Mont Blanc, The Magnificant

An eye-opening journey on the famous tour of the Alpine mountain

By Elisabeth Robinson
Wildflowers sprout along the trail on the Tour of Mont Blanc.
Photograph: Photo by: Rob Howard

Since I wrote that, I’ve lived only in cities (except during college): Paris, New York, Los Angeles, London and Venice. I show Ava the entry and she’s surprised too. “Well, I definitely am a city girl,” she says, and I kiss her cheek and wonder if she’ll wind up living on a farm. It’s not that my teenage dreams didn’t come true, as I feared I’d find when I looked back. It’s that they didn’t stay the same.

Ava’s studying the map to see how far we’ve come and what lies ahead: two more days in Italy, along some glacial lakes and the south face of Mont Blanc. “Having fun?” I ask.

“Yeah! But there was a point today, at that last pass, when I wasn’t sure I was going to make it,” Ava tells me, laughing. I promise her tomorrow will be easier. “How do you know?”

“Because you get stronger every day.”

Before this trip, if you’d said Switzerland, I would have said chocolate, watches. Now I’ll think Trient. Because it is in this steepled Swiss hamlet, where, for the first time in my life (and probably the last), the waitress who serves us dinner is also the mayor of the town. A tall, ghostly woman, she owns one of Trient’s few cafés, which also offers lodging where we spend our last night on the trail.

We arrive exhausted, having spent our second afternoon in Switzerland hiking through rain and fog, our view of the Rhone Valley and the forested trail obscured. Yesterday’s terrain didn’t require so much attention. Every day the path changes—from gravelly to snowy to mossy—and presents new wonders, some of them monumental, like the Miage glacier, and some minuscule, like the angel-haired flowers growing out of cracks in the granite.

In the morning, as I amble down the last grassy slope back to Chamonix, surrounded by the soaring blue Alps, I think about the people who’ve walked these trails before me: the Roman traders, whose stone slabs, now worn by centuries, paved the first hour of our trip; Florence’s father and grandfather, who, during World War II, smuggled food from Switzerland; and a young American woman with a bad perm, traveling with her boyfriend in 1979. She was happily in love, but, as my journal reminded me, she was also scared of not making it: I worry about so many things: where I’ll be in years to come, who I’ll be, what I’ll be doing; will I be a successful writer? It’s so hard and so far away! I wish I could tell that girl not to fret so much about the destination, to enjoy the journey more. Just then, Ava bounces down behind me from the hillside. The open, sunny track is wide enough for us to walk side by side. She’s dreading going home to “reality,” because she hasn’t decided what she wants “to be.” So I tell her what I wish I could tell my 18-year-old self: Don’t worry so much. Trust yourself. I remind her of all the lives I’ve lived—from producing movies in L.A. to writing and living abroad—and how different they were from the life I was so sure I wanted at her age. That I didn’t become a novelist until I was 40—an age that, to her, must feel as far away as these mountains did last week.

“Easy for you to say,” Ava says, shooting off ahead of me. She’s probably right: This calm confidence only comes with . . . age. With following paths, veined with disappointment and delight; with practice; with time. I realize then how far I’ve come, and stop to say a silent good-bye to the mountain. I wonder: The next time I’m here, who I will have become?

In the morning, we have breakfast at a café in Chamonix and plan our last day. “I wish there was a short hike we could take,” Ava says, and I nearly spit out my café au lait. Florence had mentioned a great restaurant a few hours’ hike above our hotel. “A good place for a late lunch?” I suggest. I pay the bill and we cross the square where we once stood in awe of the impossibly high Alps. “Why do they look so different now?” Ava asks.

“Because,” I say, “we’ve climbed them.”  

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