Tour de Mont Blanc

Day 1: SF -> Geneva

I’m so excited to be here! I just can’t wait to hit the trail and start walking! I think I didn’t pack enough clothing for how hot it is right now but oh well, I’ll be wearing a lot of deodorant I guess.

Munich and Geneva are so organized! It makes traveling a joy here and also so darn easy.

On this beautiful over pass to my airbnb, I debated about taking out my camera. On one hand everyone would know I’m a tourist and laugh in my face because they are Swiss and I am obviously not, and on the other hand I’d get awesome pictures and then be able to post them on Instagram become famous then get sponsored to travel…so I took out my camera and snapped away with big dreams in mind.

When I finally got to my airbnb after taking the scenic route and climbing six sets of stairs, the French owner came out laughing and smiling and oozing equal amounts of sweat and wearing lollipop red Hawaiian swim trunks and just busting out of them due to his large size. When he laughed, his entire body shook and I imaged how he must be a great grand father to someone. He spoke in a heavy French accent about the place and ended each new room or item or mechanism with “and Voila!” and offered to give me additional help about dinner spots or bars or breakfast…he was so wonderful and was a fun way to start off the trip. I felt very much at home.

Tomorrow to Les Houches!

Day 2: Geneva -> Chamonix -> Les Houches

I ate breakfast in a nearby park and was accompanied by hundreds of hijabed ladies (family in tow) wearing Sunday’s best on the hot Monday along with older Swiss walking small pooches who despite the fluff all looked as stern as their owners.

I left over an hour early for my bus to Chamonix from Geneva due to my propensity for getting lost and the need for some coffee. Since the bus took off from the airport, I was able to go to the tourist information desk at the airport and get directions to where the bus was and what it looked like. Good thing because there were no signs and the bus that came did not have my destination, bus number or company I bought the ticket from listed. Hence force, I learned whenever I got to a new city to go to the tourist information center first and to ask them all my questions (where is the bus, campground, start to the trail, place to buy a ______) and then on top of that, cross reference what they say with google maps.

Chamonix is quite a charming place with the mountains surrounding you and with everyone looking like they are on vacation. There is a fancy McDonalds and a subway here! It’s a modern town and the infrastructure takes away from its quaintness but happily contributes to the town’s humor and lightness.

There are paragliders here reaching for the stars and soaring miles above the mountain. It looks so wondrous and fun and exhilarating. I’d have a hard time making the initial leap off the mountain but after that I know I’d love it. There is a gondola to the top of the mountain and that looks quite dreary in the face of paragliders.

The last leg of the journey lands me in Les Houches. After setting up my tent and making the decision to be lazy and not take out my tarp, the menacing growl and crackle of a storm shouted “I’m coming”. And come it did.

Like Huck and Tom on their raft on the great Mississippi, I shoved everything into my backpack and put that and myself in my sleeping pad as the rest of the my tent ground was wet. I finally found a comfy position and lied down and listed to my audiobook and fell into a deep deep slumber.

Day 3: Les Houches -> Le Pontet

[most photos from this day are on my camera but here is a devilish pony sign from the campground I stayed at]

No one speaks English…few who are French want to talk to me! So I’ve taken it upon myself to master the art of conversation.

There are three starts to conversation (1) they say hi to me in French (2) they say hi to me in English (3) I say hi to them. If (1) proceed and say bonjour and then if they wait around say “sava” or “parele vous angle”. (2) ask them where they are from in English and get the ball going! (3) say hello and see how they respond and do (1) or (2) based on that.

Using my new found skills I met: a Malaysian man named Steve who was a lawyer and wanted to take selfies with me and then sent them to me on Facebook, a British man named Dominic who chain smoked and was busty and did the AT, and a group of old Swiss men who most notably spoke the best English (the British guy mumbled and used a lot of London slang).

