Up, down… and up again

From the garden in Hermance we rapidly transitioned back into dirtbag mode (not that we ever truly left it), traveling by bus and Bla Bla Car to Chamonix, France, the unofficial capital of Europe’s outdoor world. There, we met up with Matt’s college roommate, Mitchell, and his Norwegian friend, Ola, at a campground on the outskirts of town. Mitchell came to Europe after graduation with a purpose that resembles ours, though lacking in both planning and a return flight ticket. (See, Mom? It could be a lot worse.)

The plan was to hike the famous Tour du Mont Blanc, a 170-ish kilometer trail that encircles the Mont Blanc massif, and leads hikers through three countries and over almost 10,000 meters of elevation gain. So, the morning after meeting up with Mitchell and Ola, we went into town to buy the necessary supplies (food, fuel, map) and to cram down a massive cheeseburger before hopping on the bus to the trailhead in a little place called Les Houches. (While the trail officially starts and ends in Chamonix, it’s extremely common to skip the first 7k of the hike which is, as it was described to us, “not very interesting.”)

Being the tourist attraction that it is, the TMB has over 50 “refuges,” or accommodations where hikers can eat and sleep during the tour, which typically takes anywhere from 9 to 12 days. These refuges ensure that a hiker has a hot meal, a shower and a warm bed at the end of each day, but most importantly, it means that a hiker has to carry virtually nothing but a water bottle and a toothbrush. This makes the otherwise daunting hike enjoyable and accessible for people of all ages and physical ability.

Naturally we decided to forego all of this in favor of a more earthy and less expensive approach. We carried our backpacks and “unofficially” wild camped for each of our eight nights on the trail. (As far as we saw, we were almost the only people carrying more than a small day pack.) While not strictly prohibited, wild camping is generally discouraged and frowned upon along the TMB, though it’s widely accepted that many people do it each year. This meant we had to be a tad sneaky. At the end of each day, we covertly scouted out a camp site and waited until dusk to pitch our tents, breaking them down and moving on early in the morning. We were almost always able to find campsites that had already been impacted by people who were, no doubt, doing exactly the same thing we were doing. While this did have certain obvious inconveniences, we were overall extremely happy with our decision to wild camp and felt a level of authenticity that the refuges, no matter how rugged, just couldn’t provide. Each night after we found camp, we’d spend a few hours patting ourselves on the backs for a day well walked, studying the map and gawking at the next day’s elevation change, doctoring our poor neglected feet, and always capping the day off with story time (which was just me reading aloud from Dan Brown’s Inferno).

Our first couple of days on the trail were pretty brutal. On the first day we gained a thousand meters of elevation almost solely on paved roads in the direct line of the beating August sun. There’s something really depressing about seeing a truck grumble easily by as you trudge uphill, barely above a snail’s pace. The second day was worse. We left our improvised riverside camp early in the morning and almost immediately began a 1500 meter ascent over steep rocks and dirt, with no shade but with plenty of hiker pileups and curse words and despairing glances at the impossibly far off ridge line. I almost took off my pack and kicked it down the mountain a couple of times, but fortunately, good sense prevailed. At a false summit Matt had a physical meltdown and I feared I was going to have to use the “help” feature of our Spot communicator. (He was fine after some food.)

It might seem that these first days should have been the easiest, since we were fresh, relatively full and not yet worn down by the mountains and the weight of our packs. But as with any strenuous activity, it often takes a little time before your body stops its initial protesting and decides to cooperate with the hell you’re putting it through. I like to think that the moment my body gives up the fight is when it can really begin for me. So after about three days on the trail, we were feeling pretty used to it– all rocking and rolling, mostly past the agony of lugging a pack up and back down 5 or 6 thousand feet of trail each day, and psyched to be hiking on one of Europe’s most beautiful trails through some of the world’s most beautiful mountains.

This marked the longest backpacking trip to date for all four of us, though we can’t claim to be totally self-sufficient on the trek despite our strict avoidance of the tourist trap refuges and hotels. The TMB dips in and out of small villages, and almost every day we had the opportunity to restock our food supplies and get a taste of some version of civilization. While I was a little disappointed in the total lack of remoteness and the plethora of day hikers who I knew would be returning to their cars at the end of the day, I can’t complain about the convenience of being able find fresh baguette and a flushing toilet almost every day on the trail.

