Sunday, August 12, 2012

TMB: the Hike

The first morning of the mountain adventure we’d dreamed about for so long had finally dawned. The romantic images of gentle bucolic inclines through scenic Alpine meadows were suddenly very real rocky ascents rising defiantly in front of us daring us to climb. Our Grindelwald training hikes under our belts, our well broken in boots supporting our feet and our trekking poles at the ready, we felt reasonably confident as we started the ascent of what was billed as our “TMB practice hike.”

A cable car deposited us up beyond the tree line on the northern side of the Chamonix valley. This essential initial time together allowed Eric to become familiar with our hiking abilities as individuals and as a group and helped us learn to listen to and trust him. It didn’t take long before we were hanging on his every word and took as gospel everything he said. If Eric predicted it would soon cool off, right after he spoke we felt a chilly breeze. If he suggested taking pictures from a certain promontory and we listened, we were assured of having photos with the absolute best backdrop. When Eric told us to don our foul weather cover, it was guaranteed to start spritzing in the subsequent minutes. As we learned over the course of the TMB, Eric clearly had a close personal relationship with the landscape and we were the very lucky beneficiaries.

From the valley’s northern slope, we looked across the rooftops of Chamonix far below to the pristine white dome of Mont Blanc rising on the southern side, the imposing mountain that anchors the corners of France, Switzerland and Italy 15,000 feet in the sky. It was an incredible view. In contrast to the monumental were the small, vivid mountain rhododendron blossoms, their deep pinks and purples spilling down the incline and lining our trails. Our orientation day was graced by the visits of several sturdy ibex, members of the wild goat family with enormous backward curving horns (those of a male can reach lengths of more than three feet), standing watch on rocky ledges. As they do in early summer, one particularly diligent adolescent was dutifully scratching off his long white winter cover against the stiff, bristly branches of the scrub rhododendron thereby allowing his short, sandy summer coat to appear. We also spied the more elusive graceful and wiry chamois, an entirely different animal of the goat-antelope species careering down a steep, rock-strewn slope. Alpine marmots – adorable, oversized ground squirrels -- were our constant companions, always on the lookout beside their holes and sounding their repeated whistling alarms whenever we or any other danger approached. It was a deeply satisfying “I spy” day for witnessing wonderful wildlife.

Our practice hike picnic alongside an ice-cold Alpine lake was a preview of exquisite open-air lunches to come, each a distinctive medley of magnificent local specialties. Our mountain-backdropped picnics included cheeses and hams, vegetables and fruits, crusty breads, tapenades, patés and always a different variety of buttery French cookie. We each carried in our daypack a share of the delectable communal lunch spread Eric would subsequently lay out each morning and did our best to even out the load.

We were undeniably humbled by the first day’s exercise and gave in to exhaustion as we fell into bed knowing we had six long but sure-to-be exhilarating days ahead of us.

The inauguration of the actual TMB hike took place high above the village of Les Houches where a cable car let us off at the Bellevue station in a lovely mountain meadow at the foot of a glacier. From there, we headed up and around the mountain and then through the Col du Tricot towards our first night’s destination, Les Contamines-Montjoie. Our first day was breathtaking and graced by a hiking trifecta: we felt the frosty spray of a fast-flowing mountain torrent and gushing waterfall, passed over a swollen, raging river on a bobbing suspension bridge and saw a picture perfect rainbow after a gentle rain. Our picnic lunch in an inviting green pasture studded with tiny white daisies was cut short by some additional drizzle, but the sun soon returned and we packed away our wet weather gear for the day. Much of the beautiful scenery was reminiscent of Colorado, from the shaded trail through fragrant pine forests and groves of rustling aspens to the snow-capped vistas across the valley. Eight miles and seven hours after starting, we reached Les Contamines, a small village nestled beside a noisily rushing stream with just enough time for much needed showers before dinner. It was a rewarding, scenic day with plenty of literal ups and downs, but the difficulty level was certainly manageable. I can do this, I thought, I’m definitely ready for more.

As we would come to expect each evening after dinner, our muscles vigorously protested getting up from the table after having been given a chance to relax and then tighten during the meal. The ascent to our room was a difficult effort and a painful reminder of the miles covered during the day. On that first night, our room was three steep flights up and each step we took was successively more difficult. Eric had warned us that the weather report for the following day, reputed to be one of the most difficult of the TMB, was less than propitious and that we should make sure we were prepared. Like obedient schoolchildren, we laid out our foul weather layers, downed some extra-strength Tylenol and collapsed into bed.

