Vive la France!
The Mont Blanc Massif is a huge suburb of rock crowded with jagged mountain peaks. Straddling three different countries, the Massif offers near unlimited mountain fun of all types to the picturesque and sometimes quaint european towns that rest on its shoulders. The Tour du Mont Blanc is a well traversed path that circles the Massif and provides staggering views and grunting climbs. The full tour covers ~105 miles and over 30,000k feet of gain.
The original plan was to complete the tour in an aggressive 3 days, staying at refugios and hotels along the way. Due to an absolute scorching first day the trip turned into a stay in the vibrant mountain sports town of Chamonix before continuing on to other regions of France. All in all 40 something miles of the trail was completed in a day and a half and it could not have been more beautiful. Simultaneously it was overwhelmingly inviting and one of the harder efforts in my life. What the mountains threw at me to slow me down they matched with wild sights and glacial rivers.
The tour started in the sleepy by summer ski town of Les Houche. Peaks peaked in windows, sitting within touch of the town, rising in steepness with a manner not befitting of a rock in the North East. The tour started immediately with a ~2500 foot climb under a beating sun and hazy sky. Though obscured by moisture the distant rock knives looked alien.
|The glint on the mountain is the Aiguille du Midi.|
After that gnarly climb there was a smooth descent through what would be the first little village pass-through. It set the bar for what constituted a governmentally recognized area of human inhabitation. A few houses that looked older than our country and a church that was definitely older than sin. Each little town had a public water fountain that made it clear what was, and was not potable. The simple act of having a place that people could gather and refresh sunk deep into me. The eons of watering holes. These old ass versions were ornately decorated. Think Lion heads.
The descent ended in another newer human tradition. Commerce. Les Contamines was a step back into modern civilization with grocery stores and pizzerias and outdoor gear stores. And of course, pastries. Generally any day of the trip contained bread, cheese and pastries. I must have eaten 30 of what I think was the french equivalent of little debbie snacks, two little Lotus brand waffles with a sweet filling in between.
By this point it was hot and the sun was evaporating up some of the fun. I was already burnt and a little nauseous. The next 10 miles would climb over 4,000 feet in the oven and essentially send the message that multiple days like this were not going to happen. It wasn’t until later in the trip that I realized the temperature was in the high 90’s and might have clipped over 100. Even up high it was intensely warm with a hot breath breeze.
I constantly compared the trip to UTMF because, well, both have about the same elevation change and distance. But UTMF never felt like I was hiking proper mountains. Very little time was spent above a clearly defined treeline. TMB was very different. The trail out of Les Contamines ratcheted up a col with all the makings of a good alpine hike.
After passing through the col the trail starts a decent towards the next weird little township. Before getting there it passes by the oasis of this wild terrain, an alpine hut. Standing formidable where no trees dare, a meal and a dorm can be shared with all manner of alpinist. The township at the bottom had a few businesses who seemed very dependent on the tour and local camping.
From here the next 3,000 foot climb started. A smooth road section gave way to a meander passed farms and rivers. A large bull outside of his pen was nice enough to let people by without gorging them. The site of his enormous testicles burned into my mind.
|Border Crossing, More Alps.|
This col was special as it marked the border between France and Italy, so that one crosses a country boundary on foot. An unassuming pile of rocks that spelt out “Italy” let passersby's know when they should start saying “Ciao” to the hikers they saw. Descending into a valley the path led to the nights refuge, Refugio Elisabetta. A monument to an alpinist who died in the area.
GPS had the first day at 31 miles and 12,000 feet of vertical gain. Arriving at the hut much later then anticipated I barely made dinner, and then could hardly eat due to my stomach being awry. The Italian waitress of the hut gave my the dirtiest look I’ve ever gotten after I told her I didn’t want dessert. I was walloped and burnt to a crisp by the sun. The next day had 37 miles and about as much climbing in store. A new plan to get to Courmayer and see if part of the trip could be short-cutted started forming.
