Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Tour du Mont Blanc Trek: A tour through the French, Italian and Swiss Alps

         I have been waiting for my daughter to grow big enough to go outdoor adventuring with me and this past summer, her 8th and my 45th, seemed a good time to go for it. We'd been skiing and hiking loads but only taster trips really. Now we  were ready for more. Since we were going to be leaving my post in Rome and moving very far from Europe,  a fitting way to end our two year stay in Italy was due. We needed the time to say, arrividerci to Italy and Salamat Pagi to Indonesia. We decided to hike the trekkers' classic--the Tour Du Mont Blanc. Even now, months after my toenails have grown back and my body has fallen once again from fit to flabby, I still get excited thinking about our Alps journey, from the first spark of the idea in 2014, to the shaky last steps of our 7-day, 95km trek last summer.

On of our daily itinerary cards. This was a long day.
        But if I am sticking to my purpose for this blog, this won't just be a showcase of awesome adventures--you won't just see the triumphant summit shot here. If I am true to my word and my heart--the good, the bad, and the ugly will have equal billing.  I want to catalogue challenges because, in hiking just as in life,  the direct route is never as straightforward as it first may seem and unexpected challenges often crop up along the way. A 26km day hike will have some low points. And, I want to make the point that-- it is, in fact, OK to mention the challenges. It is ok to stop and acknowledge the exhaustion or the sore feet while also reveling in the awe-inspiring views.  The social media phenomenon of only saying the good stuff worries me. Why are people so afraid to say, hey--this is hard for me! Or to admit that, sometimes--I am really struggling. What is wrong with a bit of honesty? Now I'm not talking about whinging--I'm talking about dropping the b.s. I'm talking about seeing a situation for what it is and having the courage to overcome whatever challenges that chapter of life throws at you. I'm talking about having the chutzpah to admit when you are down and need to seek support. That's what I'm talking about.

Niamh soaking up the sun at a much needed rest stop on day 5.
          I read a lot of Buddhist philosophy. Pema Chodron is my comfort in chaotic times lately because with her--there is no b.s.--there is no shame in acknowledging suffering, or anger, or weakness. Like other philosophers or spiritual leaders of her ilk, she encourages people to accept, even embrace, their flaws and their struggles as moments to teach them what they need to know. She maintains that until you acknowledge the anger or root of your frustrations, you cannot overcome it and it will keep limiting you.  Trekking is like that--you have to face the challenges in order to adapt to them and adjust your route.  The view is all the sweeter because you worked so hard to get to it. The accomplishment feels all the greater because you know exactly what it took to achieve it. Chodron is known for sharing a story about a woman pursued by tigers who must leap out into the abyss and dangle from a vine. Far below the woman, more tigers wait for her to fall. Meanwhile a mouse is chewing on the vine from which she hangs. While dangling with tigers above and tigers below, the doomed woman notices a clump of strawberries growing out of the cliffside--she grabs one and pops it into her mouth--savoring it. Chodron reminds us that life is like this--there will always be something sucking your attention and energy away from the good stuff. Be sure to take in all those things, but don't miss the strawberries! There is always something worth savoring if you let yourself see it. I guess that is what writing this blog is about for me--making sure I remember all the strawberries in our life since it seems we always have the tigers above and below!

Navigating the snowiest pass on the route. I had a couple of heart in throat moments.

The Frenchman and Niamh

      I was discussing the tiger story with a friend of mine and he said--the trek was your strawberry! This Mount Blanc trekking trip was a gift to my daughter too. At 8 years old, she has experienced more of life's realities than most do in adulthood. She has weathered everything from coping with an absent father to fleeing a war. Along the way she has developed the resilience required to navigate this transient international life we have been living. She has dealt with the heartache that comes with saying goodbye many, many times and the more recent lesson of learning how to cope with not being accepted and embraced for who you are and what you offer.  It is for these reasons that I seek out activities that will give her the most profound sense of self I can. It is my way of arming her for life's trials. If she can say to herself--'I hiked nearly 100km through the Alps in 6 days when I was 8 AND I loved it!'-- then she can tell herself she has the fortitude to make it through all kinds of challenges--physical and emotional. I want her to know what lies within and make the best use of it. This should help her to truly believe that what she thinks of herself matters a lot more than what others may think of her.

