I saw this one photo of snowcapped mountains and its reflection in the lake below and I knew I had to go someday. That was about 4 years ago. For one reason or another, the timing didn’t work out. Actually, I should rephrase that as “because of one excuse or another.” This year, on the brink of turning 30, I thought, “What am I waiting for? Seriously, what?” So, I booked it. I would be hiking a mountain for 7-8 days with 12 strangers. I realize now that the timing was always the way it should’ve been. Hello, retrospection.
Day 1 – Chamonix: From Paris, I took the train to Bellegarde, Bellegarde to St. Gervais and, finally, St. Gervais to Chamonix, all timed to the T and about 5-6 hours in total. If I read the itinerary thoroughly, I would’ve found out that it is faster flying into Geneva and taking a shuttle to Chamonix. You know what I say to that? (oops…but) OH WELLZ! And, besides, Paris > Geneva and train ride > airplane flight.
The train ride from Paris to the French/Swiss border went from cloudy to sunny and I successfully zoned out into la-la land while staring out the window. Right before flying out from New York, I quickly threw on some random songs onto my iPhone and after looking at the playlist:
Strength, Courage & Wisdom – India.Arie
One Step At A Time – Jordin Sparks
Forever – Haim
Lose Control – Keri Hilson
Stranded – Jennifer Paige
We Need A Resolution – Aaliyah
Superwoman – Alicia Keys
Superpower – Beyonce (feat. Frank Ocean)
Top Of The World – Brandy (feat. Mase)
Liberation – Pet Shop Boys
All You Wanted – Michelle Branch
Good Life – OneRepublic
…not only did I think, “um, what’s with all the female singers and some of the seemingly cheesy pop songs?” but also, “uh, was I subconsciously nervous about this hike and did I just map out my entire emotional journey from excitement to feelings of utter failure to ROAR I just conquered the freakin’ mountain??” Um, yea, perhaps. And yes, I do like some cheesy pop songs. Some. I find it funny that as I grow older, my willpower becomes shakier (as well as my back) and yet, I still manage to get myself into these physically challenging situations during which I curse the world and ask it to put me out of my misery…then when I reach the top and am pumped full of endorphins I start loving all the world and its inhabitants. That qualifies me as a literal walking contradiction and I suppose this is a metaphor for my life in general. Why do I always make my life harder for no reason? Maybe it’s all about the contrast. I get to enjoy the relief that much more after I stop self-inflicting misery. Putting philosophy aside…
After I arrived at Hotel Le Chamonix, 12 of us met our guide in the lobby at the scheduled time and made our introductions – a couple from Wales, 4 (including a honeymoon couple) from Canada, a Pakistani living in London, a Japanese girl living in Australia, 2 friends and another guy from California, and me…from New York. Our ages ranged from 21 to the mid-60s. I had no idea what to expect nor did I want to expect anything. The great thing about traveling with a group of strangers is that you feel that you have no judgments and everyone else feels the same. If there were to be any disagreements, all of it would stop mattering after a week and a half. If you were to develop meaningful friendships, even better. Another thing I find funny is that, I have no problems hiking a mountain with complete strangers and yet, I can’t get myself to say hi to someone I see several times a week. You put the lime in the Coke, you nut.
Chamonix is a really cute compact town that still manages to have a Chanel and Superdry store line its streets among the sporting goods and souvenir shops. I’d love to come back one day during the winter to go for a snowboarding run although it’s mainly visited by skiers. The surreal part is seeing the snowcapped mountains towering over the 5-story buildings. Magnanimous is how I would describe it. Truly breathtaking and eyeopening to the fact that there are wonders to discover outside of NYC and the borders of the United States in general. So…Americans who are reading this right now who’ve never gone exploring, please book a flight NOW. I think the U.S. is an awesome country and I am damn proud to have been born and raised here but, I’ve encountered one too many who think that this is all we need. People need to realize that the U.S. was built by people from everywhere else, that we are great because we are comprised of every culture imaginable. So, go appreciate the roots and open your eyes to the beauty and tragedy that is history and to all the cuisines that will leave you nostalgic when you come back home from your vacation. Traveling always makes me realize that nothing and everything matters all at the same time. The hours you put into a heartless job, the competition against shmoozing men on the corporate ladder, the dinner plans you give up to complete a workpaper based on estimates…none of that matters in the grand scheme of life. What matters is what you make of it or how you create opportunities should you feel unfulfilled. What matters is that you don’t stop pursuing or having goals. What matters is that you are happy. I’m still figuring out if I’m talking to the general public or to myself. I guess that doesn’t matter.
