CHAMONIX, FRANCE - There is a time in each multi-day hike when enough is enough. But, it’s not usually on the first day. I gaze down at my feet. Blisters extend horizontally like pale yellow water balloons from the sides of my big toes. I long to sterilize the tip of a safety pin, prick the balloons. But my downhill-weary hamstrings prevent me from bending over far enough to reach my toes.
I step gingerly into the narrow shower, wishing this simple lodge offered the comfort of a bathtub soak. Hot water streams over my exhausted body, dribbles over the red indentations where my backpack belt rubbed my hips and eases the pain. I pull the curtain aside. A stranger, with bruised collarbones and the grey eyes of a dehydrated long-distance runner, stares back at me from the steamy mirror.
Dried and dressed in leggings and a T-shirt I attempt a few basic runners’ stretches. My quadriceps scream in protest, as rigid as uncooked spaghetti. From my perch on the bed I doctor my blisters then turn to my husband. “I’m not sure I can do this kind of hike anymore,” I say.
Above: Barry Hodgins treks through the lovely foothills of Mont Blanc.
By this kind of hike, I mean lugging a full backpack for six to eight hours a day for nine days over 170 kilometres. Considered one of the world’s classic long-distance hiking trails, the Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB) circles the Mont Blanc Massif through France, Switzerland and Italy. Marathon runners finish the bucket list trottoir in 24 hours. Hikers wishing to refine their foreign language skills, indulge in local delicacies and pamper their knees usually take nine days.
“Let’s wait and see how we feel in the morning,” says Barry Hodgins, my supportive, super-fit husband who has wandered along all day, hands in his pockets, as if out for a Sunday stroll. Rarely one to give up easily, I agree.
Never underestimate the recuperative powers of an almost seven-decade body. Dinner and wine at a local restaurant, topped off with an Advil encourages an uninterrupted eight-hour snooze. I awake still stiff and sore, but the shouts of my offended body parts have softened to semi-urgent whispers. I declare myself ready to lace up my boots and march ahead.
Incredibly good decision. My stubbornness yields countless rewards.
The individual sights and trails of each trekking day are different even though the routine becomes predictable. Each morning starts with an early breakfast, not quite as leisurely as I would like. Swiss muesli cereal and fruit chill my nervous stomach while we pour over the guidebook contemplating the number of ascending and descending metres of the day’s trails. Then, a hiker’s guilt-free, calorie-rich croissant washed down with steaming cappuccino set me up for the day.
The first and last hours of the day challenge me most. Settling the pack on the hips, forcing fresh steps through dewy morning chill, I ask myself again why I am doing this. Six or seven hours later the question repeats itself as we wander around a new village searching for our hotel or refugio, mumbling silent prayers for a room with a bathtub.
But during the hours in between the majestic white dome of Mont Blanc and adjacent string of aiguilles, needle shaped spires, hover above my left shoulder, lifting my spirits. My boots brush the dirt of meadow trails as we pass flower-box laden alpine chalets and climb dramatic mountain passes into the next valley.
Left: Barry tests his endurance. Right: All signs point to Mont Blanc.
Four days of walking takes us to Courmayeur, Italy. Our bags — stuffed with clean clothes — are waiting in the hotel storage room. All the other hikers we have met carry only a light daypack, having arranged to have their bags transported to their next stop each day. Not wanting to pay the premium to have our gear shuttled ahead each day but needing to reduce the weight of our packs, we strip the items we will carry to the bare minimum, repurposing some for double duty: gray emergency merino wool long johns become evening leggings and my derriere covering turquoise T-shirt now doubles as a nightgown. Two days of restorative napping and carbo loading on wagon-wheel-sized pies at Pizzeria Le Tunnel restaurant restore us for five more days of the circumambulation.
First night back on the trail brings us to Rifugio Alpino Walter Bonatti near Lac Malatra, Val Ferret, Italy. One of the highlights of the route — named for legendary mountaineer, explorer and journalist Walter Bonatti — this impressive rock and timber mountain hut, opened in 1998, presides over an Italian panorama of the Mont Blanc massif. Historic photos of and by Bonatti line the walls, giving the efficiently run and impeccably clean mountain inn a museum-like ambiance.
Nepali Chef Dorje routinely creates four-course gourmet dinners for 80 and magically produces a hearty buffet breakfast which is served from 6:30 a.m. to allow an early start for the arduous climb up to the Grand Col Ferret into Switzerland.
Several hours into the day we reach a weathered stone cairn indicating Grand Col Ferret, the frontier between Italy and Switzerland. Beyond the rock pile the rugged, steep Italian route gives way to verdant Swiss meadows. In my imagination, I hear a chorus of “The Sound of Music.” No border guards, no passport inspection, and only a bit of rain. Our reward? An hour’s walk ahead at La Peule, farm owners Sabine and Nicolas Coppey offer the delightfully gooey treat called croute, oven baked white bread doused with white wine and layered with eggs, tomatoes and cheese. We indulge.
Accommodation on the TMB varies from Champex-Lac Switzerland’s historically elegant Hotel Splendide to country chic homes like The Guesthouse Vallorcine in France. Most evenings we bond with fellow hikers over shared experiences, clinking beer mugs and raising glasses of local wine while swapping stories of joy and tribulations. Then it’s dinners like arugula salad, squash soup, chicken curry finished with slivered almonds and a dusting of icing sugar over homemade berry pie, followed by an early bedtime.
Suddenly, it’s the final day of the TMB. Hoping the skies will clear to allow a glimpse of the unparalleled views of the peaks, glaciers and aiguilles, we scan for the signpost showing the way to Lac Blanc via Col des Montets.
Steep at the start, the trail flattens out to follow the contours into the Chamonix Valley. The final climb to Lac Blanc is aided by a couple of vertical iron ladders bolted to the rock slabs, interspersed with log and iron steps. For thrill seekers, the alternate route to Lac Blanc, beginning in Tre-le-Champ, offers more ladders and extensive vertical exposure.
Back where we started, in Chamonix, the brutal first day downhill is almost a distant memory.
Toes healed, bruises faded, but memories of Mont Blanc’s unique mountain characteristics intact, I feel proud of my bull-headed perseverance. It made me stronger every day.
The TMB is one of the many guided and self-guided tours that can be arranged by Canmore, Alberta couple Louis Marino and Karin Stubenvoll, owners of Alpine Interface. For more informaiton, call them at 1-800-368-5056 or go to their website http://www.alpineinterface.com / To ensure accommodation, make sure you book at least six months in advance.