TMB: Day 4. The Highest of Heights, Beef Jerky and Dolly Parton.

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.

The photo barely captures the beauty of this trail.

The trail snakes along the top of the ridge.

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.

A perfectly framed post-card perfect view of the mountains.

A perfectly framed post-card view of the mountains.

Thanks beef jerky! You saved my crabby soul.

Thanks beef jerky! You saved my crabby soul.

On my way from Bonatti to Refugio Elena.

On my way from Bonatti to Refugio Elena.

The sun was setting as I reached the refuge.

The sun was setting as I reached the refuge.

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

TMB: Day 5. Switzerland: Squirrels, Fungi and Cheese!!

A passing hiker took this candid photo of me on the trail today!

Don't judge me; it was the morning and I'm not looking my best.

Please don’t judge; this was taken pre-coffee, and I’m surely not looking my best.

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…

-Colorful shutters

Orange shutters are fun. France take note!

Orange and yellow shutters are uber fun. France take note!

-Cute trail markers

I want to be hiking with a happy little dog!

I really want to be hiking with a happy little dog!

-Squirrels both real and crafted

Two squirrels roasted a marshmellow...no wait, a mushroom!

Two squirrels roasting a marshmallow…No wait, a mushroom?!!?!

Vive l

Vive la TMB. Is that a fox, maybe?

-Nicely stacked wood.

'Wood is wealth,' as my friend Elmer likes to say.

“Wood is wealth,” as my friend Elmer likes to say. By the way, I miss you, Elmer.

-Things that squirm.

Colorful larvae.

Colorful larvae.

-Mushroom Wood Carvings.

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-Cheese.

And this is only the beginning. I stopped for a very late lunch in a small café and this is the only thing they are able to make me. I thought it was going to be bland, but it was delicious. White bread, butter, creamy cheese. Can't go wrong with that.

I stopped for a very late lunch in a small café and this is the only thing they are able to make me. I thought it was going to be bland and BORING, but it was delicious! White bread, butter, creamy cheese. Can’t go wrong with that. 🙂

And here's the inside of the café which was quiet during the off-hours.

Here’s the inside of the café which was quiet during the off-hours. I was the only one. Even the owners were downstairs washing dishes.

-Oh, and the woods.

Today was my first really wooded day on the trail, and it was such a nice change of pace.

Today was my first really wooded day on the trail; what a nice change of pace. Tree cover makes me feel cozy and protected.

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
8 hrs
Hotel: Chalet Au Club Alpin

TMB: Day 6. My Return to France, Myrtilles, and the Witch at Col de Balme!

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.

What beauties!

What beauties I found along the morning trail!

A Swiss Pain au Raisin and an almond cookie.

A Swiss Pain au Raisin and an almond cookie.

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.

Happy Swiss Cows make happy cheese.

Happy Swiss Cows make happy cheese.

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 had no idea I was going to find such a delicious meal in such an unassuming location.

I had no idea I was going to find such a delicious meal in such an unassuming location.

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).

This place comes highly recommended. Small rooms (5 beds), great showers, amazing food, incredible staff...

This place comes highly recommended. Small rooms (5 beds), great showers, amazing food, incredible staff…

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

TMB: Day 7. How did all these people get on the trail?

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.

jump on the La Flégère cable car to get an awesome view of Mont Blanc and the Chamonix valley.

You can jump on the La Flégère cable car to get an awesome view of Mont Blanc and the Chamonix valley.

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.

Bounding Baby Chamois.

A bounding baby chamois (mountain goat).

Maybe I really am a mountain goat?

Maybe I really am a mountain goat?

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.

The Christ-Roi statue was build in 1933 by Georges Serraz and looks over the Chamonix valley above Les Houches.

The Christ-Roi statue was build in 1933 by Georges Serraz and looks over the Chamonix valley above Les Houches.

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

TMB: Day 7-B. A few hours and then goodbye…

Since I only technically walked about 1.5 hrs this morning to finish the trail, I’ll just go ahead and call this Day 7-B. It would be a shame to add on an extra day for a shabby little hour and a half of walking!

I stopped at my favorite bakery in Les Houches just after sunrise and munched on a chocolate chip brioche washed down with a double espresso before hitting the trail. As I observed people’s bakery orders, I had to smile when 6 out of 6 men all ordered pain au chocolat with their baguettes. Women, myself excluded, seemed to order more sensibly.

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There were clouds in the sky this morning, and rain was on its way. I was glad to get a move on things.

Although I felt sad that it was all coming to an end, I never dreamed the whole experience would be as rewarding and rejuvenating as it was. The trails, the mountains, the food, the community, the kind-spirited people I met along the way will stay with me for a really long time. Without getting all sappy on you, my Readers, I will say that I simply loved the experience. Every last bit. And I’m going to do it again next year, only faster! So join me if you wish.

The train back down to civilization (Le Fayet) was empty and allowed me to reflect on my week and slowly start to prepare myself to reenter my life off the trail.

ciao, ciao, Mont Blanc.

Ciao, Ciao, Mont Blanc.

Day 7-B recap:
Les Houches to Col de Voza
1.5 hrs

TMB: Frequently asked questions

Since I’ve graduated to the title of mini-expert extraordinaire of the Tour de Mont Blanc, I would like to offer some insight into your most pressing, imitate TMB questions!

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Who should hike the TMB?

-Everyone with good balance, good knees and a good pair of walking sticks! Really, I saw grandparents, little kids with little backpacks, people of all sizes, shapes and shoe preferences, mountain bikers, and even a couple of donkeys! You can always take extra rest days and some of the bus transfers in the valleys if you need an extra little boost, just ask my Parisian friend. Go on, you can do it!

