...and 6500 more...
The Pre-ramble Preamble
On the detailed list of trip instructions I had been given, it said “feel free to enjoy an aperitif or other beverage with them (the clients) to break the ice.” Sitting uncomfortably at the head of the table in a restaurant perched on the banks of the Arve River in Chamonix I was still intensely studying the menu, with minimal comprehension, as the waitress approached. I ordered a pasta dish containing several recognizable ingredients.
“And to drink?”
“I’ll have a cognac,” I replied with all the conviction of a Hemingway protagonist.
“That is a digestif, for after dinner.”
“Oh, right. Well, I’ll just have a beer then.”
The barely suppressed giggles bubbling around the table erupted into laughter. There is always more than one way to break the ice and owing to the fact that I don’t get out much it is usually my worldly façade exiting stage left that inadvertently does the trick.
There had been other signs that my brain was significantly more jet-lagged than my legs in the 48 hours since flying across the pond from California to Switzerland. At the airport in Geneva the sigh of relief was audible as my check-in bag swung battered but unbroken into view on the carousel. Walking out of customs I was immediately intercepted by the shuttle driver taking me to Chamonix.
“Hey mate. You must be Jeff. Let’s go,” he rapid-fired in an accent thick with the backbeat of Liverpool. Apparently the British Invasion of the Chamonix Valley included the transportation industry.
“Ahh, hey man, I’ve got a few things I need to take care of (I also had an unfamiliar European cell phone to get re-activated.) before we leave,” I responded, wondering why he was so early.
Making my way over to a currency exchange booth, he followed, launching into a story involving a sick driver, double-duty for him and a van full of restless customers whom had already been waiting, no longer patiently, a long time. Too tired to break out my violins I was barely listening as I stepped into line. Mumbling something
about going to check on the other folks he disappeared.
Exchanging the company cash for Euros and Swiss Francs another brief wave of relief washed over me. However, as I pulled out my own money for conversion the driver returned and, inconceivable as it was, his hyperactivity had increased. This guy was stressing me out and now, in addition to feeling nine time zones out of sync, I was fully distracted. Grabbing my Euros I chased him out the door doing the over-sized duffel bag shuffle in double-time. It wasn’t until that evening at my hotel that I realized my US dollars were now Swiss Francs, not Euros. We would only be among the Swiss for one day…
A few months earlier I got a call from Howie Schwartz, co-owner of Sierra Mountain Guides (SMG), and husband to my primary employer, Karen, the owner of Sage To Summit, a specialty running and outdoor shop in Bishop, CA where I work and dream with child-like excitement of my next grand adventure in the Sierra’s decomposed granite sandbox. My mountain playground horizons were about to expand dramatically.
“Would you be interested in being an assistant guide on our six day Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB) running trip in late July?,” he casually queried.
I had only been to Europe once as a 30-year old international travel virgin and, suffice it to say, although I did eventually find somewhat of a groove by the end of the trip, my ill-adjusted, out-of-my-element and way-out-of-my-comfort-zone behavior certainly qualified me for deportation, a set of adult diapers and a pacifier with the Stars and Stripes on it. My girlfriend at the time said there should be some kind of cultural adaptability test administered before passports were issued. Ouch. At least she didn’t dump me for a Spaniard.
This was all far from my mind, along with the fact that I had never been in the Alps, let alone a guide in Europe, or in the States for that matter, not to mention that my French and Italian more or less begin and end with “bonjour,” “bonjourno,” “merci,” and “grazie” when I blurted out, “I’m in. Sign me up.” Who could possibly say no?
As the departure date steadily approached, these, and other, concerns began poking at my paper-thin confidence like a trekking pole searching for stable ground. Howie briefed me on the trip itinerary and the clients, six friends from the Washington D.C. area (two couples and two women going spouseless), piling high the maps, instructions and responsibilities. I poured over everything rigorously but it accomplished little in the way of easing my anxiety. Watching a movie and reading the book it originated from is never the same experience. I expected this would be no different.
“Just be yourself,” Howie said encouragingly. Riiiiiight. That’s all fine and good until your self has you ordering drinks at the wrong time, leaving you wondering what the clients are thinking: This guy doesn’t even know when to order a cognac. He’s never run the circuit? Is this par for the guiding course? Whose idea was this?
