|Ascending the wildflower meadows to Grand Col Ferret in the shadow of Mont Dolent|
She turned around and we resumed our ascent, following a small, "secret" trail through the most colorful wildflower gardens imaginable to the human mind. Overhead, great glaciers spilled down the slopes of Mont Dolent, the sharp peak that sat astride the borders of France, Switzerland, and Italy. After two hours of substantial huffing and puffing, passing by the Rifugio Elena, the steady uphill flattened out to a grand grassy saddle. The Grand Combin's heavily glaciated massif floated high across the Swiss Val Ferret as we stood atop the Grand Col Ferret, with one foot in Switzerland and one in Italy.
Francoise, our guide, beckoned us to a meadow just above the pass with a view straight down the Italian Val Ferret to the snowy patches at Col de la Seigne, where we had lunched just two days before. Right before us rose the Petit Jorasses: despite its name, it was a most impressive granite spire, with nearly vertical cliffs dropping to the floor of the upper Dora Baltea watershed. The scene was a sensory overload: where should I look? But that is even more beautiful! Oh look, we were there a day ago! Are those more cows? Overwhelmed by my senses and weighed down by lunch, I was swept by a wave of pleasant drowsiness and napped a half-hour in the meadows under the sun. I was barely distinguishable from a marmot.
My mother went glissading for the first time after lunch. The path down the north side of the pass was still covered in snow, so Francoise proposed a simple way downhill: by butt. The idea seemed disagreeable with my mom. She had taken me sledding a couple of times when I was much younger and it snowed in Virginia- but not until we stood atop the Grand Col Ferret did I realize that she had only watched me go sledding and had never bothered to sled with me. But when she finally plucked up the courage to sit down on the snow and let go, she found it exhilirating and was disappointed when we ran into no more snow patches that day. Above us, we saw Swiss children who were in summer camp slide down the snow banks at the Col and later heard them sing as they hiked downhill through the wildflower meadows and grazing cows.
Yet, as Francoise explained, this landscape had not always been so idyllic. For many Italians in Mussolini's state, this was one of the few escapes to neutral Switzerland. And to the refugees of the most devestating world war, clear days like that day at the pass would have meant a hail of fire from Italian forces at the border. Most refugees traveled in thick fog, when the zero visibility protected them from bullets but made the many cliff edges and snow banks so much more dangerous.
My feet were sore at the end of the day, having hiked over 50 miles of the nearly 100-mile, ten-day trek. Luckily, the end of each day came with a shower and bed and the end of this particular day came with a serving of raclette- boiled potatoes smothered in a burnt local cheese- in the Swiss hamlet of La Fouly.
|Chamonix-Mont-Blanc, nestled in the Valley of the Arve|
The Tour du Mont Blanc was a tour of seven valleys: the Chamonix Valley, or the Valley of the Arve, a great Alpine river, was our start point. From there, we progressed over the forested slopes near the Col de Voza into the Val Montjoie and Les Contamines; then over the backbone of the Alps themselves on a lengthy day over Col du Bonhomme and Col de la Croix du Bonhomme to the Vallee des Glaciers. Crossing Col de la Seigne brought us into Italy, Val Veni, and Courmayeur. Our stay in Italy was short, ending as we left the Italian Val Ferret via Grand Col Ferret into the Swiss Val Ferret. From the resort town of Champex above the Swiss Val Ferret, the tour climbs through the Bovine and down to Vallee du Trient and Col de la Forclaz. A final climb brought us to Col de Balme, the triumphant return into France and the Chamonix Valley.
Some long-distance treks are about losing oneself in a vast wilderness. Some treks are pilgrimage routes that touch on human history and culture. The Tour du Mont Blanc is neither and both at the same time. The views from Col du Bonhomme or the Lacs des Chersey seem stunningly wild. Yet almost every night of the trek ended at a village with a small church, a centuries-old bread oven, and a local cheese unique to its particular mountain valley.
|The view from the Vallee des Glaciers cheese factory|
|Beaufort cheese wheels in the cave|
|Cows grazing beneath dolomite cliffs in upper Val Montjoie|
The sound of the Tour is the sound of cowbells. During our second day, we heard the low clang of brass bells in the breeze for the first time at Le Truc, a plateau above the Miage Valley. At the time, we were all fascinated by the sound, but by day eight, during our traverse of the Bovine, everyone but me had concluded that cowbells were more or less a nuisance. The Bovine Route is appropriately named: the path between Champex and Col du Tricot passed by countless cows on endless meadows walled off by electric fencing. Francoise informed us that each cow had a slightly different bell with a slightly different tone and that both herders and cows could recognize other cows by their bell tone. The bells are thus not only useful for herders when their cows wander off in the fog, but may also help some grazing cows find their friends.
