A Travellerspoint blog

Tour du Mont Blanc (Part 2)

Much love to my fellow tour groupies!

all seasons in one day

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?).

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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.
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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.
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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.

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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:

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This scenery never gets old
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And the panoramas can't be beat
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I can't remember who had the idea, but I was so happy everyone was down for it
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Successful pyramid!

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:

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Courmayeur is the town you can see at the bottom of the valley
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"I'm on top of the world" pose
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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.

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Course 2 out of 3 at Bonatti
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The scene from the picnic area outside the refuge
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Same mountains in the wonderful morning glow

Day 6
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At a refuge with my last Italian cappuccino
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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.

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If you don’t know what “Planking” is, just google it :)

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Gary continued to challenge us to see how many people we would get on the border marker at once.

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Silly Dual Camera :)

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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)
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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.

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I can't remember the character's name from the Hobbit, but that's who he reminded me of
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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
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 :)

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I love how I set up the Dual Camera and got the friendly French guy who took the picture as well :)

Posted by danza 08:15 Archived in Italy Tagged landscapes hiking drinking canadians alps panoramas aussies tour_du_mont_blanc good_friends Comments (0)

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 Comments (0)

Paris

with company!

semi-overcast 65 °F

Paris had always been a city that had never been high on my list to see. While I knew I would make it there at some point in my life, my aversion to uber-touristy things and the talk that I had heard about Parisians’ less-than-friendly dealings with tourists and specifically Americans had dropped it down on my priorities. If I hadn’t been meeting a friend who had Paris on her agenda, I probably would have skipped over it again and gone to other places in France.

That being said, although you do find the occasional waitress who gets annoyed at you when she hears English or broken French, I think the majority of that rep is undeserved. People have to remember that Paris is big city, similar to NYC, and is everyone the most friendly person there? No, but when you travel to NYC, are most people that you interact with friendly and helpful? Yes - it’s the same with Paris. So in that way, I believe I was guilty of being a little close-minded, judging Paris and France unfairly without ever being there. Another prejudgice that I found wasn’t the case - I was expecting Paris to be in a virtual haze of cigarette smoke. Parisians are ALWAYS depicted as chain smokers in movies and such, but I found that it was on par or actually better than many other European cities.

One thing that does make Paris and France in general a little unique is that, compared to other European countries in that area, the French generally don’t speak English very well, which can make things tough. Emelie, my CS host for my last day in Paris, explained to me that France doesn’t put much emphasis on this in school. While most schools nowadays do require that people take English, there isn’t any push to actually get people conversational. In many ways, it sounds like it resembles the American perspective on foreign language in high school, so who are we to complain or judge? Another reason that the French are behind the curve with English that I can totally respect is that they truly value their language and culture. As the world becomes more globalized, I don’t think there’s any doubt that parts of individual cultures can be lost. The French simply care much more about that and feel that if the language begins to be lost, aspects of their culture that make them distinctly French will soon follow. Interesting fact: if a business in France (or maybe just Paris?) names their business an English name to appeal to tourists more, they actually pay an extra tax to the government. I’m just full of interesting knowledge, aren’t I?

Anyway, my time in Paris was definitely the most touristy of my trip thus far. Part of that is because I was there with a friend, staying in an AirBNB apartment instead of a hostel (the apartment had a sauna and a view of the Eiffel Tower from the kitchen! It was also up 7 flights of stairs, so I got a little training in before my hiking in the Alps). Another reason was simply because it is Paris. I’ve said before that there’s usually a reason that sites are very touristy, and with so many famous sites and beautiful buildings, this seems especially true in Paris.

The biggest 3 - Jess and I went up the Eiffel Tower, toured thru Notre Dame, and I wandered around the Louvre (PRO TIP - The Louvre is open late til 9:30 on Wed and Fri and its free after 6!). The Eiffel Tower truly is magnificent and true to form, Parisians originally opposed it and tried to block its construction, thinking that it would mar their beautiful city. The line wasn’t bad and going up gave you a fantastic view of the city. I also got the requisite goofy photo with it in the background :) And we could see the Tower from the kitchen in our AirBNB apartment!