Back in Chamonix my desire to explore was quickly overridden by a much-needed nap before meeting lead guide, Nina Silitch, who, as we walked through town to a restaurant she recommended for our “working dinner”, was everything I instantly wanted to be: a nine-year resident of Chamonix who was now fluent in French and Italian and culturally savvy; AND she had seen the TMB movie…twice. I had only read the script. By the time the plates were cleared, I felt reassured and ever so slightly more relaxed; not in the sense of having gained any clearer vision of what lay ahead around the next hundred bends of the trail, but because I instantly liked and felt comfortable around Nina. For the time being I could rest assured that at least the guides would get along.
Returning to my hotel for some last minute pack re-arranging the confirmations of my suspicion as to the quality of the accommodations that were aroused by the name “Hotel El Paso La Cantina” began piling up higher than the gear I was trying to shove in my running pack (The clients were going light; I was not.). This was France, not Mexico, and with a name like that it just couldn’t be ‘bon’… or ‘bueno.’
Most disturbing, or so I thought, was the outrageous loudness of the hardwood floors, groaning with the arthritis of arbolean age, every time someone had the audacity to actually walk around. The noise,combined with feelings of restlessness typical of the evening before a grand adventure, was setting the stage for a sleepless night. Lying there in the semi-dark (Light pollution from outside and a curtain cut to the dimensions of a much smaller window are a poor combination.) my mind wandered one more imaginary lap around the Mont Blanc Massif.
At 4,810 meters (15, 782’) Mont Blanc is the highest peak in the Alps, a snow covered dome surrounded by sweeping rivers of ice and a set of jagged spires known collectively as the Aiguilles. The Massif containing it is a mountain range unto itself shared by three countries (France, Italy, and Switzerland). It is famous for being considered by most to be the birthplace of modern mountaineering in the late 18th century. Nearly two centuries later it was also instrumental in the development of ski mountaineering. In recent decades Chamonix, nestled in its shadows in the depths of a glacially-carved valley, has exploded into an international mountaineering mecca.
Then came the trail runners. If it was inevitable that Mont Blanc would be climbed, skied, paraglided, tunneled (There is an 11 km long tunnel beneath the mountain connecting Chamonix with Courmayeur, Italy.) and teleferiqued (see footnote below), then it was also simply a matter of time before someone decided to run around it.
In 2003 the Ultra-Trail du Tour du Mont Blanc was born, a counter-clockwise 166 km (103 mile) loop around the Massif starting and finishing in Chamonix with a total elevation gain of 9,400 m (30, 775’).
To put this amount of climbing in perspective, if you started on the shores of the Indian Ocean and bagged Mt. Everest you’d still have well over a grand of vertical to go. Most people who undertake this challenge take 30 to 45 hours to reach the finish line. Endurance specimens such as two-time defending champion Killian Jornet of Spain have gone under 22 hours (In 2008 Killian cracked the 21 hour barrier with a course record time of 20:58.) Folks of average fitness take 10-12 days to hike the loop. Our itinerary called for 6 days, quick enough to necessitate some running but also allowing for plenty of time to relax and simmer in a three-country sampling of the diverse European cultural stew.
Each day would call for anywhere from 20 km (12.5 mi) to 43 km (26.5 mi) of trail time with options on most days to shorten the distance by catching a ride with our shuttle driver, Lyndsay, who would be leapfrogging ahead with our extra gear; or hopping on a teleferique to avoid a nasty climb or descent. Each night we would be staying in the luxurious comfort of either a hotel or refugio (hut).
This frequent road accessibility combined with bountiful hut options are distinctly European concepts (Of course if the U.S had a few hundred more years of history preceding the 1964 Wilderness Act they might very well be American concepts as well.) and they allow for the unique experience of disappearing into rugged mountain terrain without a kitchen sink’s worth of survival equipment in your pack and without ever really being that far from modern comforts. By contrast a similar trip on the John Muir Trail (specifically the southern half) would be completely roadless, with no shelter along the way except for what you’ve got on your back and re-supplies requiring a very strenuous effort courtesy of a porter, be it human or quadruped.
As my thoughts were slowly trailing off, I suddenly fixated on a tiny pinhole of light coming from the door connecting my room with the adjacent one. Unbelievably there was a peephole right next to my bed. I laughed out loud thinking back to dinner earlier that evening when one of the clients had asked, “So, are you staying in the same hotel as us?”
