Hiking vacation hits high point looping through Europe’s Alps
The Landers’ English setters were thrilled with the family’s summer vacation plans, even if the pooches weren’t going on the trip.
From March through June, the two dogs sometimes hit the trail three or four times a day as my wife and I trained for our European vacation.
In three weeks of exploring the Alps, we would hike about 150 miles on routes that would gain enough cumulative elevation to climb Mount Everest – twice.
Preparation would be the key to enjoying rather than suffering through the trip of a lifetime.
Despite a long tradition of devoting vacations to exploring natural wonders, we still have a long bucket list. A 30th wedding anniversary and a college graduation made this a perfect year to think big for another family adventure that would be rewarding culturally as well as physically.
The centerpiece of our trip focused on bagging the Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB), Europe’s most popular long-distance trek.
My oldest daughter, Brook, asked if it would be similar to our 95-mile Wonderland Trail backpacking trip around Mount Rainier in 2005.
At 110 miles, the TMB is roughly the same distance and the scenery would be equally spectacular day after day. We’d have to prepare for hiking over snowy passes, plunging into valleys, fording glacial streams and enduring high-country storms that could turn instantly wet and cold.
But we would soften the TMB’s giant daily helping of elevation gain and loss – a third more than the trek around Rainier – by leaving the tent and cooking gear at home. The Alps have vast areas of rugged, glaciated wilderness tamed on the edges by centuries of mountain culture, including high mountain accommodations.
Stunning wildness can be subdued by an isolated stone hut with bunks and cooks selling hot meals, beer and wine. If you need a more substantial dose of civilization, the TMB is never more than a long day’s hike from a bus stop.
Our 12-day trek would start near Chamonix, France, and bend around the remote south end of the Mont Blanc massif over 8,146-foot Col de la Croix du Bonhomme.
We’d climb into Italy via 8,255-foot Col de la Seigne, a strategically significant pass – used by Napoleon and guarded by Italian troops in World War II.
After a few days hiking a counter-clockwise loop, we’d cross 8,323-foot Grand Col Ferret and descend into the vertical world of Switzerland for several days before looping back over two more major passes and into France to end the journey.
We would stay mostly in mountain refuges, where the hosts would prepare a hearty dinner, light breakfast and a picnic lunch if desired. Instead of a sleeping bag, we’d bring silk sleeping sacks and bunk in dorm rooms, sometimes as a family and sometimes shared with others.
Every day was an engagement with intriguing people of other cultures.
We flew to Geneva, where an airport shuttle bus seamlessly delivered us to the Chamonix Valley in the shadow of Mont Blanc, its bald summit gleaming at elevation 15,744 feet under tons of ice and snow.
Public transportation serves hikers to numerous other TMB starting points.
Despite stuffing everything we’d need for three weeks in one backpack apiece, our first taste of alpine uphill at Col de Voza convinced the Landers ladies that they’d overpacked.
When our first innkeeper said he’d hold our excess stuff until we returned 12 days later, the women started purging their packs as though they were hot air balloonists dumping ballast to get over the Alps.
Was that a hair dryer going into the cache bag? “We’re 400 miles from Paris,” Meredith said. “You never know.”
The first full day of hiking was another wake-up call, a 12-mile roller coaster that coincided with the hottest day of the trip. We hiked up toward the Glacier de Bionnassay, over a pass, down steeply to a glacier valley, up steeply again, and then down several thigh-killing miles on a 16 percent grade to Les Contamines.
We revived ourselves with cold drinks – four times cheaper at a village grocery store than at a mountain refuge.
We looked at the indispensible Pays du Mont Blanc hiking trail map and reconfirmed that almost every day was going to have similar ups and downs. I was prepared for dissension from the family troops, but they seemed to welcome the challenge.
As we continued the last leg of a day that was kicking our jet-lagged butts, the essence of the effort was sinking in. We hiked the last two miles on an ancient cobble road the Romans built thousands of years ago. We passed the Baroque chapel of Notre Dame de la Gorge.
Discomforts melted away at the secluded Refuge Nant Borrant, where we left our boots at the door, enjoyed a shower and a beer before the 7 p.m. feast for 30 hungry hikers: soup, bread, a big family-size skillet of meat, potatoes and local cheese at each table followed by apricot torte. This is one of the traditional meals the host family has made from scratch and served for generations.
We had no trouble sleeping in our dorm room shared with three German men, even though they moseyed in late after some untold trail delay and settled into their bunks around midnight.
“Wow,” Meredith observed the next day. “This is like boot camp with a good meal at the end of the day.”