What essentiels should I bring?

I like the packing list on the website ‘Walking the TMB,’ although it might be a little bit too extensive.

Here are my absolute essentiels:
–Walking sticks (They save your knees and give so much support)
-One hiking outfit
-One refuge outfit
-Silk sleeping bag liner for the orphanages
-Ear plugs (Don’t forget them like me; they’re hard to find on the trail!)
-Camera
-Music (I really like listening to my IPod for a couple hours of day when I get tired)
-Journal & pen
-Thermos & good tea
-Trail running shoes (I prefer them to hiking boots)
-Small first aid kit
And all the other necessary stuff…underwear, toiletries, snacks, you know.


Should I reserve my bed at the refuge ahead of time?

-If you plan on hiking in a big group, yes, you will have to reserve ahead and stick to your itinerary. I found that I could always find a bed (even in busy August) for one person if I called the night before. That allowed greater flexibility depending on how I felt and meant I didn’t have to keep canceling reservations, which many hikers do when they realize the itinerary they planned out from their laptop in the big city didn’t pan out like they thought it would on the trail with the addition of rain, fatigue, blisters, etc.

Is it safe for a woman to hike all by her little-lonesome, womanly self?

-Yes, and it will force you to reach out and meet lots of wonderful people when you feel the need. I’ve never felt any danger on the trails or in the refuges.

Who wins the MPV award for your Tour, Lady?

-My magenta thermos, of course! Having mid-morning tea on the trail was just too good to be true. Isn’t she gorgeous?! Make sure to bring an assortment of tasty teas.

I love you, Thermos!

I love you, Thermos!



Can I mountain bike the trail?

-Hell yeah! Especially if you have sexy calves and are a ridiculously skilled biker! The mountain bikers I crossed paths with were pretty bad-ass and were able to bike everything except the stretch above the Chamonix Valley. Bells on all bikes, to warn the hikers, would be a swell addition to your VTT packing list.

What’s your favorite alpine flower on the trail?

-Well, thank you so much for asking! Check out these moisture loving Scheuchzer’s Cotton Sedges. Even the name is cool. I love how light and airy they are in the wind and sun. Simply stunning!

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When will you go next year?

-Email me, and we’ll set a date 🙂

Paris in 24 hrs.

Guess who’s returning to Chicago for her dear, older sister’s wedding!?!

Moi!

But before flying across the Atlantic, stuffed into the plane like a marshmallow Peep in an Easter basket, I get to spend a long Sunday afternoon in gorgeous Paris. I imagined traversing the city at a spry pace in my trusty, colorful barefoot-running shoes, racking up 20+ kilometers while strategically stopping for espressos and jubilant selfies near overly-visited monuments.

Turns out, after arriving at my very pink hotel, a drowsy, 2-hour nap overtook me, and after downing a quick coffee, I started walking in the wrong direction (as if there were a wrong direction in Paris when exploring). A cold beer for l’aperitif complete with a bowl of peanuts and some serious people watching from my sidewalk perch further slooooooowwwwed me down, so I decided to leave my high ambitions in the gutter. I succumbed to all-you-can eat, Bruxelles-styled mussels and frites (the all-you-can-eat concept still really surprises me in France), and sadly lost speed and motivation to see everything, but that was a dumb idea anyway.

After many, many months of hard work and being constantly on the road, I officially got tired as the sun was going down on Paris. I got on the metro, rather resigned to it all, and went back to my cozy hotel. Really, there’s no other city on earth like Paris, and I anticipate my return. Next time, I know I’ll see it all…

Vive la France!

Vive la France!

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Even though I get to stay in fancy-pants 5-star hotels while I work, I always appreciate the simple rooms I book for myself when I'm not working and can nap!

Even though I get to stay in fancy-pants 5-star hotels while I work, I always appreciate the simple rooms I book for myself when I’m not working and can nap!

Chamonix, you’re cool!

The site of the first winter Olympics in 1924, Chamonix wins my vote as the coolest mountain-town in France. Plus, any city with a significantly highly percentage of handsome, rugged, adventure-seeking, outdoor-loving men to women ranks high in my book 😉 But really, tucked in the Arve Valley with unbelievable views of the all-powerful Mont Blanc, the Aiguilles Rouges and all those pointy Aiguilles (needles) of Chamonix, a zillion yummy restaurants (tartiflette, anyone? For those of you who haven’t eaten this rich, creamy concoction, it’s potatoes, onions, bacon and melted cheese all baked into a gooey, artery-clogging mix), and fun bars and cafes on every corner, Chamonix is perfect in any season. Mountain biking, hiking, skiing, rock climbing, trail running, ice climbing, paragliding, rafting, squirrel-suit jumping, you name it, you can do it here. Now I just need to learn to ski so I can go back in the winter…

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Sheep’s Cheese & Lambies!

Our new cooking and walking tour in Provence starts with a visit to a quaint sheep’s cheese farm run by the ultra hard-working husband/wife team of Brigitte and Philippe Cordier just outside of Château-Arnoux-Saint-Auban. In July, our visit corresponded with the arrival of a handful of brand new, teeny tiny lambs! Brigitte let us hold one that was just three days old for picture ops and warm fuzzies!

[Ok, ok, I know. If you know me well, you’re going to call me out at this very moment for being a total hypocrite.]

Yes, it’s true, I can devour grilled lamb stuffed with roasted garlic cloves with all the finesse and marrow-sucking precision of a professional sumo wrestler. But hey, I also adore coddling these super soft, lanolin-smelling babies. Who wouldn’t? Just to set the record straight; I love lambs, over hot charcoal or jumping through spring meadows, just the same.

At least, I’m honest.

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