Alps Revisited

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.

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We have a new dog at our leader chalet. Actually, he's the neighbors dog, but I'm adopting him!

We have a new dog at our leader chalet. Actually, he’s the neighbors dog, but I’m adopting him!

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Les Alpes, Le Apli

Having grown up in the Midwest, my exposure to mountains was minimal-to-none as a kid and young adult. I was convinced that the hill up the street from my house, the one my sister and I used to ride down zealously on our pink scooters with pom-pom tassles, wind in our hair, was about as high as it got!

It’s been a couple of years now since I have been leading trips in the French & Italian Alps, and I’ve taken to these mountains like bees to nectar. I love it here in the mountain air. I’ll be leaving tomorrow to head back to Provence (by no means a compromise), and I would like to share a couple more pics with you from the season.

They’re all taken from the Italian side with the exception of the last flowery one.

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I really do miss them already.

Hear ye, Hear ye! My Tour de Mont Blanc starts tomorrow, and I’m grumpy

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.

Mont Blanc is in the other direction, but the setting sun lifted my spirits for my adventure ahead.

Mont Blanc is in the other direction, but the setting sun lifted my spirits for my adventure ahead.

TMB: Day 1. Lace up them boots, it’s go time!

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.

My morning tram dropped me off at the Col de Voza trailhead.  Sunshine all around!

My morning tram dropped me off at the Col de Voza trailhead. Sunshine all around!

My first trail marker...maybe this whole TMB wasn't going to be as tricky as I thought.

My first trail marker…maybe this whole TMB wasn’t going to be as tricky as I thought.

A luminous Mont Blanc ahead.

A luminous Mont Blanc ahead.

Lunch in Les Contamines-Montjoie. My favorite --a ham, cheese and egg galette.

Lunch in Les Contamines-Montjoie. I devoured my favorite French lunch – a ham, cheese and egg galette.

Geraniums love alpine weather.

Geraniums love alpine weather.

Mountain bouncy castles.

Mountain bouncy castles.

If I got tired, at least I could rent a paddle boat or park bench.

If I got tired, at least I could rent a paddle boat or park bench.

The park even had a baroque-style church, Notre Dame de la Gorge.

The park even had a baroque-style church, Notre Dame de la Gorge, just in case you wanted to pray for a blister-free week.

Day 1 recap:
Transfer: Mont Blanc Tram- from Le Fayet to Col de Voza.
5 hrs hiking
Refuge: Chalet de Nant Borrant.

TMB: Day 2. Rain, rain go away…and the Orphanage.

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!

And on the second day, the clouds burst open!

And on the second day, the clouds parted…

Improving weather conditions in all directions.

Improving weather conditions in all directions.

As I reached the summit of the Col du Bonhomme, there was finally sun and sheep.

As I reached the summit of the Col du Bonhomme, there was finally sun and sheep.

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.

No picture can do this part of the hike justice. The landscape was big, beautiful and extremely moving.

No picture can do justice to this part of the hike. The landscape was big, beautiful and extremely moving.

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.

On the final stretch to Les Mottets, or shall I call it the Orphanage.

On the final stretch to Les Mottets, or shall I call it the Orphanage.

Finally! Homeward bound for the evening!

Finally! Homeward bound for the evening!

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