New Heights: Hiking in the Alps
Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB) is an extensive collection of trails through the French, Italian, and Swiss Alps. It runs around the base of Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in Europe. In July of this past year, I thru-hiked 130 miles of rugged terrain, which included 30,000 feet in ascent.
When my father first proposed the idea of doing this, I agreed, but never actually thought I’d follow through. I even told him I wasn’t going a week before the trip. I wasn’t anywhere near being ready to put my body through something like that. Then a few days before the scheduled flight, while hiking in Bear Mountain NY, I discovered how good hiking made me feel and how it affected my mentality. And on a whim, I decided to go.
At the end of each hiking day, I journaled about my experience. And because I went without expectations, I had so many more opportunities to discover. A strength and mental focus presented itself that I never knew and I accomplished something I never dreamt of. I began to understand what authentic love and happiness feel like. I laughed a whole lot. I ate slow. I enjoyed myself and each moment. I felt every emotion and cried without restraint when I needed to. I walked through my thoughts and evaluated the life I am living. I forgot about technology and immersed myself in the life I sought. I conquered myself.
Although there are truly no words to show the majestic beauty expressed in the Alps (not only through the landscape but also its inhabitants and visitors), I am going to try my best to replay the experience, so that you too may get a taste.
Les Houches to Les Contamines-Montjoie
13.2 miles / 3,400 feet elevation gain
Last night we slept in a charming hotel in Argentière, France. One with a beautiful breakfast buffet- and an espresso machine. We woke when our bodies allowed, in no rush because our plan wasn’t to start today. But since our first destination wasn’t too far from where we were, we hopped on a bus to Les Houches and began our journey.
For the first two hours, the path was steep, up dirt road and pavement. It was hot in the valley, the wind suspended. The sunlight reflecting off the asphalt didn’t help. It only contributed to burning my skin. The horse flies took advantage of my bare legs- and I suppose everyone else’s too.
Four and a half miles ahead was the first refuge- a place where people stop for; food, water, to use the bathroom, and to sleep. We sat for a while, watching the children play, laugh, and dance. The surrounding tables seated people from all over the world. Each of my ears was entertained by the different languages.
We trekked through the forest before emerging and wandering through the quiet, French villages of Bionnassay and Le Champel. And when I say quiet, I mean there was not a single soul. It was like walking through a pristine, Sims neighborhood. Most homes had white concrete walls with brown roofs and pink and red flowers spilling over the windowsills. This is with the exception of the ancient homes built from white and gray stones and the classic Alps chalets, built with chestnut-colored wood. The lawns were trim, a standard in France, and pleasing to the eye. And not a single piece of garbage. Glacial water fountains waited for us as we passed, more places to fill up or perhaps stick our heads into.
Back into the trees, we entered through a bridge that had vines tangling on either side. The sun peeked into the leaves just perfectly so that the waterfall ahead sparkled as it fell. The water rushed under us. Captivated, I was hesitant to move on from here, but I was assured there would be “more where this came from”.
I lost track of time easily. The day progressed leisurely. The signs measuring distance don’t mean much. Ten minutes to the destination really means an hour. And everything looks close, but is a lot further. I put away my trekking poles and fought my legs to get up the last hill into Les Contamines, pulling myself up the guardrail.
When I got to the top, I threw my pack on the ground and laid in the grass. My legs couldn’t walk another mile, so we waited to see if there was a room available anywhere.
There was. And that bed felt like home.
Les Contamines-Montjoie to Les Chapieux
15.5 miles / 4,300 feet elevation gain
Movement the day after a difficult hike is rough. My hips ached from my pack pressing hard against them. My feet sore from carrying my body weight, and some, for eight hours.
We left around eight a.m., passing along the white glacier river that wound itself around the perimeter of the village. Runners hurried by us in practice for the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, a race that occurs in August. On average, one hundred and ten miles are completed in under thirty hours. As I trudged forward up the hill covered by trees, I was met by a waterfall cascading down into what seemed like an endless abyss.
We were exposed to the open fields, walking alongside other hikers headed towards Col du Bonhomme. I was less prepared for today than yesterday. The route became vertical and challenging fast. The closer we got to the top, the less my legs wanted to lift off the ground. So wasted in my own movement, I would’ve missed the three Canadian boys sliding down a glacier if it wasn’t for their laughs and ‘WOO HOO!’s.