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The night view from our apartment :)
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Jess and I at the base. Coffee in hand
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From the top
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Requisite goofy jumping photo, haha

I hate to say it, but Notre Dame was a little bit of a letdown. I thought that it was super impressive that it was built so long ago (completed in the 13th century), before many of Europe’s other massive churches, but I o think that I have seen at least a few cathedrals of the same style that I liked more, the best one being the Dom Cathedral in Koln, Germany.

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The Louvre is simply a gorgeous museum of preposterously big proportions. Of course you've got the infamous glass pyramid at the entrance. Some sneaking advice from Jess got me in one of the 11 other entrances that aren't by the pyramid, so I walked in without a wait at all. Also, the price was only free for people UNDER 26, not 26 and under, but after getting rejected by 1 person, I went to a different entrance and was let in free of charge by either a less observant or more generous person.

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The Louvre is always associated with art, but it’s also got a crazy amount of artifacts, statues, furniture, etc. I spent about 3 hours in it, definitely didn’t get to everything, and that was moving fairly quickly. If you’re a person who understands and appreciates art, you could easily spend a week in there. I unfortunately got to what turned out to be my favorite section (French Impressionist paintings) last, and I was pretty art-ed out. I ended up taking mostly photos of things that I could make funny captions about.

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No funny caption here. It just seemed like something that I should get a picture of.

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This is my favorite and definitely one that set me down the path of silliness

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Hammurabi's Code - Wow! This thing is in Paris???

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Definitely among the most impressive things was simply the decoration of the rooms and hallways, which adorned the supposedly more attractive and entertaining art on the walls.

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This just looked like an old fashioned Roman orgy with a little bit of everything

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The famous Mona Lisa!

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Really not all that big, right? I think this was a perfect example of what my wise roommate, Scottie Rossignol always said - "It's all about setting low expectations." I had heard from many people and reviews who thought that the Mona Lisa, with all of its buildup, was a let down, but going in with that in mind, I actually quite liked it. It wasn't anything that changed my life, but I thought it was among the better, and most certainly the loudest, pieces.

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Painting of some king crowning his queen. I think the pope or bishop that came along was supposed to do the crowning, and he looks none too pleased about being set aside :)

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A depiction of the shambles of a ruined ship just floating along.

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And doesn't this guy just look straight up bored with their predicament?

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Painting marking a French victory. And it wouldn't be truly French if the main character wasn't baring some boobs :O

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I'm sure this is hearsay, but that guy is just struttin' it.

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This was another of my favorites - Lucifer commanding his armies on their seemingly inevitable conquest

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Pictures on Pictures

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These are a couple of images / recreations of Napolean's apartment. He wasn't compensating for ANYTHING

I did some other stuff in Paris, like visit the Catacombs (pics below), but mostly I was just happy and impressed by how enjoyable the atmosphere was. Paris has an unbelievable # of parks (like literally more than 400 in city limits), and people just moved at a slower, more relaxed pace. Yes, you got the feeling that they thought their culture and way of life was straight up better than yours, but honestly, what country doesn't think that? France is just a little more upfront about it.

I had a couple of days between Jess and her mother leaving Paris before I had to be in Chamonix for my hiking tour around the Alps, so I thought I'd try to fulfill one of my bucket list items - to backpack between major cities!

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Bad news - I didn't get picked up. Speaking to a French guy who was trying to the same: getting out of the cities is the hardest part and Paris is the worst of it. Once you get out to way stations and such it's quite easy. So I'm not giving up yet!

Good news - a little doubtful of my hitchhiking prospects, I also threw up a last-minute request for a couch on a CS forum and a beautiful French girl came thru! Emilie let me know I could stay with her RIGHT before she heard back from some other CSers who had ditched on her the night before. It turns out that they were a couple of Americans hitchhiking down from Amsterdam and only made it to Belgium the night before (hence the ditching), but as they were finally making it into Paris that night, Emilie hosted them too and it made for a cozy common room :) Luckily, everyone was friendly and it worked out great. Emilie is a French engineer who is trying to improve her English so that she can work abroad in Australia. The only rule while staying with her is that you have to correct every mistake in her English (no matter how small). I learned a lot from her about why the French are not so good at English and had a fantastic time with her.