One of the many signposts along the route. 
    Hiking the Tour is as much a physical as it is a mental challenge. In the months of planning and preparing I did, I read a lot about hiking the Tour with children. The last thing I wanted to do was force Niamh to do something that she would find too daunting and then never want to hike again.  The Tour Du Mont Blanc bible is the Cicerone two-way guide. It is a detailed description with routes for an 11-day circuit of the 170km( 100 mile)  circular route through the French, Italian and Swiss Alps. After reading it I knew that some of the stages might prove too difficult for an 8-year-old so I contacted Mount Blanc Treks who helped tailor and adapt the route to a 6-day, self-guided highlight trek that would skip some of the snow-covered, highest passes and more technical aspects of the route. The great thing about this trek is that, because it is a hut-to-hut trek, one need carry only a day pack. This makes it feasible for a 45-year-old mom and her 8-year-old --without using up what is left of the cartilage in my knees. If I am honest though on some of the steep down-hill sections, I'm sure I came close. Trekking poles saved me.

 The strawberries and the tigers:  I asked my daughter for moments that she loved on our trek, she said, 'I remember looking back down deep into the valley back to where we started that morning. It was so far!' I asked her how this made her feel at the time, she said, 'Proud, tired, happy.'   I asked her what was one of the toughest moments. She described hiking up a very long, very steep Roman road.  It was a long road but thankfully it was shady. We learned to appreciate the shade as we were very fortunate to have clear, sunny skies every single day we hiked. We finished just as a major heat wave was hitting Europe.  I'm not sure how we would have managed with wind and rain on some of these high trails.  We couldn't have asked for better conditions for an 8-year-old's first trek.

Niamh and the hiking buddy she made along the way.
       We  experienced some hAngry moments when we would run out of our peanut m&m trail mix. There were moments when trekking poles were thrown too.  On our third day, we didn't make it to our refuge because I made us turn back due to a steep and snowy pass and tired legs. I was afraid we wouldn't make it before dark to our destination. SO we hiked back to a high altitude refuge we had passed an hour before. No phone. No internet. But hot food and a shelf-like bunk ( no mattress) were all we needed. It wasn't the best night of sleep but it was one of the best views to wake up to. The next day two lovely older Frenchman-- on their 30th annual trek together-- helped me guide Niamh down the steep and snowy pass to the refuge we should have been at the previous night. 

Niamh communing with the locals at Refuge Mottets.
                                          Throughout our journey we were greeted with smiles and hearty, Bonjours! Bonjournos!  And everyone had some words of amazement and encouragement for Niamh. I took for granted how strong she is for her age. Many well-seasoned hikers were impressed with her fortitude and her sunny spirit. We hiked with two young Israeli men one day who were doing the entire trek and camping the whole way so they had very heavy packs and they hiked 12 hours a day. (We bumped into one of the Israelis six months later on the street in Wellington, New Zealand).  The two entertained Niamh along the trail and we shared a pizza with them in Courmayeur when we had a rest day. Toward the end of the trek, we managed to find a family on the trail with an 8-year-old  and a ten-year-old and so we hiked along with them on our last days. Niamh and the younger boy, Hudson, became fast friends. He was like a billy goat and pulled Niamh along with him. She had been faltering before we encountered them and they swept her along with their energy and enthusiasm. People looked out for one another as a rule and gave kindness and support without hesitation.

        Because of the people we met all along the way, we never felt lonely or bored or sad.  We never once doubted what we were doing. We were often tired and our muscles were sore yet we were happy. Everyone we encountered was so thankful for the opportunity to be on those trails. Sure people spoke of blisters and sunburns yet they were all quite content. We met so many friendly, interesting and intelligent people along the way and saw so much astounding beauty that if my feet hadn't hurt so much I think I would have gone around the whole thing again. I hope that someday we will!

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