Monthly Archives: September 2018

Preparing for the TMB

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Mt. Blanc from the Col de Balme

Back in May when my son asked me to go with him to hike the TMB I immediately agreed. I had no idea how difficult it would be, but I had a pretty good idea this might be the best shot I’d ever get at doing such a trip. Once I said yes it was too late to back out, something I knew would be a great disappointment to the both of us.

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Italy somewhere

As soon as I read about it I knew that I would have to train hard. Luckily there are some trails right outside my door – one that goes around the lake, and another that goes up over a small hill. One go round is about 5.5 kms, and involves about 100 meters of climbing. The other hikes I had at my disposal were a slightly higher hill of about 200 meters, and another lake walk with a few minor hills, totaling about 5.8 kms.

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alpine tarn and Mt. Blanc

First I needed boots. With extra wide feet, there aren’t many boots I find comfortable, but I discovered New Balance made boots in 4E, so I bought a pair of those, model 978. Although they were a little light for the very rocky bits, they worked well and I didn’t have any serious complaints, or any blisters, despite the fact that I defied convention by wearing thin socks.

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a refuge or auberge

As for a pack, I checked out all the well known brands and found them very expensive. By chance I found a shop with some old stock of internal frame Kelty packs on sale at half the cost of most other packs. I bought a Redwing 50, and it performed beautifully. I liked the fact that this pack had lots of zippers and pockets to keep gear handy when needed. My son’s bag was merely one large sack that he had to dig into every time he needed something from within. The Kelty has one single curved back stay that carries the load down to the excellent waist belt, which cinches very tightly due to compound leverage.

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on the trail

Once I got my essential gear in order, with new boots and a new pack, I set out on regular walks with weight in the pack. To start I had 10 pounds, then I increased it to 20 once I gathered my gear and determined I’d have about 18 – 20 lbs. With my pack and boots I began training as often as I could. The first problem was the heat, which this past summer hit 28C fairly often. This is very hot for these parts, and although it’s not so bad for normal living, 28 is a mite warm for strenuous exercise.  Nevertheless, it had to be done, so I was out in the heat hiking away the miles, and sweating profusely. This also proved a problem for me feet mostly, which were very hot. That is why in the end I settled on thin socks.

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making friends with a cow

I also began a journal of my daily training hikes, using a Strathmore notebook with heavy cotton paper pages suitable for watercolours. For practice I did a few, but mostly I recorded my mileage and observations of how I felt. There were many entries about how tired my legs were, and how wet my shirt was. Some days I had to keep myself soaked down with a wet kerchief to keep from overheating. I became quite attached to my boonie hat too, a US army surplus item that fulfilled every requirement for a warm weather sun hat admirably. Tested in Vietnam, so no surprise it works well in heat. The brim is just the right size, and it can be flipped down or up to suit the sun. I should perhaps have been more patriotic and worn a Canadian Tilley hat, but I feel they make me look like an old fogey, and besides which they aren’t any better than the boonie, and somewhat heavier and harder to stow when not in use.

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misty evening

After the whole thing was over I tabulated my training and found that I had walked for 86 hours and 274 kms. That’s 1.6 times the length of the TMB, not exactly a lot, but in my case certainly better than nothing, as I am now convinced that without that I would have been done in after the first day or two. On the other hand, my son who is 36 and super strong, did zero preparation and of course was way out in front of me when he wasn’t behind, ready to catch me when I tripped. What 30 years can do to you, it’s terrible! No complaints however, as I got through it on my own steam and no worse for wear.

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a bridge in Switzerland

As for my best intentions of watercolour sketches, all I have to show are some pre-trip sketches, one solitary sketch from the hike, and a few done before and after. Fortunately I did keep a daily journal, so I have that and a lot of photographs as a record. Now that it’s over I wish I had it to do again! No matter how much you can recall from writing or pictures, nothing can compare to the joy of walking through a beautiful landscape, no matter how difficult it feels at the time.

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one step at a time; 20,000+ a day

Some watercolours from France and Germany:

And some from my pre-trip journal:

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The Lonesome Organ Grinder

“The guilty undertaker sighs
The lonesome organ grinder cries”

“I Want You”, by Bob Dylan

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Orgel Bernd I presume?

As I noted here a month or two past, I spent an inordinate amount of time in deciding what sort of sketching media to take with me to Europe and the TMB hike. Once on the trail I soon discovered that there was no time for sketching.  You hit the trail just after 8 o’clock, hike for an hour or three and then eat lunch in pleasant exhaustion while recovering for the afternoon. Maybe you eat a 2nd lunch at 2 p.m. No matter, it’s highly unlikely you are lunching and have energy or inspiration to pull out the sketchbook and paint box. At the end of the day when you get to the next refuge, you dump your stuff and if lucky, you get to sleep for an hour before dinner. Then you talk to folks, and write in the journal.

