Tough First Day
There is a time in each multi-day hike when enough is enough. But, it’s not usually on the first day. I gaze down at my feet. Blisters extend horizontally like pale yellow water balloons from the sides of my big toes.
I step gingerly into the narrow shower. Hot water streams over my exhausted body, dribbles over the red indentations where my backpack belt rubbed my hips. I pull the curtain aside. A stranger with bruised collarbones and the grey eyes of a dehydrated long-distance runner, stares back at me from the steamy mirror.
Dried and dressed in leggings and a T-shirt, I attempt a few basic stretches. My quadriceps scream in protest, rigid as uncooked spaghetti. I turn to my husband. “I’m not sure I can do this kind of hike anymore,” I say.
By this kind of hike, I mean lugging a full backpack for six to eight hours a day for nine days over 105 miles. Considered one of the world’s classic hiking trails, the Tour du Mont Blanc or TMB circles the Mont Blanc Massif through France, Switzerland, and Italy. “Let’s wait and see how we feel in the morning,” says my supportive, super-fit husband who has wandered along all day, hands in his pockets, as if out for a Sunday stroll.
But I’m rarely one to give up.
A Fresh Start
Never underestimate the recuperative powers of an almost seventh-decade body. Dinner and wine at a local restaurant encourages an uninterrupted eight-hour snooze. I awake still stiff and sore, but the shouts of my offended body parts have softened to semi-urgent whispers. I’m ready to lace up my boots. My stubbornness yields countless rewards.
The sights and trails of each day differ even though the routine becomes predictable. For me and my husband, morning starts with an early breakfast. Swiss muesli cereal and fruit chill my nervous stomach while we pour over the guidebook contemplating the number of ascending and descending feet of the day’s trails.
The first and last hours of the day challenge me most. Settling the pack on the hips, forcing fresh steps through dewy morning chill, I ask myself again why I am doing this. Six or seven hours later the question repeats itself as we wander around a new village searching for our hotel or refugio, mumbling silent prayers for a room with a bathtub.
But during the hours in between the majestic white dome of Mont Blanc and adjacent string of Aiguilles, needle-shaped spires, hover above my left shoulder, lifting my spirits. My boots brush the dirt of meadow trails as we pass flower-box laden alpine chalets and climb dramatic mountain passes into the next valley.
Four Days Later — Italy
Our bags stuffed with clean clothes are waiting in the hotel storage room in Courmayeur, Italy. All other hikers we have met carry only a daypack, having arranged to have their bags transported to their next stop each day. Not wanting to pay the premium to have our gear shuttled ahead each day, but needing to reduce the weight of our packs, we strip the items we will carry to the bare minimum, repurposing some for double duty: gray emergency merino wool long johns become evening leggings and my derriere covering turquoise T-shirt now doubles as a nightgown. Two days of restorative napping and carbo-loading on wagon-wheel-sized pies at Pizzeria Le Tunnel restaurant restore us.
Back on the Trail
The first day ends at Rifugio Alpino Walter Bonatti near Lac Malatra, Val Ferret, Italy. Named for legendary mountaineer, explorer and journalist Walter Bonatti, this impressive rock and timber mountain hut, opened in 1998, presides over an Italian panorama of the Mont Blanc massif. Historic photos of and by Bonatti line the walls giving the efficiently run and impeccably clean mountain inn a museum-like ambiance. Nepali chef Dorje routinely creates four-course gourmet dinners for 80 and magically produces a hearty buffet breakfast served from 6:30 a.m. to allow an early start for the arduous climb ahead.
Several uphill hours into the day we reach a weathered stone cairn indicating Grand Col Ferret, the frontiere between Italy and Switzerland. Beyond the rock pile, the rugged Italian route gives way to verdant Swiss meadows. In my imagination, I hear a chorus of The Sound of Music. An hour’s walk ahead at La Peule, farm owners Sabine and Nicolas Coppey offer the delightfully gooey treat, called croute, oven-baked white bread doused with white wine and layered with eggs, tomatoes and cheese. We indulge.
Duvets and Dinners
Accommodation on the TMB varies from Champex-Lac Switzerland’s historically elegant Hotel Splendide to country chic homes like France’s The Guesthouse Vallorcine. Most evenings we bond with fellow hikers over shared experiences.
Final Day — Back in France
I feel fit and ready for anything. Hoping the skies will clear to allow a glimpse of the peaks, glaciers and aiguiette, we scan for the signpost showing the way to Lac Blanc via Col des Montets. Steep at the start, the trail flattens to follow the contours into the Chamonix Valley. The final climb to Lac Blanc is aided by vertical iron ladders bolted to the rock slabs, interspersed with log and iron steps.
Back where we started, in Chamonix, the brutal first day is a distant memory. Toes healed, bruises faded, but memories of Mont Blanc’s unique mountain characteristics intact, I feel proud of my bull-headed perseverance. I got stronger every day.
When not trekking or writing, Patti Shales Lefkos skis at her winter home base at Silver Star Mountain Resort, British Columbia. Her articles have appeared in Macleans, The San Francisco Chronicle, Travelife.ca, and Elevation Outdoors. Look for her adventure travel memoir Nepal One Day at Time coming in 2020. Learn more at pattishaleslefkos.com.