“Ahh, not exactly,” I replied, dodging requests for more detail. Six nights later I found myself back in the same room and noticed the hole had been sealed…with a piece of tissue paper.
Day 1: Chamonix to Les Contamines
Soon enough it was daylight and I was up before my alarm, a sure sign I hadn’t slept well, and heading to the nearest bakery to nurse my mixed excitement-and-anxiety cocktail hangover with a croissant (or two) and a cappuccino. At 8:30 Nina and I rendezvoused with our clients, the D.C. Six, and in short order we were ready to go. Well, almost. One member of the group was conspicuously absent and from the snippets of conversation I was picking up on this was highly unusual behavior. A few of the others went back inside to investigate and quickly produced a very tired and disoriented-looking individual. Jet lag plus a sleepless night can be a lethal buzz kill but at long last, with a quick group photo we were off.
As we headed out of town down valley along the Arve River the group immediately began to string out with Nina on point and myself pulling caboose duty, which was more than fine by me; I didn’t know where I was going, remember? The three points forming the Bermuda Triangle of stress and anxiety in my spring green guiding mind were, in no particular order, the following: getting the clients lost, group personality dynamics, and the language barrier. Two of the three would combine explosively before the day was through.
It wasn’t so much a fear of truly getting lost in the sense of having no idea where I was and needing to call in one of the helicopters frequently buzzing the Massif for assistance as it was a desire to not want the clients constantly standing around waiting for me to figure every trail junction out. Nor did I want to spend six days with the maps and cell phone glued to my hands burning through expensive airtime minutes while Nina vectored me in to the next group rendezvous.
I understood the route in a general sense. We were doing a counter-clockwise loop around a mountain with all the orienting landmark prominence of taking a walk around Mt. Rainier on the Wonderland Trail. If at any point the Massif was off my starboard side for any length of time we were most likely going the wrong way and as it turned out nearly every trail junction had more signs than an astrologer’s office and getting profoundly lost would truly require some misalignment of the stars.
Where the trail met civilization as we passed through the various villages and towns along the way was an altogether different animal. Although the trail was marked even as it temporarily transformed into pavement these situations were always a bit more tricky and I often felt my heart rate rising. Cruising into Les Houches several kilometers down valley from Chamonix I got my first taste of this test. The plan was to meet at the teleferique that would take us effortlessly up the first stiff climb of the tour, saving our legs for an endless number of additional ascents to come. As the minutes and buildings steadily passed by someone eventually threw out a feeler: “You still feeling good about this?”
“Ahh, yeah,” I replied quickly, my voice dancing between the keys of confidence and consternation as I willed the tram station into sight. Moments later it appeared.
The remainder of the day passed by pleasantly, climbing over the verdantly green Col de Tricot and descending sharply to the Chalet de Miage where I quickly found myself on the receiving end of a lunch that one of The Six thought sounded appetizing until its proportions cast a gastro-intestinally distressful shadow over the table: a massive bread and butter sandwich with a slab of cheese on it the size of the Mer de Glace. I indulged. My diet on this trip would be unlike any other multi-day running adventure of the past.
It was on the final descent of the day into Les Contamines that the first, and essentially only, truly stressful test of the group’s dynamics came to pass. Mere meters from our re-group point two of The Six stopped for a photo opp. I was slightly ahead talking with two of the others. Moments earlier I had looked back and they were in sight. Moments later I looked back again and they were gone. Retracing our steps to where I last saw them I received a solid jolt of adrenaline upon discovering they had disappeared. In retrospect I should have been behind everyone regardless of how close together we were, as the now-paved path was winding between buildings, bisecting roads and significantly less obvious than the trails we had been traversing earlier. At the time, however, I just simply could not believe how quickly we got separated.
When we finally all re-grouped a bit later on the main street through town, the tension was palpable. They were not pleased, to say the least. The fiery charge in the air eventually eased back toward neutral as we walked the final kilometer to our hotel for the night. After checking-in we all quietly dispersed to our respective rooms. We would re-convene at 7 for dinner.
A long hot shower later I took a walk outside, unable to keep from noticing the increasingly foreboding look to the clouds gathering above the peaks, then quickly retreated to the sanctuary of my room. Quicker than the Teleferique du Midi could transport you from the lush Chamonix Valley to a world of rock and ice I had hit, what turned out to be from my perspective, the low point of the trip.