Using the Internet and guidebooks, we invested many evenings in February and March planning our July adventure in the Alps.
The cost of the Tour du Mont Blanc trek, not including air fare, was about $3,000 for our family of four. Letting an outfitter do all the planning and booking accommodations would cost more than $4,000 a person.
Booking refuges is a challenge to get them in sync with the pace you want to hike. You’re competing with thousands of other hikers making similar plans. Talking on the phone to English-speakers at tourism offices in nearby communities often helped bridge misunderstandings in websites and email.
On the phone in March, Meredith coaxed a Frenchman to let us into his refuge a day before it officially opened on July 1 to make our 12-day itinerary work around the mountain.
I verified all of our bookings by email with a short list of planning questions, such as whether the mountain refuge accepted credit cards. Most asked for cash payment. France and Italy accept euros, but Swiss francs are needed in Switzerland. Knowing this in advance helped since ATMs sometimes were days away.
We passed some organized groups on the hike. Most were herded by a guide, submitting to a pace that was too fast for some and too slow for others. They sometimes descended from the mountains, abandoning the white noise of glacier runoff to catch buses bound for more comfortable group accommodations.
We preferred our own pace, adjusted day by day. Sometimes we were detoured by ibex climbing the rock cliffs or marmots posing for photos or spectacular alpine wildflower displays.
We never left contact with Mont Blanc or its associated peaks and glaciers. Sleeping in quad rooms or even dorms didn’t spoil the show.
I can snore with the best of them, and the Landers ladies brought earplugs.
Unique memories of our Tour du Mont Blanc adventure include the cathedral-like deep ring of quart-size cowbells reverberating from the slopes, blending with the alpine breeze.
A cuckoo entertained us with its clock-like call as we walked through a larch forest.
A hostess in Trient, Switzerland, who spoke no English, used her iPad to translate important gaps in our dialogue and to let me see the day’s mountain weather report.
Japanese guided groups could be spotted from a distance in their tight formations, looking like a centipede crawling steadily up the trail ahead.
Transitions were subtle, such as trail greetings with passing hikers trending from “bonjour” to “buongiorno,” as we descended from jagged French mountains to a medieval Italian village.
The Refuge Bonatti, built with detailed Italian craftsmanship, wowed us inside and out. “This is first class,” younger daughter Hillary said. “The communal toilets even have a shelf to put your toiletry kit on.”
A few days later we’d leave the stone architecture of Italy’s mountain buildings for Switzerland, where colorful geraniums highlighted beautifully kept wooden chalets clustered away from avalanche zones in a world of green steepness.
Hiking Champex to Trient at the north side of the TMB in Switzerland was like waltzing through a Montana cattle ranch tilted nearly vertical.
The route is generally well marked with signs or the yellow TMB triangle painted on rocks and even on village buildings.
We shared a spirited and enlightening meal at a refuge with a family from Israel celebrating its son’s completion of his required three-year service to his country. We dined with a Belgian man headed up in the next few days to climb Mont Blanc. A breakfast with a delightful Dutch father-daughter team ended far too soon.
One day we found ourselves walking with the Thursday men’s group from Swiss Alpine Club in Geneva which had gathered for a weekend of day hiking. They ranged in age to 93.
“I’m the youngest and I’m 65,” one said.
An older hiker added, “But when we’re hiking, we all feel 65.”
They were headed for a high pass on a significantly steep portion of the TMB. At Refuge Elena, they grouped up. “Some of us are going to stop for coffee,” one said. “Then with clear heads we’ll decide whether to go higher.”
Our family got in the swing of washing a portion of our meager travel-light wardrobe almost every night.
Synthetic clothing easily dried over night. By day five, Brook was plotting how she could go even lighter. “You just don’t need much stuff,” she said.
That said, we used all of our foul-weather gear for several testy periods of wind and rain. Bundled from head to toe one day in Switzerland, a man from the UK gave us a thumbs up and quoted the axiom, “There is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.”
With chairlifts and trams providing easy day access to the slopes above the Chamonix Valley, our last three days of hiking back into France were entertained by numerous French families venturing into the alpine country with little hikers and climbers in the making.
We toasted the end of our Tour du Mont Blanc at a street-side café in Chamonix with fondue, wine and an evening appropriately accented with a brief thunderstorm.
Deceived only by the sock tan lines on their legs, the Landers ladies looked like city slickers in the dainty clothes they’d carried in backpacks 12 days so they could look good at the rite.
“On-the-town clothes are the lightest gear in a girl’s pack,” Brook said.
Photo gallery: See a slide show following the Landers family around the Tour du Mont Blanc at spokesman.com/outdoors.