I’m back in the French/Italian Alps for my third season of leading hiking trips and managing the trip in the region, and these beauties continue to totally knock my socks off. There’s no doubt in my mind that this is one of the most stunning places on Earth. Here’s a quick glimpse from the last couple of weeks.
We launched a new hiking trip this spring in the Basque Country, and despite an exhausting work load to get the trip guest-ready without any noticeable major hiccups, I still found time to fall in love with the countryside. What’s not to like with all the lush, green rolling hills, the happy, free-roaming horses, sheep and cows and the spectacular Atlantic coastline. The New York Times recently published an article about the The French Side of Basque Country and equates it to ‘a little sister who didn’t get invited to the dance.’ It’s true, the Spanish side is much more well known and has some beloved wine to boot, but so much of what makes this rural part of France so alluring is that it’s not overrun with tourists and not overly touristy. Unlike Provence or Paris, it’s not high on the must-see list for a lot of foreigners, and I’m grateful for that.
The Basque people’s charm and sincere hospitality only add to the mystique of the area, and of course the food and wine, like so many places in France and Spain, is outstanding. And did I mention the delicious Gateau Basque à la Cerise? I think I must have eaten three of these buttery, dense cakes filled with ripe cherries one day on the trails. Yum. Of course, French fat-laden pastries work significantly better for endurance (and pleasure) than watery old Gatorade.
After many weeks in a row of working, I had some time off to hike on my own and enjoy the beach, and these are a few of the images I captured. Plan your trip to this region in the spring or fall when the salt-water-seeking crowds aren’t overwhelming and make sure to bring your rain gear. All those hills don’t stay so green and lush without a significant and steady amount of rain, as much as some parts of Ireland, or so they say.
My highly anticipated solo Tour of Mont Blanc (TMB) commences tomorrow, and I’m feeling a bit ill-prepared.
No map. No guide book. No idea how to even reach the trailhead.
Today, three train segments whisked me away from the heat and dryness of Provence to the mountainy coolness of Le Fayet (St-Gervais-les-Bains). Luckily I have a couple of hours before dinner to sort things out, re-evaluate the contents of my 36 liter pack, and mentally prepare for this 200 kilometer jaunt around the Mont Blanc Massif. A few days ago, I returned to France after a two week holiday in Chicago to celebrate my sister’s wedding. Whether it’s on account of my lingering jet-lag or a certain loneliness brought on by losing the company of my smiling family by my side, my energy is awfully low. On top of that, my right knee is acting up.
There’s always a silver lining, and mine happens to be two salted, dark chocolate bars and two bags of jerky in my pack! Plus, seeing these mountains again, incandescent in the strong setting sun, fills me with joy and optimism, as cheesy as that may sound.
Tomorrow will be a good day. I’m certain.
The sun was out in full force with a clear view of the mountains on this fine morning, and my grumpiness was but a foggy memory. Undoubtedly, I was in for a splendid day of hiking.
After some milky coffee and a pain au chocolat in the sunshine on a street side café, I reserved a spot on the 9:30 cog train/tram from Le Fayet through St.-Gervais-les-Bains up to Col de Voza (1653 m) to officially start my hike. My pack felt balanced and my legs strong as I made my way through alpine meadow, forest and little hamlets of quaint ski chalets with cheery flower boxes. On my way to my first refuge, Chalet du Nant Borrant, I even passed through a rather unexpected Parc des Loisirs, which could be best defined as a ‘leisure’ park complete with golf, paddle boats, bouncy castles and ice cream!
There’s a whole series of cozy refuges along the TMB, so hikers can pack lightly and have a warm and dry bed to sleep every night. Opting for half-board, or demi pension, guarantees a hearty dinner after a day’s hike and hot cup of coffee and simple, carb-rific breakfast to get you back out on the trail. Unfortunately, the energy in my first refuge wasn’t as vivacious as I’d hoped. I got stuck eating dinner with a old, crotchety and pessimistic Parisian who wrinkled his eyebrows at all my not-so-well-thought-out hiking plans and kept encouraging me to take the bus tranfers in the valleys. I felt a bit stubborn (Is it possible to be more stubborn than a Parisian?), but I wouldn’t take his wimpy advice.
I was going to walk every last kilometer.
In spite of his pessimism and the approaching rain clouds, I went to bed content and full of gratitude for an incredible first day on the trail.
Day 1 recap:
Transfer: Mont Blanc Tram- from Le Fayet to Col de Voza.