Day 2 – Les Houches to Les Contamines: Look at this photo. We look like we were forced to be together. It makes me laugh seeing this side by side with our group photo towards the end of the trip. From left to right is Ellen, Yuko, David, Jackie, Aline, Wasim, Alex, Flo, Julia, Warren, me, Nabeel…and, of course, the picture taker and tour leader Clare. The only bonding time we had prior to setting off on the hike was at dinner the night before at La Moraine. Other than the default “So, what do you do?” conversations, Alex filled us in on how he booked this trip then didn’t bother to book his flight until about a week or so before he needed to fly out. On top of that, as a first-time hiker, he shoved a bunch of whatevers into his backpack and hoped for the best that he had what he needed. I made that same mistake before Peru but rather than it stemming from laziness it, instead, came from sheer cheapassness. I will emphasize now that you will suffer without proper hiking gear. Don’t be stupid!
With each day that passed, I grew to really care for everyone and odd enough, they became my nth family. I also might even say that this was my favorite G Adventures group to date and that says a lot given that I met amazing people on my Peru and India (which I have yet to write about) trips. In the weeks prior to this trip, the weather forecast was dominated by rain. By the time we arrived, it was nothing but bright yellow circles.
For the majority of the trip, we needed to buy and pack the next day’s lunch the night before. On this day, we were lucky to stop at a corner boulangerie right when it opened and pick up a mixte sandwich (ham, cheese and butter in a baguette) and assorted pastries. Then, we took a short bus ride to Les Houches (pronounced like Lay Zoosh), took a cable car up to Bellevue and began our journey at the top. We would be passing the Bionnassay glacier and the Col du Tricot and ultimately reach the Valley of Les Contamines-Montjoie. “This is it,” I thought to myself. “No turning back.” Alex tied a piece of patterned cloth around his neck like a cowboy. The other girls teased that it looked like a scarf. He was adamant that it was a perfectly normal bandana.
Alex: “Phew! Was anyone else a little nervous crossing that bridge?”
Alex: “Oh, yea…me neither…”
Girls: “Yea, and it’s a bandana, not a scarf.”
I’m amazed to this day that I hiked around Mont Blanc with 12 awesome people and an amazing tour leader. Sometimes, I wonder, ‘How did I get so lucky?’ Looking back at these photos two months later, I can’t help but feel an itch to get out there again. Anywhere. But, then I’d have to quit the very job that helps to finance these trips. Are there any venture capitalists out there who want to invest in my happiness? In return, you will feel happy that you made my life far better and, I say that’s more valuable than making that pasture of a bank account greener. Nobody? Oh. I’ll think of a better sales pitch later.
On one of the steep rocky climbs, we ran into a group of Americans with southern accents hiking in the opposite direction.
Southern man: “Did you just come from Less Hooches?”
Us: “Yes, we came from LAY ZOOSH.”
It’s times like this when I understand why people abroad think Americans are ignorant. If that man was talking to me back in the states prior to his trip, then I wouldn’t think anything of it. But given that you were already in France talking about destinations along the hike with local people and have heard the real pronunciations, shouldn’t you embrace the local language and at the very least try to pronounce it correctly? Yes, maybe the town had “less hooches” but dude, no.
Wasim (the 2nd from the left) is an interesting fellow. During our first meeting with Clare back at Chamonix, he asked questions like an overly eager nerdy front row college freshman. He admitted himself that he talks too much and very loudly, then proceeded to give us permission to tell him to ‘shut up.’ He also told way too many jokes. Given that introduction…at this particular spot, he claimed that he had some really cool poses that he wanted us to do at certain photo op’s. The first one was to be one-legged. Since we all had just met the day before, we decided to go along to keep him appeased. What I came to later realize is that Wasim acts with the greatest of intentions, has an adventurous soul and has a hybrid ninja/monkey ability to climb large hills in the distance and come back to our resting spot before I even finished my first gulp of water. He even had the keenest sense of smell. He could smell a small pile of dung from a mile away and would suddenly ask if we saw any animals. In the beginning, we would say “What animals?” and sure enough we’d hear a herd of sheep coming up in the distance. He also constantly wore a long-sleeved shirt and long pants underneath a tracksuit to shield himself from the sun and bug bites. Swish. Swoosh. Swish. Swoosh. You always knew when he was nearby.