Given that, perhaps it doesn’t come as too big of a surprise that it was hard getting directions for the start of the TMB from people. Once found, i found it really interesting that the first section is foremost a ski area. I passed by loads of ski lifts, signage featuring skiers or skiers with Xs through them, and resorts that looked like they belonged on a winter postcard sin snow.

After downing an amazingly delicious and sweet custard tart with raspberries and holly berries (both of which frequent the trail), I left the city of Les Contamines for my campground at Pontet. Little did I know I was going to a summer camp for parents with very energetic kids…the place roared with laughter and screams, kids doing archery/swimming/soccer/tennis/kayaking/playing a made up game with sticks from the woods: it was a riot!

And then another storm came around and I quickly made my tent the right way having learned from previous mistakes.

Day 4: Le Pontet -> Les Chapieux

I think August must be ultra marathon month, now again like in Scotland there are ultra marathon runners sprinting up the trail grinning and shouting “Bonjour”.

The scenery today is so beautiful. The walk today was through the forest, next to a river, then up in the bare rocky mountains and then down rolling green farming hills. At one point the trees were glittering (first picture) and I had to take 5 minutes to just gaze.

For each wildflower in sight it seems as though it has a soulmate butterfly…so differently shaped, colored and marked but so clearly made for each other.

Another magical moment was this stream filled with red stones that perhaps oddly reminded me of a butchery with glistening stone cutlets.

Today I met a load of Americans. First there was Brooke (in her 50s) and Judy (Brooke’s mother in her 70s) from LA. We discussed how off it was that all the signs on the trail tell you how many minutes it would take you to arrive somewhere (instead of listing the number of kilometers or miles) but we also noted in LA everything was also about how long it would take to drive between two places so maybe this isn’t that absurd. (As a side note, the times have been fairly accurate on the signs.)

When walking to my campsite, I heard thunder and knew I only had about an hour or so despite the sore feet so I began sprinting downhill. Once I got to my campsite, it was so windy that even while I was trying to pitch my tent, it kept falling over since it wasn’t weighed down…I guess I looked as I felt (distressed) and so 3 random concerned individuals came over and helped me. We did it before the rain storm started and I profusely thanked them in English which despite the language gap I think they understood.

Day 5: Les Chapieux -> Val Vany

This was a very very long day.

The day started with meeting Hannah and Magnus from Copenhagen, Denmark. We chatted a lot about healthcare and education, specifically about differences and similarities between America and Denmark. Fun facts: you are paid to go to university and healthcare is also covered by the government and on average 40% of your income is taxed.

Crossing over into Italy, I met Masimas an Italian Israeli traveling with his son (a son that did not speak for the 30 or more minutes I was chatting with his dad) and Masimas informed me that now I’m in Italy I need to walk a bit slower and enjoy!

It seemed like in a second the “bonjour” and “merci” switched to “bonjourno” and “chow” and “grazi”…it was quite jarring and would take another day for me to catch on and say the right things.

Later on, I ran into the REI organized group and met someone named Emily. Once they heard I was traveling alone, like Brooke and Judy, the entire group became low key foster parents and remembered my name and would always stop and say hi whenever we crossed paths on the trail.

Most notably, at one point I was passing by the REI group and Paul told me I was looking at Mont Blanc (the snow capped mountain in the picture above). It’s always a good idea when you are without a guide to befriend a group with one since they’ll clue you into things that are kind of the whole reason you are there.

After the sighting, it was all down hill…it was a long painful on my feet trudge to camp. It didn’t help that not only had the signs now changed since we were no longer in France but they had also become much much less readable and frequent.

I finally reached camp to a group of friendly faces and bought myself an Oreo ice cream pop to celebrate. This was the first night without rain and it was luxurious!

Day 6: Val Veny-> Rifugio Bonatti

This morning while brushing my teeth I finally learned the name of the lady who always commiserates with me over are we there yet syndrome. Her name is Dominqua from Poland with short springy brown hair and a pink nose and a weighted smile.

