By David Reid
White knuckled, my right hand gripped the wet, aluminium shaft of my hiking pole halfway along its length. The left I firmly palmed the top of the ergonomic handle, compensating for the severe slope we traversed across. Each step was excruciatingly methodical on the exposed section as we focused on our destination somewhere beyond a ridge in the distance. My wife, Bec, took the lead for two reasons: One, she had hiking boots on while mine, having become soaked during a river crossing earlier that day, were tied to the back of my pack leaving me with only worn-out running shoes to negotiate the snow-covered ‘trail’. Two, I’m scared of heights and was shitting myself. Bec led the charge by sampling the snowpack ahead, pressing her foot down into the soft snow without transferring her weight. This is a technique we developed days earlier when we first hit the deep, wet snow of early summer alpine passes. You create steps.
We were on the Tour du Mont Blanc, or TMB. A 170-kilometre long circuit through three countries in Western Europe that makes just about every list of best hikes in the world. It was a trip of a lifetime. The trail navigates through the massive valleys that surround the Mont Blanc massif- the mountain chain consisting of many imposing peaks, and at the centre the tallest in Western Europe, Mont Blanc.
Packed snow is thankfully stable, yet notoriously slick. After Bec had her leading step created by compacting the snow with her foot, she transferred her weight. Her left pole then swung only just downslope of where her left leg would go, plunging down into the depths of the snow, indicating just how steep the slope we were traversing was. We would nearly lose our balance trying to find solid ground with our left poles on a number of occasions. Bec would laugh in earnest when this happened- a testament to her fearlessness. She turned to look back, checking on my progress. Her smile was wide, taking in the adventure we were on, and I would laugh nervously. When I nearly lost my balance, my heart leapt into my throat.
A guidebook titled The Tour of Mont Blanc by Kev Reynolds is available for purchase online and thoroughly covers the entire route in both directions. It is rotten with graphics, maps, notations, annotations, appendices (A through D!) and photos. It even breaks down the Tour into 11-day sections, has water-resistant binding, and despite its 236 pages, is relatively compact. Regardless of size I opted to read the guide beforehand and not carry it on the trail in a bid to keep my pack lean. We did carry with us two huge maps from IGN at 1:25,000 scale that covered the entire trail overlapping only just. The trail was labelled and marked clearly in red, as well as itinerants and other well-known trails. Matched together the maps could cover a dining table.
Stomping through dozens of kilometres of snow-covered slopes had been easy previously, but it was never as exposed, and I had been wearing hiking boots with decent tread. On day two we came up to our first snowy, and incredibly steep approach at around 2,000 metres. I began utilizing this ‘building steps’ technique to create a literal staircase we were both able to climb up easily, if not slowly. Eventually, the trail flattened out and we began our first horizontal traverse, shin-deep in snow. The mountainside this time sloping gracefully down to our right. I breathed a sigh of relief.
Following a smattering of footsteps from other hikers, we came across a solo British hiker who had not seen another person all day. She was happy to chat and provided us with helpful advice on what to expect. I was thrilled to hear that the trail going forward didn’t have any exposed sections and it would be difficult to lose your bearings – two of my biggest fears in alpine hiking. The day was sunny and glorious. In our tee shirts, we were getting sunburned, but we were not concerned. The scenery above the snow line was Homeric and it was surreal to be within it.
Refuges (mountain-side accommodations) provided us with a dorm room bed and board along the length of the trail (mostly). Each one drastically differs from the next, but all are charming, welcoming and distinctly European. We were so early into the hiking season many of the refuges had only been open a short time and were practically empty. Our first night in Italy found us in a refuge opened only the day before and experiencing power outages, an influx of day-trippers and subsequently, the most meagre meal of the trail. Booking our trips on shoulder seasons to best miss the trail traffic, it is not unheard of for me to overshoot the mark, or in this case, undershoot. We were by some accounts, two weeks early for the official hiking season and the TMB would not really get busy for another month when much of the snow would be gone and the rivers more gently flowing and easily crossed.
Our days became rhythms we fell into, beginning with a hearty breakfast (most days) and strong coffee at our refuge where we would then depart begrudgingly, and begin an ambitious accent. Sleeping at around 1,000 meters above sea level, we would follow the trail to a col, which is a pass on a ridgeline. Days two and three had passes at 2,400 and 2,500 metres respectively. After hitting those highs, we would descend down the other side of the col, occasionally in another country such as the Col de la Seigne, when we left France and entered Italy across an unmanned border. No stamps for the passport here. It is a windy, desolate place with only a tall cairn of rocks and a basic wooden signpost indicating the historical line between two nations. It is possible even that that was the very pass Hannibal took to cross the Alps in 218 BC, with elephants and an army, he marched from Carthage in order to concur Rome.
The refuge would pack us lunch we ate most days sitting on a patch of fluffy alpine grass, surrounded by yellow petaled flowers. Many time’s with shoes and socks off, them and our feet drying in the warm sunshine. The temperature was idyllic despite the snow that surrounded us. In the winter the snow builds up so deep that by the time we attempted the TMB in early June the snow was still plentiful above the tree line. When we hiked back down in the valleys it was hot and humid; something to keep in mind for those who attempt the TMB later in summer when it’s more popular and the temperature is even higher.