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Deciding to go to the grocery store and cook dinner to save money (the CSers paid for all the groceries), we went for supplies. En route, the conversation went a bit like this:
Emilie - So what do want to cook for dinner?
Me+Nathan+Forest - Umm, I don't know. What can we make?
Emilie - Well, we could make crepes, we could make...
Me+Nathan+Forest - WE CAN MAKE CREPES!?!?!??!

We came to a decision very quickly and set to it. It takes a while but really isn't that hard. Now when I go back, I can impress women I have over to breakfast with my amazing crepe-making skills :) We all even got to flip a crepe. Emilie claimed she can flip them behind her back and all sorts of other tricks, but I've got my doubts since we didn't see it done, haha.

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Anyway, I could say far more, but I'm anxious to write about my trip to the Alps, then a ridiculous traffic jam in France, and finally Barcelona! So that's all for me for now!

Posted by danza 15:26 Archived in France Tagged paris france tourists eiffel_tower good_food travel_companions Comments (0)

Iceland (continued)

Still the land of fire and ice

sunny 55 °F

Wikipedia pegs Iceland’s population at 310,000, which means that the COUNTRY has a handful more people than Madison WI, or between 4 and 5 NFL stadiums worth. For an entire country. Iceland isn’t big, but this equates to 3.18 people per square km. Statistically, this would put it just under N Dakota and above only Montana, Wyoming, and Alaska in US states, and that number would drop significantly after you eliminate Reykjavik from the mix. This means that once we left the capital, we weren’t coming across too many people. Multiple nights on the road, we stayed in places where hostels and farms were the only buildings there. The largest “city” that we stayed in (and the largest outside of the SW corner of the country) was less than 20,000 people.

On one hand, this meant that we came across a number of small, picturesque, quaint little towns, squashed between the chilly waters of the Atlantic and towering mountains (see the pics at the end). On the other hand, we really weren’t looking at too much in terms of nightlife or “non-nature” attractions as we circled the island. So when I was invited to check out a club (club? really?) with 3 fellow travelers from the Bay Area, I jumped at it despite the fact that I was exhausted and was still looking at sleeping in our car that night. It also didn’t hurt that 2 of them were attractive girls. Found out later that they both had BFs :(.

After we finished our assorted drinking card games around midnight, we headed out into the bright daylight (still weird) for a 30 minute walk. The club was certainly not that, but ended up being a pretty decent and heavily trafficked bar. We met a few Icelandic locals, Aleksandra being the most friendly, I smoked the 3rd cigarette of my life (still gross) and before long we were invited to an after-party at Aleksandra’s apartment. We learned a few Icelandic drinking games (all pretty simple), and before long, it was almost 4 in the morning. Not that you could tell by looking outside. We wandered back to our hostel and I found an unoccupied couch that would do til the morning. With Garrett and Alex giving me access to the showers in the morning, I figured this was the best deal I had found for accomodation in Iceland.

The next morning, I awoke totally dead after only a few hours of sleep, and as luck would have it, our SadCar turned out to be more forlorng than ever with a completely flat tire on one side. We must have punctured a small hole driving the previous day and it emptied overnight. We jacked up the car and attempted to put on the donut to get it to the nearest repair shop (thank goodness we were in a city that night), but the tire would not come off. Apparently, with all of the rain, etc, in Iceland, this is fairly common and after each of us took turns trying to kick the tire loose, we were left with no other choice than to drive it as is to the shop.

What actually punctured the tire may remain a mystery, but we think it was partially the fault of renting from SadCars. While we were getting a new tire, we noticed that another of our tires was low on air, so we had the shop pump that one up as well. Now paying close attention to our tires, we subsequently had to stop and refill our front left tire with air twice a day as it slowly lost pressure during the drive. Luckily, air is free in Iceland and most gas stations were well equipped. 200 euros and an hour later, we were back on the road, planning out more than a couple choice words for our rental company. Lesson to be learned - Don’t go with the cheapest rental company in foreign countries. Maybe go with the 2nd cheapest :)

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Our SadCar, post-repairs. Even there, doesn't the left front tire look low?