Yes, perspective, of which I essentially had none from a guiding standpoint. Everything was new to me and therefore there was absolutely nothing to compare anything to. My internal compass was gyrating wildly without any reference point. Was today just another day at the guiding office? And, if so, could I do this for another five? Did I even want to? By the time we circled back to Chamonix, physically I would be operating on all cylinders, ready to churn out another lap given the time; but mentally I would be completely drained from constant sensory overload. Staring at the ceiling above my bed I turned the incident around and around in my head, inspecting it from all sides and angles and, just as the pioneering climbers of the past systematically explored every face and arête on Mont Blanc, transformed the daunting into the do-able.
Making my way downstairs to dinner I had simply come to the conclusion that although it was the end of day one we were still essentially at ground zero in terms of comfort zones. There was a lot of internal feeling out going on. Throw a group of random people into a foreign situation, in every sense of the word, and the greatest challenges will quickly shift from geographical to interpersonal navigation. At the moment though, as I rounded the corner into the hotel dining room I really had no idea what kind of atmosphere to expect.
Much to my relief the frustrations of earlier appeared to have already lost their sharp edges, softening in the corners of everyone’s conscious and dinner was a very pleasant affair. I didn’t order any drinks inappropriately, the food was magnifique and the wine flowed, well, like wine. The smoky shadows of slumber enveloped me in their silence effortlessly that night, until…
Day 2: Les Contamines to the Refuge des Mottets
Sometime significantly before dawn I bolted wide awake to the sound of rain falling in sheets and, with the blink of a bloodshot eye, my anxiety had returned. Today would present a different set of challenges. Standing in the hotel lobby a few hours later on the threshold of dry warmth and clammy cold I glanced up at the mountains towering above us and noticed several streaks of white streaming down the slope; sizeable creeks that had not been there the day before. The intensity of the rain had not been a dream after all.
For the first few hours of the day we climbed steadily in a rain that immediately lessened, then stopped altogether, to the Col du Bonhomme. Scattered patches of blue beckoned at teasingly short intervals from behind the steel gray curtain. Blue is often considered to be the “safest global color,” representing peace, tranquility and calm, and, to be sure, I was in a Bob Marley-like mellow mood.
Contouring along a rocky, sinuous ridge from the col my mellow mood disappeared abruptly in a swirling sea of near-zero visibility fog rising up from the valley below. We continued on, following the red-and-white lines painted on numerous rocks that represent the TMB course. Only problem was there were trails everywhere and they all had red-and-white markings. It wasn’t long before someone vocalized what I am sure everyone was thinking: “Hey Jeff, you sure about this?”
“We’d really like you to be ‘for sure.’” Yeah, me too, I thought to myself. I couldn’t tell what percentage of that comment was dead-pan serious versus one-line comedy.
Other than the signage at a critical trail junction not appearing out of the mists until we nearly walked straight into the pole, soon enough we were all safely out of the frigid wind that had materialized and in the refuge shivering our way back to internal baseline temps.
An hour later we were standing atop the only snowfield we would cross at 2665 m (8550’) on the Col des Fours, the geographical high point of our circuit. On the descent to the Refuge des Mottets our good fortune with the weather went by the wayside. I was out on point for the first time and we had stopped to take in a beautiful cascading stream. The rest of the group was visible higher up on the col.
“You guys want to wait here for the…,” I started to ask as a crack of thunder rudely interrupted.
“Ahh, that’s a no,” they responded in unison.
A few minutes later the skies opened dropping a deluge that accompanied us the remaining kilometers to the refuge. The accommodations were crowded and the least comfortable of the trip but any kind of roof over your head in water-logged conditions is a delight. This unassailable outdoors truism, combined with the fact that my only other hut experience was in the Southern Alps of New Zealand (The Kiwis have a decidedly different view on levels of hut quality.), and my personal rating of the Mottets automatically went up a few stars.
Besides, there was impromptu music. That evening, to the singing delight of a packed dining area, a girl from the hut staff regaled the refuge with an accordion. It was a boisterous, cheerful crowd.