Eric, as always, was right. About everything. The Les Contamines to Les Chapieux leg of the TMB was wet, cold, strenuous and long. At one point mid-ascent up steep, interminable slick rock when my overworked lungs were burning a hole in my chest, I candidly asked myself as I bent over, yet again, to fully catch my breath, did we really pay good money to put ourselves through this agony? The morning had dawned under light cloud cover but by early afternoon, we were making our way through a delicate mist that soon turned to opaque fog as we reached the snow line. The terrain had gone from rocky to muddy to being under an increasingly thick cover of slushy snow over the course of just several hundred yards. The inevitable cold rain and biting wind soon followed with visibility reduced to seeing no more than the heels of our fellow hikers’ boots in front of us. And if ever we had been crazy enough to think that we could tackle the TMB independently, such delusional pretentions evaporated into the dense obscurity. The incline remained steep and all was eerily silent save the slushy sounds of one boot being planted in front of the other in the prints Eric had cut ahead of us in the snow. The fog continued to thicken as the rain pelted our slickers and soaked our pants and from the tail end of our string of hikers came the plaintive query: have we reached Nepal yet? It was perfect timing for a heartfelt giggle since the hiking hero in me was quickly fading and succumbing to the elements in lonely frustration. I was soaked and chilled to the bone, foul weather paraphernalia notwithstanding. I had to will myself every step of the way to continue advancing as we drew closer to the seemingly elusive summit.

The fog was such that had we been on our own, we surely would have missed the trail markers and become hopelessly lost – a very dangerous proposition at over 8,000 feet. Even my ordinarily reliable sense of direction would have failed us and panic would have been the response of the day. My will was waning and my spirits were at rock bottom when the Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme finally, slowly and miraculously appeared out of the mist just over the pass. The rustic wooden hut with a central pot-bellied stove was the oasis I’d visualized over the previous cold, wet hours and a mug of hot tea never tasted so good. The central room was filled with the cheerful energy of grateful, shivering hikers sipping steaming beverages and resting in various stages of undress on long wooden benches, their outer layers drying on clotheslines overhead. The atmosphere was festive and the room warm with no one anxious to head back out into the elements.

After an hour with the warming effects of a couple doses of tea, Eric rounded us up, announced that the weather had cleared somewhat and that it was time to get back on the trail. We had a sharp descent of a couple hours ahead of us before we could enjoy the hot meal that awaited us at the Auberge de la Nova in Les Chapieux. The fog had indeed lifted, the rain had slowed to a light drizzle and within a half hour of leaving the hut, patches of blue sky appeared and the valley below us became visible. I had put my lungs to the test on the grueling way up and while initially thrilled to finally be heading down, I was soon lamenting the descent as my knees began screaming in pain. Successfully negotiating the slick, muddy trails down the steep slope amid melting snow with my knees intact was clearly going to require some serious assistance from my trekking poles. So lean on them I did and managed to negotiate the balance of the trip down while minimizing my joint pain. Les Chapieux is a hamlet of just a handful of old stone buildings but to my spent body it looked like paradise. And our simple hiker’s inn with one toilet and one shower stall down the hall shared by the dozen guests on our floor was as comfortable as a five star resort. It provided a hearty dinner, glasses of wine and a comfortable bed – all we needed high in the hills for the short time we managed to stay awake.

The subsequent days took us from Les Chapieux, France to Courmayeur, Italy and then to Champex and Finhaut, Switzerland. While the journey became slightly less difficult -- perhaps because we had perfect weather or it could have been that we simply got used to the daily exertion -- it never got easy. As precarious as the day’s weather on the climb to the Col de la Croix du Bonhomme had been, the balance of our days on the TMB were scrumptious: skittering cotton candy clouds in a pure blue sky and just enough cool breeze to moderate the sun. As one must on a hike of the TMB’s magnitude, we had bought and carried with us adequate gear for the possibility of inclement weather. And while we were lucky to have had only two days when we needed it, we were happy our expenditures had been put to good use.