5 hrs hiking
Refuge: Chalet de Nant Borrant.
I woke up to the sound of rain.
Not a gentle pitter patter of a spring shower, but a steady, heavy, soak-you-to-the-bones kind of rain.
After a dull breakfast with my pessimistic Parisian and 3 quiet Aussies, I suited up like a sailor out to sea and headed into the storm. And I enjoyed it. When I’m working, I dislike lots of consecutive rainy days because it makes my clients testy and makes my job as a guide that much more challenging. Today, I couldn’t care less about the unrelenting torrent. My trail running shoes were soaked within minutes, but the rest of me remained dry (sweaty but dry) as I trudged along a path that quickly became a makeshift stream. I looked at my morning climb ahead to the Col du Bonhomme with rainy-day goodwill, and somehow it paid off.
I decided to take a tea break after about an hour and a half into my march, and miraculously the clouds began to part, and the heavy rain really did turn into a pitter patter, then a drizzle, and then…voilà, nothing at all!
After my first day, I thought that following the Tour du Mont Blanc was really as easy as pie. As long as you weren’t hiking with your eyes closed, you could find your way with ease. Usually, there are sign posts with clear waypoints posted every 200-300 meters, and all sorts of trailmakers on tress, rocks, walls, houses, you name it. Somehow, after the sun came out, I jumped onto an alternate trail (with similar trail markings, mind you) that took me about an hour and a half and a handful of miles out of my way. This detour turned out to be my second favorite trail of the trip. As I stripped off my rain gear, and the sun slowly dried out my soggy self, I felt an up-lifting of my spirit and a most pleasant high that comes both from being perched on a lovely balcony trail and doing something in nature that you absolutely love.
I finally ended up in the field of cows, dopily looking around for my trusty trail marker, when I realized I had gone the wrong direction and needed to backtrack to make it to my reserved refuge for the night. I admit as a mere, inexperienced ‘Day Two-er’ of the TMB that I was worried about arriving too late to my accommodations, and godfor bid, being late to dinner, but as I’m a speedy little walker, everything turned out fine. I arrived at the Auberge les Mottets to be heartily greeted by my new Russian friend (I met him the night before in Nant Borrant) who I found out had opted to hike the trail while his wife and two kids took a beach vacation in Crete. This, in his broken English, he equated to suffering like a baking sausage on a lounge chair in the sun. He would take no part in it!
Les Mottets reminded me of my middle school days as a blossoming thespian when I graced the stage with the renowned role of Grace Farrell, personal assistant and closet lover to the debonair Daddy Warbucks, in the musical “Annie.”
How you might ask?
Well. Imagine a big long wooden deck in an old drafty cow barn. Throw some ragged matresses and pilling wool blankets on top and call it a ‘group sleeping accommodation.’ These famous dortoirs, or dormitories, staged the perfect orphanage setting for a Little Alpine Orphan Annie Revival! And of all things to forget, I forgot to pack my goddamn ear plugs, so instead of drifting off to Annie’s “The Sun Will Come out Tomorrow,” I lay awake trying to blend the cacophony of snores into a melody to “You’re Never Fully Dressed without a Smile.” Turns out, I was still happy as a clam. Just a bit sleep-deprived.
Day 2 Recap:
Auberge Nant Borrant to Chalet les Mottets via Col de Bonhomme and Les Chapieux.
Detour: From Refuge Col de la Croix du Bonhomme on the GR 5 (Variante of the Tour de Beaufortain) towards Col de la Sauce.
Hiking 9 hrs
Refuge: Les Mottets
Since I really wasn’t sleeping anyway, I decided to get an early 7:30 am start to conquer the first big climb of the day up to Col de la Seigne. The initial climb felt really good, but then my fatigued body began to retaliate and my pace considerably slowed on my descent into Italy and the Val Feny (Feny Valley). The relatively flat valley ground was a welcomed change of pace in the late morning, and I looked forward to a new country on the TMB and, of course, my Italian pranzo (lunch)!
From this side of the massif, Mont Blanc charmed me with her robust beauty and even seemed to be posing for photos with wispy little clouds on high.
Hey, any meteorologists out there know what those little clouds mean?
My heavy legs finally carried me to a hearty late lunch of polenta, wild mushrooms and homemade tomato sauce. A quick macchiato got me back on my feet, but not nearly prepared for the brutal downhill into Courmayeur. This little mountain goat loves to climb, but I can really do without the steep descents.