Day 3: Refuge des Mottets to Courmayeur
The forecast for the day called for rapidly improving conditions. Except for the “rapid” part, it was spot on. Crossing over the Col de la Seigne mid-morning we scampered down into Italy with wet snowflakes dancing across the alpine landscape. This was the shortest trail day of the trip and by noon we were descending via tram into Courmayeur under warm, sunny skies.
Arriving at our hotel too early to check-in we dropped off our gear and headed straight to the nearest pizzeria for a fine Italian slice. The afternoon was spent soaking away three days accumulation of aches at a nearby spa. Sitting neck-deep in warm mineral water with a pair of jets simultaneously blasting the knots in my calves into oblivion while staring at the sexy Italian flanks of Mont Blanc I felt as those I was melting into a landscape of surrealism like a clock in a Dali painting. I was beginning to flow a bit more fluidly and confidently with the constantly-changing currents of this circuit.
Discussing the trip with Nina over dinner that night, it was then that I discovered something I suspected but did not really believe: guides, even mountaineering guides, routinely take clients up routes and peaks they have never been on themselves; a task made manageable because, at its heart, guiding is essentially the application of an acquired skill set to new terrain and/or varying conditions. Of course, at the moment, I was applying zero skills, at least in terms of official training, to new everything. Nevertheless, compared with on-sight guiding in the vertical world, leading a group around a trail circuit with a seemingly infinite number of signs suddenly seemed a lot more sensible.
However, there was one desire that this newly acquired knowledge did not fully curb: I still desperately wanted the experience of guiding in the Sierra, the granite range on which I cut my mountain teeth and in which I could navigate even with my contact lenses missing, for confidence comparison. The comparisons would have to come later; for now we had a lemon cello nightcap served up ‘gratuito’ to enjoy and I was feeling ‘magnifique.’
Day 4: Courmayeur to the Rifugio Elena
This section included a hat trick of pleasantries: the finest weather, the grandest views and one extremely filling, heavy midday meal at the Refuge Bonatti. A very steep climb out of Courmayeur allowed very little time to digest the breakfast buffet bonanza awaiting us that morning at the Hotel Bouton D’Or before precious blood flow was diverted away from the digestive tract to screaming muscles. The reward was well worth the effort though as we spent a glorious few hours traversing a broad rolling ridgeline carpeted in green punctuated with crisp colorful bursts of flowers in the peak of summer bloom. As we ascended toward the Tete de la Tronche the entire expanse of the Italian Val Ferret opened up beneath our feet while Mont Blanc, the Grandes Jorasses and the full Massif monty towered above.
Descending to the Refuge Bonatti (The hut is named after Walter Bonatti, an Italian pioneer in post-war alpine climbing.) a lunch of polenta with sausage had blood pooling in the belly once again and it was challenging to get motivated and moving for the final push to that night’s quarters, the Rifugio Elena. Trying to remain obscurely in the back without being too obvious about it I let Nina take the conductor position again.
In the continuum of accommodations ranging from hut to hotel the Rifugio Elena is a hybrid lying somewhere in between the two: a hut cut to the finest of specs or a basic hotel, depending on your “Is the cup half full or half empty?” semantic preferences. After a scrumptious spaghetti dinner that evening my glass was again half full (well, maybe a little more) of lemon cello. It was with providential timing that we were leaving Italy for the Swiss countryside the next day; this drink was dangerous but its prevalence would be left behind at the border.
Day 5: Rifugio Elena to Champex-Lac
As with most days this one began abruptly with an ascent that had us on our toes wondering just what precisely was the tipping point of your Achilles tendon’s elasticity. The Grand Col Ferret awaited us at the top along with Switzerland and a herd of welcoming cows.
With each border crossing there was an amazingly immediate and tangible shift in the feel of the landscape we were moving through, both topographically and culturally. Europe is a poignant reminder that, although we live in an information age of ‘globalization’ and a significant shrinking of the time and distance dimensions of our planet, it really wasn’t that long ago that short distances and even modestly challenging terrain were monumental barriers to movement that allowed very distinct populations to emerge in very small areas. Imagine that every time you crossed a state line in the U.S., from a cultural and language perspective, everything changed. It’s exciting and unsettling at the same time when you are not accustomed to it.
Running down a refreshingly lower angled descent into the Swiss Val Ferret we arrived in the quaint, tidy town of La Fouly. After four days of endless sandbagging about shortening each day’s mileage the shuttle was finally employed and the group split up, some opting for a ride with Nina and more time to relax in Champex while I remained behind with the two that wanted to go the distance.