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one tick on the coaster for every glass you drink

However, I did do some sketching before and after the hike, when I had plenty of time to sit and observe. My first stop was Dusseldorf, a beautiful city on the Rhine River. Among the attractions is the alt-stadt, where the streets are full of people, not cars. How ridiculous! Also there are some lovely beer gardens that dispense alt-beer, a dark and flavourful brew which, unlike most German beer, is top fermented. Unfortunately most German brew-masters who emigrated to North America brought with them lager beer, which in my opinion isn’t half as tasty. But you can still get alt-beer in Dusseldorf,  a drink I enjoyed while sitting at a bar in the alt-stadt with sketchbook at hand.

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the old Fuschschen Brauerei, Dusseldorf

While lolling on my stool I discerned a faint sound coming from down the street. Soon I realized I was hearing a hand cranked miniature pipe organ, from which pipes came a sweet folksy tune. Shortly, before my eyes appeared a real live organ grinder. He parked his organ beside me and took a seat at a table; then proceeded to smoke a full pipe, after which he shut his eyes and had a snooze. Refreshed, he got up after a half hour and returned the way he came, grinding out a new tune.

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looking down the street, Alt-stadt, Dusseldorf

Stealthily, I managed to capture him on camera and in my sketchbook. Maybe this is so commonplace in Europe that organ grinders are taken for granted, but to me it was a magic moment. As for the question of whether or not he was lonesome; if you spent all day pushing an organ around, who could you talk to?

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organ grinding is a lonesome job

 

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Les Houches to Chamonix

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a place mat from one of the refuges

Those who have set foot on the trail that circumnavigates Mont Blanc – the TMB – will no doubt recognize the name of the otherwise obscure village of Les Houches, France, where the vast majority of TMB hikers begin their journey. We heard it mentioned most every day when we talked to fellow TMB hikers. There is a very excellent shop there by the way, across from the Bellevue cable car station, where you would be well advised to buy some cheese, bread and a few sausages to carry in your bag. You will need them for energy, I can guarantee it!

The TMB is the most famous hike in the Alps, and thousands do the circuit yearly. It is next to impossible short of a book length post here to adequately describe the experience. I survived; but it was much tougher than I expected. Let no one kid you that trails in the Alps are just long gentle strolls along valleys and over soft rounded hills and cols. Not a chance! They are rugged, steep, slippery, narrow, muddy, rocky and full of roots, stones, water, twists, turns, high steps, no steps, scrambles and muck. But there are some very special rewards. After a few days of walking in the mountains you begin to stop thinking about anything much except the path in front of you, and the scenery all around. In my experience there is really nothing that can compare to this peacefulness. Part of it is due to the sheer effort it takes to keep going, and part to the lack of the usual stimuli or distractions. Refuges, also called gites or auberges, have internet for the most part, so one can keep in touch if necessary; but I simply used this to dispatch emails each night to update our progress and report that we were still alive. News out there is of no value whatsoever, which makes you wonder what value it has in the first place.

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some passable scenery

There are signs, maps and guidebooks that will show you the way and inform you as to how long it takes from here to there. The maps and guidebooks are useful, if you actually read them, something we should have done more often. We might not have gotten lost then. The signs are also very useful, if you add 30 minutes to every hour they purport to advise. Of course this applies to me, who merely trained one summer which was not nearly enough, but was sufficient to keep me moving at least. A year would have been much better, if I had concentrated on getting my legs ready for climbing and descending 1000 metres on steep mountains every day. Maybe 5 hours on the stairmaster with a pack would have helped, but who has time for that? Not  me. So I hiked around the paltry hills in the neighbourhood, hoping to strengthen the old leg muscles enough to get by. I suppose it did, as I made it with injury, but not without suffering!

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somewhere in Switzerland, or Italy…

I had forgotten what it takes to climb 1000 metres straight up, a typical day; as it is well understood that humans have a great capacity to remember pleasant things and forget pain. By now I have even begun to forget how my legs and body felt as I climbed the Fenetre d’Arpete in Switzerland less than 2 weeks ago, all the while thinking that whoever made this trail was crazy to think anyone would use it, since there was a much easier alternate route. However, we were not the only ones punishing our legs that day – there were others, and many of them, all looking pretty much the same as us; exhausted, and sullen. Briefly, at the col we rested and looked back on our achievement, only to be dampened by looking down the other side at the same sort of slope that would soon dole out punishing knee strain over 1000 metres of descent, and for what? The right to say you climbed the Fenetre d’Arpete, that’s what! Also, for a nice view – enjoyed for 15 minutes. No beer up here, unlike some other notable cols along the trail.

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Refuge des Mottets, La Ville des Glaciers, France

40 years back I hiked northernmost 100 miles of the AT to Mt. Katahdin in Maine – with a 50 lb backpack and no resupply points. I would never attempt to do that one again, for good reason. One – I hate carrying 50 lbs, and two; it was dull compared to the Alps. So if you can afford it, and you fancy a long hike somewhere, try the TMB. At the end, when you are done or you are certain you will make it, buy one of those lime green t-shirts with the TMB logo. We bought ours at the last refuge, but we didn’t don them until we had completed the trek. Then we immediately put them on and went out for a nice dinner and some Brasserie Mont Blanc beer.

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my son Terry, and his beer of choice

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my preferred Mont Blanc brew – La Rousse (red ale)

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