In 2018 I hiked the Tour du Mont Blanc with my son. Before I left I trained for months and read everything I could find about the hike. Despite the fact that there are plenty of maps and guidebooks about the Tour, little has been written about what the hike feels like beyond a few blog posts. So I wrote a book about my experience. Here is an excerpt. The book is available in paperback or eBook format through Kindle here, should you wish to purchase a copy.
Mont Blanc towered supreme over the Alps for millions of years, unclimbed until 1786. Following ancient footpaths, Horace-Bénédict de Saussure walked all the way around in 1767, and thus was born the Tour du Mont Blanc. His interest and offer of a reward to the first climber helped spur on the first ascent by two Chamonix men, Dr. Michel Paccard and Jacques Balmat, who reached the summit 19 years later. Statues in the heart of Chamonix immortalize Saussure and Balmat, as well as Paccard, at least for now. Who knows how long statues last!
The upper part is in perpetual winter, covered in ice and snow. Ancient people looked up and saw danger and demons. Now a tunnel runs under it, and cable cars and railway tracks ascend as far as they can before all turns to ice. Every year however, thousands of hikers walk around the Mont Blanc massif, a journey of 170 kilometres according to the published guides. There are over 40 refuges spaced at intervals along the route, where hikers can find beds and food, for a price.
There are thousands of kilometres of trails in the Alps, but there is only one Tour du Mont Blanc. It isn’t a particularly long trail, but it isn’t easy by any means. The fact that it is difficult is part of the attraction. It takes a lot of determination, hard work, and patience to do it, but the rewards are great. This account attempts to provide the reader a glimpse of what is involved, and how it feels.
I once read a book about wandering the mountain trails of the Alps that left a deep impression on me; marvellous scenery depicted in moody black and white photos, hearty meals and misty mornings after a pleasant night on a real mattress. Long before I had ever been to the Alps, I longed to follow in those footsteps. Those were the days when I was into mountain hikes with a heavy pack, sleeping on a thin pad and eating dried food. I was often cold, wet and uncomfortable. How marvellous it would have been to be able to spend the night inside a cozy hut, and eat real food at a table full of fellow hikers!
Running in a line through the Presidential Range of New Hampshire, a chain of huts owned by the Appalachian Mountain Club provided similar amenities as the huts of the European Alps. I discovered them with my pal Uldis on our first foray into backpacking, when we were total novices. Coming through a mist on the north side of Mt. Madison, we were surprised to see a rustic stone building. Once inside we found out just what this strange building was, ate some brownies and headed off back into the clouds. We carried on past numerous of these huts on our hike, camping for free in lean-to shelters. Paying to sleep in a hut was out of the question.
A few years later I took a hike in the Alps north of Innsbruck, Austria, but I still carried a full pack with camping gear. I tried one night in a hut to see what it was like, but I wasn’t impressed. My notebook from the day was full of bitter complaints about the uncomfortable bed, noise from late night arrivals, midnight bathroom creepers and before dawn risers. I went back to sleeping in my tent, concealed off the trail so as not to attract attention, since tenting was not allowed then. Plodding uphill with my huge pack however, I wished I had one of those little day bags that everyone else on the trail was carrying. They skipped past merrily, while I groaned and sweated.
Back home in Canada, I continued backpacking through the Adirondacks and Appalachians, with forays to the Rockies. One summer, my buddy Bob suggested we hike the northernmost section of the Appalachian Trail from Monson, Maine to Mt. Katahdin, a distance of 100 miles. We were ten days on the trail with no supply points, and no communication with the outside world. On such a remote trail, you don’t meet many other hikers. When you do, you don’t just nod and say hello – you stop and have a chat. Where are you from? Where are you going? Where is the next lean-to? Have you seen many people today? What is the trail like up ahead?
One hot day we met two southbound hikers marching along with a guitar and a banjo. We were astounded, considering we each had 50 lbs. of gear on our backs, and they the same. The mere idea of carrying something as heavy and useless as a banjo was laughable. Not to waste the opportunity, I pulled out my harmonica and the four of us struck up a rousing chorus of Woody Guthrie’s ‘Oklahoma Hills’. Then we departed, leaving the trees, birds and slugs to ponder what had just transpired.
Later that summer and a hundred miles south of where we had jammed, I was hiking through the White Mountains when I happened to mention this meeting to some hikers who we camped with one night. They had come from Georgia, and had been on the AT all summer. Earlier that month, they met the southbound musicians, who by then were without instruments. Eventually the pack takes its toll.
So, after years of carrying heavy backpacks around, I began to think it was time to try something different, and booked a trip to the White Mountain huts. I walked with a light pack, and ate to my heart’s content at breakfast and dinner. Then I crawled into a comfortable bunk and slept like a baby. My wife and I did this several times, and we loved it. Then we had kids, and never returned.
When the kids got old enough I took them backpacking, and then they grew up and once again I put away my gear. Eventually I came to the conclusion that my pack carrying days were over. Despite this, I kept my old frame pack ready for action. Precious memories die hard. I had carried that pack through the Adirondacks, Appalachians, Rockies, Sierra Nevada, and Karwendel Alps. It’s still not close to being worn out, but no pack ever gets easier to carry. Every time you fill the pack and hoist it on your back, it feels as heavy as ever. So the pack sat in my basement for years. I hated the idea of getting rid of it.
Once in a while I would see the pack and get it out to look at it. I’ll never use this again, I thought, but I still didn’t want to get rid of it. Someday, maybe, I might get a chance to use it again. A decade passed. My three sons were all grown up, and had no interest in hiking. Rob had two young kids, Graeme never liked hiking, and Terry had moved to Germany.
To my surprise however, one day Terry phoned and asked me to come to Europe to hike the Tour du Mont Blanc. He had planned to hike it with his wife, but now that she was pregnant she couldn’t go. He badly wanted to do it. Everything was booked and his holidays were arranged. All he needed was for me to agree. It was the chance of a lifetime, and it wouldn’t cost me a cent. He offered to pay for my plane tickets, and he was paying for all the huts, too. It was too good to be true.
Now, it was up to me to decide if I could do it. At first I dared to hope it would be easy, like the Karwendel Alps, with long and fairly gentle slopes. My research quickly proved it was much more challenging. Daily, the trail climbs and descends 1000 metres or more, and you must walk an average of 15 kilometres. I knew it would be hard, even with a light pack. I would have to walk all day every day for eleven days, without a break. Terry had not planned any rest days and missing a stop would throw off the whole itinerary. It wasn’t possible to adjust the bookings. Could I hack it? Casting doubt aside, I decided to accept and not think about it too much. I would have to suck it up and do it, whatever it took. There was no point worrying about it before I got there.
I was going back to the Alps! Terry sent me copies of every email booking he’d made, and I put all the information together onto a spreadsheet. At the library I took out the guidebook, and with that and various websites I researched how far, how long and how much climbing and descending we had to do each day.
I sent the spreadsheet to Terry, confident that he had booked all the necessary beds, and that most days were within the realm of the possible. All but one day – the last one. I was convinced that last day was impossible, but I knew we had a way out, so I didn’t fuss about it.
