Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Tour du Mont Blanc

Ascending the wildflower meadows to Grand Col Ferret in the shadow of Mont Dolent
We could hear the soft roar of a nearby stream tumbling down the the meadowed slopes. An artist's palette of colors were splattered onto the open alpine meadows: rhododendron, lilies, and golden cinquefoil were everywhere. "This is my office," Francoise joked. "If you call me, I will pick up here and say 'Hallo! I am in my office right now.'"

She turned around and we resumed our ascent, following a small, "secret" trail through the most colorful wildflower gardens imaginable to the human mind. Overhead, great glaciers spilled down the slopes of Mont Dolent, the sharp peak that sat astride the borders of France, Switzerland, and Italy. After two hours of substantial huffing and puffing, passing by the Rifugio Elena, the steady uphill flattened out to a grand grassy saddle. The Grand Combin's heavily glaciated massif floated high across the Swiss Val Ferret as we stood atop the Grand Col Ferret, with one foot in Switzerland and one in Italy.

Francoise, our guide, beckoned us to a meadow just above the pass with a view straight down the Italian Val Ferret to the snowy patches at Col de la Seigne, where we had lunched just two days before. Right before us rose the Petit Jorasses: despite its name, it was a most impressive granite spire, with nearly vertical cliffs dropping to the floor of the upper Dora Baltea watershed. The scene was a sensory overload: where should I look? But that is even more beautiful! Oh look, we were there a day ago! Are those more cows? Overwhelmed by my senses and weighed down by lunch, I was swept by a wave of pleasant drowsiness and napped a half-hour in the meadows under the sun. I was barely distinguishable from a marmot.

My mother went glissading for the first time after lunch. The path down the north side of the pass was still covered in snow, so Francoise proposed a simple way downhill: by butt. The idea seemed disagreeable with my mom. She had taken me sledding a couple of times when I was much younger and it snowed in Virginia- but not until we stood atop the Grand Col Ferret did I realize that she had only watched me go sledding and had never bothered to sled with me. But when she finally plucked up the courage to sit down on the snow and let go, she found it exhilirating and was disappointed when we ran into no more snow patches that day. Above us, we saw Swiss children who were in summer camp slide down the snow banks at the Col and later heard them sing as they hiked downhill through the wildflower meadows and grazing cows.

Yet, as Francoise explained, this landscape had not always been so idyllic. For many Italians in Mussolini's state, this was one of the few escapes to neutral Switzerland. And to the refugees of the most devestating world war, clear days like that day at the pass would have meant a hail of fire from Italian forces at the border. Most refugees traveled in thick fog, when the zero visibility protected them from bullets but made the many cliff edges and snow banks so much more dangerous.

My feet were sore at the end of the day, having hiked over 50 miles of the nearly 100-mile, ten-day trek. Luckily, the end of each day came with a shower and bed and the end of this particular day came with a serving of raclette- boiled potatoes smothered in a burnt local cheese- in the Swiss hamlet of La Fouly.

Chamonix-Mont-Blanc, nestled in the Valley of the Arve
Six days earlier, we set out from Chamonix, the French resort town, on a ten-day, hundred-mile, three-country hike, with a total elevation gain equal to the height of the Himalayas, that circled Mont Blanc, Monte Bianco, the White Mountain, the tallest peak in the Alps and in Europe outside the Caucasus. Having never hiked in Europe, we chose to do the loop with a guide. This was a very wise decision- Francoise, a guide from the Chamonix Guides' Company, not only knew the route and some secret, scenic detours, but was an encyclopedia of the Alps. She introduced us to the French cheesemakers of the Alpage Beaufort, helped us identify and pick chantarelles in the forests above Val Montjoie, pointed out the edelweiss growing by the memorial to Courmayeur Guides, recounted the area's history from the Romans to Mussolini to the Mont Blanc Tunnel, and jokingly reminded us that although the Tour visited three countries, Mont Blanc was most certainly French.

The Tour du Mont Blanc was a tour of seven valleys: the Chamonix Valley, or the Valley of the Arve, a great Alpine river, was our start point. From there, we progressed over the forested slopes near the Col de Voza into the Val Montjoie and Les Contamines; then over the backbone of the Alps themselves on a lengthy day over Col du Bonhomme and Col de la Croix du Bonhomme to the Vallee des Glaciers. Crossing Col de la Seigne brought us into Italy, Val Veni, and Courmayeur. Our stay in Italy was short, ending as we left the Italian Val Ferret via Grand Col Ferret into the Swiss Val Ferret. From the resort town of Champex above the Swiss Val Ferret, the tour climbs through the Bovine and down to Vallee du Trient and Col de la Forclaz. A final climb brought us to Col de Balme, the triumphant return into France and the Chamonix Valley.