To give you a taste of what each day was like, it usually involved about 4 hours of uphill and 4 hours of downhill. To further describe “uphill,” I mean serious thigh muscle usage over paths that were sometimes filled with medium-sized rocks that needed to be climbed over. I thanked SoulCycle multiple times in my head for preventing any leg soreness throughout the hike. The downhill, however, was a different story. By the middle of the week, I busted my right knee and had to buy some knee support at a local pharmacy during our rest day. On top of that, my hiking shoes were brand new prior to this hike, and the ankle portion of the shoes began to severely rub against my ankles. After the third day of hiking, I was slightly limping with my busted knee and swollen ankles. I also didn’t purchase a proper ergonomic hiking bag that evenly distributed the weight on your back. Instead, I used an everyday North Face that was only meant to be used for carrying school materials for short distances at a time. My shoulders were killing me by the end of the first day. And, because I usually only take medicine when absolutely necessary (aka near death), I held off on the Advil.
During the 4 hours of uphill, I may have cursed out the world enough to have to change my permanent residence to a confession booth to atone for my sins. My stamina is not what it used to be but, by the time I reached the ‘peak’ of the day, words couldn’t describe just how happy I was to be there, to see the view of the mountains. It’s like I didn’t remember a single moment of the ‘pain’ I went through to get there. This is what I hear giving birth is like – you push through unimaginable pain, then barely remember the 30+ hours of labor that you went through and start planning for the second child. Clare made sure we all paced ourselves so that we could all catch up to each other. She usually made us do a steep climb or downhill for about 15-20 minutes, gave us a meeting spot, had the fastest people wait for the rest of the group there and then repeated the cycle. There’s an English term “faff” which means to delay things or to waste time doing nothing. Being in France, Clare loosely translated this term into French as “le faffage” and that signified all those 5 minute breaks we took to zip off the bottom half of our hiking pants when it got too hot, fill up our water bottles from designated springs, take a sip of water, eat an energy bar and/or take a ‘wild wee.’ That is exactly what you think it means.
Around 1 or 2pm, we stopped at a refuge situated in a valley and ate the lunch we brought with us. The mixte sandwich, let me tell you, tasted like manna, the touch of God’s grace, the honey of the Roman gods. The bread, the butter, the ham, the cheese…all in perfect harmony.
We passed through this small town during our hike. Clare suggested that we buy some ice cream, the one suggestion that turned all of us adults into eager children.
Wasim: “Make sure you don’t take photos of the roads here. Otherwise, your friends won’t believe you really went hiking in the mountains!”
It’s true though. There were roads, and this marked the first “out” for anyone who couldn’t take the hiking anymore…after just one day. The thought luckily never crossed any of our minds.
Finally, we reached the refuge, Nant Borrant, where we were to stay the night. These refuges started out with local shepherds providing food and shelter to whoever was in need on the mountain and are typically run by generations within a family. With each refuge we stayed at, the routine became:
5-6pm: Arrive at the refuge. Unwind, find out which room you were assigned to, claim a bunk, then run for the shower before the line became too long. Each night, there were about 50-60 others staying at the refuge. The bunk beds were supplied with sheets, a pillow and comforter; however, these were infrequently washed so we were told to bring sleeping sheets or sleeping bag liners to shield us from whatever we needed to be shielded from (shudder). The showers were very basic but very clean. The ones here were the kind where you push a button, do your thing really quickly until the water stopped, push the button again and repeat. Electrical outlets were few and no wifi existed. (Photo credit: Nabeel)
Nabeel: “So, what’s the name of this refuge again? Nong Barrant, as in N-O-N-G?”
Me: “Um, that sounds more like Vietnamese to me.”
7pm: Dinner. The dinner was served family style and were “basic” but, probably the best food to ever grace my tastebuds. Maybe it was the 8 hours of hiking, eating nothing but energy bars and a small lunch. Maybe it was the atmosphere. Either way, the food was amazing – a three course meal starting with vegetable soup, bread and local cheese, then sausage and potatoes and ending with a tart/pie for dessert. Oh yea, and did I mention there was wine? Even in bumblefrack Europe, you can find beer and wine. Ah, Europe, how I love you.
9pm: Sleep for most; more wine for me, Yuko, Nabeel, Clare et al. On the first night, we all went to bed early, thinking that this is something we needed to do. Six of us were bunked together in one room and the other six in another. But, I found myself lying there wide awake. The following nights, I made sure to not make this mistake again.
Clare: “I know it’s cold at night but, make sure you crack the window open before you go to sleep.”
The next morning, I left the room to use the bathroom. When I came back into the room, I walked into the thickest air filled with heat, humidity and extreme morning breath. Someone had shut the window. (Photo credit: Nabeel)
September 6 – 15, 2014: Trekking Mont Blanc
Estimated Hiking Time: 6hr 30min
Approximate Distance Hiked: 20 km
Elevation: Start 1801m; Highest 2500m; Finish 1450m