Hiking in the shadow of Mont Blanc: Resiliency and a sense of humor save the day.
Editor’s note: This is a crosspost from the blog run by good friend and fellow hiker, Mark Lawler, at educationgeotours.com. Please check out his blog for hiking in the beautiful Adirondacks.
Preparation is good, but sometimes you need resiliency (and humor).
I went to France to soak up the sun of the lavender fields of Provence, drink some wine in Burgundy, and eat croissants in Paris. Little did I know I would find myself on a hiking trail in the Alps, out of water, exhausted, and missing the purple pastures of Provence.
My husband, Stan, and I have a thing for Europe. We started traveling there in 2010, carrying a backpack, staying in Bed and Breakfasts and hostels, and winding through country roads in the rented stick shift. That we ended up becoming Anglophiles and Francophiles surprised us, too. I spent my graduate school years of the 1990s traveling to Central and South America, immersing myself in the intense and flavorful cultures there, while my husband joked that one trip was enough for him. Actually, I think his exact words after visiting Nicaragua with me in 1993 was, “If I need to visit corrupt governments in a hot climate, I’ll just stay in Florida and save the money.” It was said with much love and humor. But I got it: my tastes in travel in my 20s were not for everybody.
In our 40s, our travel tastes coalesced around a desire to see where our ancestors came from, and to visit Europe as cheaply as we could for two middle-aged Americans who were not going to be sleeping in train stations or couch surfing. We started reading Rick Steves’ travel guides and listening to his podcasts on public radio. We created itineraries that maximized our time away from home and gave us the opportunity to get off the tourist trail.
In 2013, we decided to forego the multi-country, if-it’s-Tuesday-it-must-be-Belgium whirlwind and focus exclusively on France. We designed a car trip that went counter-clockwise around the country and hit some major tourist destinations and some minor ones, too. Here’s a map much like our journey, except we decided to forego the Riviera.
And that’s how we ended up on a vigorous hiking trail in the shadow of Europe’s highest mountain – Mont Blanc – without really preparing for it.
At the bull games in Arles, where a bull chases young men trained in the art of capturing the ring between the bull’s horns.
It was July 2013. We had left Arles the day before. Arles – a gritty, no-cobblestoned town in southern Provence – was the location of several Roman ruins, and a bull game (not a bull fight as no animals were harmed) that we wanted to see. I loved Arles, and just loved southern France in general. Big sun and sky, fields and fields of sunflowers and lavender, and mild temperatures with dry air. Perfection.
At Pont du Gard, the Roman Aqueduct built between 40-60 AD in Provence
But an itinerary was made to be followed, so after three days in southern France, we left the country farm house B&B in Provence and drove to the eastern border of France, stopping off in beautiful Annecy for a day and night, and then on to Chamonix –home of the 1924 Winter Olympics, and the quintessential Alpine village. I should have picked up on the ominous subtext when I realized that our reservations for the little hotel I thought I had booked were accidentally made for the wrong town 4 hours away. But we figured it out, and that night wandered around the twinkle lights of beautiful Chamonix.
The Alpine village of Chamonix
The next morning we were up with the sun to ride the cable car lift to the top of the Aiguille du Midi – (translated as “the needle of the noon” or “south”) – the highest ascent of a cable car in the world at 12,605 feet.
Just don’t look down.
It was hot in Chamonix; it was in freezing temperatures at the summit. Fortunately there is a ski lodge at the top.
We approached the ticket window to buy our passes for 50 euros each, and my husband asked the smiling woman at the information booth about the hikes he had read so much about. I looked at him in confusion: hikes? Why was he asking about hikes? I vaguely recalled him looking at maps of hiking trails in our room, but I had dismissed it as some sort of curiosity on his part.
And this is where I digress to tell you that in our 40s, my husband has become the adventurous one. My goals for travel are to enjoy a great espresso at a sidewalk café, walk along the Seine, or bike through Burgundy.
This is my idea of a nice time in the Alps.
My husband’s idea for an adventure is hiking. I’ve never really liked hiking. Probably because I live in Florida. Hiking here consists of palmetto bushes and rattlesnakes. But my shortage of love for hiking doesn’t come just from living in a flat, hot, buggy climate. Growing up, my parents took my sister and me on car trips across the country every summer, and we did A LOT of hiking. On one excursion, I accidentally dropped my dad’s expensive 35mm camera down the side of a mountain. Maybe that experience forever soured me on hiking.
Ironically, though, I always seem to end up hiking on the trips I take. It’s as if Mother Nature just can’t get enough of me, even though I’m weary of her. In 2011, Stan led the two of us on several hikes through the out-islands of Scotland, and although they were not tall mountains, there were 650-foot cliffs that dove into the sea that had no National Park Service-style fences or warnings or anything to warn tourists that they could tumble into the sea below at any time. Probably because there were no tourists. We were it. No, no….if I’m going to hike I need to know what to expect, how long it will take, and most important: will I die?
