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Tour du Mont Blanc (Part 1)

EPIC trip!

semi-overcast 70 °F

How to begin telling you about my greatest and most unique adventure of this trip. Though it only lasted 9 days, it felt like much longer. I suppose the beginning is a good place to start - While I was at home, taking a break from my vagabonding for a month, I was doing a fair bit of reflecting on my trip so far. What I liked and thought I did well, what I didn’t do so well, and things that I hadn’t yet tried or necessarily considered. One thing that I knew is that I loved to travel, and a wise person (or company) once said “Do what you like, like what you do”. But how can you make a living traveling? There are travel writers and photographers, sure, but I’m not sure if many other people outside of you weirdos reading this would be overly interested in my writing. I will graciously accept any wealthy patrons who want to contribute to my travel fund and keep me on the road :)

But then I thought about tours and tour guides. People do get paid helping others explore new cultures and the wonders of the world. Now, I’ve always been somewhat against tours for myself, prefering instead to stumble my own way thru things, but as I started to look into it, I did see some definite benefits. I knew, however, that I wasn’t the type to enjoy big tour buses with each minute mapped out to maximize your sight-seeing. I needed a different kind of tour. A blogger I’ve been reading named http://www.nomadicmatt.com/ had had some good things to say about a company called G Adventures, so I decided to start there. These guys very conveniently break their tours up into different styles - Comfort for those with lots of money and want to stay in fancy accomodations, Classic, Marine boat tours, and the 2 types that appealed most to me: Active and Yolo. I laughed at the Yolo type, designed I think for younger types that want to get the most out of their travel and also plan in some late nights for partying. Reasonably priced, I considered a number of tours in Europe, but really one stuck out to me right away - Tour du Mont Blanc. A 10 day tour hiking thru 3 countries in the Alps, with a 5 out of 5 physicallity rating. I booked it and looked forward to 10 days where I didn’t have to figure out my travel, accommodation, and activities by myself.

The tour set out from Chamonix, a beautiful little mountain town in the east of France. Best known as a skiing Mecca (the town balloons from 10,000 to 100,000 during peak winter season), the town reminded me a lot of Vale, Colorado where I had gone a few months ago. Outdoor adventure equipment stores on every corner and gorgeous views every direction you looked.

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The night I arrived in Chamonix, the group met at 5 to meet our guide, each other, and do last minute preparations. If I’m being totally honest, I was initially a little disappointed. Knowing that I had no idea what to expect, I nonetheless had expected the group to be a bit younger and fitter than it was. I was thinking that I, in good general shape but having done no specific training for this, would be in the middle of the pack in terms of fitness and hiking experience, but after going around, it seemed that I was pretty close to the top. Even our guide, Gary, was definitely much older than I had expected. I’d like to note before going much further that these were my honest initial reactions, but all of you on the trip know that our group was awesome :)

We’ll get back around to the group makeup later, but the other significant part of that opening meeting was Gary, our guide, basically telling us how everything we brought was wrong or not enough. I had looked carefully at the suggested gear list ahead of time, but seeing gloves, snowpants, etc, on it, I thought that they had given us a more general list that would cover what you might need in any season. Surely in June/July when I was doing this, we wouldn’t need such cold weather gear. WRAWNG! Gary tells us about the trip that he just concluded in which while descending on the last day he put one BOTH sets of gloves he brought.

Sufficiently scared, we all go to the 1 reasonably priced gear shop after the meeting to rectify these mistakes. I go with Gary’s recommendations on most things, but also decide that some of the suggestions don’t apply to me, or at least don’t apply to me when I’m on such a tight budget. Waterproof rucksack bag to keep clothes etc dry in the rain - THANK GOODNESS I picked that up. Waterproof pants - got it and very glad I did. Waterproof gloves - I thought these were a wasted 10 euros until the last day when Gary was proved right again. 2nd pair of gloves or waterproof hiking boots - NAH I’ll manage. We had dinner together and went to bed early, anxious to begin the following morning.

That first day seems so long ago, when we were all so young and inexperienced. We had beautiful, cloudless weather and took tons of pictures at every opportunity, not understanding that the views that were to come on subsequent days would blow these out of the water. We learned what a “Col” was, a term we would all be very familiar with by the end. A Col is the French term for a saddle point between 2 peaks. This tour circled Mont Blanc but only had 1 summit so most of our days were going from 1 col to another.