The run down the valley was ten kilometers of pleasantly rolling terrain passing scene after scene seemingly lifted straight from The Sound of Music. It was impossible not to notice how clean and orderly the world had become, right down to the artfully stacked piles of wood. As we topped out on the final climb of the day the charming lakeside town of Champex-Lac appeared before us, beckoning weary legs with its cool waters. It was August 1st, which is Swiss National Day, and our brief stay included a lively fireworks celebration. For our final day Mother Nature would have some fireworks of her own.
Day 6: Champex-Lac to Chamonix
The forecast called for heavy rain at times with thunderstorms diminishing throughout the afternoon; however, we awoke to mostly clear skies and as we progressed up one of the steepest and definitely roughest, rocky and root-filled climbs of the loop toward the Bovine hut it was readily apparent there had been a role reversal regarding the rain between the morning and afternoon showings.
Cruising along in back on a gently inclined gravel road leading out of Champex, I was slightly behind the client who had been funning on me the most about my “cognac incident” when we came upon a metal gate barring our progress. Now, in our defense, I like to think that what followed was primed the previous day by the numerous wire cattle fences crossing the trail that we had to either go over or under. After we each took a befuddled turn at opening the gate by attempting to pull up or slide over various parts he grabbed the top rail confidently proclaiming, “Well, I guess we just climb over it like the rest of ‘em.” Planting his left foot firmly on the bottom rail, as he lifted his right leg over the gate swung open unhindered. As our laughter echoed across the valley he admonished, “Let’s just keep that one to ourselves.” For the remainder of the day I resisted the urge to refer to him as “The Gatekeeper.”
Dropping down to the Col de la Forclaz with the weather still all bark and no bite we met up with Lyndsay and the group once again splintered into two groups: those who wanted to skip the middle section from Trient to Vallorcine and jump ahead to the final climb of the day along the Aiguilles Rouges in hopes that the sweeping views of the French side of the Mont Blanc Massif would still be on display, and those who wanted every last meter of this 45 kilometer day, by far the longest of the trip. Once again, I was taking the long way home.
“We wouldn’t want you to leave any stones unturned for next time,” they explained.
By the time we had re-entered France, re-loaded the bloodstream with a sugar rush of crepe sucres and cokes in Vallorcine and climbed gently up to the Col des Montets at the head of the Chamonix Valley, the heavy weather we had been dodging all day began to close ranks. At this point though we were fully committed to finishing on foot, and although the nearly switchback-less and grueling final climb and traverse along the Aiguilles Rouges was mostly enveloped in a shroud of thick fog our viewless effort was rewarded with two separate ibex sightings. At close range this species of wild goat, common to the European Alps, and armed with a pair of monstrous backward-curving horns on a head attached to the body of a mule deer on steroids, will instantaneously erase any knowledge you might have about its being strictly herbivorous.
Turning right at a trail junction I came around a corner to see my two client comrades standing still about a hundred meters away and slightly below. One looked my direction waving his hand and seemingly pointing along the trail as if imploring, “Is this the right way?” Unhesitatingly I yelled out, “Yeah, we descend for awhile and…,” my voice trailed off as he began gesticulating wildly. They were watching two young ibex; nothing like bookending the trip with two asinine actions.
Moments after catching a glimpse of the teleferique station at the La Flegere hut that would give our quads a pain-free pass down into Chamonix the near-zero visibility fog rolled back in and the rain returned in earnest, this time with a thunderous orchestral accompaniment. In a lightening-quick flash we found ourselves in a world of chaos. Hikers were appearing like trekking pole-wielding apparitions out of the mists from seemingly all directions and converging on a station area so obscured by fog and completely disorienting due to detour signs everywhere directing a confusing diversion around an active construction site that it seemed as those we might never find the loading zone. At one point we started to follow a truck up a road that felt like it was flirting with vertical, but to our utterly speechless surprise the truck immediately began backing down. Three tired, stiff and slow-twitched ultrarunners metamorphosed into sprinters faster than Usain Bolt can get out of the blocks.