Some long-distance treks are about losing oneself in a vast wilderness. Some treks are pilgrimage routes that touch on human history and culture. The Tour du Mont Blanc is neither and both at the same time. The views from Col du Bonhomme or the Lacs des Chersey seem stunningly wild. Yet almost every night of the trek ended at a village with a small church, a centuries-old bread oven, and a local cheese unique to its particular mountain valley.

The view from the Vallee des Glaciers cheese factory
Beaufort cheese wheels in the cave
For certainly one reason to hike the Tour du Mont Blanc is for the cheese- perhaps it should be called the Tour du fromage du Mont Blanc (pardon my poor French). Early in the hike, the focus was the Reblochon of Les Contamines, a charming town with a beautiful church down the valley from Col du Bonhomme. The day after enjoying the creamy, rich flavor of the Reblochon, we hiked passed beautiful brown cows grazing on the flowers below either side of Col de la Croix du Bonhomme and spent most of the day in close proximity to the low clangs of their cowbells. That night, before dinner at our auberge, we accompanied other hikers from our group to the chevrerie of Les Chapieux. This local cheese store promised us the king of cheeses- the Alpage Beaufort, a cheese made from raw milk of the cows who grazed in the high mountains of Savoy, perhaps the very cows we had passed on our hike that day. The firm, almost sharp cheese lived up to its billing. The very next morning, before beginning our ascent to Col de la Seigne, Francoise brought us to meet her friends at the cheese factory in Vallee des Glaciers. The smell of aging dairy was as impressive as the many wheels of alpage Beaufort in the factory's cave. One of our group remarked at how industrialized our mindsets had become: we would never have pictured a cheese factory as an operation occupying only two small stone houses, run by a handful of cheerful Savoyards using milk collected fresh from the mountain meadows up the trail.

Cows grazing beneath dolomite cliffs in upper Val Montjoie
Entering Italy meant many things, but mainly it meant Fontina. During our night at the Rifugio Bonatti, high above the Italian Val Ferret, we had our vegetable soup with a thick slice of Fontina, the semi-soft cheese of the Val d'Aosta. The next night was La Fouly and Swiss raclette. The dinner following that was even more eye-opening: rosti, the ultimate Swiss comfort food. Think hash browns, with plenty of butter and even more cheese and an egg on top. Continental dinner might have even outdone American breakfast. I was glad we hiked enough each day to justify the rich meals we enjoyed each evening.

The sound of the Tour is the sound of cowbells. During our second day, we heard the low clang of brass bells in the breeze for the first time at Le Truc, a plateau above the Miage Valley. At the time, we were all fascinated by the sound, but by day eight, during our traverse of the Bovine, everyone but me had concluded that cowbells were more or less a nuisance. The Bovine Route is appropriately named: the path between Champex and Col du Tricot passed by countless cows on endless meadows walled off by electric fencing. Francoise informed us that each cow had a slightly different bell with a slightly different tone and that both herders and cows could recognize other cows by their bell tone. The bells are thus not only useful for herders when their cows wander off in the fog, but may also help some grazing cows find their friends.

View over the Rhone Valley
The Bovine was the northernmost reach of our hike. It was also one of our closest brushes with the world outside the Alpine paradise of the Tour. Here, the trail followed a high Alpine balcony above the valley of the Rhone River. Looking into the valley below, we could see the heart of Switzerland's Valais canton: the town of Martigny, Swiss farmland, and even Lac Leman (or Lake Geneva) in the distance. Yet the view was marred slightly by smog over Lake Geneva that obscured the hills of the Jura in the far distance. Even in the Alps, it's hard to escape air pollution.

The Swiss Val Ferret
Just the day before, we had hiked along the Swiss Val Ferret from La Fouly to Issert and then climbed out of the charming valley to the beautiful lakeside resort town of Champex. The incredible scenery was expected; the aging signs of Switzerland's intense militarization were less expected. The morning was idyllic as we hiked from town to town in the valley, passing by gardens populated with gnomes. The afternoon gave reminder that even this landscape felt the pressure of the twentieth century's major political struggles. High above the valley near the Swiss town of Orsieres, we passed a set of abandoned Swiss military bunkers. At the height of the Cold War, Switzerland built batteries into its mountains, placing artillery above its own towns, apparently so that they would be able to shell their own towns were they ever to fall into unfriendly hands. In a highly polarized era of world history, Switzerland took drastic steps to ensure its neutrality and its independence.