Much has been said about how walking is good for you. I never subscribed to the idea of doing it for health benefits. I just like walking. Going on a long hike is very different from a walk around town, however. On the trail one is forced to live in the present, which can be blissful or painful. There are few decisions and few opportunities for phone calls or reading the news. The outside world ceases to exist.
With no news and no distractions, life becomes simplified. Eat, walk, sleep, get up and do it again. All you have to do is put one foot in front of the other. The benefits slowly begin to work their magic, as you settle into the daily routine of hard work and big meals.
Preparations and Training
Once I agreed to go I had to get into much better condition, or it would be all over in a day. Thus began my summer of walking. I thought about the hike; what I would need, what I would not need, and how to prepare for the inevitable hard work. My first day of training began with a 10 lb bag of sugar from the pantry. I dropped that into a small daypack and went out for a walk. It was easy, and I soon realized that 10 lbs was too light. I upped the weight to 15 lbs, closer to what I would be carrying. Immediately it felt heavy, but this was good; I needed heavy to get my legs in shape. If I didn’t train hard enough, I was looking at failure. That was not acceptable.
There’s something about heaving a loaded pack onto my back that sends a thrill to my brain. It’s not that it feels good, it doesn’t. It feels like work, but down where the old memories are burned into the animal brain lays a memory of having a heavy pack on the back, and having an experience related to a deep pleasure. That is how we unconsciously internalize experiences. We respond to stimuli that we aren’t consciously aware of. It gets dark, we feel sleepy. We smell food, we feel hunger. Putting a heavy pack on the back stirs up old memories of good times. Fortunately, the misery is forgotten.
The nearest trail just happened to be down the street from my house; around a small pond and exactly 3 kms from door to door. I walked this trail countless times and it always took 45 minutes. If I added on the hill nearby, a mere 100 metre climb, the circuit was about 5 kms. I began figuring how this might relate to a day on the TMB. Three times around would be 15 kms, but merely 300 metres of climbing. Simply, there was no way to simulate a day on the TMB. I was concerned this was not adequate for what I was going to face, but it was better than nothing, so I started going around and over as frequently as possible, often three times a day.
From my drawer I dug out a digital pedometer that had been there for years. The battery was dead. The next problem was figuring out how to program it. If you’re old enough to remember the first VCRs, you will understand why many of them were blinking 12:00. Nowadays, a toddler can operate a smart phone. I defy you to give a toddler a digital pedometer. The buttons are tiny, and the manual has instructions that are impossible to comprehend, unless you actually wrote them. I’m still not sure how I did it, but I managed to input my stride length so that by walking around the lake, the distance indicated 3 kms. I assumed that the sign in the park was right about the trail being 3 kms. I began to record my every step, and my speed. It looked like I could walk about 4 km/hr. How wrong I was!
September seemed a long way off, but even four months was not enough time to train for a grueling physical challenge. How do you motivate yourself to spend months training for an 11 day event? The answer was to remind myself I was doing this not only for me, but also for Terry. I couldn’t let him down. This, and the fear of failure, gave me the motivation to keep walking.
Thinking about my own Dad made me even more determined. I was 66, the age at which my Dad passed away. He spent too much time in a chair, and hardly any climbing hills or even walking around the block. When he did, he always came in pooped and had to rest. Lack of exercise and 40 years of smoking 20 cigarettes a day was not a healthy lifestyle. Lucky for me I’d never smoked and was a lot more active than him. The mere idea that I could contemplate hiking 170 kms through the Alps provided sufficient motivation to press on with training, no matter how boring, how hot, or how sore I felt.
I remembered my Dad telling me when I was young about how he went on countless route marches in the army. I wasn’t training for battle, but there were similarities. I had to build up the strength and the calluses required for relentless effort, and discipline my body to carry on despite fatigue and pain. No one was going to shoot at me, and all I’d have to do would be to get to the refuge in time for dinner.
I needed new boots. Having good boots is critical to the success of a hike. Boots have to bear the weight of your body and pack on slippery roots and rocks, and not only grip well but keep your ankles supported from turning over, and insulate your feet from painful pointy objects. They have to be stiff, and tough, and yet not so much so as to never feel comfortable.
Whenever I had my feet measured on the contraption known as the Brannock Device, it invariably indicated my shoe size as 10-1/2D. Being raised to respect authority, I once took it for granted that this device was infallible. It certainly was to my mother, whenever she took me to the shoe store. That is why in early life I wore shoes that were too tight. I just accepted that shoes would never fit well.
Salesmen would always say “the leather will stretch.” None ever mentioned the weeks of pain waiting for that to happen. This was bad enough with shoes, but boots were much worse. Boot leather is thicker than shoe leather, and it takes much longer to stretch, if it ever does. During my hiking years, I had spent a fortune trying to find well fitting boots, with limited success. I was determined not to repeat past mistakes.
Thus began the great boot hunt. Online research discovered the latest greatest boots, but most of them could not be found in stores nearby. Reading reviews, I had the sense that everyone was just talking opinion, because they had to write something for a website. It doesn’t have to make sense, because nobody is ever going to hold the writer to account for their ill informed ‘research’, no matter how scientific it is made to look. A word of advice here; don’t take my advice – figure it out for yourself!
These reviews invariably started out the same – our testers took these boots out on arduous hikes over rugged trails through rain, snow, mud and desert sand. Here is the best boot for you. Off you go to the boot section of the local outdoor store to meet a salesperson who cannot possibly have tested every boot in the shop. What they know is this; make sure you have on a thick sock. Walk around and after a few minutes, pay a lot of money, and leave with boots that may not be suitable; but you don’t know this yet. You will only discover this after you’ve worn them outside in the mud, in which case it will be too late to return them.
Shoe sizes are merely guidelines. I eventually learned to try on shoes without reference to size, width or price. This time I was determined to buy boots so wide that I could even have six toes. Many boot tests later, I found boots that were extra wide and extra long. I didn’t care what the label said; they felt good and didn’t hurt. I brought them home and left them in the box. Meanwhile we went away for a week. When I returned I put the boots on in the house and wore them for a day. Then and only then, did I dare to cut off the tags and go for a walk outside.
The boots were comfortable at first, but I soon noticed a slight hump under my left arch. What should I do? I had already walked halfway around the lake. It was too late to take them back. Or was it? I sat on a bench and examined the boots. It was a hot dry day and there was no sign of wear on the rubber soles. I adjusted the laces and carried on. Soon I began not to notice the hump. I got home and took the boots off. I slid my hand into the left boot to feel the insole. There was no obvious defect or bump. Boot day one, and I was fraught with misgivings. I resolved to not think about it excessively, lest I be unable to sleep that night.
The next day I went out again. The hump was still there, but I resolved to ignore it and let things settle down for a while before getting worried. It was then that I began to notice my feet were hot. Considering it was a very hot summer day, that was not unexpected. However, my feet seemed to be extraordinarily hot. I began to curse the waterproof liner. Damn it all, why do they make all boots waterproof these days, I thought? I read up on hot feet. That led to sock reviews, and more opinions.