That next day was one largely wasted on me, asleep in the back seat for much of the morning. This turned out to be okay because that was our big driving day. Kadesch drove probably a good 7 hours that day with beautiful and varying scenery, but no real stops or specific sites. The scenery rotated from mountains (with a regular call pointing out - WATERFALL!), to flat lands with little vegetation, to old volcanic flows, with cracked earth covered in moss. I slept a good deal in the car and we mostly pushed straight thru to our hostel that night. This hostel was an extra building added onto a farm, more than 5 km from any sort of store, restaurant, or bar. It ended up being one of our favorite places, with friendly people, a TV to watch the World Cup, and a good kitchen. We did some shopping and rediscovered the wonders of coffee, bacon, and eggs the following morning.

The next morning promised a departure from the Ring Road, onto the Diamond Ring, and subset of attractions just off the main road. After a whole ton of driving the previous day, we were excited to see some sites. This started out with “Horseshoe Canyon”, a cliff formation rarely found in the world. The origin of this canyon is still under debate, and honestly the most supported theory of a sudden flash flood didn’t seem to hold much water in my opinion. As I had already said multiple times during our trip, “I had never seen anything like it”. The canyon was a deep horseshoe shape, with large, steep cliffs rising on both the the outside and the inside of the canyon. The valley between enjoyed a good deal of wildlife, and there was an entertaining hike up to the apex of the cliff in the middle of the horseshoe.

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Difficult to visualize, but imagine this surrounding you in a horseshoe thingy

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In the middle of the horseshoe was this one strip in the middle that stuck up. Here is where we hiked up and got some views

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Cairns are all over the place. This one had a nice backdrop

After the canyon came a slow and bumpy road back south towards the Ring Road, with a couple of stops at some even more impressive waterfalls. Besides the countless smaller ones that we saw while driving, there were probably 7 waterfalls that we specifically drove to and stopped at and they were nice because each one was cool for a different reason. You had Gullfoss, a large waterfall that shined golden in the sunlight, Seljalandsfoss, which you could walk completely behind, Skogafoss, which had about 20 cascading waterfalls as you hiked upwards, Svartifoss with the unique slate-like rock formations around it, Dettifoss, Europe’s most powerful waterfall, Selfoss, which stretched maybe 300 meters wide with lots of individual streams of water, and finally, Hraunfossar, where the water appeared to and actually did come directly out of a rock wall - the river actually flows thru holes in this rock wall to the waterfall beyond it. Check out the pictures below to understand what I mean.

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Gullfoss - Group Selfie!

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Seljalandsfoss - with the 360* viewing abilities

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Skogafoss - here is the main waterfall, but as you hike up you continue to get more

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Svartifoss - see what I mean with the slate-like rock structures? If someone's got a better way to describe it, please post a comment :)
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Svartifoss - This dual-camera feature is just clowny

So I'm only remembering now that I forgot my phone/camera in the car when we were checking out Dettifoss and Selfoss, and I haven't gotten the photos from Garrett or Kadesch, so you all can Google those images if you want. We had some solid selfies at Selfoss, though :)

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Hraunfossar - See how it just seems to come directly out of the rock? Fricking crazy!

I’ve sort of lost my train of thought because I’ve spent the last 8 days hiking around the Alps without my trusty laptop (amazing blog post to come), but I believe I’ve already covered most of our adventures in Iceland. Other notable happenings:

- Kaldi: a wonderful little Icelandic brewery. Though there aren’t many breweries there (brewing alcohol in Iceland was illegal until the early 20th century), they make extremely tasty beer, much of which is attributed to the pure, high quality glacier water that they use.

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- The geothermal pools at Jardbodinn: So many people have heard about the Blue Lagoon, the picturesque spa near Reykjavik where tourists flock to. There is nothing wrong with that because, hell, how many times are you going to be able to relax in a natural hot tub and swim over and get a drink from the poolside bar? Me being me, however, and stubborn to not fall into any overpriced tourist traps, my plan had been to instead find a local Reykjavik "hot pot" where locals enjoy the same comforts in slightly less scenic places. That was before I hopped into the SadCar and changed around my plan to circle the island. Near Myvatn we found "the Blue Lagoon of the North" and couldn't resist. This water honestly looks and feels different with all the minerals in there in addition to the toasty temperatures. Supposed to be good for the skin :)