Approaching Les Chapieux for our last night in France, we discovered that our final descent to our refuge was obscured by a herd of cows. A chorus of cowbells chimed in front of us while they grazed across the winding trail. We were far too exhausted to go around the large herd and began weaving our way through the innocuous bovines, noting a couple of bulls we were careful to steer clear of. Cowbells in this region of Europe were a famous tradition we discovered. Mounted to beautifully decorated leather collars the cows wore around their necks, each bell was handcrafted locally featuring family crests. Isn’t that so much more elegant than branding? They came in a range of sizes- some as big as a tradie’s hard hat for the biggest bulls, hanging from collars that could double as an Olympic weightlifter’s belt. Successfully negotiating the herd, we were greeted by a charming French host that offered wonderful conversation, a fantastic meal, and glorious beer. We fell asleep that evening and woke the next morning to the chiming cowbells of the French Alps. Before departing Chamonix nine days later we purchased a small cowbell as a souvenir that would hang on our front door in Perth, a reminder of our hike.
After another wonderful dinner at Refuge Bonatti, Bec and I sat in the nearly empty dining room that looked out at the impressive Mont Blanc massif we were hiking around, and we planned our journey into Switzerland the following day. I rang the Hotel Edelweiss, the only accommodation that was open within a reasonable hiking distance. They confirmed they could take us in the following night, and then they told me the price. My jaw dropped. I asked them to repeat it hoping I heard wrong. It was three times the price as any of our accommodations so far on our trip. Switzerland is expensive.
We were at an emotional impasse. We had hiked with wet feet for five days up and down gruelling mountains, crossing raging rivers, and followed a trail buried under meters of snow from an avalanche that occurred the day before we got there. We hiked in sun and pouring rain and couldn’t imagine giving up now. But at what cost? After crossing that exposed snowy slope a couple of days earlier, my nerves were shot. I was afraid I couldn’t confidently guide us into the next section, which on the map looked treacherous, and no one was able to give us advice on what lay ahead. The expression on Bec’s sun-kissed face told me she was exhausted. I asked her how she felt about backtracking to Courmayeur and spending another night in the hotel we stayed in the night before where we had been able to use the hairdryer on our soggy boots. We would be able to take a bus to Chamonix, the hub of Haute-Savoie, where we could base ourselves for a few days in relative luxury, and we could explore the local region without hauling heavy packs. She smiled at me and said, “let’s do that.”
The tunnel below Mont Blanc delivered us back into France and bustling Chamonix, the heart of French alpine culture. Mountain gear clad enthusiasts strolled up the main pedestrian street that was lined with specialized equipment shops. Between beers, I picked up new pole tips to replace mine that had been worn smooth. Not something you can get off the shelf back in Perth. I eyed bundles of climbing rope slung over shoulders, and rock-climbing helmets featuring brands and logos I’d never heard of. This was a world of adventurers. Our Airbnb host was an ultra-runner and admitted it was a pretty crazy sport. Bec and I passed many ultra-runners on the TMB and every time we would look at each other and tell ourselves “that’s nuts.”
The Petit Balcon is a trail that runs most of the length of the long valley Chamonix is situated in. Just a few hundred meters above the town on the north-west side of the steep valley, we got on the trail near our accommodation at one end of town and followed it through a dense forest of tall second-growth pines. The shade was welcoming, yet every once in a while, a clearing appeared allowing us to witness a breadth of incredible scenery previously hidden. Below, a busy town of European, après ski architecture, and across the way, looming above, the Glacier des Bossons pouring off of Mont Blanc.
Conversely, the Grand Balcon trail likewise follows the valley in the same direction as the Petit, only from a much higher elevation- around 1,950 meters, and is actually part of the TMB. Our last day hiking started the same way that many start their TMB journey, from Chamonix- a gondola ride to the trail! The quick trip to above the tree line allowed us the experience of this high-altitude trail without exhausting ourselves climbing the vertical kilometre out of town.
Each day followed our new routine of hiking creative circuits, negotiating the plethora of trails around the valley and wandering the streets of Chamonix, Les Praz, and Les Houches. On the Petit Balcon we were pleasantly surprised by a quaint restaurant nestled amongst the trees on the steep valley wall where we had a refreshing drink on the deck overlooking the valley. More gondolas appeared, shut down after the ski season, leading to refuges not yet open for the hiking season. From the Grand Balcon we had unobstructed views of the impressive Mont Blanc massif, while we hiked over scree the size of shopping carts on the opposite side of the valley.
Will we ever make it back to try to complete the TMB? I can’t say. Even though Bec and I talk of future trips to the region, I still have no regrets about abandoning the full circuit. For us, hiking is about challenge and enjoyment. It’s not a competition. We simply want to get outdoors, get exercise, and visit parts of the world we feel are special somehow. The unique history and culture of the Alps are perhaps what most impressed on me. Or maybe it was the food? Either way, we seem drawn back to the place where the hills were alive.