Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Tour du Mont Blanc

As we inch closer to our anticipated departure (September 6th, the Tuesday after Labor Day), our gap year slowly starts to come into focus and gradually develops from black and white to color. We’ve started to actually fill in a specific date here and there and confirm some of the details of our trip. I’m still in the throes of my personal tug-of-war between wanting to settle down in just a few places for several months at a time and itching to move around so we can experience (or maybe I should say taste, since so much is about the food) as many places as possible. For now, we haven’t settled on a firm itinerary but we have drafted a skeletal calendar and committed to a few anchor activities.

One such highlight is the seven-day, 105-mile, Tour du Mont Blanc. I first read about the tour, which circles Mont Blanc on foot, several years ago in a backpacking magazine I bought on a whim when looking for advice on hikes near Washington, DC. (Serendipity can unearth such wonderful surprises!) I saved the brief article and added it to our burgeoning gap year folder. Fast-forward to last summer when Joe and I did a 4-day, 30-mile, rim-to-rim hike of the Grand Canyon. We started at the north rim and camped for three nights as we made our way down to the Colorado River and then back up to the south rim. Although avid hikers, we have no camping equipment or experience and decided to do the hike with Just Roughin’ It, a small local outfitter. Our small group of six (the guide, married schoolteachers from Australia, a Seattle policeman and us) were fast friends – after just a few hours, we were able to share stories and joke as if we’d known each other for years. 
The common experiences of cooking, eating and cleaning up after every meal, sharing a campsite and witnessing the glories of the Grand Canyon led to fast familiarity. Our Grand Canyon trek ended up being part of one of the best vacations we’d ever had! Even before we’d started our climb to the south rim on day three, Joe and I were already scheming about our next guided hiking/camping excursion. We put Yosemite, Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks on the list. And then in November, I unearthed the article on the Tour du Mont Blanc.

The magazine writer recommended hiking the tour with an outfitter because of the fickle weather in the Alps, even in the summer. July snow squalls are not out of the question! In fact, there’s a very narrow window of only a couple months when Mont Blanc’s trails are passable for the complete ring around the mountain. And unlike the Grand Canyon hike, where each night’s objective was a campsite, the tour progresses, from France to Italy to Switzerland and back to France, from one mountain refuge to the next – some rustic huts and others small alpine inns. A support van carries trekkers’ bags, except for the daypacks with lunch and daily provisions, and meets you each evening at that day’s destination. The outfitter provides all the food and takes care of sleeping and meal arrangements. Just as with our Grand Canyon trip, hikers are left to concentrate on being properly clothed, the journey itself and the breathtaking scenery. There’s a wealth of information about the Mont Blanc loop on the Internet and I bought Kev Reynolds’s The Tour of Mont Blanc, apparently the de facto Bible on this classic hike. Because the fair weather season is so brief, the mountain refuges (some of which cannot be reserved) fill up quickly during the summer. Several web sites include reports of hikers at the end of a long day of trekking 15+ miles being stranded with no place to stay as the sometimes below freezing night temperatures approach. The possibility of this last situation, combined with the terrifying experience of losing the trail on a solo hike out west last fall (more on this in my next entry), sealed the deal. Our Grand Canyon adventure will be followed by the Tour du Mont Blanc as our next guided hike.

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