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- Portugal vs USA: the World Cup game against Portugal was pretty much the only night that the 3 of us went out. Specifically for the game, we changed around our travel plans so that we would be in Akureyi to watch it, which at almost 19,000 people was the biggest city outside of the Reykjavik area. On a Sunday night, we found 1 sports bar that was open and were pointed upstairs to a room filled with Americans and a large projector screen. Outside the opening 5 minutes and the closing 30 seconds, USA dominated the game and high 5s abounded all over the place among the Americans. Though Ronaldo’s last second centering pass to a beautiful header ruined the celebration waiting to happen with the US clinching a spot into the next round, we had a great time and left the bar feeling surprisingly tipsy and energetic. Momentarily obsessed with finding the perfect spot to photograph the sunset (remember this is after midnight), we talked about parkouring up on top of a roof. While we were considering all sorts of questionable options, Garrett noticed a ladder conveniently left at the base of a building, haha. The pictures weren’t as spectacular as we hoped, but Kadesch used the long jump skills we had been practicing earlier in the day to get his parkour on:

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The ladder...
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The resulting pic...
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And Kadesch's parkour skills. Flying thru the air

- Our last night in Iceland was spent at a small hostel that was literally 1 of 2 buildings in site. This was the 2nd hostel we stayed at in the middle of nowhere, and those were our 2 favorite places. This one was special for the absolutely breathtaking sunset that we got and the natural hot spring pool that locals had built right into the earth. The 3 of us relaxed in there and, sad that we would be leaving Iceland soon, decided we had to have one more classic Icelandic experience. After working up the courage and establishing our ground rules, the 3 of us got out of the hot tub and sprinted for the ocean water. This is a common Icelandic practice among locals - going from the frigid arctic waters back into a hot tub is supposed to be great for you. Preparing for the worst, we were actually disappointed by how warm it was when we got into the water. Though it was ocean water, the fact that we were in a fjord and near an area where a small geothermal stream emptied into the water kept the temperature not warm, but no worse than ocean temperatures at Cape Cod’s Nassau Beach, where the Jentzens and I used to run into.

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Have you ever seen anything quite so beautifuL?
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That's Garrett out there on the rock. What a pic
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Picturesque natural hot tub. I challenge you to find 5 more places that are as pure a combination of comfort, simplicity, and nature as this

I was very sad to leave Garrett and Kadesch the next day. It was a wonderful coincidence that landed me with them, and it was great to finally have some traveling companions. Though I was tempted to stick with them for longer, I was off the Paris to meet up with Jess Gulliver and her mother, with many big plans ahead.

More beautiful scenery:
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On the plane I added “airplane seatbelt” to my list of objects I can open beer bottles with :).
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Posted by danza 09:46 Archived in Iceland Tagged waterfalls nature geothermal brewery Comments (1)

Back on the Wagon - Off to Iceland!

The land of fire and ice

semi-overcast 50 °F

Bryan’s European Jaunt Part Deux!

After 6 weeks back in the US, I’m back at it traveling around Europe. The time off worked out perfectly - in the past 6 weeks I:
- Spent 2 of those in SF for Brad Miller’s amazing wedding and to check out my future housing options
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- “Ran” in Bay2Breakers, a “race” across SF from the Bay to the Pacific. The quotes are there because while a handful of people do actually run this 7 mile race, the vast majority dress up in costumes (we were Minions from Despicable Me) and drunkenly stumble across the city before taking a much needed nap on the beach. At least that’s what I did :)
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- Helped my family to pack up our house and move into a new one! Don’t worry, we’re still in Fairport - just up 250 by Woodcliff
- Spent time with my relatives and a few other very special people in the ROC (you know who you are)
- Went to my 5 year college reunion at Cornell. Wow that sentence makes me feel old but it was so great to see a ton of people I haven’t seen in years and omg I miss Ithaca and all its glory
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- Fulfilled a long-standing dream (which is likely to be repeated) by going to BONNAROO music festival with T Halle and Chris Marini. I could write an entire post about the festival and the atmosphere there, but lets suffice it to say that it has a utopian feel where everyone is simply loving life and all those around them. The music was unforgettable as were the people we met.
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==ON TO ICELAND!==

