Much love to my fellow tour groupies!
07/04/2014 - 07/09/2014
Fun story I left out of my last post - from Day 1:
The biggest disappointment the whole trip for me was unlucky timing - after making it out of group play, USA had made it to the next round in the World Cup, which I had been following closely. After being in civilization for the first 3 nights of this round, we started our tour the day the US was to play Belgium, and it was laughable to think that our remote mountain refuge would have TV or Internet. I honestly considered and discussed with Gary hiking the almost 2 hours to the nearest town to watch it (without my pack? no problem!), but I wasn’t too sure about finding my way back in the dark after the game. I then spent the next 40 hours asking most of the people we ran into if they knew what happened in the game. It wasn’t until a day and a half later that some Belgiums smugly told me how the US played honorably, but couldn’t keep up with the Belgiums
And our journey thru the Alps continues:
Day 4 - Rest day (Courmayeur, Italy)
We all took advantage of our rest day in different ways. Some set out early to explore the very quaint and attractive town of Courmayour while others headed out for Spa Day. The weather turned out to be overcast, which gave Chris and I an easy excuse out of our previous ambitious plans (5 hour hike or mountain biking) and most of the morning/afternoon found Ellie, Vicky, Chris and I just lounging about and fulfilling our long overdue WiFi addiction. This was also my introduction to a proper siesta schedule, which I would come to know better in Spain, and Gary warned us that almost nothing would be open in the town between 11 and 3. At 3 the 4 of us headed out and quite enjoyed the small Italian town, making sure to take advantage of the Italian specialities of cheap cappuccinos, delicious gelato, and a festival of Celtic music (huh?).
Our rest day also happened to be July 4th and as the only American on the trip, I felt that I had to represent! The Canadian threesome of Jen, Kim, and Anneke had rocked out sparkly Canada headgear earlier in the trip for Canada, but as I was not quite as prepared, I had to get a little creative.
As soon as I saw the “American Bar”, it was quite obvious I couldn’t let the 4th pass without getting a shot there, although I did find it funny that no one in the shop knew what I was talking about when I wished them a Happy Independence Day.
My crowning achievement for the day was, after a dedicated search effort, somehow finding the materials needed to make S’mores in the small Italian grocery stores (or close enough to the proper ingredients). After we returned from dinner, it was lightly raining outside, but not to be deterred, we brought the fire pit under an umbrella, got the fire going, and I made sure that the Aussies got their first taste of true American happiness. It was met with overwhelming success. What out Australia - a couple of S’more ambassadors are coming back your way.
Day 5 - Back on the trail
Gary had told us that his two favorite days of the trail were getting to Courmayeur and leaving it, so since our last hiking day had provided such beautiful views, I had high hopes for this day. The sky wasn’t quite as clear as it had been which, while not the best for pictures, does make the hiking a bit cooler and easier. After getting breakfast in the hotel and our bag lunch from a bakery, we set out and started climbing. Since Courmayeur is in a valley, you’ll be going up pretty much any way you try to get out. That worked fine for me as I prefer the uphills to the downhills. Interesting note - almost everyone who has done real hiking figures out pretty quickly that the uphills are better than the downhills. While uphills might be more tiring, the downhills can be hell on your knees and feet. It didn’t take long for everyone to figure this out.
We climbed a couple hours up to a very picturesque refuge overlooking the Courmayeur valley and took a break for elevensies. It was there that I met 3 truly crazy people. They jogged into the refuge just behind us and with all their running swag, I knew right away they were the real deal. I started chatting with them and learned that they were training for an Ultra-marathon up in the Alps, called the North Face Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc. For their training, they were covering about 75 km that day. This number seemed huge until I learned about the race they were training for - 168 km (~104 miles) of rugged terrain with 9600 m of positive ascent over the same mountains that we were laboring over. The race starts on a Friday evening and they were hoping to finish it in 36-40 hours, meaning that they’d be running through 2 nights without sleep. Whenever I start to get a little cocky about my exploits, I always run into some truly crazy people who put me back in my place.