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Incredible view right off the bat
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First of many panoramas
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The view from our first col (Ah we were so young!)

The most interesting part of that first day was beginning to get to know the group that I would be spending the next 8 days with. There were 10 of us in all, plus Gary, and one great thing was that almost everyone was there as a solo traveller, making everyone very open and eager to socialize with others. Jen, Kim, and Anneke were the only exception as 3 Canadian women who had been friends from college, and they were among the most social of the groups. One of our members noted that our group was much more social than other tours she had been on, and that was largely due to the fact that we didn’t have any couples running off by themselves. In all we had 2 Aussies, 7 Canadians, and me as the sole American.

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The whole gang just as we set off!

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Crossing the "treacherous" bridge
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As something that seems to happen naturally, the younger group of us quickly fell in with each other and became tight. I was the oldest of the 4 of us forming the “Young Ones”, or the “Young Guns” or the “Younger Ones” as we finally compromised on. We also had a tall, smiling Aussie named Chris who was at the tail end of 6-month working in Finances in England, and 2 girls either fresh out of college or to be soon: Vicky, a Canadian who just graduated from Georgetown, and Ellie, another Aussie finishing up her Occupational Therapy degree. Ellie and Vicky I think decided to be BFFs from the moment they met each other in Chamonix, and Chris and I got pretty tight as we always roomed together when we had individual rooms. Pictures of the 4 of us will pop up here and there.

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Together, this group resulted in the largest benefit for me in doing this as a guided tour. With enough research, I could have hiked the trail solo and figured out all of the accommodations and such as others that we met along the way did, but having a group sticking together for 9 days to hike with, create memories with, and actually form a lasting bond with was such a welcome change to how my travels had been up to then. Many of us are using the wonders of FaceBook to continue talking thru our journeys, and I hope that many of them will be reading this post, reliving these amazing memories with me.

Back to the trail, Day 1 ended with a steep, challenging hike uphill to our refuge for the night. With 45 minutes to the finish line, we started to break off into smaller groups based on our speeds. Me, Chris, and Jordan formed the fast group for the duration of the tour and all seemed to enjoy pushing our pace to really challenge ourselves. As we put together a few days later, was a little coincidental as Jordan, who was in fantastic shape at 51, was the exact sum of my and Chris’ ages: 26 + 25. Ahead of the group and intrigued by a nice waterfall overlook, we did a bit of off-trail exploring and got right down to the water. Pretty much all of the water we came across during this tour was glacier runoff which means that it was delicious to drink, a beautiful blue-green color, and COLD.

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The first real town we passed thru

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OFF TRAIL!

After that bit of exploring, we double-timed it up to the refuge, but still got beat out by the next group of Vicky, Ellie, and Jackie, a Canadian teaching in China who loves hiking. When the trip was winding down, we went back and all agreed that the refuge this first night, known as Nant Borrant, was the weakest of the trip, but at the time, I was blown away.

I’ve done my fair share of outdoor backpacking in the US, and I have loved it. Taking on a trail and carrying everything you need on your back, its extremely empowering. But having these refuges changes the game completely. While normally backpacking, your hike for the day ends with relief, a welcome chance to unload your very heavy pack… and then setting up the tent, cooking your freeze-dried dinner, and generally making camp. With these refuges, the day ends with relief, a chance to unload your much lighter pack, a warm bed freshly made, a shower, a hot 3 course meal, and a beer. Why the lighter pack? Tent, sleeping bag, mattress pad, cook stove, and almost all your food. All these things can be dropped from your pack on this hiking route. Any of you out there who has ever done a backpacking trip, much less an 8 day one, should be salivating at the thought. Oh, and did I mention that you never have to pump or purify your water because they always have natural glacier-cold water coming out of these nice spouts?
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The meals were always hearty - meat + potatoes type things, probably cheese and bread for the appetizers, and either some more cheese or fruit tarts for dinner. The food was always good, always with lots of cheese and bread, and always with the minimum of vegetables. Once we figured this out, fruits and veggies made up most of what we tried to pick up when we passed stores.