Inspired by other travelers I met, I decided to start out the 2nd leg of my trip with a stopover in Iceland! Iceland Air (who is among the cheapest airlines to cross the Atlantic) does a brilliant thing where they have you connect in Iceland and you can put up to 10 days between your connections to explore Iceland, without changing the prices of the flights much. The timing of my flight was both challenging and incredibly fortuitous at the same time.
Challenging - Without fully realizing the consequences of it, I booked my flight as a Tuesday night red eye out of JFK, mostly because it was the cheapest. Bonnaroo was the weekend before, so therefore my schedule was 5 crazy nights at Bonnaroo, drive 17+ hours from Manchester, TN to Hershey, PA, to Fairport, NY on Monday, get home around 2:30 am and pack for Europe for the next 2 hours before catching a 5:30 train to NYC. After pulling that all nighter, I then had the red eye, so I definitely started my trip on fumes.
Fortuitous - By sheer coincidence, I booked my flight to land in Reykjavik about 15 minutes before 2 friends from the Cornell Buds landed from their red eye from Boston. I found out this was happening a week or so before I left and couldn’t believe the chances.

The red eye was uneventful, but relatively short, so I only managed to catch a few hours of sleep before we landed. I was soon energized, however, when I met up with Garrett and Kadesch by baggage claim and went to go pick up their car from, all of names, SadCar. And sad it was - a beat up old Yaris with a dent in the side and over 270,000 km on it (about 165,000 miles).

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I was supposed to be in Iceland for only 3 nights, while Garrett and Kadesch were doing 6 nights and circling the island along the popular Ring Road. The plan WAS to explore Reykjavik (the capital city) together the first day, then I would tag along with them down the Ring Road the 2nd day, and then I would have to catch a bus or hitch hike back to Reykjavik day 3 while they continued on. Here are some pictures of the capital, but honestly, you go to Iceland for the outdoors, not the cities (more accurately - the 1 city).

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The view from the top of the church shown below
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There was a really beautiful cemetery recommended to us by a local we met in the hostel bar. Very glad they did
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The concert hall, right on the water
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Day 2
After day 1 in Reykjavik, we couldn’t wait to get out and see the much talked about natural wonders of Iceland. The first day on the road was packed with different things along the “Golden Circle” before we hit the coast and truly started the ring road. One of the coolest things about Iceland is that, for such a small country, they have extremely different and unique natural features. The Golden Circle contained all of the things below, and constituted the first 7 or so hours of our trip. This is totally doable in 1 day from Reykjavik and would be the top thing I recommend if you only have a day in Iceland.

Þingvellir is an area where the various tribes of Iceland met annually back in the first couple centuries of Iceland's existence and also happens to be the location where the North American and European tectonic plates meet. This juncture accounts for Iceland's geothermal power and volcanic activity. Pretty cool because you can actually SEE the 2 plates and can walk between them in 15 minutes. In the pictures below, you can see the edge of the N American plate rising up alongside the path.
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Cool waterfall cascading off the rift.

Gullfoss (-foss means waterfall), which made various lists of Top 10 Awe Inspiring Waterfalls (Iceland has 2 on that list)
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Strokkur - a geyser that spouts water 15 m into the air every 10-15 minutes. I wasn't quick enough to get either of the eruptions that we saw on camera, but the area was cool even between eruptions
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Based on the dude's hat, you know he's a baker. But what is he doing? There's special bread in Iceland made from an ancient recipe and cooked in the ground in these geothermal areas. Later on, we bought a loaf (it weighs a ton!)

and finally, Kerith - a large crater.
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If anyone is trying to look up these things, Icelandic has some weird characters like a d with a line thru it that sounds like "th", so they may look a little different online. They also have an awkward p that sounds exactly like the strange d, but the p can't be at the end of a word and the d can't be at the beginning of the word. Strange language, but we had fun picking up phrases as we circled it.

After we finished up these opening impressive attractions, we got on Route 1, the Ring Road that circles the island. We stopped first at Seljalandsfoss, a large waterfall that you can walk totally behind for some cool photo ops.

