One day, my husband declared that he had read about a hiking trail called the ‘Tour de Mont Blanc’ which starts in France and passes through Italy and Switzerland. According to National Geographic it was one of best hikes in the world. He showed me videos of picturesque trails and breathtaking mountain views. Thus, the seedlings had been planted for our first hiking trip. Our usual forte was cycling, so this would be a brand new adventure for us.
As the trip neared, it became apparent that the snow levels may be of concern this year. As always, James did a lot of research, but was unable to confirm what the snow levels were and what we would be up against on our planned route. He bought us the right equipment and we packed accordingly.
The total route was about 180 km, and after much contemplation and research, James settled on a six day plan. This would have us hiking 30 km and climbing on average about 1500 metres each day. There would be one day where we would ascend 2000 metres. I knew what this meant on my bike, but by foot this was a little daunting. We had done single day hikes that had us ascending close to 1500 metres. However, we weren’t too experienced in multiple days of hiking. We did some training hikes together, but in the back of my mind I still wondered what it would feel like to climb that much for six consecutive days.
By the time we found ourselves waiting in the airport, I was really hoping that the snow levels weren’t too bad and that the trail would be passable. James had put so much work into this, and his excitement was wearing off on me.
On our first day in Chamonix, France, which would be our starting point for the route, it was confirmed to us at the Office de la Montagne that there were sections of the route that were impassable. We were very disappointed. However, the next morning we moved on from the disappointment and found a place to stay right in Chamonix for the next six nights. The new plan was to do day hikes, and try to get as far as we could given the snow conditions. We changed hotels, left our luggage, and took off with our back packs for the day. After a lovely French breakfast of quiche, salad, and cappuccino, we began our first hike.
Brevent (14.2 km, 1246 m)
We started up towards Brevent. Almost immediately we experienced relentless, steep climbing. The soft trail took us through lush greenery, and it didn’t take long for the town to start to disappear and the breathtaking view to open up. I found myself easing into a flow, just like I do when I am cycling up a mountain.
Eventually we encountered our first real section of snow. The snow had come down over the pathway. With a brief discussion we were able to plan a path to get over the snow and reconnect with the path. It was a little challenging to new hiker, but well worth the effort. Soon we were on our way again.
We made it to the gondola stop and ski hill. The view of the valley below was astounding. We could see the town of Chamonix directly below us, and other towns dotting the valley floor. They looked so far away. It was still a bit early in the season, so none of the bars or restaurants were open. It was quite deserted, just us and some mountain goats staring us up and down suspiciously.
The clouds seemed to be closing in, so we decided to be on our way. Testing out my new trekking poles on the descent, I was quite satisfied with my new hiking equipment. The last part of the descent was quite relaxing. We were getting close to town and the dark clouds had passed. I felt so at peace on the trail engulfed in greenery.
We finished the day off at a great bar with an outdoor patio, drinking local beer made with eau de la montagne and tinged green with genepie, a local herbal plant. We were so pumped up from the success of the day! After dinner, we dropped our packs at the hotel and went out to find a place to celebrate. We explored an interesting looking street off of the main streets, and found the oddest bar ever. This pub decorated with surf boards and old appliances offered vids from the 80s, fooseball and pool. It appeared to be going through an identity crisis as a disco ball hung at the back, and dance music blasted to the delight of two lonely dancers. It was exhilarating to have had such a successful first hike after our tour had been cancelled. What better way to celebrate then to immerse ourselves in whatever local joints we could find in this interesting town.
Plan Aiguille – First Try (13.5 km, 1105 m)
Our first attempt at Plan Aiguille was challenging, and left me feeling rather defeated. This hike started at one of the cable car stations in Chamonix. Similar to many of the paths in the area, this one was quite lovely. I let myself sink into a flow to take on the steep stretches.
We had been hiking for quite a while when we started to encounter some stretches of snow. We had to be careful, and sometimes use our hands, but we were able to keep on going. Then we reached a stretch in which the snow had come down the side of the mountain, and completely hid the path. We could see where the path continued on the other side of the snow. When I first looked at this stretch, it looked steep. James started across, using both hands and feet to hook into the snow and make his way across. I was really nervous and scared. It just looked really steep to me. I chose to give it a try. I dug my feet into the snow and grabbed on with my hands. I started working my way across, digging a foot in, then reaching the corresponding hand over in the same direction. I continued on with left foot, left hand, then right foot, right hand motions. About half way through I looked down. This was a mistake. I felt myself panicking. I was afraid of falling down this steep incline. The snow was plenty soft enough for me to be able to dig my feet and hands in, however, my mind was getting the better of me. I focused on the end point, and quickly made my way there. I had to sit down and take a few deep breaths. I was really glad this section was over.
Soon enough, we came across another section just like this, only it was longer. We watched as a girl that had passed us made her way like a spider towards the other end. I really wanted to be her. James starting making his way, but I could not bring myself to do this section. I just couldn’t see myself being able to make it to the other side. Thus, he rejoined me, and we decided to go back down.
I realized then that I would have to redo the section that had just terrified me. I tried not to think about it too much. When we reached it, James started across again right away. I hesitated for a moment, then decided I just wanted to get on with it. Thinking about it was only going to make it worse for me. I did feel the same panic rise up in me again as I made my way across with hands and feet digging into the snow. This time, I told myself just to focus on each foot dig and hand clutch. So I did. I was still a bit terrified, but, I wanted to make it to the other side without as much fuss as last time. I did.
