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.

Once we’re in our bunks upstairs, I pull out my embossed leather journal. A dried flower falls out, conjuring the Italian hillside where Pete presented it to me. The entry, dated July 17, 1979, reads, We drank from a crystal stream, smelled the wildflowers and lied [sic] in the grass for hours and I knew, really knew in my heart, things I never knew before: I want to have children, I really love my home and that living near my parents would be really fantastic . . .

Who wrote that? I love children, but, discovering how much I loved traveling and my work, first in film and then as a writer, I chose to stick with being an aunt, not a mother. I don’t regret that, but I also know I’ve missed something wonderful. I do regret that my parents don’t live near me in New York City—but not that I don’t live near their home in suburban Detroit, where I grew up. I close the journal, a little wistful about paths not taken, and look up at the bunk over mine. I wonder what my niece’s life will be like and if she’s having a good time on this trip. As if to answer my thoughts, Ava’s blond hair cascades from the bunk and she whispers, “Hey, tomorrow we cross into Italy!”

Seven valleys, 400 summits and more than 40 bluish-white glaciers make the Tour du Mont Blanc one of the most splendid and popular hikes in Europe. In 1979, we didn’t meet any other Americans on our hutte-to-hutte trek, which made us feel thrillingly far from home. Today, on a grassy slope, as Ava and I eat a picnic lunch of local cheese, saucisson and fruit, we meet a group from New York that includes a woman who ran a MORE marathon and another whose friend teaches at Ava’s high school. The world’s gotten much smaller. And harder to escape, as the occasional annoying chirp of a cell phone reminds me.

But a few hours east, at the Col de la Seigne, there is nothing twenty-first century about the high, windswept border crossing: no customs, no authorities, no flags, only a humble granite brick stuck in the boot-flattened earth with an F (for France) on one side and an I (for Italy) on the other. Too bad all borders can’t be this open—and astonishingly beautiful. At this pass, 8,255 feet up, we’re sitting on top of the world, and the dark green, blue and spiky mountains look like the white-capped waves of an infinite, stormy sea. Mont Blanc’s personality has changed too: From Chamonix, it was serene and regal; now it’s wilder, more volcanic, especially compared with the vast, verdant Vallon de la Lée Blanche below.

“Do you see that col?” Florence says. Our eyes follow her pole to the end of the valley where a saddle, or pass, appears between two skyscraping peaks. “That’s the Grand Col Ferret, where we’ll cross into Switzerland. We’ll be there in two days.”

“Four,” Ava says, “unless my aunt starts walking faster.”

“I can’t walk fast and impart wisdom at the same time,” I say. This threat makes Ava run down the ravine toward the sound of cowbells clanging in the high pastures of the Val Veni. By the time I catch up with her, skidding down scree and slate chips, my left knee has had enough. Huge dairy cows plod alongside us and I think, gosh, too bad you can’t ride a cow. Downhill is harder than it was when I last walked this path. But Ava loves it. She’d like it to be all downhill.

“That would be boring,” I begin, as we step inside our night’s lodge, welcomed by the onion and garlic steam from spaghetti Bolognese. “It’s the uphills in life that make the downhills feel so sweet.” She doesn’t buy it.

I freeze. Utterly unchanged, the dining room of the Rifugio Elisabetta is a portal to 1979: There I am with puffy cheeks and a bad perm, sitting at the long table with the red-checkered tablecloth, next to Pete, writing in my journal: I feel so at ease and at home in these mountains. I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m definitely not a city girl.

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.”  

Plan Your Own Hike

The Tour du Mont Blanc begins in Chamonix, France. The nearest airport, about an hour away, is in Geneva. The trail is so well-marked, you could easily complete it (or just hike for a few days) without a guide. The trekking guidebook Tour of Mont Blanc, by Kev Reynolds, covers everything you need to know, including how to book the huttes. Once in Chamonix, drop by the Club Alpine Français for the day’s weather conditions.

Hiking with a guide is wonderful too: Our guides, Florence Simond and Fabienne Ravanen, work out of the Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix (011-33-450-53-00-88; Outfitters in the U.S., such as REI Adventures, offer all-inclusive guided tours (800-622-2236;

First Published Thu, 2009-07-09 07:33

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