After elevensies the trail again diverges. While most of the people that we talked with at the hostel that night took the easier, lower road, I am really glad that our tour tried to challenge us and didn’t simply bring us thru the easiest and quickest route around Mont Blanc. We took the high road, and the climb continued thru lunch. While we were waiting for people to catch up, we had a little fun with our pictures:
This scenery never gets old
And the panoramas can't be beat
I can't remember who had the idea, but I was so happy everyone was down for it
After the pyramid, the day culminated in the highest point that we would reach on the Tour: 2680 m. Another reason why this route is so popular is because you don’t have to start taking meds for the altitude until you reach about 2800-3000 m, so we were about as close as you’re going to get before then. This summit, in my opinion, provided the single greatest views of any one spot on the trip. We spent a good 40 minutes up on the summit, enjoying the views and waiting as everyone took advantage by snapping their new FaceBook profile pictures. These are a few of my favorites:
Courmayeur is the town you can see at the bottom of the valley
"I'm on top of the world" pose
This is probably one of my favorite pictures I've ever taken or been in. It is really tough to beat
From there, we gradually descended for the rest of the day until we reached the Bonatti Refuge, which we all agreed was our best lodging of the trip (excluding our resort in Courmayeur). It had VERY tight living quarters, and you only got 21 L of hot water per shower (honestly not much at all), but it undoubtedly had the best food and the best views. And when you’re hiking in the Alps, that’s what it is really about. The refuge was named after Walter Bonatti - a legendary explorer who I had never heard about before this trip. He pioneered many of the routes and was the first up many of the summits in the Alps, and that was just his warmup. The refuge was filled with pictures either taken of Bonatti or by Bonatti from all over the world. Wrestling crocodiles in the Amazon, going up sheer rock faces, the guy did it all.
Course 2 out of 3 at Bonatti
The scene from the picnic area outside the refuge
Same mountains in the wonderful morning glow
At a refuge with my last Italian cappuccino
The group relaxing during our elevensies
This was one of our shorter days of hiking, finishing up at our next refuge just before 3 pm. We crossed the Italy - Switzerland border and, true to form, continued to come up with some creative poses. We had started running low on ideas by then, but I came up with my favorite of the trip.
If you don’t know what “Planking” is, just google it
Gary continued to challenge us to see how many people we would get on the border marker at once.
Silly Dual Camera
This ingenious flower pot was at the refuge where we took our last break of the day. I swear these things would sell like hotcakes in the US. After we got a bit of food, a storm started to roll in and rain was threatening. As everyone else got their rain gear on, I just decided to skip the gear and try to outrace the rain. I started double timing it down the road only to have Chris catch up to me within a few minutes, literally running down in his rain gear. We powered thru and beat the rain, earning the first showers at the refuge as well.
That night we stayed in a small Swiss town, much closer to civilization than the refuges up in the mountains. The combination of getting in early and having multiple bars to choose from turned this into our first real drinking night. As much as we tried to get more from our group in on our silly American drinking games, it was just the 4 young’uns ordering beers and getting silly. It does continue to amaze me how far a little drinking can do for bonding with new (or old friends) as we learned much about each other. The rule that all the North Americans had to talk like Australians and vice-versa more or less ruined us as any conversation devolved quickly into laughter.
Oye mate, throw another couple snags on the barbie, right? (snags are sausages)
Sorry for the picture choice, Ellie haha
Day 7 - more racing of rainstorms
Our last full day of hiking As I said before, by now we had the routine down. Up at 7, breakfast, out by 8, 8-10 solid hours of hiking with breaks in between, then relax over a delicious 3 course meal and a beer. Rinse and repeat. It was a simple existence, but I think we all grew to love it. After day 1, many people were exhilarated, but also dead tired and scared about how they would handle the next week. By Day 7, we were all collectively sad about the prospect of departing from the trail and the group that we had spent nearly every hour of the day with. The thought of departing on my own to continue my romp thru the hustle and bustle of Europe was a little sad after this week in the mountains.