Conventional wisdom said to wear a heavy wool sock over a thin liner. There is a big difference between wearing heavy wool socks and thin ones in the summer, however. I found this out after buying many socks, and when I was done my sock drawer was overflowing. I tried smart wool, which was touted to keep your feet warm and cool at the same time. This made no sense, but I bought them anyways. I tried synthetic socks too. I bought socks of every conceivable thickness and blend.
They were all tested and rejected. Everything I tried made my feet uncomfortably hot and sore, as moisture and friction took its toll. I began to think that my feet were independently trying to stop the process, but I was not going to let them win. I persisted in the quest for the perfect sock.
Weeks passed and I had so many test socks that I was getting confused as to which ones were which. I was becoming more and more certain that the answer was not thick socks. This sounds like a self evident truth, but I was still under the misapprehension that thick socks were the answer. It began to dawn on me that thick socks were not the answer. I remembered physics, where they taught us about the laws of thermodynamics. Law 2; heat flows from hot to cold. That includes feet. Insulation impedes heat flow. Conductors accelerate heat flow. Wool, no matter how smart it is, cannot be an insulator and a conductor at the same time.
When I finally concluded that thick socks were not the answer, I went back to the store, not the outdoor store, but the men’s sock and underwear section of a local department store. Sports stores had proved to be a dead end, but department stores had an entirely different selection. My goal, or mission, as it was becoming, was to find thin socks that were comfortable enough to keep my feet from getting blisters. Still with the wool fixation, I examined a multitude of sock packages, noting fibre blends and trying to discover the magic formula, as if somehow it would just come to me, like divine inspiration, when I finally beheld the perfect ingredients.
While browsing, I noticed a package of lightweight socks. They were cheap compared to all the other socks I had been buying, so I thought I’d give them a try. They were made of rayon, pima cotton, and nylon. They were very soft, and had some cushioning on the sole. I recalled what a friend had told me about her recent hike; she wore rayon socks because they were so soft. Cotton however, is frowned upon by sock experts. Cotton doesn’t wick, doesn’t absorb sweat, bunches up, causes blisters, etc. So why does the US Army issue socks with cotton in them? Maybe cotton wasn’t as bad as they said it was. I bought the socks and brought them home.
It took one day to determine that I had solved the sock problem. In my pre-trip journal I noted that the temperature was 29 degrees and yet my entry said ‘new socks excellent’. I had been in training for five weeks and had walked an average of 25 kms a week. With the heat and the time I had available, that was about as much as I could do. I knew we’d be walking all day on the TMB, but I didn’t have the patience or determination to attempt to simulate that. Several hours daily and once in a while 4 or 5 hours was the best I could manage.
One added benefit from all this walking was the opportunity to explore new territory in the neighbourhood. Despite living nearby for almost 30 years, I had rarely gone to a park where there was a medium size hill. This hill was no mountain, but since it was the tallest thing available, I began wandering around the trails and up to the summit. Despite being only 200 metres high from base to summit, I discovered, much to my surprise, that this park contained three distinct forest zones. After several visits I was familiar enough with the trails not to get lost, and it was much less boring than repeating the same circuit several times a day. I could do 7 kms without retracing a step.
Another favourite hike was around a nearby lake where there was good swimming. I could jump in for a swim halfway and also at the end. With the blazing hot summer this was a welcome relief. I alternated these two hikes with my standard routine of going around the pond (no swimming there) and over the adjacent hill until I got bored. You can only walk by the same scenery for so long before it feels like work.
Socks had been a challenge, but one for which I could afford to make a few mistakes. Buying a new pack was much more costly – I could only afford to buy one, so it had to be right. My old frame pack had to go. Nostalgia had me trying to figure out a way to rig it up so that it sat lower on my back, but I soon concluded this was not worth the effort. After 40 years the old pack had to be retired.
The internal frame backpack has been around for 40 years, but for heavy loads I had always preferred the ladder frame. Although inflexible, it could handle a lot of weight, but now I didn’t need that, since I was going to carry less than 20 lbs. Internal frame packs have the advantage of flexibility; they move with you, unlike a rigid frame. The straps are not constantly restraining your shoulders as you walk, which gives the wearer a lot more freedom of movement in the upper body.
Backpacks are like boots in that they all look pretty much the same, but they don’t all feel the same. I went from shop to shop trying on a variety of packs. Some adjusted for length, others were fixed. Some had pockets, some didn’t. Waist belts varied from thick and comfy to thin and meager with narrow straps. Back panels came in mystifying varieties, with all sorts of materials and convolutions designed to vent and wick moisture away. In order to give a pack a true field test, you must load it up with weights and walk around with it for a while.
It took me a month to find the right pack. I went to every outdoor store in town and some out of town, testing, inspecting and comparing features. Almost all of them were very expensive, and those that were cheaper I was suspicious of. When I was about to give up and just go shell out several hundred bucks, I walked into a shop I hadn’t been in yet, and there I found exactly what I’d been after. Most internal frame bags were pocket-less, requiring you to open up the main bag and dig down through all your gear to find something, but this one had outside pockets, which made for better access to sundry things which could be stowed and readily grabbed.
After loading the pack with a heavy tent, and much wiggling and shaking it to see how it felt, I decided this was the one. I had my bag and my boots. Now, all I needed was a few articles of clothing and raingear. I should mention that the modern hiker carries trekking poles. Once again this had me pitting the old ways against the new, for I was once a devotee of the wooden hiking staff. Ah, the comfort of the hiking staff!
My first staff was made of bamboo, cut from a long whisk that Uldis acquired from his summer job at a golf course, where they used them to sweep the greens. Two minutes with a saw and we had a pair of lightweight hiking staffs, just like the one used the guru of backpacking, Colin Fletcher.
Those were the days when every backpacker owned or had read the bible of backpacking, The Complete Walker. I read it from cover to cover more than once, and eventually bought my own copy. That book inspired and informed a generation of backpackers, who pored over every word and followed the advice as if it was holy writ. Fletcher was a writer who could make high art of something as simple as carrying a heavy pack through the wild.
Illustrated with lovely line drawings, there was a memorable sketch depicting the author sitting down for his regular hourly break, leaning on his pack propped up by his trusty bamboo staff. Fletcher, being British, drank tea, made with the aid of his Svea stove. I still have my copy of that tiny marvel of engineering.
The sound of a Svea burning at full bore evokes memories like the ones that fill me with delight when I heave a pack onto my back. The Svea is a simple burner on top of a small puck-sized tank, and is made entirely of brass. You heat the tank in your hands, or with a match, until the gas inside expands enough to dribble out of the burner orifice and run down the stem into a depression on top of the tank. You close the valve, and light the gas. Poof, up it goes in sooty orange flames that heat the stem until the fuel inside becomes a hot gas. If you open the valve at the exact right moment, the flames light the gas jet, and the burner flares to life.
The burner stutters and pulses erratically for a minute, then settles down to a steady blue jet. Soon, the top of the burner glows red hot. You precariously set your pot on top, and try to shield it from the wind which robs the precious heat. Once you have achieved a pot of boiling liquid, you reach down and grasp the little metal key that fits over the tiny brass shaft which controls the flow of gas. If you foolishly forget to remove the key while the stove burner is red hot, you will be painfully reminded with burnt fingertips.
