A Walk Around Mont Blanc

“Beauty is not a Luxury”

                       -John O’Donohue

The Irish poet and philosopher John O’ Donohue, (God rest his soul) eloquently spoke and wrote about the need for Beauty that our human souls have to feel complete, to be whole. The experience of Beauty, whether it be music or poetry; liturgy and scripture; a caring relationship or the kindness of a stranger, helps each of us to fill deep needs of understanding within ourselves, about ourselves. When Beauty from outside of us stirs our deepest, perhaps dormant longings, no matter how long we have been away, it can feel like we are coming home to where we know we have always belonged. 

A wandering American philosopher, whose fame never exceeded a human interest story on a local midwest TV news channel said, “Your greatest fears are reflected in what you carry in your backpack.” This man carried next to nothing with him as he paced back and forth across the American continent – without a single care. 

Solitary, carefree experiences in extreme natural beauty are for me the equivalent for others of a relaxing week at a pampering spa; a hunting trip with ‘the guys’ at the cabin; or laying on the beach in Bermuda. A strenuous, one hundred kilometer (sixty miles) trek around towering peaks and glaciers of Mont Blanc in the first week of August, over and through the tri-border mountain range of France, Switzerland and Italy was for me a much needed homecoming, and one I will never forget.

With little more than the mandatory rain gear, a first aid kit and a water bottle in my backpack, I let myself be guided up and down the mountain passes above the valleys that surround the mountain massief on either side and on both ends, getting a look at every conceivable view, (except from above) of the towering 4,807 meter (15,775 foot) tall mountain. Wherever we turned we could view the snow capped summit and the dozens of glaciers slowly sliding off its steep, rugged slopes. 

Crossing a national border on foot is always a thrill for backpackers. It is a rite of passage for cross country and “thru-hikers”. The border represents energy expounded and distances covered that when crossing them produces a buzz different even from reaching one’s final destination. One will always mention having crossed a border on foot first, before mentioning the part about it happening during a summer blizzard in the high mountains. I grew up hiking in the Cascade mountains of Washington and crossed the USA-Canada border twice on foot and once in a canoe, and then back again. Walking the Tour de Mont Blanc, I crossed three different borders and wound up where I started from: in Chamonix, France. 

Like the dark side of the moon, the Italian face of Mt. Blanc is not the face most seen by the world. The Italian side is rugged and unpopulated; the valleys deep and water is scarce. Access is only possible by a few roads radiating out from around the resort town of Courmayeur (Italy) which is connected to Chamonix (France) through the legendary Tunnel of Mont Blanc, burrowed through the core of the mountain. Seeing the peaks, glaciers and stunning mountain valley views are experienced best on foot. I can attest that the experience is well worth the effort. 

One might mistakenly assume that “Alpine culture” is all the same once you reach a certain altitude. The adventurers seem to all wear and use similar clothing and equipment made of like fabrics and like materials from brand names that are just as at home on the catwalk as on a mountain ridge: The North Face; Osprey; Jack Wolfskin; Patagonia, but while walking through the corners of three different countries as proud and vibrant as France, Switzerland & Italy, their unique cultures are as palpable as the three different national flags are visible.

One most certainly feels the difference when waking up in Switzerland and going to bed in Italy, even when high in the mountains. There is fondue in Switzerland and pasta in Italy. Continental breakfast with juice, eggs, cold cuts in the Swiss cabins, and dry white bread and coffee in bowls the Italian ones. Switzerland offered hot showers. Italy had no running water. Full internet coverage in Switzerland is without exception or pause. Val Veny in Italy, offers neither analog or mobile data coverage–not even in the refugio cabins where we slept. For all intent and purposes, in Val Veny we were on the dark side of the moon, cut off from the rest of the world while in Switzerland one can enjoy the gorgeous nature while staying connected to home. 

Up and down. Up, up, up and down again. Down, down, up, down, up, up up. There was little to no flat walking on the Tour of Mont Blanc.

When we traversed, instead of ascending or descending, we walked parallel and at eye level with Europe’s greatest glaciers. Some days the temperature on our hillside at 2000 m elevation reached 34C (!). The rivers in the valleys below us ran rapid with melting glacier water, even in August.

In the week before our arrival to the mountain, our guide told us that for the first time in recorded history, the freezing altitude on Mont Blanc was higher than its summit peak, meaning that everything had begun to slowly melt. Is climate change a verifiable phenomenon? After seeing the photos of the glaciers just twenty years ago hanging on the walls of the cabins where we stopped, and comparing them to the current size and positions of the glaciers on the mountains with my own eyes–I am convinced it is. 