At the Col, I came face to face with the snowy peak. We climbed across the jagged, dark ridge. I couldn’t look up or down or sideways or anywhere other than at my feet to keep balance. Even then, I ended up falling over. Above that snow was cold, slippery rock and I struggled to find crevices to place myself. I was afraid to step- what if it couldn’t hold me. We broke through the halfway point here and tried to stop for food at a refuge, but the kitchen was closed. We were a second too late and hadn’t packed any meals in anticipation of this, but the views held my hunger off.
We spent the rest of the day gliding down the beautiful, but tortuous switchbacks into the valley below. Not only did we hike fifteen miles, but it took us ten grueling hours to get through. Day two outdid itself.
We arrived at a sweet campground adjacent to a river. There was a small sandwich shop with generous amounts of candy and pastries. And a refuge where we ate a three-course dinner at the only lopsided table. Before bed, I soaked my achy feet in the torrent- something about the frigid water of the Alps is instantly healing.
Les Chapieux to Rifugio Elisabetta
10.7 miles / 3,650 feet elevation gain
I think I’ve only just realized how much I love never having service. I love waking up to bliss, a space without worries or anxiety. Waking up to cool, clean air and mountains and my bare feet running across the grass. Everything is enhanced, colors more spectacular, especially when I don’t have a digital screen to compare to. I think a lot about the little things and feel extremely grateful. I move slowly and consciously, planning out every move, but at the same time, going with the flow and ready for whichever direction today might go.
Last night, a thunderstorm shook the valley furiously. The sky cracked and broke open, releasing its tears. I was clammy from the tent being set up improperly. But to our luck, as we were leaving, we just missed a second storm coming around.
The majority of the route today was on a beaten path through meadows, steady and easy on the legs. Before long, we stumbled upon a lake that we had seen from the peak yesterday. It was the brightest shade of blue, glistening and surrounded by wildflowers.
This is unreal. Everything is so divine. I have no choice, but to be present. The more I am, the more I feel at home between peaks and stone and hay, somehow more connected to the Earth than to any person I’ve ever befriended. And when I really think about it, nothing matters except this, right now. Hiking makes me feel like a child again.
A white horse greeted us at the entrance of Refuge Des Mottets, where we had crepes. Beyond here was the French/Italian border and I could feel the landscape changing as we moved along. There, I stood with the sun and clouds. I viewed the mountains on all sides, spying into each valley, and imagining entire worlds below. I can’t believe we’re already in Italy- I walked here.
When we arrived at Rifugio Elisabetta, we were only hoping for food and somewhere to hang out for a bit. (Usually, refuges are completely booked.) But the owner overheard us talking and offered us to stay there. We did not refuse- hot showers, food, and bed all sounded AMAZING.
Tonight, I had the privilege of holding a napkin to some girl’s profusely bleeding pimple in the bathroom, while simultaneously trying to steer clear of a conversation with a nearly naked, older man. Dinner was communal and we sat with a lovely Australian couple. We spoke about the places they’d previously been and the journey it took to get here. They had gone three hours in the wrong direction today. It’s nice to know that we aren’t alone in everything we’re thinking and having the same trials. They too never know what they’re eating, but agree it is very exciting.
Rifugio Elisabetta to Courmayeur
10.9 miles / 1,700 feet elevation gain
I barely slept. We were all lined up like sardines under the slanted ceiling. The air was congested and I was in a pool of sweat. Sleeping in a refuge is not as luxurious as it may sound.
We followed crystal and green pools out, meeting waterfalls that laid low in the valley and trailing up hills that looked like they could be homes to hobbits. Stunning views. The pastures were HD, green like artificial grass, complemented by the charcoal background and clear sky.
Italy is much drier than France. Every drop of moisture is consumed by the Earth at the chance, which makes walking downhill harder. Dust makes the ground lose. The descent into Courmayeur was unrelenting, but every step I took, took my breath away. Dozens of grasshoppers would hop over my feet as they rose and came down again. The varying insect voices fit together harmoniously and create music. I’m in a fairytale.
Day 5- Rest Day
Ahh, sweet Courmayeur. An Italian town that sits at the foot of Monte Bianco and spends its time enamoring people. Almost everyone speaks a little English or is at least willing to bear with broken Italian. The town is crawling with hikers, climbers, and tourists in general. Each store is thoughtfully placed and a large, open theater lies in the center of town. Italian women, dressed in all black to complement their olive skin, spend each morning and each night sweeping the outside of their storefronts.
Everything is in walking distance from our hotel, which a slightly spicy woman let us into- a room with two full bathrooms and a balcony overlooking the town. In the morning, she served freshly baked croissants, yogurts, jams, and coffee upon request. All of which I took advantage of.
