Debbie Marshall heads for the mountains, through France, Italy and Switzerland
After reading the article on Silver Travel Advisor by Giles Hawke about walking around Mont Blanc, accompanied by his wife and 16 year old son, I was inspired and in awe. Giles had recently turned 50 and embarked upon the journey with the gung-ho enthusiasm and stamina of a man half his age. The statistics are not to be sniffed at: a round trip of 147km with over 8,000m of ascent and descent (the equivalent to going up and down Everest), carrying heavy rucksacks and sleeping in mountain refuges.
At the end of his trip, Giles reflected on what he might have done differently and observed that he would have liked to have taken longer (he did the tour “route march” style in six and a half days); with less weight to carry, and more comfortable overnight stops in hotels.
As a mountain lover, the Tour du Mont Blanc (or TMB for those in the know), is a journey I’ve always wanted to do, but clocking in at a decade older, I knew that comfort was a high priority as well as taking things at a slower, calmer pace. A bit less route march and a lot more zen was needed. Walking around the highest peak in Europe crossing through three countries is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I wanted to be able to enjoy and savour every moment.
My research took me to Explore who offered the perfect solution: a 10 day tour including a rest day in Courmayeur, the transport of bags to most overnight stops, a guide to ensure no wrong turns were taken (147km was quite enough thank you), and, most importantly, some really comfortable looking hotels, two of which even had a four star rating, along with a couple of mountain refuges. This was exactly my kind of tour!
I encouraged my adult children to come too, and two of my daughters (aged 27 and 28) leapt at the chance to spend 10 days in the mountains, even if they did have to share a room with their mother.
Explore provided excellent pre-trip information and packing advice, and we gradually assembled all of the kit for our odyssey: a comfortable daypack with back support (absolutely no point in straining that middle-aged spine and shoulders), Camelbak water carrier with handy drinking pipe, merino wool hiking socks (an excellent tip from Giles), a lot of sunscreen and what felt like a very few clothes.
Our journey began with a flight to Geneva and complimentary transfer from Explore to our first hotel, and the comfort bar was set high. The next morning dawned with clear blue skies, as we filled our water carriers, laced up our boots and took the first excited step from les Houches near Chamonix with our guide, Anna, who was to become our rock over the next 10 days. An experienced mountaineer, mountain guide, first-aider, navigator, picnic maker, botanist, geologist and even therapist; she needed all these talents and more. “If you can put one foot in front of the other,” said Anna as we departed, “you can do the tour”.
And what an amazing time we had. We hiked through mountain passes filled with cows and cowbells; across streams and past waterfalls where the cascading noise drowned out every other sound. We greeted fellow walkers with “bonjour” in France & Switzerland, switching to a jolly “ciao” in Italy and back to French again as we crossed borders three times. We learned about the flowers of the mountains, from St. Johns Wort (which appears to cure just about every known condition) to the stunning purple Fire Flowers, so called because they are the first to grow when the land is burned. We discovered the history of the borders in World War II, when the Swiss defended themselves using fake chalets and rocks beneath which lay machine guns and artillery, with never a bullet fired. And the barracks, now a museum, high in the mountains from which the Italians fought the French. We found ourselves in the middle of the formation of the Alps themselves with the European granite on one side of the mountain and the African schist on the other side, and limestone peaks in between. We encountered wildlife, from marmots peeping out behind rocks to keeping our distance from the white Patou dogs, introduced by shepherds to ward off the wolves from their sheep, but ferocious to humans too.
And we ate local specialities everywhere; from homemade apricot tarts high in a Swiss refuge, to Anna’s legendary picnics, when she opened her Mary Poppins rucksack and produced a feast every day – fresh baguettes, cheeses, salads, chocolate, like a harvest festival display on a floral shower curtain (so practical!). We dined and slept in luxury at the aptly named Hotel Splendide in Champex-Lac, the height of Swiss sophistication, and had a much simpler meal and bed at a refuge in Les Chapieux, in a spot so remote that the welcome sign said simply “no credit card, no phone, no wifi”. Off grid indeed.
Our stamina and resilience grew each day as legs got stronger; ascending 800m before 10am somehow became achievable rather than daunting, and always with the promise of another incredible view. The younger members of the group were fitter and quicker, but it didn’t matter. I took things slowly with Anna herding the group when she needed to, and insisting that we walk behind her at a very sensible “monk’s pace” up the steeper slopes. A welcome day off to explore Courmayeur was a pit-stop to recharge and restore tired limbs, and when we finally arrived back in les Houches after 10 days, we celebrated in style with burgers and beers.
It was a life-enhancing foot-powered journey and one that I would recommend to anyone with good fitness and a love of the mountains.
My top tip? Take walking poles. They can bear up to 30% of your weight, and the earlier you start using them, the longer you can protect those knees and hips. Start in your 20s, says Anna, and you’ll still be climbing mountains at 75. I do hope so.
Debbie travelled with Explore Worldwide on their 10 day Tour du Mont Blanc trip.
For more information visit www.explore.co.uk