From a roar like a tiny jet engine, suddenly all is silent. Once again you hear only the sounds of nature; a babbling brook, birds, or the wind in the trees. Sometimes it’s pouring rain, and that too is wonderful. The TMB requires no stove, however, and I was not so in love with a cup of tea midday to consider carrying one.
The equipment you have is not the experience. I took no Svea stove, frame pack, down sleeping bag, bamboo staff or any food. I didn’t have tea midday, and didn’t have to scout out a campsite before sundown, or locate a water source. Nor did I need a detailed topographic map or compass, big knife, rope, or signal mirror. All these were relics of backpacking and unnecessary on the TMB. As fond as I am of my equipment, hiking is about walking, not using your gear to tame the wild.
The absurd amount of words devoted to hiking gear is a distraction from the essence of the matter. John Muir had no pack; only simple leather boots and a long coat with pockets into which he shoved his food. I tried to keep this in mind when I fretted about the contents of my pack. Weather is the one thing you cannot ignore, however.
Alpine weather is unpredictable, and even a one day hike in bad weather can be miserable, if not dangerous. I needed warm clothes and raingear, as well as shorts and t-shirt. As simple as this sounds, I had to test, weigh and compare each and every article of clothing and equipment before declaring it suitable for the TMB. My goal was to have only the lightest things that would serve their purpose. If something wasn’t necessary for survival, or very useful, I didn’t want to carry it a hundred miles.
I tested numerous shorts and long pants, as well as shirts, long and short sleeved. It was down to a choice between khaki and forest green shorts at the end, and I went with forest green, because it wouldn’t show the dirt. For a belt I used a shoelace. Shirts had to have the right sized breast pocket for my little notebook, which sat at hand in case I needed to make a quick note. All of my clothing was made of mostly synthetic fibres that absorbed little water and dried quickly. On the right side of my pack, in the lower pouch, was my squeeze bottle. I could grab it with one hand easily, have a drink and shove it back into the net pouch without missing a stride. On the left lower pocket, I kept my journal and bandanna or hat.
A word about hats – I own many hats, and each one has a special place in my heart. Some may say I have a hat obsession, but hat lovers will understand that for every occasion there is the one right hat. This adventure required the right hat, and no other would do. After careful consideration and field tests, I selected an army surplus “Boonie” hat I had acquired years earlier for $2. It fit comfortably, with a brim of just the right width to cut the sun, and a shoelace chin strap to keep it on in the wind. I so adored this hat that I bought one for Terry. He accepted it with gratitude, but never wore it until the last day of the trip, when he decided that he should at least use it once. You can’t make other people love what you love.
As enamoured as I was with my wooden staff, I knew it was impractical, so I brought along one collapsible trekking pole, which fit neatly into the main compartment of the pack.
Being a photographer, I had to bring a camera. Although my digital SLR took amazing pictures, it was too bulky and heavy, so I brought a pocket sized camera that hung at my waist, tucked into a little bag attached to my hip belt.
Other sundry items included compass, mirror, whistle, folding scissors, tiny penknife, 25 feet of cord, and sketchbook. With the sketchbook came a watercolour paint box, a small brush with a cap, and a plastic cup cut from the bottom of a vitamin pill bottle.
Add some kerchiefs, underwear, tuque, gloves, fleece jacket and rain gear, and that was it for clothing. Then there was the pharmacy; tape, antibiotic cream, headache pills, safety pins and earplugs. At the top of the main bag I shoved an old pair of plastic sandals.
While all this training was going on, the West Coast was going up in flames from hundreds of forest fires. It was burning from California up to northern BC, and the smoke went everywhere. Some days the sky was orange and we were told to stay indoors. I was forced to stop training for the last 2 weeks prior to departure. When departure day finally arrived, the smoke was still all about. My first flight was a short hop from Victoria to Vancouver. From there I was on a big jet to Munich.
Arriving at the airport hours ahead of my scheduled departure, I sat in the lounge and waited for the flight announcement. The screen showed it as being delayed. First it was delayed for half an hour, then 45 minutes, then an hour. Forest fire smoke was wreaking havoc with air traffic. Meanwhile, the big plane over in Vancouver was scheduled to leave any minute for Europe. When at last I got off the first plane, I had to run from one end of the airport to the very last gate on the complete opposite side of the building, about a mile away.
After I ran most of the way, a golf cart arrived to ferry me the last hundred metres. As we approached the gate I saw the staff watching me. There was the big jet right outside. Suddenly, for no reason, a man with a serious expression started chastising me for holding up 250 people, as if it was intentional.
You can’t get on the plane, he said, boarding is closed.
There I was at the gangway with my boarding pass, the plane right in front of me. Would they really leave now, after they had been waiting for me? Whatever this nasty chap was trying to prove, they let me board and away we went.
Despite leaving late, we arrived on time, 9 hours later, in Munich. Another short flight to Dusseldorf, and there was Terry with a huge smile on his face! I was back in Europe for the first time in 42 years.
A few good sleeps later, I was getting adjusted to the time change. They say it takes one day per hour to fully adjust, but after four days I felt alright, despite the fact that I had caught a cold on the plane. I was ready to go, but Terry was not quite. He hadn’t trained or prepared in any way, and didn’t have his gear sorted, nor packed his bag. This was despite the fact that I’d sent him a long list of things he’d need. Knowing Terry, this didn’t surprise me. We went through his stuff, and reviewed what was missing.
While checking his gear, he showed me a lightweight garment that resembled a heavy shirt.
This is my warm thing, he said.
No, that is not, I said. We’re going to the Alps, not the Riviera. Did you buy trekking poles?
No, I don’t need them.
You need them, I said.
Fortunately, Terry had a friend whose sister had just done the TMB. The friend forwarded an email from his sister, advising what she had learned. Several items were noted emphatically as must haves, including trekking poles. Now that an unknown stranger had said it, this convinced him that I was right about what he needed.
While I had a few days to rest and get over the time change, I did some sightseeing and sketching. Among the attractions of Dusseldorf was the Altstadt, where the streets were full of people, not cars. Also there were some lovely beer gardens serving Altbier, a dark and flavourful brew which, unlike most German beer, is top fermented. Most German brewmasters who came to North America brewed lager beer, so Altbier is a rare thing, even in Germany. Fortunately you can still get Altbier in Dusseldorf, a drink I enjoyed while sitting at a bar in the Altstadt with sketchbook at hand.
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, piping a sweet folksy tune. Shortly after this, there 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.
The sight of an organ grinder gave me the feeling I had been magically transported back in time. Visions of fairy tales came to mind, and it wouldn’t have surprised me if Gepetto had come along selling wooden marionettes. I tried to imagine the life of an organ grinder, but it was too improbable. I wondered how he had acquired his organ; did he get it from his father, or grandfather? Does an organ grinder serve an apprenticeship? Who would repair the organ if necessary? Where he lived and what he did in bad weather was a puzzle. Perhaps he made shoes in the winter, or carved little birds for cuckoo clocks. I imagined he lived with his aged mother, who was at home knitting him a pair of wool socks.