Mid-day, I napped, catching up from past nights. It felt so good to just lay there- mind blank. My body drifts through long, long hours, only recognizing the light of day or the dark of night.
Courmayeur to Val Ferret (Tronchey Campground)
8.5 miles / 2,900 feet elevation gain
Early morning, we walked through town one last time. I powered up our “only” hill of the day and happened to run into someone from a town I used to live in. He had broken a trekking pole and was making his way up with just one. I can’t imagine losing or breaking either of mine- they’re my lifeline.
We took an alternate route- a shorter hike to a campground somewhere in the Aosta Valley. The views were much duller than the previous days. But I suppose I’m spoiled for saying something like that while I’m here because even the dullest places can’t be compared to. Watching the metallic blue beetles and butterflies land in front of me was entertaining.
We spotted a restaurant on our way passing through a town and received some pretty interesting stares. It was probably unavoidable because 1)we smelled bad, 2) were sweaty, and 3) carrying massive backpacks. And when I tried to order two dishes, the waitress stopped me, insisting I would not finish both. But as it turns out, she was right. I could barely even stomach one.
Our campground was small and peaceful. We arrived very early. It was just us and the gorgeous, unsaddled horses that belonged to the farm on site. I spent a lot of time staring out into space, wondering what they were thinking and how it must feel to live in such freedom.
When dinner came around, a white-haired woman waited on us at her family’s restaurant. Children in muddy boots and men with unkempt hair, drinking beers, gathered at the entrance. There was a lot of pointing at things and smiling, trying to win her over. She was reluctant to bother with foreigners. But by the end of the night, she was smiling and laughing too and even brought out the chef- a Cuban man, who had moved to Italy to marry his love (her daughter).
I don’t think I’ve ever seen my father this happy. As an immigrant, nothing in America compared to the Ukrainian country quite like this. At dinner, he began to tell us about how the meals used to be cooked similarly, how the hills and energy reminded him of childhood and home, and how he could stay here forever. I suppose this little valley brought him way back. The quiet air. The slow life. This woman and her meals embedded with love had my grandmother’s name written all over.
Val Ferret to La Fouly
19.8 miles / 5,013 feet elevation gain
On our way out, we grabbed apple cakes and cappuccinos. We passed a glossy river and met a fence that was blocking the way. Others followed behind and we all, collectively, couldn’t figure out how to get through. A construction worker nodded to us as if he was saying “just open the gate”. The one thing about trekking with other hikers, especially if they’re with a guide, is you will be caught behind them for miles if you don’t pass and move quickly. They are inconsistent, running up and stopping every ten minutes.
When we stopped to use the bathroom, the women’s restroom was taken, so I thought it would be okay to use the mens. After all, both had the same utilities and they looked the same. But when I was walking out, a man shouted at me in another language with his hands up. I shrugged and swiftly made my way out.
Standing in the valley, we were in perfect view of the breakneck mound in front of us. The ground was sandy and baking. I put all my weight on my poles to boost myself up. Concentrating on the dirt, I minded the caterpillars rolling down, getting caked in dirt, then trying to get back up again.
Atop the mound was a gray stone building- Rifugio Elena. I had regained a bit of energy, but it still wasn’t over. The Italian/Swiss border was waiting around the cliff's edge. And the dark clouds were rolling in and it even began to drizzle.
The border was brilliant. On one side, the rolling Swiss hills nestled together like couples in the honeymoon phase. Lush mountains met by snowbanks. On the other side, the crisp Italian landscape and the depression we came from. I felt as though I overcame a massive feat. Two French boys and a Spaniard stood at the crown. They spoke of a glacier in ten minutes distance that was safe enough to walk across without proper gear and dazzling views. My father couldn’t resist.
When a half an hour passed and he still wasn’t back, I got worried. I went to check expecting a dead body or worse, nothing at all. But he had been walking back up and said he couldn’t really cross its entirety.
From there, we continued on. Marmots danced across the meadows, chasing each other and tumbling somewhat gracefully. And sometimes even disappearing into the land that stretched down and down into infinity. The sun was already setting when we decided to take a different route to La Fouly, instead of the original TMB one. It was, in exchange for being shorter, more trying. My mind and body were tired, but I had to ground myself once again. Switzerland doesn’t leave room for mistakes. You have to be careful.
Twenty miles and twelve hours is what it took us. The roads were long and winding and every inch of me twinged. The village had turned blue upon arrival. We tried to find somewhere indoors to stay, but there was no vacancy. So we made our beds at yet another crowded campground and drifted off.
