The Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB), a 160km loop hike through Switzerland, Italy and France, is almost too good to be true. Where else can you spend 10 days frolicking along the Alps' best valleys, hamlets and passes - interrupted only by the siren call of draft beer, fondue, a warm shower and a pillow? Hard-core hikers laugh at the idea. This is hardly roughing it!
Each year, 10,000 hikers follow the loop around Mont Blanc - Europe's highest mountain. I joined the masses last year. Hailing from Seattle, I was born with a love for the mountains, and years of hiking in the Pacific Northwest had prepared me well - but I still got a few things wrong. I hope my blunders will make yours a happier tour.
Mistake #1: I overpacked.
Being a prudent hiker, I packed a tent, water filter, cooking stove, matches, sleeping pad and head torch - and never used them. Not even once! On the TMB, you pass a water or food source every five kilometres, and accommodation every 10. The standard accommodation comes in the form of refuges: mountain huts that vary in quality, but most often are equipped with plumbing, warm beds and delicious homecooking. While, yes, it's better to be safe than sorry, I lugged 15 unnecessary kilos around the mountain. But at the same time, it was fun watching the shock on children's faces as I passed them along the trail. I was a Mont Blanc superhero.
Mistake #2: I went alone.
Since I wasn't able to entice any of my friends to walk around the mountain with me, I did it alone. Solo travel is a rewarding pursuit - but not in the woods. First of all, it's dangerous, especially for a 20-something girl. It's even more dangerous for a 20-something girl who has a terrible sense of direction and poor map-reading skills. Luckily, I wasn't really alone all that often, as I passed fellow hikers (with, thankfully, better navigation skills) every 15 minutes or so. Plus, being a solo female traveller scored me extra cocoa powder on my cappuccinos and invitations to join in nightly card games.
Mistake #3: I thought I'd come home slimmer.
I assumed that a week and a half spent walking 7 hours a day along a very hilly trail (the total elevation gain is 8500m!) would burn a calorie or two. I optimistically thought I might even tone up a bit. Um, no. Italy enticed me with cappuccinos, spaghetti alla bolognese and pistachio gelato. I couldn't say no to Switzerland's huge mugs of hot chocolate, polenta (which I wasn't crazy about - but ate nevertheless), and omelettes. I shamelessly indulged in France on pain au chocolat, metre-long ham and cheese sandwiches and fondue so good it brought tears to my eyes. Delicious, but no diet strategy.
Mistake #4: I didn't speak French.
I wouldn't be the first native English speaker to take it for granted that, sure, everyone speaks English in Europe. Being fluent in Italian, I figured I'd have no problem communicating. I was wrong. French is the unofficial language of the TMB - even in the Italian section, it seems. Many of the locals I came in contact with spoke even less than the limited amount of English I was optimistically hoping for - which meant that I had to speak French. That proved quite difficult since I struggled even to pronounce bonjour correctly, much less ask where I could put my muddy boots.
Mistake #5: I didn't summit.
No, not on foot! I mean I didn't take the gondola to the summit of Mont Blanc after finishing the loop. You can take a cable car from France's Chamonix or Italy's Courmayeur to see the spectacular views from the top of the mountain you've just walked around. I regret not having done this as a reward for having finished the hike - I suppose I must have been too busy eating!
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