To ruin the effect, along came a street beggar, tapping drinkers for spare change. He paused at the organ grinder, who gruffly uttered a few words that left no doubt what he thought of the beggar’s request. Then 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. I sketched him while he sat with his beer and his pipe.
In Dusseldorf you can buy authentic Naples style pizza. Not only that, you can ride a bicycle on the sidewalk. If you don’t have a bike, you can rent one at most every block, if you own a smart phone. We rented a pair one evening and rode all around the downtown for an hour and a half, and it cost less than a glass of beer. Then we went for a pizza.
After five days of rest and exploring, I was itching to move. Terry said we were leaving on Friday, not Saturday. I figured he knew the schedule, since he’d booked all the tickets and all the nights on the trail.
The night before we were to leave for Geneva, we headed off to a sports emporium for some last minute shopping. Terry bought a puffy jacket and a set of trekking poles, and I picked up a plastic cup which I somehow forgot to bring, despite my list and months of preparation. So I can’t exactly preach my infallible readiness; but all was well and we were good to go.
We had no map however, nor a guidebook. This I had asked Terry to get months ago. I was not convinced about the need for a guidebook, but a map was a no brainer. The store had no map of the TMB, naturally. We’d have to find one when we got there. We had no choice now, anyways. Off we went on Friday, bound for Geneva, where we had a hotel booked.
All went perfectly according to plan, and we checked into the hotel at the airport. Just a few blocks away was the main train line, and we ambled over to get a train into town. We had the afternoon and evening to enjoy a bit of Geneva. The train pulled into the platform, and we hopped on and watched the scenery flying by for several stops.
Then an announcement said “Next stop CERN.” The train stopped, and there we were at the site of the great particle accelerator. CERN, where the World Wide Web, was invented. CERN, where scientists are trying to make black holes that will turn the earth into a point in space. CERN, the wrong way from Geneva.
Off we got. Eventually we arrived in the heart of Geneva, a wonderful place to wander around looking at shop windows full of expensive watches and Opinel knives. The Opinel is a cheap and effective French folding knife that farmers use for everything from cleaning horses’ feet with to eating peas. I witnessed the latter one day, long ago in a French farmhouse, but maybe it has fallen out of fashion. The Opinel endures, and comes in a variety of sizes and colours. How amusing to see this European icon on sale for 10 Euros, right next to a window full of Rolex watches. Our first priority was getting some Swiss Francs, however.
We set out to find a money exchange, where the main activity appeared to be Filipinos sending money home to their families. The TMB passed through Switzerland, and refuges dealt only in cash. Switzerland being famously expensive, Terry got more Swiss francs than he expected we would need. Then we went off to find dinner. At the beginning of September, Geneva and all of Europe were still in the midst of summer. The night was wonderfully warm, and after a few hours of wandering we were coaxed into a Middle Eastern restaurant by a friendly persuasive waiter, where we sat on a terrace and ate a delicious lamb tagine. It struck us that Geneva, although Swiss, was a world city.
After sunset we strolled down to the waterfront and walked across the promenade to the south side of Lake Geneva, or Lac Leman as they insist on calling it in Europe. Glittering signs high atop buildings blazed the names of great Swiss brands in the sky. I was taken with the Hermes sign, although to me it stood for the legendary typewriter, not a purse or scarf. The evening was full of strolling flaneurs looking at the water, the monuments and each other. A food cart sold us some warm Toblerone treats. Only in Switzerland do they sell melted chocolate on the street! We walked back to town and up the hill to the train station, where we grabbed a train back to our hotel and beds.
Halfway through the night I awoke, as if on fire. Why is it that hotels put thick duvets on beds when the rooms are kept at 20 degrees? I tossed the bedding aside but was still too warm to sleep. Finally I couldn’t stand it, so I went into the bathroom, turned on the shower and got into some cool water. Hearing me messing about, Terry got up to see what the problem was.
I’m burning up, I told him.
Cold water, he said.
Terry was a devotee of the cold shower. He took a cold shower every day, and swore that it promoted good health. This idea was as old as the Spartans, but was revived in Germany, so it was natural that Terry adopted some of their ideas while he lived there. He hadn’t taken to schnitzel or sausages however, still preferring pizza and Japanese food.
Make it as cold as you can stand, he advised.
I was prepared to chill myself to get relief from feeling my skin on fire. Slowly I turned off the hot water until the temperature was somewhere around 20 degrees, quite enough to give me a chill under ordinary circumstances, but not particularly uncomfortable at that moment. After a while it began to feel pretty good. It seemed to do the trick, and soon I was cool.
I got out and Terry decided to get in. After drying out for a few minutes, I opened the window to let in the cool night air, and then lay down and slept under a thin sheet.
We rose with what seemed like plenty of time, but Terry had to perform his daily exercises first, despite the fact that we were on our way to perform exercise all day every day for 11 days. This routine involved hyperventilating to the point of fainting, followed by a flurry of push ups, and a cold shower.
Breakfast was a feast of every breakfast food imaginable. Unfortunately, I could only eat so much. Terry had been assuring me that we had lots of time, but by the time we finished eating we were late. We would have to run to catch the train to Geneva.
Go, Dad, he said, start running to the station, I’ll catch up.
While Terry paid the bill, I began running down the road with my backpack bouncing around annoyingly. Walking with it was easy, but running was a different matter. Halfway there, Terry overtook me and was soon way ahead, possibly in the vain hope that I would thus run even faster.
I hurried along and arrived just before the train, while Terry was at the machine buying the tickets. We hopped on the train just in time, and went back to Geneva to catch a bus to Chamonix. Luckily we’d made our mistake the night before, so we were reasonably sure that we were indeed going to Geneva, not CERN.
All of this booking of tickets, and whatever else we needed to do or know, was accomplished with Terry’s phone. Travel, and perhaps life itself in Europe, is nigh on impossible without a smart phone, and I didn’t have one. Fortunately, Terry did, and he was a master of it. His degree in computer science came in handy, too.
There was no bus station, per se. We were to meet the bus to Chamonix at some square at some time, where presumably all would become apparent. We arrived at the appointed place, an open space with no signs, no building, no waiting room, no shelter, no toilet and no ticket booth. This was a new kind of bus entirely.
The bus arrived and people were hanging around. There was nothing to indicate what was going on, but everyone had booked their travel by phone and they were there, like us, waiting to see what happened, and following instructions from the phone. There wasn’t a sign on the bus to indicate Chamonix, but it was the only FlixBus, so we hung around until it appeared that some guy was taking tickets, or virtual tickets. We threw our packs into the luggage bay and got on board. When the bus filled up, a woman got in the driver’s seat and the ticket guy, dressed in street clothes like everyone else, sat on the steps beside her and started instructing her in Italian. The bus was going to Chamonix, and then under Mont Blanc and on to Bologna.
By the looks of the cockpit, the ultra modern Mercedes Benz bus could probably have driven itself. Nevertheless, the pilot was constantly directing the driver. I couldn’t understand what he said, but it was clear he was there to help her, since she didn’t seem to know where to go. He told her which lane to take, and how far left and right to be as we approached intersections and turns. Within minutes we were out of Geneva and in the country. Then, within a few kilometres, we pulled in for inspection at the border with France.
