta Valley charcuterie made of fatback cured with herbs. I pass on the Italian delicacy, which looks like a pasty white fruit roll-up made of pure Crisco shortening.
We cross mountain glens splendidly carpeted with wildflowers: gentian violets, a lovely lavender-colored variety of Queen Anne’s lace, alpine crocuses, wild thyme, tiny marguerite daisies, and magnificent lupine. A dozen chamois sprint over a glacial snowfield, one by one nimbly negotiating the slippery slope with grace and speed. We trek through polite Swiss villages of chalets with Arcadian charm and window boxes spilling over with abundant pink and red geraniums. I stop often to look around and snap mental photos to preserve the images for as long as I can.
The panoramic vistas that come into view as we pass back into France from Switzerland are some of the prettiest of the hike, and we glimpse the village of Le Tour, our journey’s end, in miniature in the distance. I ask Eric, “Are you enjoying the commute home after your business trip in the Alps?” When he smiles and nods, I observe, “It certainly beats being stuck in a Washington, DC, traffic jam.”
We spend our final afternoon on the TMB descending through above-the-tree-line meadows and then delicate aspen woods. At times the aerobic ascents just about killed me, but I now experience little trouble heading down—as long as my reliable trekking poles support me. On the other hand, a couple fellow hikers are like mountain goats, going up without effort but finding the extended descents more difficult. In fact, halfway down to Le Tour, one of our comrades takes the gondola down to the finish line, rather than further destroy already-ravaged knees. Joe, as usual, emerges unscathed. And while every big and little muscle in my body aches and it will take my roughened heels and blistered, callused, chewed-up feet months to recover, the only lingering injury I sustain is some painful sun poisoning on my lower lip.
At the end of each day, we were dirty as dogs and tired as babies, and this trek was the hardest physical challenge I’ve ever done, running a marathon included. But it scares me to think that tomorrow we’ll no longer be on the trail. Being outdoors in the presence of unbridled, unspoiled nature is a humbling experience and reminds us of just how insignificant we are compared with the wild. We’re guests passing through—part of the plan but not in charge, try as we might. We must acquiesce to nature and not the other way around, because, as Eric likes to remind us, the mountains will always win.
Marianne C. Bohr, freelance writer and editor, married her high school sweetheart and travel partner. With their two grown children, she follows her own advice and travels at every opportunity. Marianne lives outside Washington, DC, where after decades in publishing, followed her Francophile muse to teach middle school French. Her first book, Gap Year Girl: A Baby Boomer Adventure Across 21 Countries, was published by She Writes Press in September 2015.