Day 7 also brought us our 2nd most intense day of climbing, altitude-wise, with all of it coming before lunch. With the strenuous cardio effort required, uphill climbs exaggerated our varied levels of fitness and hiking endurance, and we tended to spread out a bit more. Because of this, these were also the times that I broke out the headphones and the music helped me power thru. Rocking out to the mashups of White Panda, I tore into the climb, though always trailing Chris, the young Australian who had about 6 inches on me. Just as I emerged from the woods at the top of the climb, I look up to see Chris perched on an overhanging tree stump, like some prophetic character out of Lord of the Rings, just lounging about waiting for that traveler who needed their sage guidance.
I can't remember the character's name from the Hobbit, but that's who he reminded me of
With the sun shining and a great view, Chris and I hung out there for a little while, until Ellie and Vicky caught up to us. From there, it was a quick traverse over to a refuge for lunch. As we sat there enjoying our food and views with each other and fellow hikers, a dark cloud snuck up on us from behind the mountain. Seeing this, Chris, Jordan, and I packed up our gear just as the first raindrops began to fall on us. Hopeful to outrace the storm, we set a quick pace, climbing a little more before we began the long descent down to our final refuge.
I’m not sure if I talked about this before, but any hiker knows that downhills are usually everyone’s least favorite part. While it’s not very tough aerobically, it can be rough on the knees and uses a surprising amount of leg muscles to prevent you, and your hefty pack, from careening down the hill as gravity wants you to. Throughout the week, I tried out different strategies to make downhills easier and specifically to protect my troublesome knees, and I usually found that going faster is better - letting gravity do the work instead of trying to fight it.
I tell you all this to explain why the Day 7 descent was maybe my favorite stretch of actual hiking. Not the best views, not the best weather, but the hiking was fantastic. Initially our speed was to try and outrun the rain, but very soon I no longer cared about the rain coming down around me, and was going fast simply to go fast. I led our threesome and we flew down that hill, finishing a 2.5 hour stretch (according to Gary) in just under an hour and a half. The trail was relatively crowded, meaning we passed maybe a dozen groups on the way down, and flying past these other groups gave me an indescribable childish joy. I did feel bad when I frightened a woman early on who turned to see who was behind her just as I flew by to her right. After that I tried to announce our group with plenty of time to spare, so we didn’t illicit any more frightened screams, haha.
We all greatly enjoyed our descent and did manage to escape the worst of the storm, so our spirits were high when we reached our refuge. Chris tried to convince me to go back up the trail to give the rest of our group encouragement and maybe do some pack muling, but with showers, internet, and beer at the refuge and rain outside, I was having none of that. That night we had a so-so dinner and stayed up with a couple of cute Norwegian girls doing the TMB on their own. Talking with them only solidified my desire to come back in a few years with some friends and do the trail again, though on our own.
Day 8 - Back to Chamonix
We all knew that our last day would be a relatively brief one, finishing up with a bus back to Chamonix after 5 hours of hiking or so, but before we left, Gary let us know that it would be anything but an easy stroll. Steep climbs and descents, no problem - we were used to that. Today we were also supposed to get dangerously close to the snow line. No matter the season, if you get up high enough, it can be snowing and up until now, though we had seen snow on the ground, we were never close enough to the snow line to actually get any solid precipitation. According to Gary, this day would likely be different. The col and the couple kms on either side was also above the tree line, so we wouldn’t have any cover if the weather starts acting up.
Bryan’s internal dialogue: Gary says snow, but Gary seems to be a pessimist regarding the weather, always predicting worse weather than we actually get. Plus, it’s a steep climb up to the col, which always gets you real hot, so I’m sure I’ll be fine in shorts. I’ll heed his advice slightly and actually put on 2 shirts, 1 of them long sleeved.
Yes, I'm wearing shorts in this picture
This plan worked great all the way thru the woods, and I reached the tree line where Gary advised us to put another layer on. Feeling warm and seeing continued climbing ahead, I hesitated, tucked my jacket behind me with easy access, and pushed on. With about a km to the refuge at the col, the snow hit me. And when I say hit me, I mean it. Not only was it snowing up there, but the winds were whipping up to 20 mph (total guess). I found out in the refuge at the top that Vicky had literally been blown over by the wind, to give you some idea. I had weather proof pants, gloves, and a hat in my bag, but the thought of stopping and unpacking it in this wind was unbearable, so I just kept pushing. It was a good 15 minutes before I spotted the refuge and it couldn’t have been more welcome. Cold as we were, Jordan and I approached it cautiously as Gary had warned us about this refuge, tellign us to not eat anything cooked there, don’t plan on using a clean bathroom, and above all, beware of the “Witch of the Col”, the nickname he gave to the woman who ran the refuge. Treating her with caution reminiscent of the Soup Nazi, we made sure to not bring our packs inside and treaded lightly.