I arrived in Dolonne (the small hamlet before Courmayeur) feeling a bit defeated, so I decided to call it for the day and try and get myself a hotel room.
Miraculously, there were no other random snoring people tucked into my personal hotel room, so I had the most lovely and quiet (!) evening and actually slept. I even had time to wash out my one slowly ripening hiking outfit and enjoy an out-of-this-world pizza experience at a welcoming little joint called Fuori Pista. If I don’t come back in my next life as a contented alpine cow, then as least let me come back as a soft Italian cheese. Really People, how is it worldly possible for warmed Stracchino to be so darn good under a bed of Arugula?!
I wrote this, and only this, in my journal that night:
I’m so happy to be back in Italy tonight, eating pizza while listening in on people’s aperitivos.
Tonight marked a turning point for me when the stresses of the outside world slowly started to slip away, and I fell gracefully into the simple rhythm of the trail.
Day 3 recap:
Chalet les Mottets to Courmayeur through Val Feny
Walking 7.5 hrs
Hotel: Stella del Nord in Dolonne.
Oh Italy. I love you. Not surprisingly, I got a late start today while lingering over my cappuccino and biscotti. My clients and I frequent Courmayeur throughout the summer, so I thought today was going to be rather anti-climactic as I’ve covered this part of the TMB numerous times during day hikes.
Boy was I wrong!
After the arduous but satisfying ascent to Refugio Bertone, I decided to take an alternate high-route to Refugio Bonatti along Mont de la Saxe up to Tête Bernada and Tête de la Tronche.
I reached a point where I got pretty exhausted and a tiny bit cranky and stopped for a snack and a quick writing session in my journal. This is what is wrote:
I’m well above the soaring heights of birds of prey experiencing what might possibly be the most gorgeous and spectacular day of crisp, sunny weather that I’ve ever witnessed in the Alps. Today, I took a variant route between Bertone and Bonatti and am totally blown away. It might just be the best bit of trail yet. I also just had a breakdown moment that was, of course, directly related to my hunger and energy level. I should know that when I start asking myself foreboding questions like: ‘Am I lost?,’ ‘Will I make it to my refuge before dark?,’ ‘Am I almost out of water?,’ that I just need to chill for a moment, soak up the scenery and snack. After a handful of Teriaki beef jerky and three squares of chocolate (a girl’s got to ration), I’m starting to feel human again. My Ipod’s stumbled upon a seemingly semi-religious and rather catchy Dolly Parton song called ‘The Seeker’ (where did this song come from?), and my feet are tapping to the beat in my makeshift church in the heights where Mont Blanc and beef jerky reign on high.
I reached Rifugio Elena as the sun was disappearing in the valley. The hospitality in the Italian Refugios is really second to none, and tonight’s dinner table was made up of the most charismatic and lovely French and German families. We laughed and shared stories over big bowls of spaghetti and glasses of red wine.
I really couldn’t have asked for a more perfect day.
Day 4 recap:
Hotel in Dolonne to Refugio Elena
Walking 8 hrs
Refuge: Refugio Elena
A passing hiker took this candid photo of me on the trail today!
As I crossed the border from Italy to Switzerland, my body told me it wanted to slow down a bit and stop every 12.5 minutes or so to blankly stare at something new and extraordinary (Now I was in Switzerland!), take a picture, or eat a small snack. I didn’t mind complying and decelerating a notch. The weather was perfectly gorgeous again, and the trail shepherded me through a valley alongside a healthy river and through neat and tiddy towns with colorful shutters and friendly Swiss hikers. I was especially grateful that today wasn’t going to be a big day of climbing; I could just soak in the new scenery and chillax a bit.
I really hadn’t been hiking in Switzerland until today and many things stood out as new and fresh! I’ll remember you, Switzerland, for this comprehensive and impressive list.
Drum roll please…
-Cute trail markers
-Squirrels both real and crafted
-Nicely stacked wood.
-Things that squirm.
-Mushroom Wood Carvings.
-Oh, and the woods.
Despite being such a snail today, I still walked over 25 k and made it to my reserved hotel in Champex Lac in the early afternoon. I shared dinner with four sore Spaniards from Madrid with blisters galore on their poor feet and a Belgium couple who was hiking the high route over glaciers. Although Americans resided in all my refuges/hotels, the staff always placed me at the French or Spanish speaking tables, and that began a source of pride for me and a realization that maybe, just maybe, I actually fit in here in this foreign land with these foreign languages. I jumped back and forth from Spanish to French as I said goodnight to my new friends.
