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

I hoist myself up by my walking sticks, stab-lunge, stab-lunge, gulping air, nearly there, nearly there and—where is it? “Where’s the hutte?” I shout. And almost stomp my foot. My echo laughs back: “Hutte! Hutte! Hutte!” Florence Simond, our fat-free 47-year-old guide, coolly points her pole at the summit I could’ve sworn we just climbed. “It’s just there.”

Just, to a fat-free Alpine guide, means another mere hour uphill. My 15-year-old niece, Ava, shrugs—this was your idea, aunt—and disappears around a limestone spur. It’s our first day of the 105-mile Tour du Mont Blanc, and after five hours of hiking through the most stunning Sound of Music scenery, all I want is food, drink and sleep. I stab-lunge onward toward our night’s lodging, the Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme.

It wasn’t like this the last time I was here.

In 1979 I was 18, young and in love, and frolicking like an ibex over wildflowered meadows and rocky mountains with my boyfriend, Pete. It was my first adventure outside the United States and without my parents; I had the time of my life. Which is why I asked Ava to join me on this return; I hoped she would love it too.

“Couldn’t we drive?” she asked when I first proposed the trip to her. Ava’s a New York City girl. Her idea of the great outdoors is window-shopping in SoHo. Exercise is what you’re forced to do in gym class.  

“We start in France,” I told her, “then trek through Italy and Switzerland, about seven hours a day, with an accumulated ascent and descent of more than 30,000 feet. But with light packs, since we eat and sleep in huttes with other hikers . . . ”

“ . . . in the same room?” she asked, horrified.

“In charming old stone chalets. It’s fun, like camp.”

“I hated camp,” Ava said, but she couldn’t resist a trip to Europe. To “train,” she joined her dad on his morning jog, and I began taking the stairs in my apartment building (all 14 flights). But when we arrived in Chamonix, the French Alpine town where the tour starts, we both admitted we were worried we might not make the six-day circuit; the guide company said only “fit hikers” would.

I was also secretly worried about something else. The last time I’d visited Mont Blanc, I’d had my whole life ahead of me, and now I had, well, less. How much fun could it be to retrace my romantic 18-year-old footsteps as a less dewy-eyed 47-year-old? The journal I kept on my 1979 trip would make it easy to compare the dreams I had then with the life I’ve actually lived since. Looking back, I usually see only what I’ve lost: opportunities, time, hair. Could going back to when I was just starting out show me something else? I’d brought the journal with me but had yet to open it.

As we finally tumble into the refuge (at 7,982 feet above sea level), a cold wind called a tramontana blows down from the north, lashing the windows with rain. By candlelight, and with about 50 other hikers, we devour our first meal: lentil soup, beef Bourguignonne and chocolate cake, which Ava, an excellent baker herself, rates as wonderful. When the curly-haired chef walks out of the kitchen playing Dixie-style jazz on his trumpet and someone joins him on a fiddle, I’m thrilled to see the after-dinner sing-along is still a tradition.

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