The Refugio dorm had you sleeping in a huge bunk where you were 6 inches from the person next to you. It was stiflingly hot and a man in the bottom rack of bunks was chainsaw snoring his way through his dreams. As is typical from long outings my body was aching and my temperature control was way off. I spent time in the middle of the night at a picnic table outside trying to rehydrate and soak in the darkened view of the valley and the sound of waterfalls.
The next morning brought a breakfast of breads, spreads and hot drink. The crowd at the Refugio was of a much older demographic and they suited up with packs and hiking poles after breakfast. A morning commute of sorts started there and ran north and south on the trail.
The next few miles were what will live with me the longest. After descending the valley among the piles of glacial deposit and huge masses of ice slowly creeping down the massif the trail climbs through alpine meadows, a biome I didn’t know actually existed. Wild flowers and grass mixed among bare rock and impossibly steep towers of stone.
A long descent into Courmayeur followed and it only got hotter. Exposed sections along ski slopes made the night’s rest, albeit fitful, disappear. 37 miles was going to take a long time and while probably doable, was not the ideal way to spend a day of vacation considering the alternatives available.
Before arriving in Courmayeur there is a brief section through an absolutely medieval looking Italian village that was spectacularly clean. Courmayeur itself was quaintly bustling with busses and cars and cable car rides to where the trail descended from. I sat down to some pizza before taking a bus to Chamonix.
Chamonix seemed superficially like a European version of Boulder, CO. A long pedistrian way of every type of outdoor shop you can imagine. Backpackers everywhere, hiking poles at the ready to steady themselves on uneven cobblestones. Climbers, shirtless and ripped, carried rope slung over their shoulders. And of course, pastries and gelato. It's the collective beating heart of an active outdoor community that loves its mountains. Through it all I still believe it retains pieces of old world charm.
The next day involved something the tour never grants, a trip on a trail up Mont Blanc. It's an astonishingly short trip from Chamonix to the trails that begin to carve up the mountainous scar tissue. I traveled to the end of the glaciers and marveled at the peak thousands of feet above me still. The scale of it dwarfed my imagination.
What strikes me most is the lack of obstacles preventing a person from getting to the top. In a world where there are often fences to keep you from hurting yourself, this was unobstructed. The only thing preventing a traversal all the way to the top was the elements.
It's a feeling I've felt before where I've found myself on peaks or far from civilization and this weird thought creeps in like, "Am I allowed to be here?". As if I went the wrong way in the world and entered a secret place that life doesn't belong. The wrong door in heaven that leads you to an unfurnished room in paradise.
It also spoke directly to the draw we as a species feel towards mountains like that. A challenge unlike any other to pitch wit and grit in an attempt to reach a summit.
After another stop off in Les Houche it was time to continue on. The French expedition continued by train to the coastal city of Marseille, France’s second biggest city. This was incredibly different from the places I am used to. It’s a very diverse place with populations of people who come from countries that most cosmopolitan centers don’t have very many of. While I didn’t feel unsafe it had the feel of a place where tourists get abducted.
The stay in Marseille included a trip out to yet another different ecosystem, a Mediterranean desert island I’ll call it?
The final destination of the trip was in a much more agricultural area. The drive out there winded through ancient little towns with tiny one way streets and fountains and fromageries. Before arriving I took a brief stop off at the “Grand Canyon” of Europe which was a lot greener than our canyon, but much less epic. Still a beautiful jaunt that reminded me of places I’ve never been, weird little Greek hills.
And then it was back to the Boston way of life. It is very different. A city is the amalgamation of so many different hopes and dreams and passions. Sitting in Chamonix the passions are very focused on the recreation, as I guess is true of any touristy town. Maybe I'm just waxing poetic about the definition of "quaint". A passion for life's pleasures instead of a passion for goals. Boston's biotech and education fetish is hard to ignore. It enthralls me just as much as the mountains but definitely does not reward as frequently.