My hands white knuckled around my hiking poles, the right one gripped at about half way along its length, the left I firmly palmed the top of the ergonomic handle, compensating for the severe slope we traversed across. Each step was excruciatingly methodical on the exposed section as we focused on our destination, somewhere beyond a ridge in the distance. My wife, Bec, took the lead for two reasons: One, was that she had hiking boots on while mine, having become soaked during a river crossing earlier that day, were tied to the back of my pack leaving me with only my worn-out running shoes to negotiate the snow pack. Two: I’m scared of heights and was shitting myself. Bec led the charge by sampling the snow pack ahead, pressing her foot down into the soft snow without transferring her weight. This is a technique we developed days earlier when we first hit the deep, wet snow of early summer alpine passes. You create steps.
We were on the Tour du Mont Blanc, or TMB. A 170-kilometers long circuit through three countries in Western Europe, that makes just about every list of best hikes in the world. It was a trip of a lifetime we never expected to be able to do but by some fortune, we found ourselves there after traveling from Paris by train. The trail navigates through the massive valleys that surround the Mont Blanc massif- the mountain chain consisting of many of the tallest peaks in Europe, and at the center the tallest of them all, Mont Blanc.
Most people hiking the TMB set off out of Chamonix in France, which is the biggest town on the hike and from there the majority then head east towards Switzerland, but the train station in Chamonix was under construction. This is how we found ourselves setting off from an Airbnb in St Gervais- also in France, heading south towards Italy. It was our plan to try to tackle what I thought would be the most difficult days first, getting them out of the way for a more relaxing finish. It would turn out my biggest challenge would occur nearly half way though the hike.
Our days became rhythms we fell into, beginning with a hearty breakfast (most days) and strong coffee at our refuge where we would then depart begrudgingly, and begin an accent. Sleeping at around 1000 meters above sea level, we would follow the trail to a col, which is a pass on a ridgeline. Our two first days hiking above the snow line had passes at 2400 and 2500 meters respectively. After hitting those highs, we would descend down the other side of the col- occasionally in another country, such as the Col de la Seigne, when we left France and entered Italy across an unmanned boarder. No stamps for the passport here. It is a wild place with only a tall cairn of rocks and a basic wooden signpost indicating the historical line between two nations. It is possibly even that that was the very pass Hannibal took to cross the Alps in 218 BC, with elephants and an army, he marched from Carthage in order to concur Rome.
Approaching our refuge in Les Chapieux for our last night in France, after our first day of snow, we were presented with an uncanny alpine cliché- ringing cow bells. A herd of cows took to grazing our path and with the refuge clearly in sight, only perhaps one hundred meters away. We were far too exhausted to go around the large herd and began weaving our way through the innocuous bovines, noting a couple of bulls, we were careful to steer clear of, while still keeping a watchful eye on. Cow bells in this region of Europe were a famous tradition we discovered. Mounted to massive leather collars the cows wore around their necks, each bell was hand crafted locally and featured impressive designs. They came in all sizes and some were enormous for the biggest bulls hanging from equally decorative collars the size of a weightlifter’s belt. Successfully negotiating the heard we were greeted by a charming French host that offered wonderful conversation, a fantastic meal, and glorious beer.
We fell asleep that evening and woke the next morning to the ringing cow bells of the French Alps. Before departing Chamonix on our last day we purchased a small cow bell as a souvenir that would hang on our front door in Perth, reminding us of our hike every time the door opens.
Chamonix lies at the heart of French alpine culture. Mountain gear clad enthusiasts strolled up the main pedestrian street that was lined with specialized equipment shops. Between beers, I picked up new pole tips to replace mine that had been worn smooth. Not something you can get off the shelf back in Perth. I eyed bundles of climbing rope slung over shoulders, and rock-climbing helmets featuring brands and logos I’d never heard of. This was a world of adventurers. Our Airbnb host was an ultra-runner and admitted it was pretty crazy sport. Bec and I passed many ultra-runners on the TMB and every time we shake our heads and roll our eyes that said “that’s nuts.”
Each day followed our routine of hiking up and down cols, negotiating the plethora of trails through valleys, and wandering the streets of Chamonix, Les Praz, and Les Houches. On the Petit Balcon we were pleasantly surprised by a quaint restaurant nestled amongst the trees on the steep valley wall where we had a refreshing drink on the deck overlooking the valley. Silent gondolas appeared from nowhere, shut down after the ski season, leading to refuges not yet open for the hiking season. From the Grand Balcon we had unobstructed views of the impressive Mont Blanc massif, while we hiked over rock scree the size of shopping carts.
More hikers appeared on trails near Chamonix given their easy accessibility, making it all the more special our earlier attempt on the TMB without anyone else around. Spotting ibex and getting close to marmots that I expect would be less likely to make an appearance when the trail is busy. We came across only a handful of hikers in that first seven days, and over one hundred kilometers. At the start of our journey we had no idea what to expect, and were in decent enough shape we thought for what we were about to attempt. By the time we crossed into Italy we were in excellent physical condition, and knew pretty well what we were doing. Bec was happy she was able to get to the top of every hill and I was thrilled my knees got me down.
Hiking, for us, is about challenge and pleasure. Mixed in with the pain and strain are moments of wonder and excitement. We are already planning similar hikes in the alps. Perhaps the Chamonix to Zermatt, from the base of Mont Blanc to the base of the Matterhorn? Or even a section of the GR5? Maybe it’s the languages that we so much fun trying to learn, or perhaps the amazing food, that makes us want to return to the region? Even the novel Cuckoo bird call that rang out throughout our time in the wooded alps, that helped make it special? A call unique to the region that can only make you smile when you hear it. Either way we seem to be drawn back there. Where the hills were alive.