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Another great tradition we started that first night was our nightly yoga sessions once we finished hiking. Led by Vicky, with the perfect soothing yoga voice, we often got other hikers to join in, some in jest, some in earnest.

That first night I went out to the relaxing picnic area. After the 20+ km we had hiked, no one else mustered the energy to make the 100 m walk to this area, so I had it all to myself, just engrossed in the natural environment. With the constantly flowing rivers in the background, frequent and irregular animal sounds and light breeze swimming thru the trees, it sounded like an ideal “Sounds of Nature” track that people meditate to. I followed my instincts and just breathed it in until it began to rain. Some cards and an early bedtime concluded the first day of what we all knew would be a truly epic next week.

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This took some impressive balancing + camera timer skillz

Very quickly we settled into a routine. In the morning you’d wake up, pack everything up and head down to breakfast. Breakfast was usually made up mostly of bread, jam, and some cereal. By the end we were dreaming of bacon and eggs in the morning, but we really didn’t have much to complain about. We’d be out by 8 am typically and had anything between 7 and 10 hours of hiking (breaks included) ahead of us. Each day provided new challenges and new views, but the routine stayed the same. The night before Gary would brief us on the next day’s route and forecast, so we could get our layers in order, ready to throw on. I typically hiked in only shorts and a T-shirt, but there definitely days and stretches when I needed to throw on a 2nd layer, or a 3rd. Picking out clothes was pretty simple with a limited wardrobe - 3 full changes of clothes, 2 for walking and 1 for post-shower lounging about the refuges.

Depending on the terrain and altitude changes, we would vary the number of breaks we had, but I did feel like we were walking with hobbits. A typical day would be a nice stop for elevensies (we skipped 2nd breakfast), then a longer lunch break. Lunch would either be a pack lunch prepared by our previous refuge or it we were lucky, might be a hot meal meal at a refuge along the way. One such refuge had some delicious pasta covered in cheese and a HUGE salad with tons of veggies. I’ve never seen a salad make as many mouths water as this did. We’d arrive at our next hostel between 3 and 6, and relive all the incredible happenings of the day. It didn’t take long for us to grow close, and alcohol at the refuges definitely helped in this. Dinner, a look ahead to our next day, and some games before bed and we started the whole thing over again. I’m not sure how this sounds to someone who wasn’t there, but it was simple existence, felt like it was it was it’s whole separate world, and it was magical.

As I said, each day provided different challenges and new things. Day 2 brought us into the elements. While the day at the refuge started out with warm weather and the sun shining, that faded as we climbed up to the col. This col brought us into weather cold enough for me to break out my jacket and newly purchased waterproof pants (thank you Gary). The few kms between the col and our refuge for lunch wasn’t thru any falling snow, but there was plenty of snow and ice on the terrain and lots of fog/clouds to walk thru. When you are over 2300 m above sea level, I’m not sure if walking thru clouds is considered fog or just clouds, but either way, the traverse gave us some new challenges and more great photos.

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Contemplative look before we hit the fog
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Silliness is fun
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And the fog rolls in as everyone brook out their waterproofing gear
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Fog or Cloud?
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L to R - Me, Ellie, Kim, Jen, Anneke, and Vicky
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Did we come all that way?

The lunch there was the fantastic and huge spaghetti and salad that I split with Chris and the highlight for me was spotting an Ibex out one of the windows. Ibex has been my favorite animal in the world ever since I saw https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wdsZz8StyV4 - watch it its worth it. What badass creatures! On the first day, Gary gave us the rundown of the 3 alpine animals that we might be lucky enough to see: the Marmot. the Chamois, and the ibex. The Marmot ended up being cute and fairly common creatures. The Chamois, which I and everyone took to calling the “Sham-Wow”, were elusive and I don’t think any of us spotted one. The ibex was the one that most excited me, and I kept teasing Gary because he kept disappointing me with areas that we were “sure to spot one”, only to walk away unsatisfied. I thought he was yanking my chain again this time, telling me that this refuge had a “magic window” where an ibex was always spotted, but you had to watch for a bit. After 10 minutes of camping out at the window away from the group, playfully cursing Gary under my breath, this beauty sauntered up onto the ridge. Too excited to think properly, I started jumping and waving my arms towards my group across the crowded refuge, hoping to get their attention. After realizing that I looked like a total lunatic to those seated near me, I hurried rushed across the crowded room and summoned them all over to the window. Ellie got a great shot with her incredible zoom, but with my camera the picture is not too impressive, but I was pretty damn happy with the spotting.