But back to the present: the woman at the information booth smiled, and told us about the hiking options that would still get us back in time to catch the train down the mountain and back to Chamonix. That’s important to remember for later in the story, because the hike was not one that ended at the bottom of the mountain. She then eyed us up and down (although she could not see our feet from where she was sitting), and asked about our shoes. Were we wearing good hiking shoes? No! No! Of course we weren’t! “Yep!”, my husband says confidently. And we were off.
I should probably tell you that I had pulled Stan aside and asked him when we had ever talked about taking a major Alpine hike at any point on our trip, especially since neither of us had packed anything remotely close to hiking boots. He just smiled and said this was something he really, really wanted to do. Apparently Rick Steves classified the hike we chose as “moderate” and we were certainly not novices, right? Right?
My second sense of foreboding was while standing in line to board the cable car to the top. I looked around at everyone else – children and grandparents alike – and probably 75% of them were wearing hiking boots and holding a hiking stick – the metal kind. Like this:
Although one can ride the cable car up to the top and just enjoy the scenery, most do some kind of hike. The easiest one was from the halfway point (where the cable car makes a stop) to a hiker’s refuge (really just a café, which the French apparently can not resist, even if it’s on the side of the mountain). The refuge is on the way to a glacier called Mer de Glace. Stan suggests that we try the trail to the refuge and then decide if we want to continue. There is quite a bit of snow still on the ground at our elevation, complicating a hike for two people without the right gear. Added to this context is the critical detail: hikers must be at Mer de Glace by 5 pm in order to catch the last train down the mountain to Chamonix. If you don’t, you’re stuck on the mountain or you have to hike the rest of the way down on not well-traveled, very steep trails.
We enjoyed our time at the summit. The view was incredible: Mont Blanc and its surrounding mountains reflecting the bright sun spectacularly.
Mont Blanc – Europe’s tallest mountain
Eventually we descended to the midway point to begin the hike on the trail to Mer de Glace. It was billed as a 2-3 hour hike. We left at 1 to give ourselves plenty of time. At the start, Stan took a picture at the signs telling us it was 2 hours 15 minutes to Mer du Glace. As he snaps the picture, he says, “This is either to document the beginning of a great adventure, or the last happy moment before our divorce!” heh. heh. Foreshadowing.
The snow and ice was intermittent, but the start was slippery. Lots of snow on certain parts of the trail makes walking across even a relatively flat area very, very difficult. European hikers traipse past us, with casual “bonjours” and I envy their gear.
My gear (or lack thereof)
We get to the hiker’s refuge, and keep going. At this point we’re sure that the worst part is behind us because we are descending a bit and the ice must surely be gone. The scenery is truly spectacular. I occasionally belt out “The hills are alive….” all Julie Andrews like. I try to admire the panorama as much as I can while staying on the trail and occasionally taking pictures. It’s just that on one side of the trail is a mountain, and other side is…a vacuum of death surely ready to suck me down.
We stop for a short break. We’ve been hiking about an hour. The snow on the ground is still intermittent. A young couple with an infant takes a break nearby. I wonder at hiking with an infant carrier on one’s back. Their infant backpack must be a lot more comfortable than the one we had for our boys (now both teenagers).
After about 10 minutes, we resume course, noting our time. I think one of us says something about being halfway there and having plenty of time to still see the glacier when we arrive at Mer de Glace.
During one of the tame parts of the hike, I am able to stop and take a picture.
The path seems moderate; it’s not that it is a rough ascent or descent. The problem is not stamina, either. It’s the cliff on the left side of me that I just never get used to. My shoes are also getting loose. I can’t retie them because they are slip-on walking shoes. I fumble a few times, thankful that I never tripped at a dangerous part of the path where I would have ended up careening down the mountain. At one point, I literally had my body wrapped around a boulder to get around it and continue on the path. And then I feel my foot catch on a rock and my shin slams into a stone. I sit down, swearing and teary-eyed, petulantly telling my husband that I’m never hiking again.
Before my dear, patient husband has the time to respond, an older couple approaches and the woman asks,
“Ur ye okay?”
Their Scottish brogue captures my attention from the pain-induced fog by brain is in. I nod, briefly describing what happened. Then, the man offers the most helpful commentary so far on our journey:
“Those ur th’ wrang sheen fur hikin’. Ye need hikin’ bitts.”
(Translation for you non-Scots: “Those are the wrong shoes for hiking. You need hiking boots.”)
Really? I’m sitting here on the side of a mountain with a bleeding shin, tear-stained face, and a husband looking like he has buyer’s remorse, and the man’s helpful comment is to point out the obvious?