Lily and the Domes de Miage
We discovered the rhododendrons on the first day of the hike, as we followed the Grand Balcon Sud above Chamonix, but we did not stumble upon the first of the true wildflower meadows until we finished the steep ascent into the Miage Valley on the second day of the Tour. The flowers appeared in patches at first: some here, some a little further along; but as we hiked closer towards the glaciated face of the Domes de Miage, the flower density grew. Even on that cloudy day, with no sun in sight, we found a rainbow among the Alpine meadow grasses.
Edelweiss at the Guides' memroial in Courmayeur
Wildflower meadows above the Vallee des Glaciers
View of the Mer de Glace and rhododendrons along the Grand Balcon Sud
One flower we had particularly hoped to see was edelweiss, the Alpine flower that Captain Von Trapp sat and sang about to an Austrian audience during the climax of The Sound of Music. Francoise told us that we were still a bit early for seeing edelweiss bloom, but we did chance upon it in Courmayeur. Next to a memorial to the mountain guides fallen in their line of work, we found a small clump of white flowers. They were agreeably small and white, but I'm not so sure about the clean and bright part; they were a much less traditional-looking wildflower than I imagined.

The wildflowers of the Grand Balcon Nord
The wildflowers, we soon found, were contagious. It seemed that an epidemic of brightly colored flowers of every kind had settled on the Alps, but we didn't mind and I don't think the cows did, either. Every day, the wildflowers seemed more plentiful than the day before. We found some of the most spectacular displays in Italy, as we hiked along the Grand Balcon Nord, a high mountain balcony opposite the sheer faces of the greatest peaks of the Alps.

The Grand Balcon Nord was perhaps the most dramatic leg of the entire hike. The morning of the fifth day was a steep, long, nearly 3000-foot climb from Courmayeur up the side of Mont de la Saxe to the balcony trail. The forested uphill trail did not level out until it reached Rifugio Bertone, but when it did pause, the reward was jaw-dropping. The Italian balcony afforded a view across the deep Val Ferret to a great wall of Alpine peaks. Among these included Pointe Helbronner, the Grandes Jorasses, and, of course, Mont Blanc. The great Brenva Glacier flowed down the white mountain's southeastern slope, but ended well short of where its rocky terminal moraine marked its former reach, just above the valley floor. Even all this beauty was tinged with a note of sadness: Francoise had recounted the day before how all the great glaciers of the Alps were in fast retreat, and how the Tre-la-Tete Glacier, which now lies high above Val Veni, was once close enough to the Tour itself that many guides would hike up to it.

Mont Blanc and the moraine of the great Brenva Glacier
The afternoon was filled with easy hiking along the mountainside meadows. We stopped for lunch at a small flat meadow high on the balcony, directly opposite the Grandes Jorasses. While we enjoyed a lunch of fresh bread and cheese, cornishons, and salad that we had packed that morning in Courmayeur, we were joined by a friendly dog looking for handouts. Of course, Francoise knew him as well; apparently, he was a farmer's dog, who often ran up to Tour route, hoping that an overwhelming ambush of cuteness would result in a piece of pate. Like Francoise, he had an enviable office.

A friendly encounter on the Grand Balcon Nord
The day almost exactly mirrored Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony. After a morning and a bit of afternoon hiking the gorgeous meadows imaginable, the fourth movement arrived just after we arrived at the Rifugio Bonatti, our one night in the mountains.

A storm arrives- the Alps fade
The blue sky and white cumulus quickly turned into a dark pile of cumulonimbus. The jagged teeth of the granite peaks across the valley captured the clouds, stacking them one atop the other until the weight was too much. A crack, a flash was followed by a rolling, resounding boom. Few things sound more authoritative, more commanding than the endless echo of thunder among the mountains of the Alps. We stayed (perhaps unwisely) out on the porch of the refuge, gazing at the sublimity of the lightning bolts that danced atop the roof of Europe. Seconds later, I saw dust arising from high on the Grandes Jorasses- the storm had triggered a rockfall. The mountains, far from everlasting, seemed like they would crumble any moment in the violence of the storm. The rain set in afterwards, driving us indoors to the picture books of Walter Bonatti and warm vegetable soup with Fontina.

The Alpine air was crisp and cold before the next morning's sunrise. As the full moon began to drop towards the horizon, the first rays of pink light began to paint the snows at the summit of Mont Blanc. The pink creeped slowly down the mountain, illuminating just a little more of the mountain's vertical southeast face, until it turned suddenly into a deep gold that basked not only the highest peak of the Alps, but also the Grandes Jorasses and the rest of the Italian Alpine ramparts. But even among this most impressive wall of mountains, Mont Blanc rose clearly as the monarch of the Alps.

