Traveling to Europe had not been high on my bucket list, because I generally prefer more obscure destinations versus popular tourist hangouts. However, a ridiculously cheap flight to Geneva popped up last summer, which fit easily into my free air mile allotment, so I began packing!
I had read interesting stories about the iconic Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB), which is a 100-plus mile loop around Mont Blanc massif in the Alps. It winds its way through France, Italy and Switzerland, achieving a total ascent/descent of some 33,000 feet. It sounded like my kind of vacation! A bus from the Geneva airport to Chamonix, France, was easy to find and thus, 30 minutes after landing, my adventure began.
The TMB was a completely different hiking experience for me. Instead of traversing through remote wilderness areas as I would typically choose, this popular trail led me through alpine villages and secluded hamlets each day. There were so many other hikers on the trail that it was hard to take a picture without a random stranger unwittingly appearing in the background, but I soon discovered that hitting the trail at sunrise gave me a couple hours of solitude.
My first two days on the trail were tough: Rain, hail and lightning meant I had wet gear, wet clothes and wet feet. Although it was mid-July, my second day on the trail brought strong winds, snow and white out conditions at the top of a mountain pass. I had a map and compass, but was struggling to get my bearings with such poor visibility. As much as I love hiking solo, I sure was grateful when a quartet of German hikers arrived, who invited me to join them through this section, so that together we made our way safely over the pass.
Much like the Wonderland Trail that circles Mount Rainier, the TMB has so many steep ups and downs that finding a flat camping spot at day’s end can be a challenge. On a couple of nights, my only option was to set up my tent at a group campground site. This ended up being a lot of fun, as I met hikers from all over the world.
While there were some hikers who opted to stay in hotels, huts or inns each night along the trek, those of us who camped out developed a sort of trail family (or “tramily”) and we shared stories, card games and meals together in the evening. We called ourselves the International Tramily as together we hailed from Denmark, Ukraine, Israel, Canada, Singapore, Sweden, Italy, the UK and, of course, Hood River, Ore.
One of the highlights of this trip was the night I pitched my tent on a knoll behind a mountain hut in Switzerland. The guardian of the hut had his extended family visiting him that night, and with their limited English, they came over to my tent and motioned for me to join them in the hut for some delicious Swiss fondue they’d made on the rustic wood stove. I was so touched by their warm welcome, and the fondue was a delicious reprieve from the dehydrated meals I’d been consuming.
The final day of the trek was the most challenging. I’d read in my guidebook that there was a “seemingly endless series of metal ladders and steel handholds” to climb for about 30 minutes in order to scale an otherwise insurmountable rock face. I’m scared of heights, so my stomach was in knots that morning, and I was unable to eat breakfast before heading out. I have learned that when faced with fear, it’s best for me to just push through without giving myself time to dwell on the cause of my anxiety.
So that is what I did. My legs were shaking, my hands were sweaty as I gripped the ladder rungs tightly, minute after minute, not daring to stop to even take a drink of water, never looking down, just constantly moving up, up, up for half an hour.
When I finally reached the top of that rock face, I was giddy with relief, and grateful to sit down and eat my postponed breakfast. Behind me in the photo can be seen the village far far below from which my morning climb had begun.
At times, the trail through Switzerland felt like I was in a fairytale.
Seven days later, I just wasn’t ready for my hike to end, so on what was to be my last day on the trail, I actually backtracked to this lovely spot where I set up my tent and watched the sun set and then later rise one more time over Mont Blanc.
I ended where I began, in Chamonix, France, and my finish date happened to fall on Bastille Day, which is a big holiday for the French. As if that weren’t excitement enough, then the following day was the World Cup final in which France played (and won). I joined a throng of locals in a nearby pub to watch the game on a large-screen TV where the cheers and dancing were contagious. A group of girls sitting nearby taught me to sing, “Allez, allez, allez les bleus!”
I returned by bus to Geneva the next morning, and had a couple of days to explore that city before flying home. I was impressed with how well Europeans have mastered an eco-friendly work/school commute. Not only are their buses and trains highly reliable and extensive, but I saw a plethora of adults biking, walking and e-scootering to work. Back home here, I often feel like an anomaly for biking/walking to work in Odell, but in Geneva I saw women biking in dresses, men in dress pants on e-scooters, and this was the norm!