Each morning we awoke to the familiar tick-tick-tick of trekking poles as hikers getting an early start passed by our open windows. I usually spent my first few waking moments wishing I could bypass the day’s daunting climb but my dogged spirit always won out (either that or I was too embarrassed to say I’d take the shuttle). We quickly acclimated to the rhythm of our days: on the trail by nine a.m. and at our destination by the late afternoon. Each morning started with the inevitable, strenuous uphill climb to a stunning, barren pass as we anticipated the lush scenery lurking over the crest and in the midst of which we would enjoy our lunch. We filled our water bottles and camelback bladders with pure glacier water from rushing streams and then had our midday open-air repasts in the company of whistling marmots, shrieking swallows and squeaking pipits diving overhead with the eerie cracks of glaciers in the distance. We then embarked on the welcome dip into a new valley, always in the overarching presence of the sleeping Mont Blanc giant. I learned successfully to rely on my poles for support and my knees were forever grateful.

One morning while trudging through a cow-filled pasture on our way up to that day’s pass, we stopped at a rustic dairy farm to watch the sharp, grassy flavored Beaufort cheese being made. The cows were milked in the pasture as they munched away and then the milk was brought to the dairy and dumped into a gargantuan copper pot. From inside the damp cheese shed whose nutty, moldy aroma was most pleasant, Eric bought a sizeable chunk from an even bigger cheese wheel that we demolished as part of our lunch that day. He always surprised us with a new local specialty, like the delicious Beaufort, but I drew the line at lardo, an Aosta Valley charcuterie made of fatback cured with herbs. I decided to pass on the Italian delicacy that looked like a pasty white fruit roll-up made of pure Crisco shortening.

The trail took us past sheep and goats grazing in the meadows, their bells ever-tinkling, the goats ever-bleating and the sheep always curious. Eric pointed out a hikers’ inn perched dizzyingly high between two glaciers overlooking the moraine. We delighted in mountain glens splendidly carpeted with wildflowers: gentian violets, Queen Anne’s lace (I’d never before seen the lovely lavender-colored variety), alpine crocuses, wild thyme, tiny marguerite daisies and magnificent lupine. We came across a dozen chamois sprinting over an outlying snowfield. They generally travel in herds and one by one they nimbly negotiated the steep, slippery slope with grace and speed. We trekked through polite Swiss villages filled with chalets of arcadian charm and window boxes spilling over with an abundance of pink and red geraniums. I took deep cleansing breaths of the mountain air and did my best to snap mental photos in addition to those we took with the camera to hold onto the priceless images for as long as I could.

Every day we rejoiced in the luck of having Eric as our guide. He was one cool, interesting dude who knew everything about the terrain, the flora and the fauna and he had a sixth sense for determining just the right pace at which to lead us and when we needed a break. The panoramic vistas that came into view as we made our final ascent and passed back into France through the Col de Balme from Switzerland were some of the prettiest of the journey. The Chamonix valley, this time from the eastern perspective, was lined with majestic glaciers and jagged peaks and we were able to glimpse the village of Le Tour in miniature in the distance at what would be our journey’s end. We asked Eric if he was happy to soon be heading home after his extended “business trip” in the Alps. When he nodded, I observed that it certainly beat those I had been accustomed to making to Dallas or Detroit.

Our final afternoon on the TMB was spent descending across above-the-tree line meadows and then through delicate, undulating aspen woods. At times, the aerobic ascents had just about killed me but I experienced little trouble (save some painful wear and tear on a sore knee the second day) as long as my reliable trekking poles were there to support me. On the other hand, a couple of our fellow hikers were like rugged mountain goats going up without much effort but finding the extended descents more difficult. In fact, about halfway down to Le Tour, one of our comrades opted to take the gondola down to the finish line rather than further destroy already ravaged knees. Joe, as usual, emerged from the undertaking unscathed, athlete supreme that he be. And while every big and little muscle in my body ached, the only lingering injury I sustained was a bit of painful sun poisoning on my lower lip (although it will take my poor roughened heels and blistered, calloused feet many months to fully recover).

Over the course of seven days of communal hiking, the eight of us developed a special bond. We’d completed a difficult physical challenge as a team -- a bit like going through boot camp together -- and spent all of our waking hours ensemble. Sharing a final round of celebratory drinks on a cafe terrace at the trailhead in Le Tour, we toasted each other for what we’d accomplished and recounted our favorite moments of the TMB (in addition to the finish!).

The Tour du Mont Blanc was magnificent and Joe and I had a blast. Being outdoors in the presence of such unbridled, unspoiled nature was a magnificent, humbling experience and reminded us of just how small and insignificant we really are when it comes to the wilderness. We humans are merely guests passing through -- just part of the plan and not really in charge, try as we might. We need to acquiesce to nature and not the other way around, because as Eric liked to remind us, the mountains will always be the better competitors.

Pictures of our adventures:

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