Sunrise on Mont Blanc at Rifugio Bonatti
The summit of Mont Blanc is a dizzying 4810 meters above sea level- nearly 16,000 feet high. The mountain rises two and a half vertical miles from the towns of Chamonix and Courmayeur on either side. The cheese, cows, and wildflowers were convincing enough reasons to spend ten days hiking, but the hike isn't the Tour du Fontina, or the Tour of rhododendrons. Mont Blanc is the most impressive and most convincing reason to do this hike in the first place. It is the tallest mountain in the Alps, and the tallest peak in Europe outside the Caucasus. The white mountain is so tall that it is covered in permanent ice: Mont Blanc is at the head of the second longest glacier in the Alps, the Mer de Glace, the sea of ice. This great glacier is where many concepts of glacial geology were formalized: this was once the stomping ground of men named Agassiz and Forbes. From Chamonix, the thick glacier cap atop the peak gives the summit a shiny gleam; from the Italian side, the sheer rock face of the mountain makes Monte Bianco dark and dramatic.

Although it is visible on just six days of the trip, it dominated the landscape every second that it was visible. Nowhere was that more apparent than at the border crossings into Italy and later back into France. The rocky Col de la Seigne marks the border of France and Italy and the re-emergence of Mont Blanc after two days. At the pass, the wild, icy summit rises out of the surrounding range, the grandest of a dazzling collection of granite spires.

Mont Blanc at Col de la Seigne
No less impressive was the view at grassy Col de Balme, where we reentered France after a three-day jaunt through Switzerland. Here, the mountain was regal, robed in thick glaciers, the most impressive of which was the Bossons, which poured directly from the summit down Mont Blanc's northwest face. Far below, we could see Chamonix, the town where we had started our journey nine days before.

Mont Blanc from Col de Balme
Yet the most emotional day of the hike was the last, when we left Col des Montets in the morning and ascended to the Grand Balcon Sud. After nine days and over 25,000 feet of climbing, the final morning involved a last 2,500-foot uphill climb from the low col up to the wildflower meadows and lakes of the great French balcony trail. A year before, I had discouraged my parents from attempting this hike at all. Their sixtieth birthdays were in the rearview mirror; a ten-day, hundred-mile, thirty-thousand-foot-gain hike seemed out of their reach. But through some combination of training, stubbornness, and will, the last uphill was before us and they were both still game.

For some reason, that last climb felt especially long. We climbed uphill, bit by bit, with encouragement from Francoise and widening views of the Dents du Midi, the peaks near the Rhone Valley, and the great snowy pinnacle of Aiguille Verte to drive us forward. I could tell my mother was tired: she had seemed ready to fold since we entered Switzerland. But she didn't give up. As the sun approached directly overhead, we turned a corner and finally found ourselves atop the Balcon, with an incredible view of the royal Mont Blanc. My parents had proved me wrong: they had completed the Tour du Mont Blanc.

On that last day, we enjoyed to the fullest the simple day-to-day pleasures of hiking the Tour: we drank fennel tea and ate biscuits in the morning with a view of the Argentiere Glacier, napped in the sunshine on the upper slopes of the Aigulles Rouge, and walked around the Lacs des Cherseys, tiny teardrop lakes with spectacular alpine backdrops. I even took a quick dip in one of the lakes, which provided a cold contrast to the warm Alpine summer day. Finally, we spent the afternoon following the gentle trail through the Balcon, gazing out on slopes of rhododendron, hidden waterfalls in the balcony's cliffsides, and the sharp granite needles that rose above the Mer de Glace on the other side of the Val d'Arve. And then suddenly, it was all over: arriving at Le Flegere, some hugs, everyone posing for a picture, and before we knew it we were back in the hotel room in Chamonix where we had nervously anticipated the hike ten mornings before.

Lacs des Cherseys
Trips can often seem like a dream: you wake up the morning after getting home and realize that, were it not for your sore legs, the whole trip might've been a dream between the previous day of normal life and this one. This trip, in particular, felt like a dream afterward: much of it was so idyllic that it was hard to imagine it truly happened. But whenever I hear a sound that remotely resembles a cowbell or see Fontina d'Aosta in the cheese aisle of the supermarket, I recall what it felt like to nap in the Alpine sunshine during that dream.

Returning to the Chamonix Valley through Col de Balme
Want to go? The Tour du Mont Blanc is relatively easy for a long distance trek, but it is still a long distance trek: you'll need to be in decent shape. While it's possible to trek it alone, it's more fun and less work going with a knowledgable guide. REI organizes well-run guided TMB hikes.

1 comment:

  1. What an amazing trip! You are such an amazing writer and photographer!