Understanding the different valleys around the mountain on its different sides is the key to understanding different cultures around Mont Blanc. While it is over the mountain passes that one moves into a new country, it is in the valleys that one truly feels that s/he has landed in a different culture.

There are cheeses and meats produced in the different valleys or mountain sides that are made in no other place else in the world. Beaufort, an alpine cheese, produced in the Val de Glacier in France, is unique to any other in the world and demands a high price. When purchased from the farmer, it costs twenty euros per kilo. In Paris it can cost up to forty euros for a kilo–and the Parisiens pay it happily. (Even I could taste that this cheese had a unique and delicious texture and flavor – and I am not a cheese snob!) Just south of but hundreds of meters above the Col de Forclaz in Switzerland, horned livestock (Herens), with large, loud bells fastened around their necks graze in mountain meadows, happily butting heads and kicking up dust while they trash talk at each other, making the flavorful Swiss sausages even better without trying

The Tour of Mont Blanc on foot, with full packs or with a support mule, requires the hiker to be in excellent physical condition and to have trained to properly prepare for the rigors of the terrain. This is not a walk for those with weak knees or shortness of breath. What a mountain guide considers a “gradual” climb up a big mountain will feel like climbing a mountain. This is in fact what you are doing. The French use the word, “Alpinisme” and this is exactly what this tour is: walking up and down mountains. The hiking each day is not measured in the number of kilometers covered but in the hours needed to climb into and descend from the strata of altitudes that the mountain occupies in space. Hiking from point A to point B in the valleys around Mont Blanc is never a straight nor flat line.

After seven days immersion in the high mountains, disconnected from telephones, email and mobile new sources, and running water, arriving again in the commerical centers of the Chamonix valley requires a few hours to adjust to the glamor of Europe’s mountain retreat for the chic-riche. The immediacy and ease of filling one’s needs and wishes seemed to me decadent and some how wrong. After seven days of conserving water between potable water sources, to ask a waiter serve me a glacier-cold cola on ice (!) with a twist of lemon seemed to me to be the height of luxury. 

The scale and bounty of the natural beauty experienced during a tour of Mont Blanc was nothing short of humbling for me. Standing on a mountain pass at 2600 m (8000 ft) and gazing on the summit of a peak standing twice as high, makes a guy feel very insignificant and minuscule. To understand my place in the world and universe as the equivalent of angry fire ant crawling over the skin of the earth who can be snuffed out of existence by involuntary twitch of the earth’s surface at any moment, helped me to resolve not to take myself and my troubles so seriously – and just enjoy the view while I still can. 

We will all die one day soon. When we do, the snow will still fall on the mountains. In spring, the snow will melt and swell the creeks and rivers that flow off of its face, into the crevices and gorges in the valleys below. Those rivers will flow through alpine meadows, feeding the flowers and the grass which in turn will feed the cows, sheep and marmots who live there. The rivers will flow through the towns below the high meadows, to support human civilization as well. Eventually those rivers will flow to the Rhone, Rhine and Danube, and then to the sea. My passing will not be an event that the Earth will even notice let alone mourn – and I’m fine with that. I am content just to be able to experience the depths of stillness and joy that this Beauty opens up in my soul as I take it all in from down below–gazing upwards in wonder. 

9 thoughts on “A Walk Around Mont Blanc

  1. What a neat experience!! There’s nothing like mountain scenery to fill the soul!! Thanks for sharing.

    1. Hi Jillayne! For someone as avid about mountaineering as you, this tour on Mont Blanc should really be on your buckeyt list if it isnt already. It is such a different experience than the volcanic peaks in PNW and just as thrilling.

      1. Thanks for this great insight to the TMB! I’ll be there next year in July, will be turning 60 in August, I hope I can keep up with my daughter and her friends 😁.

  2. My husband and I just got back from the TMB in August and had the exact same thoughts and emotions. What a way to celebrate turning 50!!!! Unforgettable!
    Thank you for letting me relive every emotion all over again!!!! Your photos are exactly like mine. We had running water in Courmayeur though as we left Italy the morning after the storm and landslide.
    Thanks again!

    1. Trish, good to meet you! Happy to read that the emotions came over well in the writing. Tell me please about the landslide you mentioned. Was it another glacier breaking?

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