The refuge was clutch for me, as I was able to put on my pants, gloves, and hat, and got a great cup of hot chocolate. I don’t think the hot chocolate was actually anything special, but in that snowstorm, it was magical.
The climb down was uneventful. Jordan and I set off together while others were still warming themselves in the refuge and still others hadn’t yet reached it. Donning the proper warm gear, it was actually quite comfortable and after 20-30 minutes, we were out of the snow, and after another 45 minutes, we were down at the bus stop. The bus we would be taking back to Chamonix came thru once and hour, and looking at the schedule we saw that the next one would come in about 30 minutes. What were we to do in that time? Like true hikers, we just set off down the road and walked until the bus caught up with us. When it did, we were surprised to find almost all of our party on the bus as well. Strangely, Kim and Gary, not the ones we would expect to be last, were the only ones not there and we found out that with people coming and going from the refuge, and others who didn’t stop but just pushed thru the snowstorm, everyone else left in one big group while Kim was in the bathroom. When they got to the bus station, they realized that Kim must have been left behind and Gary, like a good tour guide, stayed behind to wait for her. She quickly got there and they were on the next bus back, but they missed out on the celebratory alcohol that Jen and Anneke, who had put it in an (unused) sock for safe keeping, passed around. While we were all sad that the tour was over, many expressed proud feelings of completing it and we all were looking forward to some fresh changes of clothes.
On the trail, though there was always beer and wine available, our daily schedule made it tough for us to get drunk and rowdy at all, so for our last night together, I know that that was the intention of many of us. After a good dinner in Chamonix, we asked around for the liveliest bar and headed to Elevation 1904 for some drinks and to watch the Germany - Brazil semifinal. We even convinced Gary to come out for a drink (I think he stayed for 3). A couple of us were closely following the World Cup and I for one was very excited to see this matchup. Needless to say for everyone not living under a rock, but the game was a stunning disappointment, and effectively over after Germany put 3 goals in in 4 minutes to go up 5-0. With the game out of hand, we turned most of our attention to our giant beer tower, and believe me, that wasn’t the last one.
After Brazil finally put in a goal in the closing minutes and the game ended, we were all feeling a bit toasted. A few of the party went back to the hotel, but most of us quickly turned the post-match bar into a dance party. As only loud, jovial travelers can, we quickly made friends with the staff and got them to put on a playlist of popular, top 40 dance numbers, including an always-fun interpretative dance to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”. I surprised my companions with my unique and enthusiastic dance moves and took a couple turns spinning and dipping some of the ladies. The towers of beer were soon accompanied by rounds of shots, some of which were compliments of the house, and our ecstatic night raged on. A fairly crazy, questionably drugged up woman holding a dog continually tried to insert herself into our table and our dance circles, and playing casual defense on her became an entertaining game.
Last call sometime around 2:30 roused groans from our group, but as much as we teased and flirted with the bartenders, it seemed like our time was up. It had been a great night and on the way home, Chris and I somehow ended up on top of a statue. I’ve still got to locate that picture… Other funny story - in the morning I woke up and took a shower, while in the shower I absent-mindedly stroked my chin that had grown into some decent stubble after not shaving for almost 2 weeks, only to find that I had somehow managed to shave it off the night before without remembering.
The end of the night / the morning after was filled with sad goodbyes, but hope that it won't be the last time we see everyone. I now have great friends spread across the globe from Brisbon to Montreal, Toronto to Seattle to Hong Kong, and for all of you out there - the invitation will remain open if you happen to swing thru the Bay Area in the next couple years
I love how I set up the Dual Camera and got the friendly French guy who took the picture as well