The French police came aboard and collected all passports. We waited for about 30 minutes before they returned, handed the passports over and removed two people. No explanation of course, and we pulled out for Chamonix. It was raining and misty, but after an hour or so we saw the mountains. Signs began to announce Chamonix. Snow covered peaks appeared out the front window. Exiting the highway, we wove our way down some narrow lanes and came to a stop in the heart of Chamonix.
Tourism was out of the question. We had come to go around Mont Blanc, even if we couldn’t see it in the fog. Unlike Saussure, we had the benefit of several centuries of trail making, and lots of signposts. What we didn’t have was a map. I went into the bus station to inquire as to the whereabouts of a book store. Down the street a few blocks, I was told.
Meanwhile, the bus to Les Houches was leaving in 15 minutes, and we wanted to be on it. We didn’t know, nor could we figure out from the posted schedule if there was another, or if this was the only bus all day.
We had no time to waste debating or asking questions to the ticket agent, who informed me brusquely that she was too busy to speak to me further at the moment, since she was serving customers. How could I explain to her that we had mere minutes to solve a critical problem of the lack of a map, and we couldn’t miss the bus if indeed it was the sole means of transport to Les Houches today? Once again I was forced to run with my pack into the centre of Chamonix, dodging people, and looking for a book store. Naturally we ran too far, wasting precious minutes.
Stop, I said, if we keep going, we’ll miss the bus – we have to go back. One block back, we saw the store we were looking for. All we needed was to find the map section. I was checking my watch as precious minutes ticked by. We found the maps and a pile of guidebooks, too. I grabbed a map while Terry looked at guidebooks. There were a few choices but no time to compare.
Just take any one, I said, we have to go.
Terry paid for the map and book, while I went outside and checked my watch again. Five minutes till the bus left. Back we ran, arriving right at departure time. No bus yet. Great, at least we didn’t miss it. Meanwhile, all this rushing about was annoying me, since the purpose of this adventure was to relax and get away from the pressures of daily life. Just stay cool, I kept telling myself, soon we won’t have anything in our way, and we’ll be off on the big walk.
About ten minutes later a bus pulled up. The driver changed the sign and it said Les Houches. This was it. The doors opened and we piled on with a few others, all with packs. Minutes later we were off. Weaving down a country road we watched for signs, since we had no idea which stop was the right one, or what we were looking for. Les Houches, said the first sign, and then came another. We gathered there were a few stops in Les Houches. We watched the other passengers for clues: if lost, follow someone who’s not.
Looking out the window, I suddenly had a strong sense that this was the place. I looked at Terry and he nodded. If wrong, at least we were in Les Houches, and might have to walk a ways. What did that matter now when we were setting out on a 170 kilometre hike? Suddenly everyone else with a pack stood up to get off. We were at the right place. Across the street we saw the cable car station, and some hikers setting off up on the hillside behind it. Immediately, our cares vanished. We were practically on the trail.
The time was 11.30 am, and we were facing a 6 hour hike to the refuge. Looking for some food, we walked into a small shop. There we beheld a selection of cheese, sausage and bread that would be considered exclusive in Canada. I imagined spending a day in Les Houches, just so I could eat my way through everything in the shop. We bought sandwiches, piece of cheese, and three sausages; blueberry, truffle and one I forgot! Each proved to be a masterpiece of sausage making.
In came a couple of young hikers who were also starting on the TMB and picking up supplies. They didn’t have a map. Too bad I figured; they’re just going to have to make do without. The fellow wandered off while his girlfriend looked at cheese. He was back in three minutes with a map, the same one we had to run into Chamonix for in a panic. They had one left, he said.
Now we had to make the first serious decision of the hike. Considering the time of day and the stated length of the stage before us, should we climb 800 metres to the top of the pass, or go up by cable car? I voted cable car, and Terry agreed. We wandered across the street to the cable car station, which loomed high above us like a huge barn. The place looked deserted, but inside the big main door we saw a woman sitting in a ticket booth. Two tickets please, we asked, and handed over a few Euros.
When does it leave, I inquired?
Soon, she said, just go up and wait.
We climbed three high flights of steps to a large open air platform, to find ourselves alone with a big empty cable car. It reminded me of how things looked when I was a kid; made to last. Several minutes passed before the ticket girl appeared. She sat down at the controls, which resembled an old street car, and off we went, silently rising so fast it was breathtaking. In a moment we were in the tree tops, hundreds of feet above the station and steep bare mountain slope below. Entering the clouds, we swung out over a giant pylon and rocked back like a pendulum. Up and up we zoomed, and then another swing over a pylon. Several more and we slowly docked at the top. Total journey about 7 minutes – just enough time to have a short pleasant chat with the driver. We were up on top of the Col de Voza, having just cut several hours from our walking time.
The moment had arrived; soon we would be stepping out of civilization onto the most famous trail in all of Europe. There on the open hilltop, we saw a shack with signs that indicated food. Inside we discovered a small crowd chatting away, drinking coffee and chowing down on sandwiches. We had a snack and a drink, then returned to the cool mist to find the trail. Looking west across the wide open hillside we saw a large ski lodge, and just down the slope a few metres stood a train on the tracks of the Mt. Blanc cog railway We crossed the tracks, the train pulled out, and a minute later we entered the woods.
The Journey Begins
The time was just after one o’clock, and we were officially hiking on the TMB. We noted our first TMB marker attached to a wood post. At 1800 metres above sea level, the temperature was 8 degrees and very damp. We entered a forest and I felt right at home. There were fir trees everywhere, and if I didn’t know better, I could have been fooled into thinking I was home on Vancouver Island. It began to rain lightly, so I reached into my pack and extracted two thin plastic rain ponchos. We struggled to get them on as they flapped around in the slightest breeze. They covered our packs however, a necessity since we had no pack covers.
I took out my trekking pole, which was immediately useful. Up and down we went for a while, enjoying the forest, and the sound of rushing water. We couldn’t see any streams in the mist, but heard torrents constantly. After a while we came to our first Alpage, an alpine meadow, where we began to hear bells.
A gate announced a herd of cows, and a sign cautioned that one should not befriend cows, lest they follow you. I wondered if this was a subtle way to say ‘leave the cows alone’.
It was rare to get so close to cows. Usually I saw them in a field while driving by at high speed. But here we were almost forced to make their acquaintance. Terry had to step around one huge beast that lay halfway across the trail chewing its cud. It had a large bell, like all the cows, and as it chewed the bell rang nonstop. Terry reached out to one cow, which licked his hand like a puppy. Despite this, the cow didn’t move or attempt to follow us, for which we were grateful. Then the Alpage was behind us, and we passed through the gate on the far side, taking care to latch it as instructed.
Things began to get steep, as we started snaking our way up and around plentiful rock outcrops. I was beginning to work hard, but my legs were holding up fine. Having entered the zone of non-thinking, I was getting into the rhythm of hiking. Then we heard a raging river ahead, and soon came to a narrow cable suspension bridge that crossed a rocky ravine. A thundering torrent of water sent clouds of mist into the air.