We made our way through the remaining sections of snow, then found a rock to sit on and enjoy the view. I took the Leffe, meat and cheese out of my pack and we relaxed over a picnic. I felt all the tension leaving my body, and started to really relax again. An older couple soon came by. After we mentioned the snowy sections, they simply shrugged it off and declared that they would try to make it to the cable car.
I would spend a lot of time that evening, and into the next day, thinking about that stretch. I wondered what this stretch looked like to other people. To James, to the spider girl, and to the older couple. I think it looked totally different to them than it did to me. Is it really how the mind frames it? I think so. Can it be changed – what you see? I think so.
The mind will create whatever reality you let it.
As always, James was there for me that evening to help me relax. He found my a lovely fondue, and we talked about the day. We had different perspectives, and I wanted to understand his. I wanted to know if I could change my own.
This was a new activity for us, and we were in this together. It would be a new challenge for us to figure out how to hike together when we encountered stretches that were out of my comfort zone. When I encounter a barrier, I want to remove it right away. I want everything fixed. Things like this sometimes take time to work themselves out. I need to learn to take a step back.
I was glad the terrifying snow climb happened. There would be a way forward, as always.
Les Praz to Chalet de la Floria (9.2 km, 359 m)
The hike to the lovely Chalet de la Floria was exactly what we needed after our adventurous attempt at Plain Aiguille. We were delighted to have one of the few sunny days that we experienced during our time in Chamonix. We walked from Chamonix to Les Praz, then trekked up the steep pathway until we came to the Chalet. There we found a patio and a million dollar view. We perched ourselves and enjoyed local beer and crepes freshly made by the woman running the Chalet. They reminded me of the ones my mom used to make. It was an afternoon that soothed the soul.
Plain Aiguille – Attempt Two (7.9 km, 1262 m)
Towards the end of our time in Chamonix, we decided to give Plain Aiguille a second try. From our view in the town, it appeared that there was less snow than before higher up the mountainside.
Previously I had not been able to bring myself across a steeper section of snow. My mind showed me a view that made me panic, and unable to climb across.
As we climbed our way up the steep sections of beautiful, tree covered pathway, thoughts of the stretch that I had not been able to bring myself to cross loomed in the back of my mind. We finally reached it. It was still covered in snow, but a significant amount had melted off. We could see patches of the path poking through. We had a little pow wow, then James started across. I watched carefully so that I could retrace the steps he took, and imitate the positioning of his hands. I was impressed that I felt much more comfortable after crossing sections of snow during our other hikes. I was really determined, and it felt so good to make it to the other side. The view was incredible!!! We spent some time taking it, and clicking some photos.
After drinking in the beauty of the moment, we continued on. We finally made it to a point where we could see the cable cars coming down. We knew we were getting close. We had to maneuver through snow to piece together the path at times, and we had to do some off roading up a steep section, but here we were. The best choice was to continue. The fog was coming in fast. It started to rain then snow on us. When we got to the spot where I could see the cable car station, I was getting really excited. We trekked our way up a long stretch of snow.
We made it to the top and spotted a little cafe that appeared to be open. I warmed myself with a vin chaud! Warm wine infused with orange and cinnamon totally hit the spot. I felt absolutely ecstatic that we had made it to the peak that we were unable to get to our on first attempt.
There was so much fog, and the clouds threatened rain, so we decided to take the cable car down. We went back to one of our favorite restaurants to celebrate, and started off the evening with an aperitif a la maison. I was so excited that we had made it!! It felt like such a huge success. We later made friends and watched more of the Euro Cup at the pub.
The next couple of days, and our last of the trip, it rained so much that we didn’t do any more hikes. I was so grateful for the day we had making it to a peak that I was unable to do the first time.
During our time in Chamonix, we also hiked Mer de Glace, La Flege and Plateau du Pyramides.
Mer de Glace (7.5 km, 966 m); Le Signal (14.7 km, 1243 m)
We made the ascent to Mer de Glace twice. This hike starts behind the train station where we found ourselves slogging up a very steep gravel path. After surviving this, we were delighted to find ourselves on a soft, mossy path under a canopy of lush greenery. The path continued to be challenging, but the beauty engulfed us.
Our first hike to Mer de Glace found us drenched by the time we got to the top. Our rain gear only worked so long in the sheets of water that we were up against. The clouds and fog obstructed any view from the top. We completely lucked out and caught the last train of the day down.
Our second attempt was much more successful. We made it to Mer de Glace, then continued on up to the peak of Le Signal. The last part required some light scrambling up grass and rock patches. With my little frame, I had to use both my feet and my hands to launch myself up. I was really into this, and didn’t have any hesitation or nervousness. It felt adventurous.
The view at the top was breathtaking. We could see the valley stretching far in both directions where a glacier had once been. It was very tranquil on this summit, taking it all in.
La Flege (16.3 km, 1070 m); Lac Blanc attempt (17.6 km, 1345 m)
We also climbed up to La Flege twice. The first time we took on the steep climbing to the cable car station, then took a longer exploratory route back to Chamonix. We were able to do small bits of the route that we would have been on with our original plan. The paths were absolutely beautiful and made me want to come back to do the whole thing.
The second time we continued on past the cable car in hopes of making it to Lac Blanc. We trekked through several sections of snow until we could no longer ascertain where the path was. This would have to be an adventure for another time.
Plateau de Pyramides (16 km, 836 m)
The hike to Plateau de Pyramides took us to some excellent views of a glacier. James had to piece together a route for us on the fly as there were some path closures. It was worth the effort. We went as far as we could until the path fell off into the glacier.
Note: The distances and metres of ascent are estimations of the full hike to provide some idea of the amount of climbing we did and are based on data collected by my Forerunner 220