A Tour of Mont Blanc, (sort of) June 23, 2006 to July 11, 2006

Just for fun and to move out of my comfort zone, I signed up at the last minute for a ten day hiking/camping group tour of the Alps.  A friend was going on this adventure and it sounded interesting. I had all the gear left over from attempting a Grand Canyon adventure last March.   The tour covered a 100 mile area through France, Italy and Switzerland surrounding a block of mountains and glaciers called the Massif du Mont Blanc.  Mont Blanc is the highest mountain in Western Europe being about 4,808 m (15,774 feet). The two most famous towns near Mont Blanc are Chamonix, in France (site of the first Winter Olympic Games in 1924); and Courmayeur, in the Aosta Valley in Italy.

My friend had to cancel due to a family crisis so I was on my own. Flew into Geneva the day before the tour.  Surprise! the airport has free internet. All trains from the airport go to Geneva. Train cost $2 and then walked the 1 km to the youth hostel.    The weather was very hot.  I had a room to myself  so crawled into bed at 4 pm.  Fireworks went off at 10pm along with horns honking.  Wondered what that was all about.  Breakfast at hostel was included -- muesli, yogurt, bread and jam.  Pretty nice hostel, it even had a hair dryer!

Saturday (6/24)

While waiting around at the airport a nice British couple treated me to tea.  Met up with the Exodus tour group at  10 am.  They had a bus which took 30 of us  to Chamonix, France which was about a 90 minute ride.  Fifteen of the group opted for the hotel while the rest are camping.  I'm in the camping group.  Didn't even know there was a hotel option. The hotel option would have been twice as expensive.  We are actually staying in a campsite about 3 km north of Chamonix. The campsite Mer de Glace in La Praz also had free internet, a recreation room, hot showers and electricity.

Wildflowers along the river.

Our tour guides are Mel Potter and Tom Greenall.  Mel's a "Kiwi" from New Zealand while Tom's from Wales.  No one in our group was under 30 years of age.  Our oldest was 70. I'm the only American. A group of six women came from an Aussie bushwalker club. Tom whipped up a pear / sunflower seed / parmesan salad, chicken with mushroom gravy, mashed potatoes and mixed berries with crème for dessert.  Curfew was 10 pm and I'm up by 5 am as the birds are LOUD. 

Sunday (6/25)

Beautiful clear morning.  My tent mate's an early riser.  We're supposed to take the cable car up to start the hike northwards.  However, it was shut down due to high winds.  We take the Petit Balcon walk instead which turns out to be an easy walk.  The weather is too hot and unfortunately, I'm weighed down.  My vest of many pockets and day pack made this hike harder than it should have been.  Carey (one of the tour managers) who was along for the hike carried my vest and had me buy some lighter weight clothes.  Highlight for the day was hearing the cow bell medley. Rumor had it that one of the hotel group took a wrong turn and ended walking 800 meters in the wrong direction.  Dinner was at a local restaurant which served us meat stuffed tomatoes, and barley.  My tent mate had trouble sleeping through the late night thunderstorms.

Monday (6/26)

Mel loaned me her lightweight ski pack to replace my ill fitting daypack.  I decided to not take my camera as it weighed too much therefore guaranteeing clear skies, lovely alpine flowers and beautiful views.  Carey points out a marmot off in the distance.

Marmot photo courtesy of Tom Greenall. Marmots are also known as groundhogs.

Hiking trail photo courtesy of Julian Yates

Alpine Rhodendron photo courtesy of Jocelyn Wood

The true hiking began with four hours uphill.  There were ice and snow patches to cross.  I slid a few times.  Two members of our group fell down the mountain.  One slipped on the ice and the other off the trail. Luckily neither fell too far. No wonder travel insurance was mandatory for this tour.

Tuesday (6/27)

Another hot, clear day.  The group stops often for drinks.  I'd rather keep moving ahead as I fall behind the group's walking pace.  The trail had steep switchbacks on descent which were terribly rocky.  Not really enjoying this hike as one has to always be looking at one's feet.  I had been on steep trails before but not for such a long duration.  Slipped a little on the wet granite rocks.  There's streams to cross and a plank bridge with no railing which was iffy.  Needed Carey's help to get across the other side of a rapid waterfall stream.  Pretty scary stuff.  Got to the Swiss campsite at Champax Lac by 4 pm and did laundry.    Some of the group went out after dinner to the local bar and got caught in the evening thunderstorm.

 Campeaux Lac
View of Champax Lac

Wednesday (6/28)

Didn't feel up to going hiking.  I've already hiked more in the past three days than in my entire lifetime. So took the St. Bernard Express bus to the next campsite at La Foley.

View from bus

I left my camera on the bus. Oops. Had to practice my French to get my camera back.