After being alone for several hours, abruptly we were amongst a small crowd. We paused and watched while some hikers crossed. Then there was a break in traffic, and one at a time we crossed. I had to hang on to the wires as the bridge swung and bounced me around with every step. People were waiting at both ends, so I didn’t feel like being a boor and stopping halfway. Once safely over, I snapped a quick photo of the bridge in the mist, then we walked on.
We weren’t halfway to the day’s end, when it started getting tough. Climbing steadily through meadows, we were mounting a pass that was far off above and out of sight. We walked upwards in sweeping curves that passed through bare slopes covered in lush greenery; the colours made intense by the diffused light of a pure white sky. Surrounded by low alpine shrubs and carpets of tiny purple flowers, we passed the ruins of ancient collapsed stone huts. It was a long hard climb and I started to remember how that felt. Just keep moving, I told myself. This is normal! Mist rolled in and out, and at times we could see ahead, but then clouds came in to obscure everything. High up, we passed a herd of sheep, but only a few had bells. Sheep don’t wander off alone; they follow like sheep.
After trudging for hours, we arrived at the Col de Tricot. It was a relief, and I had that feeling of accomplishment that comes after working hard. At the Col we found a few hikers having a break and we rested, looking back and over the edge to where we had to go next. It was a steep climb up, but that was a cinch compared to what we saw on the other side. The trail plunged down a precipice.
From 1800 metres at The Col de Voza where we started, we were now at 2120. We had climbed a mere 320 metres, only a third of a typical day, but already the height of the tallest buildings on earth. I looked at the people hanging out at the col and thought; we are a fortunate group! There were no disturbances, just the silence of the hills and a bit of wind. No evidence of the rest of the world, which to us didn’t exist; only the mountain and the mist, a few sheep, and a herd of cows.
Reminding us this idyllic spot was not always so peaceful or harmless, above us to the left on a pillar of rock stood a cross appearing and disappearing like a spectre as the clouds blew past. It seemed to say – do not forget that death lurks here. Perhaps some poor soul was climbing up above, or maybe a snowstorm or avalanche caught some winter traveller in its grip. If there was a plaque, we didn’t see it; the cross was inaccessible, a mute testament to tragedy.
The crowd dispersed and we started the descent. Soon I realized I had made a grave error in bringing only one trekking pole. The trail was steep and slick with mud and loose rocks. One slip and you could find yourself bouncing downhill like a big brittle egg, landing on rocks waiting to smash you to pulp. This was a completely different trail, and very dangerous. Seeing how slowly and meticulously I was picking my way down, Terry insisted I take one of his poles. Swallowing my pride, I accepted with gratitude, vowing to buy a pole at the first opportunity. Before I could say this, Terry said we were going to get another pole at the next opportunity. When at last we got down off the treacherous slope, we still had hours to go, but the going seemed like cake. I was relieved it was over, and my knees were even happier. By my estimate we would get to the refuge by dinner time.
We had no idea when that was exactly, but hoped it was not too early, since we were not moving fast. Our walking time was already much longer than what the posted signs indicated. Now I was confident that the decision to go up the cable car was absolutely brilliant.
At 5.30 pm we came to the Refuge des Miages, where I wished we were staying. It was the perfect time to quit and enjoy a cold beer, as many hikers were doing. Our refuge wasn’t far however, only 30 minutes according to the signs, and the woman who advised us where the trail continued. Having been hard at it for four and a half hours, I had already done a far tougher hike than anything I experienced in my months of training.
Confident that our destination was within short range, we crossed some boards over a little stream and saw a wide path to the right. Seeing no other trails, and assuming we were on the right track, I took the lead and off we went. It was easy going down the road, and we descended through the forest making great time, spurred on by thoughts of a rest and the first refuge of the trip. I was thinking we might even beat the posted time. Happy at having such an easy hike, we didn’t notice we’d been going downhill for 45 minutes, until Terry reminded me that we should have arrived by then. Coming out of my reverie, suddenly I got a sinking feeling. Just as he said this, we came to a sign at a junction where a road led steeply up to the left. The sign read: Auberge le Truc 1 hr 15. Another sign pointed back the way we had just come: Auberge le Truc 1 hr 20.
Let’s go back to Miages, said Terry.
No, I said, this way is 5 minutes less.
But we don’t know if that is right, Terry noted, logically. If we return to Miages at least we’ll be on a known trail.
I don’t want to return to Miages, I said. If I see the woman who told us the trail was just across that damned bridge, I might lose my temper.
This is when Terry revealed that he saw a path on the other side of the bridge, where we took the wrong turn, but didn’t mention it.
Why didn’t you say something, I asked? trying not to show how pissed off I was.
I thought you knew the way, said he.
Instantly I knew I’d made a serious error in assuming that since Terry had planned the trip, he would take care of leading us. But I was the one with more experience, much more. I should have been scrutinizing the map and the guidebook. Nothing had changed; I was still the Dad and he was my son. I resolved that from there on, I would take care of Terry. Ironically, I realized that he was undoubtedly thinking the same, but vice versa.
We were 1000 feet below where we had to be, and facing a long uphill slog until dinner, which we now knew we had surely missed. I was worried that after a certain hour they might well give our beds to someone else. Then what? Had I been alone, I might have sat down and hung my head for a while, but there was no time to wallow in self pity. We didn’t have much to say for the hour and a half that we slogged back up the road through the forest.
At last we heard tinkling bells, and saw a gap in the trees that soon opened into a vast mountain meadow. There across the fields, we saw a group of low farm buildings against a backdrop of grey rock faces that disappeared into low hanging clouds. By this time I was preparing to sleep in a barn, if it came to that.
Cow bells can sometimes be heard for miles, depending on terrain. If you are in a forest and the cows are over a hill, you begin to hear them within a few hundred metres. If however, they are way down in a valley and you are coming along high on a ridge, you will see them first as little black dots. Then, slowly you will begin to hear the faint telltale tinkling that eventually becomes the roar of cowbells ringing incessantly, day and night. If I were a cow, I’d want to wander on the prairies getting scratched by thorn bushes and kicking up dust and tumbleweeds; anything but be a poor Alpine cow with a bell on my neck that never, ever ceases to ring.
Within minutes we were knocking at the door of Auberge le Truc. The door opened and a woman came out.
Hello, I said merrily, we may be late, but we’re here at last.
Through the window we could see a crowd of people lingering over dinner. The lady had no idea who we were, so I added; we have a reservation. She nodded and went inside, returning in seconds with a clipboard.
Your reservation is for tomorrow, she said.
Fearing the worst, I looked at Terry and said; didn’t you check the dates?
You made the spreadsheet with the itinerary, Terry replied.
You decided we were to leave on Friday, I retorted. Do you mean to say you didn’t know what day we were supposed to start?
Realizing this reckoning of responsibilities would solve nothing, I turned to the woman and asked the only important question; do you have any beds left?
Just a moment, she said, going back inside.
Momentarily a man came out. I didn’t know if he was taking us to the barn where we’d have to sleep on the hay, but at least he wasn’t sending us away. We walked around the corner to the back side of the building and entered the dormitory, a dim room packed full of double bunks, most of which were covered with packs. He pointed out two top bunks.