“Thanks. I know.” I mutter. They ask if there is anything they can do, and I say no. I’ll be fine. Because I was fine. I was just frustrated and my shin hurt. But I wasn’t dying. And I was hiking in a beautiful, beautiful place that many people will never see in their lifetimes, and I had my husband with me, and it was a beautiful day. So, I shook it off.
It’s pretty hard to be upset when you’re in such a beautiful place.
About 2 hours into the hike we ran out of water. I confidently assured Stan that we would be at Mer de Glace in less than 30 minutes so not to worry. “If we could just see a sign or a building or something to show us that there is civilization ahead…”
As if God himself were listening, a sign appeared:
Mer de Glace 1 hr 15 min
Stan and I repeat the sign several times aloud just to make sure we read it right. No, no, no…it cannot be. Maybe we were hallucinating? How could we have hiked for 2 hours and not even made it halfway? God has a sense of humor or was punishing me for cursing Mother Nature…I don’t know. But now we had no water, I had a throbbing shin, and Stan is looking for a place to sit down. “I don’t know, Tara…I just don’t know…” Huh? Clearly he is tired of being the morale booster. So, I take over. “Oh no…you don’t get to give up on me. We’ve gotta keep going because there is no way I’m hiking all the way down to Chamonix tonight.” And just to make sure I ended on a positive note, I offer a saccharine “We can do this! Woohoo!” I’m not sure I was convincing.
Stan takes the lead. I snap a picture, the last one I would be able to take on this journey:
We walked for about 10 minutes and then came to a fork in the path. The path on the right goes up, zig zagging back and forth. A group of 10 or so hikers is on this path. The path on the left goes down and is in the shade. Bingo! We take the path going down. I can’t fathom why anyone would take a path going up after having already hiked for a while.
About 30 minutes in, it is clear why people take the path going up. Our path going down has disappeared, and now we are walking on boulders on the side of the mountain. I’d be less frustrated with this if a group of teenage girls in flip flops hadn’t just passed by, walking as if it were just another stroll in the mall. We keep going. Then the couple with the baby passes us by with a “bonjour!”. We keep going. In what would be the last 15 minutes, and the most perilous part of the journey, two young kids (who looked younger than my 12 year old) jogged by – no parents, no concerns for the crevasse on their left.
At this point, Stan and I are alternately cursing and laughing. My legs are so tired and I’m so thirsty that I can’t do anything but think about my next step. But somehow we know we are getting close because we manage to find some humor in the whole thing.
“Clearly European hiking is different from American hiking,” says Stan. That’s the understatement of the day.
“Tomorrow,” I tell him, “we are doing nothing but drinking wine in Burgundy.”
With 10 minutes left of our hike, we see the building where the train is to arrive. We have 20 minutes until the last train departs. Of course there’s no time to hike further and see the glacier, but at this point, any more adventure would just pale in comparison.
Finally! Arriving in Mer De Glace, just in time for the train.
We arrive at the building and find a café, of course. Stan encourages me to just have a seat and he’ll get me some water. “With ice, if possible,” I ask. “Please?” He looks at me and rolls his eyes, and we both know that there will be no ice. Ice in drinks is a rarity in Europe. He returns with a diet Coke. “No water,” he says.
The train brings us back to Chamonix.
We make the train, and sit on the wood benches, trying to find a comfortable position. We look at the people around us. Most have hiked what we just did, sans the last half of the trail where we took the wrong turn. I ask Stan how they knew to go right? Later that evening from our cozy room in Chamonix, Stan reads from the Rick Steves France guide book:
“After about an hour at a steady pace, the trail splits. Follow signs up the steep trail to le Signal (more scenic and easier), rather than to the left toward Montenvers (looks easier, but becomes very difficult).”
Ah, planning. Preparation. But this story becomes one of our favorites to tell. It has drama, suspense, (hopefully) endearing characters, mistakes, and a happy ending. What more could you want in a story? Besides the obvious take aways, it did show me that humor and resiliency are really important qualities to have in tough times. Taking the journey with someone you love helps, too.
The next day we could hardly move. We did manage to drive our car (so much for the bike ride we were planning) on the wine route around the Burgundy region. The vineyards laid out in front of us like a blanket of light green. Our biggest effort of the day was stopping for a wine tasting. Bliss.
Recuperating in the wine vineyards of Burgundy.
You want adventure?
I’ll give you adventure. I only ask because I do get a lot of questions about how I teach while I travel, and how living the laptop lifestyle is possible. I can’t NOT help you, it’s my nature. I’m a teacher. Join my email group of fellow travelers for updates. I don’t spam, so no worries about that! Let’s make this the year it happens for you. I promise to bring the hiking sticks. Tara Ross