La Fouly (Ferret) to Champex
12 miles / 1,778 feet elevation gain
We had WiFi, which led me to sleep poorly. Everyone at home was still awake and I was eager to chat- fearing I was missing out on something (better?). As per usual, I woke up sore, disinterested in walking another ten miles to the next village.
Outside the campground was a playground, complete with a zipline. Even hikers had stopped to play on it. This part of the forest in Switzerland looks a lot like home. Thick roots and moist soil cover the ground, pine trees in every direction. And I didn’t have to adjust my feet amongst the stones to gain footing anymore.
Along one of the cliffs was a thoughtfully placed chain, just in case. Halfway through, we stopped to have lunch. The town seemed empty, homes resembled barns. Old, dark, wooden buildings, tall and wide, reaching to kiss the sky. But a few houses with white stone bases had painted hues of orange and coral on them. Gnomes ornamented the gardens and whatever risen ground was open occupied hungry hikers.
From the town, you could spot a tall structure between the trees at the very top. That was our destination and in total took us twelve miles to get to reach. We wandered up and against the hillsides, peering back into where we were and the other Swiss cities below. I felt powerful- one of the first times I was unphased by thoughts or exhaustion. My twenty-five-pound bag had lost its weight.
We prayed for a rest day ahead. In the case we couldn’t find a place to sleep, we’d have to keep moving. And while there wasn’t much available, we landed in the upstairs apartment of the village boulangerie, bushes of crimson flowers spilling over the perimeter porches.
Day 9 — Rest Day
Lac de Champex
The smell of bread baking crept its way into my room around dawn. I cruised down the stairs and into the bakery to have breakfast. The boiled egg shells were colored pink- strange considering it’s nowhere near Easter, but it’s the norm for everyone here.
A Czech couple also found their way into the bakery’s apartment. They decided to do TMB on a whim, driving a days worth to get here. “An extended weekend trip”, they called it.
Once again, I spent the day catching up on the sleep I’d missed, with the exception of the few times I went out to walk around the lake. I watched the ducks and coots float past, children teetering at the edge of the grass trying to feed them. I dipped my feet into the water, so cold it hit my bones.
Although I have found myself to not be very fond of Switzerland for a number of reasons, it is still so gentle. It has energy that is caring and loving. The fog always moves out by noon and the sun comes to shine on the lake, warming it up for everyone to paddleboard or kayak. There are even a few brave souls who choose to swim. Everything is done with taste. And people are generally hospitable, aside from the store clerks who get frustrated with us for forgetting to weigh the fruit before we bring it to the register. Did I mention they don’t use plastic bags here?
Lac de Champex to Col de la Forclaz
10.5 miles / 2,700 feet elevation gain
We left an hour or two earlier than normal ready to hit the trail. The excitement of completing the tour was growing.
Light beamed down on the river so hard that its reflection made it hard to see where I was stepping. The forest onward was carved with a winding trail- I could tell it was going to be one of the steeper ones. Little neon backpacks exposed the way. The man behind us was following notably close and when asked if he wanted to pass, he replied, “That’s okay. I’m using your tailwind. I’m only as weak as you.” What an empowering thing to say!
After the last push up, we ended up in a safe area plotted against the hill. Cows were scattered throughout and each of their bells participated in a symphony. A refuge with a dozen picnic tables overlooked what was most likely Chamonix below. It’s funny how you can see where you’re going, but have to understand it’s going to take a few days to reach.
The campsite was a few miles past here, set aside a fancy hotel on a main road. They were unconcerned with hikers. And it was far from quiet or private, I suppose a tourist attraction. Col de la Forclaz is about a mile above sea level and has attractive views of the layers of mountains in the distance.
Col de la Forclaz to Tre-le-Champ
13.3 miles / 3,900 feet elevation gain
At dawn everything was wet, the sky opaque and it didn’t seem to be passing through. I dressed in full rain gear and organized my things in the small hut provided for eating/charging electronics. It was one of those days where you move extra, extra slow because you never know when the trail is going to decide to take you out.
I saw yaks for the first time. They made their home in the pasture below the hotel, grazing peacefully, but cautious. We hadn’t seen any particularly spectacular views for a minute. But coming out of that valley, I was shocked by how the damp weather complimented the Earth’s shades, moistening the terrain until it turned deep evergreen with hints of turquoise. As the clouds peeled off the peaks, I discovered the bare rocks standing firmly atop and the chicory flowers waiting patiently for warmth and light. Still, the closer to Col de Balme we got, the harder the wind blew. My hands couldn’t escape the chill. The refuge at the Col was packed with people hiding from the weather.