After much wandering we finally found the turnstiles leading to what turned into a ride down in a human sardine can on cables. Ignorance is bliss but it is also sometimes the ticket to a, well, free ticket. When the man guarding the turnstiles asked for our tram tickets I stared back blankly. I hadn’t seen any place to purchase them and I assumed we either bought them here in line or paid at the bottom. He pointed vaguely somewhere in the direction we had come (As it turns out you buy tickets at the hut we had passed.) and said something in French. I turned around to see a long line had formed behind us. I had no idea what he was pointing at and suddenly found myself doing a full stress circle back to Day One. Turning back to face him in a good old fashioned foreign language stand-off I was relieved to see a friendly hand waving us through. Feeling sorry for confounded foreigners can sometimes trump financial reward. Either that or he simply no longer cared after a long day dealing with tourons.
Eight hundred meters below we stepped out into a continuing deluge for two final kilometers down to the Hotel De L’Arve where it all began six eternally long (Or was it deceptively short? The passage of time, marked by a clock, but defined by immediate experience can be a remarkably relative concept.) days before. The moisture-laden clouds that we had danced fortuitously around until the finale must have been streaming in from the south and banking up against the flanks of the Chamonix Valley all day for the Arve River was raging. The rain finally eased a few hours later as we gathered for a celebratory dinner before going our separate ways.
The Post-Trip Postscript
At the dinner I found myself looking around at the six faces that were as foreign to me six days earlier as the three countries our journey unfolded in, already beginning to reminisce. As a guide first and foremost you want to provide a safe adventure for the people that have entrusted you with their experience. But beyond that there are larger goals, objectives in a similar vein as human equality, oftentimes elusive, and quite possibly not completely attainable but nevertheless always worth reaching for.
On the same checklist handed me before the trip that gave the green light to order an ice-breaking aperitif I was given thanks in advance “for your hard work in helping to make it the trip of a lifetime for this group,” a mission on par with the dimensions of the mountain we ran around, and certainly as challenging as bringing together eight unique personalities, all with vastly different backgrounds and ever-changing expectations, with the hope that, when the trail dust had settled, the final bottle of vino sat empty on the table and The Routines had all been returned to, the rapport developed would be positive and the memories would be worth re-visiting time and again when real life edged toward the mundane. The difficulty in attaining these objectives as a guide lies squarely in the fact that they are not entirely within your control. Group experiences are two-way streets, each direction with multiple lanes.
Swallowing my final sip of the long-awaited cognac, this time appropriately signifying the end of the meal and this particular adventure, I felt the enhanced glow of brandy sliding smoothly down my throat combined with the satisfying feeling of a job well done. The trip package could use some fine-tuning but I was confident that at least some of the roadblocks particular to this convening of Americans in the Alps had been removed along the way.
Feeling as though I had come one additional glass of crushed and fermented grapes away from an awful, day-long international in-flight hangover experience, I sank wearily into my window seat as the plane rose steadily over Geneva. The insatiable curiosity that often has me staring out windows to view the world below from 30,000’ for entire flights was greatly suppressed by my extreme mental fatigue and the sea of white clouds we were now rising above; however, something from within had me sitting up for one last look.
At first, as suspected, nothing but uniformly white hills of water vapor stretched to the horizon. The plane banked sharply. As its wings once again re-gained the level a spectacular sight appeared. Towering above the cloud tops stood the summit proper of Mont Blanc; even the imposing-from-the-ground Massif containing it not blessed with enough vertical to pierce through this cloud deck. The prominent flanks of the mountain as seen from the French side descended down out of sight like a set of glaciated staircases into the now-hidden world containing the past week’s life-changing experiences. It didn’t appear so imposing from cruising altitude. Perspectives…
As my eyes finally lost their battle with gravity one final thought snuck across a synapse into my fading consciousness. In a month Nina would be scouting out a loop around the Matterhorn for its potential as another SMG-guided trip. I’ve never been there. Would I go if I got the call? Now what kind of question is that?
There is also a teleferique, or cable car, actually three of them that you can link up for a ride from Chamonix at 1,035 m to the Aiguille du Midi at 3,842 m and down the other side into a village near Courmayeur. Obviously, the Europeans have a very different point of view on acceptable interactions between people and the mountains. A rough equivalent of this would be taking a gondola from Lone Pine to the Keeler Needle near Mt. Whitney and down the west slope to Visalia then hopping in a car and driving back underneath the range in a granite tunnel; to be sure, an eternally-conflicted concept with wilderness and the American mind.