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Day 3 may have been my favorite day, it is tough to say, but true to form, new challenges it did bring. As with any group of this size, some people will be able to go at a faster pace than others, and therefore there will always be some that lag a bit behind the rest of the group. Michael, a Canadian now living in NYC, was the unfortunate one bringing up the rear in our group. It is not an easy thing psychologically to be the trailer, but Michael accepted it with a degree of self-deprecation and resolve. Most days, this wasn’t a problem at all for anyone else in the group - we typically used the time to pose for goofy photos in front of the astounding backdrops where we found ourselves. Day 3, however, brought this issue to the forefront.

Day 3 would end in the Italian mountain town of Courmayeur, but it could be by different paths. Gary described it as a hike in which the first 6 hours would be the same for both paths, but at that point most travelers continued on the low route and grabbed a bus into Courmayeur after another mile or two, resulting in one of the easier days for us thus far. Gary liked to take groups up the high route which resulted in another 4 strenuous hours of hiking after the split, but with the reward of some of the best views of the trip. In order to do the high route and still get in at a reasonable hour, Gary insisted that we had to reach the lunch spot by 1, but had doubts whether the full group could do that. At least some of us (me included) REALLY wanted to push thru the high route, so we decided as a group to get up early and do our best to push hard for the lunch spot and from there we could evaluate the weather and figure it out.

Even before the high route alternative, the day was going to prove to be our toughest thus far, with a long distance to cover before lunch and the longest continual climb up to the col that we’ve had so far. As part of the group effort, Chris and I tried to help Michael out as much as possible, taking some of his heavier items which he graciously exchanged for some bought beers later that night. A team effort got us to the col in good time and on pace to make the high route possible. This col also brought us to the France-Italy border which always provided great photo ops.

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We flew thru the descent down to lunch in record time and relaxed in our most picturesque lunch spot of the trip in front of a great waterfall. We even had some time to throw the Frisbee around a bit. After an errant throw by Jordan, Chris made a huge save wading into the swift river and making a stabbing grab at it as it ran by. I never even saw it coming, but Chris somehow managed to save my disc and disaster was averted :)
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After lunch Michael split off heading for the bus while the rest of us pushed up thru the high route. The hour after the fork was likely the steepest climb of the trip, though later days make that statement questionable. Without a doubt, this route gave us the best views of Monte Bianco (Mont Blanc from the Italian side) and with the beautiful blue sky, gave us some of our most postcard-worth shots. These really don't need any captions

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Gary, always our sageful guide, made sure that we hiked to the far side of this high-altitude mountain lake for the classic postcard picture of Mont Blanc.
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The day was nearly over when we reached an outpost at the top of a ski lift where many of us grabbed a beer, a slightly premature celebration for some after a hard-fought day. Gary had teased us indicating that we could take the ski lift down to the town at this point, which most of the girls were counting on. Unfortunately, the ski lift was closed for repairs, devastating news for a few of the people whose knees and feet hadn’t appreciated the last few hours of descent. Kim negotiated with those at the outpost and arranged a ride down for up to 8, but it’d cost some money. Being the macho hiker (but mostly thrifty traveler) I am, I had to turn it down and Gary, Jackie, Chris and I double timed it down and made it only 10 minutes behind the rest of the group to what would be our most comfortable and posh accommodations of the trip.

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This was such a cute and very well-run mountain resort hotel, we all looked forward to some modern comforts. For us young guns, the most important of these was the first WiFi we had had access to thus far, but Jordan also pointed out that here “We can have showers whenever we want!” (Most of the refuges run on generators so will only have hot water for showers at night). Chris and I were initially ambitious about what we would with our rest day (a short 5 hour hike or mountain biking?) and resigned to the fact that we would probably just laze around. We had the most delicious dinner of the trip and stayed up a bit getting drinks at the bar, sitting around the fire pit, and playing with the most adorable puppies you’ve ever seen.

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I’ll finish up this trip on the next episode!

Posted by danza 01:15 Archived in France Tagged hiking canadians alps epic aussies tour_du_mont_blanc

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