Hannah and Magnus’s lent me their guidebook to understand where they were going and if I also wanted to come. Their stapled printed out was from the soulful explorer (.wordpress.com) and that prompted a lot of laughter especially when we saw some pictures of the man waving a 🤙 around. After a lot of jokes, I read there were no campgrounds between here and La Fouly and wild camping is illegal below 2500 m with a 500 euro fine if found so I decided to try to book a refugee for the next night at 50 euro. Through email, I got a booking confirmation and lost it laughing when I read this on the email:

Timetable:

Check in: after 3.30 PM

Dinner: 6.45 PM

Silence: 10.00 PM

Breakfast: 6.15 AM > 7.45 AM

Silence..

At the refugee, I again ran into Brooke and Judy again. The funny thing about running into Americans over the age of 35 is all of them adopt you into their team and remember your name and just spread tentacles of warmth and love your way.

The refugee was wonderful. As you stepped in, your skin flooded with warmth and you removed your gnarly boots and donned grey and green felt slippers with tiny wild flowers. In the evening we were seated in long tables and ate a 4 course meal with sweet and tart apple carrot salad, what tasted like black daal, mashed potato cabbage egg more lentil yumminess, and then panne cotta with chocolate crumble crust for dessert…it was utterly delicious. Then after all the food was eaten and wine drunk, we all slept one next to another like sardines which was cozy and just solidified the feeling I was at a giant sleepover with strangers who just became close friends.

Day 7: Rifugio Bonatti -> La Fouly

I drank hot delicious black coffee and gazed at the beautiful view pictured above. I think because I’ve been drinking freeze dried coffee with luke warm water from the tap: the coffee really jolted me and I was super speedy for the first 6 miles of the walk that day…literally running past most other groups. It was a nice change from being over taken by little girls with pig tails and giant calfs.

The views in the morning were probably the most easy to enjoy out of any portion so far. Partly because the views themselves were stunning and partly because since the walking wasn’t exhausting I had lots of energy to take them in.

I met Pauly and Mick from Indiana who noticed my JMT badge and struck up a conversation about their love for that trail.

I also met Myza, this stunning Argentina Canadian who was ripped and super friendly. She was 48 but looked like she was in her late 30s. When I asked if she had any sagely advice, she told me to stay in shape and don’t comprise big things when it comes to love. She said them very matter of factly and did not provide any additional context. Sofie another similar aged lady from Australia laughed along with me.

Although the walking wasn’t too difficult that day, the wind was roaring and chilled you to the bone. On the path for the first time, I saw snow and frozen plants and felt a lot of empathy for the plants.

In the evening, Hannah and Magnus finally got into camp and Hannah’s feet were covered in blisters so I gave her my sandles. We then got pizza and wine at what seemed like the only restaurant in town. It was super yummy and for this first time in the morning, I did not wake up hungry.

Day 8: La Fouly -> Champex

Cotton tufts float in the air like summer snow, jiving in the wind. A man bikes uphill with his fluffy dog whose the size of the man’s calf. These self driving grey rumba like devices wonder across peoples backyard in what I assume is cleaning. Signs about mushrooms and fun facts (in French) are stationed every 1/4 of a mile and equally frequent but stagnated from the shrooms are funny wooden sculptures.

Usually the journey is as good as the destination, but today the destination was everything. Champex has a sapphire Alpine lake in the middle and like furniture around a TV, all the houses and restaurants are grouped around it, facing it. The lake contained small paddle boats and wind surfers and left stupid grins on everyone who stared at it for longer than 5 minutes.

Day 9: Champex -> Le Peuty

The day started out with chocolate croissants and coffee and an interesting conversation where I explained how credit works in the US and then I was explained how most people only use debit cards and everyone has provided to them their own financial advisor in Denmark. We spent a long time on credit card points which they found utterly fascinating.