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"Burst Mode" - one of my favorite things on my new phone's camera :)

Our hostel that night was in Skogar, right next to Skogafoss. Hungry by the time we arrived, we decided to take advantage of Iceland’s unique “Midnight Sun”, getting dinner and doing some relaxing before going out to see the waterfall around midnight. Yes, the pictures below were taken after midnight :)

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Before I went to sleep, I gave into my instincts that had been bugging me all day. Knowing that I was supposed to be turning around after that night and heading back to Reykjavik, I was getting extremely jealous of Garrett and Kadesch circling the country and seeing breath-taking sites for the next 5 days. So, after some quick internet searching (which we had to camp outside a restaurant for), I bought a cheap plane ticket to France on Tuesday, letting me stick with them for the rest of their trip. Hearing this, Kadesh was very excited; Garrett was just tired :)

Day 3
The amazing and highly varied sites continued on Day 3, continuing thru South Iceland. Most of our time these first few days were driving from one amazing sight to another, so I'll continue the photo montage with descriptions. To give you an idea of the weather, it was totally overcast thru all of Southwestern Iceland, which constituted the two and a half days of our journey. Ironic that we never saw the sun since Iceland is known for having 24 hour sun this time of year. Once we moved significantly east, however, the sun came out, much to our great delight.

Dyrholaey were towering cliffs by the sea with lots of birds, a lighthouse, and gorgeous views of the waves crashing down onto the black sand beaches below. There was also some hiking trails that allowed you to walk all the way out to the edge of the rocky outcropping. Oh and of course is the picturesque arch that is featured on a number of Icelandic postcards and the like.

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The Iron Islands?
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A dizzying look down

This was a simple little cave area with a name that I can't find right now, just off the Ring Road. My favorite part of this were the strange hexagonal pillars of rocks that provided for easy and fun climbing. Debate over how the rocks could have formed in this unique way dominated conversation in the car for the next 30 minutes.

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Skaftafell - part of the Vatnajökull national park, this is the most accessible part of Europe's largest glacier, covering over 81,000 km^2. This glacier accompanied us along the Ring Road for 2 incredibly beautiful hours. After getting educated in the visitor’s center and talking to the cute Icelandic girl behind the desk about the available trails, we were excited to stretch our legs on the first true hike of the trip. Heading up the mountain, it took us about 45 minutes to reach the scenic outlook, where we snapped some pictures of the gigantic glacier. To repeat a phrase we all said so many times here, “I have never seen anything like it before.”

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Knowing we would come back to do a little walkiing on the actual glacier, we continued our hike over to _______, another postcard-featured waterfall. I’d love to talk to a geology expert about how these rocks formed in this way.

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I just mailed a postcard to a friend that looked exactly like this
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Another different camera feature on my new phone - this one is just silly :)

Another waterfall on the hike back down:
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It was 7 pm by now, but with plenty of light still available, we headed down the trail to the glacier. After carefully reading the signs warning about the dangers of walking on the glacier, especially without guides or full equipment, we decided we could handle it and started hiking up. We had some fun, but turned back after not too far. Like I always say - I do some dumb things, but always in a fairly smart way.
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The last stop before our hostel that night resulted in my favorite pictures, maybe of the entire trip. Described as a “lagoon”, Jokulsarion is at the base of another one of the glacier’s tongues that extend out between other existing mountains. It was about 9 pm by then and the light was perfect and just made the pictures.

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Since I had spontaneously jumped onto the rest of the trip, I did not have reservations at the hostels along the way like Kadesch and Garrett. Knowing that right around the summer solstice was the busiest tourism time for Iceland, we weren’t sure how many nights I would be sleeping in the car. This appeared to be one of those nights, as the hostel was all booked up. We were all tired, so the other 2 went to bed, but not being in any rush to head to the car, I headed to the common area to start this blog entry.

I did meet some lovely people there that night, but that will have to wait for the next blog entry. I'm currently in Paris and want to go enjoy the lovely weather and surroundings.

Finally, a couple of random pics from a souvenir shop:
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Posted by danza 01:29 Archived in Iceland Tagged waterfalls cliffs nature friends usa glaciers outdoors world_cup car_travel Comments (0)

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