|View over the Rhone Valley|
|The Swiss Val Ferret|
|Lily and the Domes de Miage|
|Edelweiss at the Guides' memroial in Courmayeur|
|Wildflower meadows above the Vallee des Glaciers|
|View of the Mer de Glace and rhododendrons along the Grand Balcon Sud|
|The wildflowers of the Grand Balcon Nord|
The Grand Balcon Nord was perhaps the most dramatic leg of the entire hike. The morning of the fifth day was a steep, long, nearly 3000-foot climb from Courmayeur up the side of Mont de la Saxe to the balcony trail. The forested uphill trail did not level out until it reached Rifugio Bertone, but when it did pause, the reward was jaw-dropping. The Italian balcony afforded a view across the deep Val Ferret to a great wall of Alpine peaks. Among these included Pointe Helbronner, the Grandes Jorasses, and, of course, Mont Blanc. The great Brenva Glacier flowed down the white mountain's southeastern slope, but ended well short of where its rocky terminal moraine marked its former reach, just above the valley floor. Even all this beauty was tinged with a note of sadness: Francoise had recounted the day before how all the great glaciers of the Alps were in fast retreat, and how the Tre-la-Tete Glacier, which now lies high above Val Veni, was once close enough to the Tour itself that many guides would hike up to it.
|Mont Blanc and the moraine of the great Brenva Glacier|
|A friendly encounter on the Grand Balcon Nord|
|A storm arrives- the Alps fade|
The Alpine air was crisp and cold before the next morning's sunrise. As the full moon began to drop towards the horizon, the first rays of pink light began to paint the snows at the summit of Mont Blanc. The pink creeped slowly down the mountain, illuminating just a little more of the mountain's vertical southeast face, until it turned suddenly into a deep gold that basked not only the highest peak of the Alps, but also the Grandes Jorasses and the rest of the Italian Alpine ramparts. But even among this most impressive wall of mountains, Mont Blanc rose clearly as the monarch of the Alps.
|Sunrise on Mont Blanc at Rifugio Bonatti|
Although it is visible on just six days of the trip, it dominated the landscape every second that it was visible. Nowhere was that more apparent than at the border crossings into Italy and later back into France. The rocky Col de la Seigne marks the border of France and Italy and the re-emergence of Mont Blanc after two days. At the pass, the wild, icy summit rises out of the surrounding range, the grandest of a dazzling collection of granite spires.
|Mont Blanc at Col de la Seigne|
|Mont Blanc from Col de Balme|
For some reason, that last climb felt especially long. We climbed uphill, bit by bit, with encouragement from Francoise and widening views of the Dents du Midi, the peaks near the Rhone Valley, and the great snowy pinnacle of Aiguille Verte to drive us forward. I could tell my mother was tired: she had seemed ready to fold since we entered Switzerland. But she didn't give up. As the sun approached directly overhead, we turned a corner and finally found ourselves atop the Balcon, with an incredible view of the royal Mont Blanc. My parents had proved me wrong: they had completed the Tour du Mont Blanc.
On that last day, we enjoyed to the fullest the simple day-to-day pleasures of hiking the Tour: we drank fennel tea and ate biscuits in the morning with a view of the Argentiere Glacier, napped in the sunshine on the upper slopes of the Aigulles Rouge, and walked around the Lacs des Cherseys, tiny teardrop lakes with spectacular alpine backdrops. I even took a quick dip in one of the lakes, which provided a cold contrast to the warm Alpine summer day. Finally, we spent the afternoon following the gentle trail through the Balcon, gazing out on slopes of rhododendron, hidden waterfalls in the balcony's cliffsides, and the sharp granite needles that rose above the Mer de Glace on the other side of the Val d'Arve. And then suddenly, it was all over: arriving at Le Flegere, some hugs, everyone posing for a picture, and before we knew it we were back in the hotel room in Chamonix where we had nervously anticipated the hike ten mornings before.
|Lacs des Cherseys|
|Returning to the Chamonix Valley through Col de Balme|