I closed my eyes wishing it weren’t already Night 5 and nearly over.
Day 5 recap:
Hiking Refugio Elena to Champex Lake
Hotel: Chalet Au Club Alpin
A tired day on the trail is always followed by a really strong one, and I felt like a rock on Day 6. I left Champex bright and early and opted out of the challenging variant to Fenêtre d’Arpette with no regret. I had an amazing climb up to Bovine where I was greeted by a field a gorgeous black cows and sat sipping a hot chocolate looking at the views of Martigny in the valley below.
Along the trail, I decided to do some research for a future book called "How to Hike 20-30k a Day and Still Gain Weight", and decided that Swiss pastries just don't make the cut. Switzerland, it's time to send your bakers across the border to France.
I had another morning where I hiked too long and too far before finding something to eat for lunch. On the map, I thought a place called Peuty was going to be a lively town, but malheureusement it was a ghost town, and luckily I had the nerve to enter a old, unwelcoming-looking hotel that I thought was closed. There were three other men inside drinking beer and eating lunch, and I gratefully took a seat at a table with another hiker and had the best darn 20 Swiss Franc (20+ USD) salad complete with fresh goat cheese, prosciutto, beets, cucumbers, and crisp lettuce! I even had a beer to blend in so that the gentlemen around me wouldn’t be startled by my foreign presence.
I ascended swiftly to the Col de Balme after lunch with a spring in my step and made the mistake of going into the refuge at the tippy top to ask for some potable water (I was almost out). The ancient, inhospitable woman inside glared at me with glacial eyes and chased me away (I swear she was a real witch in her uninviting creaky refuge on top of the desolate, windy pass). The wind and chill up there was the worst I had experienced all week, and I literally ran down the pass to find save haven back in France, far away from mediocre baked goods and disintegrating Swiss she-devils (Sorry, you know I’m super nice most of the time, but I really think she was a witch!).
I spent the night in my favorite refuge yet called the Chalet Alpin du Tour where I met two adorable, charismatic Spanish brothers who were mountain biking the trail, and we shared stories about of week over pints of cold beer. The refuge served organic food and even had natural peanut butter on the table in the morning. This is a WOW for France. My Spanish friends were equally impressed and decided to spend an extra night there (They sent me a picture of them eating peanut butter with their new American glow the following day).
Again, another perfect day.
Tomorrow I planned to finish up the TMB, or at least get an hour or two from my starting point depending if I could catch the cog train back to le Fayet in the late afternoon. If the witch weren’t guarding the pass, I might have just turned back around and started again, but work was imminent, and I really couldn’t go back up in the dark if it meant missing peanut butter.
OOOooooooOOOOOoooooooo (This is the sound of a ghost to add to my scary tale!)
Recap Day 6:
Champex Lake, Switzerland to le Tour, France
7 hrs hiking
refuge: Chalet Alpin du Tour
Note to self and future TMBers: Don’t save the Chamonix stretch for your last day of hiking.
I forgot that with all the cable cars from the Chamonix valley, on a beautiful, sunny Sunday, the trails would be swarming with day-hikers. Not that’s there’s anything wrong with day-hikers. I work as a guide on these very same trails and frequently bring groups of 20 slow moving people to block your way. I apologize now to all you TMBers trying to finish your grand adventure while passing large groups stopping for picture ops and taking off layers.
I felt a level of frustration today that I hadn’t anticipated, but all I had to do was look around at the all-pervasive beauty and get over it. Still, I wasn’t in my groove.
I was glad to get the opportunity to hike up to Brévent which was much rockier, technical and rougher than I had imagined. Springing chamois greeted me near the top, and it felt like I was taking pictures of the mountain goats I see in print when I read my weekly horoscope. Was I seeing a representation of myself, the Capricorn — steady, independent, free? I would like to think so.
The not-so-well marked trail descending from Bel Lachat to Les Houches was absolutely brutal on my aching knees, and I was forced to take it nice and slow down the steep, slippery slopes and walk with intention. I wouldn’t be making it back up to the Col de Voza in time to catch the afternoon train down to finish the TMB. Just before les Houches, the statue of Christ-Roi greeted me with his awesome grandeur and reminded me it was ok to wake up another day on the trail.
After a quick pizza, I put my throbbing knees to bed around 9 pm in hopes of an early start tomorrow.
Day 7 recap:
Le Tour to Les Houches
8.5 hrs hiking
Refuge: Hotel Chris-Tal, Les Houches