Although the rest of the trail wasn’t anything I haven’t done before, climbing up the rocks made my feet pound. Every time I thought I was going back down, there was a new turn, returning upwards. The hill was formed into what looked a lot like steppes, where hikers stopped to eat their lunch or to just admire the land, one of the last views they’d get to see before completing TMB.
To the right, the mountain fell back into itself creating a narrow canyon. And to the left, the slopes met each other, unfolding miles and miles. Flowers sprouted out of rocks and their pink complemented the dark contour. I had missed seeing such magic.
We landed around the same area we slept the first night. The French homes were just as I’d left them. Our campground was kind, against a stream and with a more welcoming shelter beside it. Around seven p.m., the site filled in. Dinner was communal. Tables were assigned and we sat to chat with strangers.
Mistakenly, a Welsh father and son, as well as Kiwi, sat with us. We had finally run into people whose company we honestly enjoyed. We talked and laughed and made jokes about the journey here, connecting on the fact that we didn’t want this to be over.
But eventually, when they discovered they were at the wrong table, they were switched out for a Korean family- a twenty-year-old boy and his parents, who had previously trekked through the Himalayas. His mother and father did not speak English, but he made a great effort to translate. They were wonderful- she had looked at me and told me I was strong. Coming from her, that sat with me as a tremendous compliment. Strong feels important. Strong feels beautiful.
Tre-le-Champ to Chamonix
9.5 miles / 2,835 feet elevation gain
I didn’t need to wake up nearly as early as I did, but there was a cat running through the tent. An orange tabby wandered in without regard and was interested in the blow-up mattresses. Or maybe he was hungry. We filled up on juice, bread, and cereal, then began our very last day. It was blistering hot, much like day one. And the trail was easy until we reached the side of a rocky cliff and I questioned how we were supposed to get up. I couldn’t see far enough ahead to recognize a trail.
The answer to my inquiry was LADDERS nailed to the side without any type of harnessing and a solid dropdown. My hands gripped the wooden planks and I moved up, paying careful attention to if they were going to fall through. My legs shook uncontrollably. Almost the entire way was ladders, but it was worth it. There was a perfect view of Mont Blanc from here.
This was our concluding look from a neighboring peak before descending into Chamonix. The refuge nearby was CLOSED for the summer and we had relied on it for water. The trail down was well beaten, but there were fallen trees and parts where you could tell an avalanche had come crashing through. Many spaces were constricted and ironically placed next to a slope. I climbed, shoving my hands into dirt when there wasn’t a rock to hold me, and twisted myself whenever I thought my backpack might knock me over. I was drained empty from the past two weeks, but I put everything aside, every thought, and held my breath to focus on putting one foot in front of the other. NEVER in my life have I used such determination.
The campground we had planned to sleep at in town had also been closed down and turned into townhouses. So we migrated a few blocks to a more popular one, where we ran into the same people from last night and paraded through town.
So what did I actually learn from thru-hiking for the first time? Sure, I learned that there aren’t really words to what the Earth offers. She is not only beautiful, but a teacher and speaks in a language that can’t be heard, only felt. And that’s why I enjoy hiking so much. Because I let the lessons come to me and I can become more familiar with her voice.
There were so many times during this trip where I wanted to quit. But those were only times when I let the day or my thoughts get the best of me, when I told myself I couldn’t do it anymore. I wasn’t used to the physical toll this takes, but it wasn’t about that. It was about finding ways to get around the obstacles I set for myself- ways I had learned to self-sabotage. My father says never quit on a bad day.
Sometimes before you’re going to do something difficult, something you’ve never done, or something you’re afraid of, you just need to breathe. Deep belly breaths until you’re ready to move again. We don’t always have a choice in what we’re thrown, but the only bridge between can and can’t is a movement. And it’s okay to take your time. Seriously. Take your f*cking time doing everything because moments don’t last forever.
You’ll probably never know what you’re doing, but give your decisions the night because you might feel different in the morning. Keeping three points in the dirt at all times means keeping yourself grounded. Don’t take action until you feel steady and balanced. And while you’re down with the Earth, feel your feet against it and put them in the river too. Lay in the grass, the bugs won’t bother you. We need to carry weight with us, but we have to remember what it feels like to take it off- to shed.
And when you’re feeling alone, remember that this planet is filled with living creatures, even if they’re not human. Sometimes we need to connect with something greater than ourselves. The things out there are boundless and can be difficult to perceive. Give everything a try and you’ll be a little closer to understanding.