I think there comes a time on a backpacking trip of any magnitude when your thoughts are totally and constantly consumed by food. When, even though you’re enjoying the breathtaking scenery and reveling in the glory of being in the mountains, each step you take is really just a step toward all the things you want to eat when you reach the end of the trail. On this trek, Matt and I were eating oatmeal for breakfast, a bowl of broth and a handful of granola at the highest elevation of the day, and some form of instant pasta for dinner. We supplemented with hunks of bread and an occasional scoop of Nutella (for morale). We call this the backpacker diet, or in other words, the cheapest, lightest way to eat on the trail. While not totally filling or satisfying, we can live like this for a few days while we day dream about what we want to eat when we finish. I usually crave all things sweet and sugary. I dwell on ice cream and candy bars until I think I’m going to die if I see another pack of ramen noodles. I once found myself actually scolding my past self for turning down a brownie that my grandmother had offered me three months ago. Yeah, it’s bad sometimes. This hunger really hit us somewhere around the 6th day, when we were in Switzerland and couldn’t afford anything, and we rode it like a wave all the way back to Chamonix.

And so for nine days we walked like this, each day trudging up and plodding back down, exhausted but exhilarated by our good fortune to be there at all. The terrain on the TMB is extremely varied but with one constant– it is never flat, which for me means slow going. I was standardly the caboose of our four man hiking party. Usually Mitchell and Ola raced ahead, preferring to make one hard push to the highest point and then stopping to wait. Matt was consistently about 10 minutes behind them going at his own quick pace. And then there was me, always bringing up the rear, typically another 15 minutes or so behind Matt, doing my slow but steady slog up whatever we were climbing that day. I wasn’t any faster on the downhill. It’s a myth that descending is easier. While it’s less of a quad buster, it’s exceedingly tough on the knees and toes, especially with a pack. (I’ll refrain delving into the disgusting details of the state of our feet after this trip.)

A few days after we finished the hike was the start of the UTMB, an ultra-marathon trail race that follows the exact same route we were hiking. Any time I got tired or a little bummed out, I tried to remind myself that in a few days hundreds of people would be completing the circuit in a single day.

On our final day on the trail, we decided to begin hiking at seven, because we were excited to get back to town and because we were totally out of food and wanted to get there by lunchtime. By the time we reached our highest point of the day where we crossed from Switzerland back into France, an ominous front was moving in and the sky was dark and angry as far as we could see. Where the temperature would have been a comfortable 24 degrees Celsius it was rapidly dropping as the wind whipped away our hats and our motivation. We ended up making the decision to take a short cut back to town, skipping the last few ridge line kilometers of the trail in favor of a side trail that would let us descend more rapidly. The last two hours of our hike were a frantic scurry in the rain and we were elated to pop off the trail at a conveniently placed bus stop that put us near our campground. Our first stop, of course, was to buy slices of pizza and pain au chocolat at a bakery that Mitchell had been talking about for days, and then to the grocery store for our other cravings.

We spent the next few days relaxing in Chamonix, wandering around town and recovering from the hike. We got to see one of the UTMB events start, a 290k race that teams of three had up to six days to complete. We got to do a morning run with the North Face athletes who would be running the TMB route that we had just finished. We tried to do a day hike one day, but after sailing up the 600 meter ascent, we realized that we couldn’t possibly see anything that could rival the views we’d had on the tour, and we turned back.

Our days on the TMB, aside from being filled with awe inspiring landscapes, served to change my perspective on backpacking and my other various outdoor recreation endeavors. The tour was hard. It was only nine days, but those nine days were long and difficult and downright exhausting. We were hot in the day and cold at night, hungry and occasionally lost, our feet and knees and backs hurt, we woke up early and went to bed late, and we realized that even if you’re prepared, backpacking is hard. But it’s supposed to be hard. Of course, I’ve known this all along, in a vague sort of disconnected way. The TMB made me understand more about why we put ourselves in these situations that we know are going to be at times a little rough, at other times totally miserable. It’s something that’s nearly impossible to explain, but really easy to feel once you acknowledge that the world is bigger than you, the mountains are tougher than you, and once you can learn how to be thankful to be a teeny tiny speck roaming through all of it. In the past few years I’ve developed an enormous respect for nature, but have naively continued to try to be better than nature, to be stronger and smarter and braver than it is. And while I know that I can still work toward being these things in my life in general, all that I need to be toward nature is humble.

After a few days in Chamonix, we said goodbye to Mitchell and got on a bus to begin the journey to our next destination– the French island of Corsica.

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