The morning walk reminded me of Yosemite with that granite walls, stoney steep paths and fur trees. This illusion however was broken by a tribe of miniature ponies casually chomping on some grass and some miniature cows desperate to be taller to get first dibs on the leaves we were handing them to eat and then there was the yeti cow who had so much fluff I worried I might not be able to control my desire to cuddle with it.

At night we drank and ate with some motorcycle tourists from Manchester. The food was abundant and conversation hilarious and with the exception of Lufthansa canceling my flight home and having to call them and United, it was a really nice night.

Day 10: Le Peuty -> Tre-la-Champ

Today it rained so hard and there was so much thunder that I decided to try to stay at the guesthouse I ate my lunch at. It’s a drag that my last planned night of camping is going to be inside especially since I’m now outside enjoying the sun, but I think it will be nice to start the day off tomorrow with a hot cup of coffee and without having to take down my tent in the rain or wait till 9am to take it down and then be late starting off what presumably will be a very long day.

The views today were amazing. We walked up these silver chippings dug into the earth and surrounded by pink orange red sherbet brush. Although a tricky trail to find the start of, Sophie, my fellow Aussie traveler, navigated us up and the views (pictured above) were spectacular.

Time has passed by so quickly here and I credit that to all the many people I met along the way. In particular to Hannah and Magnus of Copenhagen. Hannah has short thin dyed blonde hair, pale skin scorched to a rosey pink and whenever she does her silly laugh her eyes squint. She’s a rare type of chain smoker who never smells like smoke and when she has a cigarette no one around her smells it. And her eyes, they are really big and blue like something painted by Margaret Keane. She likes to tease her partner Magnus about his drinking or silliness or a small food particle on his face. Magnus has a sharp jaw, wears a small silver ring in his left ear and at first his loud sharp voice and joking attitude will give you the impression he’s routy and doesn’t think before he talks, but the truth couldn’t be further from that. He’s the type of guy to discuss any topic in a way where he voices his very well thought out opinion but does it kindly and gives room for you to speak and is always wanting to know other views and positions.

Hannah and I joke that although they are a couple, Magnus is our dad and Hannah and I children since he does always ask for directions. and has the heaviest pack. They are both lanky and thin like walking sticks and seem to subsist off of beer, bread and candy. Hannah has a way of making the most dull walk fun through some hilarious Bring It On cheer that we all learn and do together or feeding the cows near by or trying a new downhill walking technique. Magnus is super kind and open-minded and asks the most interesting pointed questions.

I’m going to miss them so much. I’ve spent so many meals and mornings and trail walking with them and they just brighten everything.

Day 11: Tre-la-Champ -> Les Houches

My dentist recently asked me if I was a mountains or beach person. I didn’t really know how to answer at the time since I didn’t feel strongly either direction and on top of that there were a million instruments in my mouth prodding my gums and my tooth had a pounding heart beat.

I think it’s easy to answer questions like that when you’re at the top of the mountain and feel a total calm or are trudging up and feel determined and exhilarated and exhausted. But I’m pretty sure the answer really is the mountains: they always just feel like home.

Today was probably the most dangerous day. The alternative trail was closed due to rock slides and the regular trail invoked climbing a series of ladders and, in a couple sections, clinging on to chains while walking…while probably the most dangerous in comparison, it still was very easy and safe (FYI mom and dad) and the obstacle course just made it feel more like an adventure worthy of Indian Jones.

The refugee I was going to stay at lost my reservation and I was thrilled! I had resigned myself to not doing the full circuit by 4–5 miles and instead tomorrow directly walking to Chamonix. But earlier that day, I was regretting I wouldn’t have one last night of camping as well as the satisfaction of knowing I did the whole route. It’s perhaps silly but it feels good having gone full circle and today knowing where everything was since it was the first place I camped and also just feeling more confident using my Frenglish and chatting with people.

I celebrated reaching the end by eating 2 bananas, a pear, a peach and spaghetti Bolognese. And then I pitched my tent super duper well and gave advice about the trail to 2 Canadians.

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