You can have these, he said. Drop your gear and come back to the dining room right away.
Relieved that we would be sleeping indoors, I hardly cared if we got food or not. At least we had sausages to tide us over until breakfast. They seated us beside a pair of Australians, and the woman who we first spoke with came over and said she’d make something up. More grateful by the minute, we didn’t care what they served. Out came a big bowl of soup. We ate it up, thinking this was great, they made us soup. Along with the soup came a basket of delicious bread, which we ate and wiped our bowls with. We were also enjoying a couple of Mont Blanc Brewery beers.
I felt this was quite satisfactory, but then out came a huge omelette and a big bowl of macaroni. To our further surprise, the waitress then brought a plate of cheese made from the milk of the cows out in the meadow. I could not eat another bite; but Terry, with his boundless appetite, finished off every last bit of macaroni. When she finally brought out crème caramel custards, I made an exception and ate that, too.
Thankfully, there was no more. By then it was after 9 pm, and everyone had filtered off to hit the sack in the dark dormitory. This was a primitive refuge, and what electric power they had was not wasted on the dormitory or for heating water for washing or showers. The dining room furniture was made of logs and live edge slabs of lumber. After dinner we chatted with the Australians for a while. They lived in Beirut, but were here for a vacation. The fame of the TMB traveled far.
I got out my journal to record the events of the day. By the time I was done, we were the last ones left in the dining room, and should have been in bed and asleep like everyone else. We crept into the dark dorm, silent but for deep heaves from sleeping hikers. Climbing the narrow wooden ladder to our bunks, we had just enough headroom to sit up, and proceeded to disturb everyone by rustling through our bags. My calf muscles began to ache terribly, so I decided to find my super strength Voltaren ointment. Donning my headlamp, I delved into my bag, got my hands on the container, and attempted to smear it onto my legs. It had turned into a thick waxy paste, so I gave up and lay down.
With twenty people exhaling into a small room, the mild weather, and the utter lack of ventilation, all that warm moist air rose to where we were lying. Soon I was as hot as blazes under the thick cover. This was getting to be a trend. I had to go, but I couldn’t face getting up and crawling to the end of the bunk, then down the tiny and narrow excuse for a ladder to go outside, so I turned over and looked at the pale glow from the little window beside me. Although not exactly comfortable, I felt very much at peace with the world. All the mistakes and screw ups of the day were forgotten. Eventually sleep overcame all my woes.
The next morning at 7 am, people were up and filing over to the sole outhouse off in a field. Terry waited in line, but I snuck around the back of a little shed to relieve myself, admiring the stupendous view. The day before we’d seen only mist, but the morning dawned clear, revealing the awesome surroundings. Behind us, looming ominously close, rose the monstrous ice capped Dome de Miage. Rumbling noises came from its slopes, where rocks were continually plunging from the heights. All around, huge rocky peaks thrust skyward. Down an immense gulf below, the vista stretched away in row upon row of dim distant peaks, all crowned with snow.
We informed our host that we’d be back to stay the night, as per our reservation. As if to confirm our decision, she said that it would be a nightmare to try to rebook all the refuges, assuming it was even possible. Leaving our gear on the choicest bunks, we trundled off down the very road we had trudged up the night before, as the day turned ever more gorgeous. Within two hours we arrived in Les Contamines, a village lining a narrow road beside a small river. Terry now had my cold, complete with headache and sore throat, while I had more or less recovered. We went first to the pharmacy, where the pharmacist dispensed Terry medicine with names we didn’t recognize, and I bought a new tube of Voltaren.
Les Contamines being a ski village, we found a sports shop filled with camping gear. Terry decided he didn’t like his flimsy plastic poncho, so he bought a heavier nylon one, and I acquired an extra trekking pole. Down the street beside the river was a restaurant that opened at noon. We sat on the sunny terrace and ordered Cimoise beer, savouring our drinks and sucking up the sun and sounds of the babbling river, in no hurry to do anything but enjoy every minute of the glorious day.
Precisely at noon, the waitress took our orders for the daily special; red bean salad. Terry was charging his phone, so after lunch we hung out and had more beer; then I went for a walk to the village to find everything but the food market closed for midday. I bought a 4 colour ballpoint pen to use in my journal. Bic, of course, we were in France!
On the wall outside the pharmacy was a condom vending machine. How practical. What could be more urgently needed when the stores were all closed? Once the phone was fully operational, I fired off an email and we walked out of town along the TMB. Les Contamines was a lovely place indeed, especially so because there were no ugly buildings. Everything conformed to the local vernacular. I was grateful there were no ‘modern’ buildings in Les Contamines. Perfection needed no improvement.
An old church towered above the main street. The intermittent ringing of the bell added a sweet flavour to the peaceful vibe. The world needs more bells. We crossed a bridge over a stream and came to a bench, where we paused and rested. Terry put his head on my shoulder, and fell asleep. Some hikers passed by, bound for the next refuge up the trail. We rested for a half hour before rousing ourselves for the return trip up the mountain.
On the hillside at the edge of town stood a stone tub the size of a bath, into which a continuous stream of fresh spring water splashed. The sign said ‘eau potable’, and it was heavenly. No drink compares to Alpine spring water. An hour and 45 minutes later, we were back at Auberge le Truc. Although it was late afternoon, there was still warm sunshine on the meadows.
We sat at one of the picnic tables, and shortly a girl came out from the kitchen to ask if we wanted to order. I thought how wonderful it would be to live in Les Contamines and be able to hike to this beautiful Alpage with a herd of lovely cows, surrounded by sublime mountain scenery, and order food and beer while sitting in the sun at a picnic table. Could one ever be blasé about this? Sadly, I’ll never know.
I ordered a Mont Blanc Rousse, the red ale, and Terry got Verte, a green beer with Artemisia infused in the brew. Artemisia is a common plant thereabouts, and grows wild in the Savoie region. Commonly called wormwood, it is also the basis for Absinthe. This is a local tradition, which includes the liquor called Genepi.
A whole new crowd arrived for dinner, the same meal we had the night before. Nevertheless, we enjoyed it. Off in the corner was a group of Chinese folks and a Spanish woman. We overheard her asking them why Asiatics liked cameras so much. There was an awkward laugh.
After dinner we went out to admire the sunset, and found a pair of young Israeli men cooking dinner on a camp stove. We had seen them arrive shortly before dinner and ask where the showers were. I almost had to laugh at their reaction, which was little short of disgust. They acted as if they were entitled to showers! Later they disappeared to the meadow up the road to join the tent campers.
Earlier, we had selected two lower bunks, and by bedtime we had them set up and ready to flop into. My preparations included laying out my necessities; headlamp, earplugs, toothbrush and Voltaren. Night two was much more comfortable near the floor; cooler and not so humid.
In the middle of the night I went outside and gazed at the countless stars. What a magical feeling to be enveloped by starlight, sense the dark brooding presence of the mountains and hear the gentle clinking of cow bells!
I hope you enjoyed this excerpt. The rest of the book can be purchased here.