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Hiking Journal Mont Blanc: Travel Travel Walking

Alpine Journey 6: Mountain Galleries

Just arrived in the village of La Fouly in Switzerland. Of all the places I’ve passed through until now it is the most quintessentially “Swiss alpine”. Sweeping green hillsides ringing with cowbells, chalets standing on stilts, stupendous peaks rising in the background, it is what I’ve always imagined the Alps to be like. They’re much more varied of course, but I guess most people travel with some predetermined image in their heads of what they expect to see. Much of that has been permanently damaged, and I will never quite see these places the same way again.

I was supposed to walk until Champex today, but when I arrived here and found that there were still four hours to go, I decided to call it a day. It’s a nice enough little place, perfect for holiday travelers, and would be great if I had a lot more money and someone to share a room with! I heartily recommend it to anyone who wants a quiet place to hole up for a few days and go for great walks.

I’m loving the mountains, but I’m getting a little tired of the constant, just hand’s-breadth away, stand-offishness of the bigger mountains on this walk. The Tour de Mont Blanc is like a stroll through an enormous art gallery, the path skirting the grandness of the mountains, but never quite touching them, with the walker leaning in from along the edges, making out the gigantic forms, but never feeling their solidity underfoot. It is so different from the walks in the Alps in Japan, where you always get right into the grit of the climbs and feel the vastness of the mountains underneath you. Of course, these mountains are colder and higher and so you don’t have the same freedom as a casual walker to simply go up to the high ridges without specialized knowldege.

Entering Italy was an experience in high blood sugars as every meal seems to come with two courses and then a before dessert morsel, followed by a dessert. Last night in the mountain refuge that I stayed out I discovered the Italians at their most cheerful sitting around eating, drinking, and talking. Out on the trails, however, I found them unusually reticent, especially the men, very rarely looking directly at you and saying hello. Forget the smiles. So different from the French who readily sang out their greetings and often stopped to engage me in little chats about where I came from and where I was going. This was completely unexpected. I’d always heard of Italians being so open and friendly, and the French closed-mouthed. Maybe the Italians were all still recovering from the festivities of the night before.

Had an absolutely horrific night at the hotel in Courmayeur the second day. A contingent of Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB) walkers had overtaken the little room I was in. An elderly woman slept in the bed next to mine and once the lights went out she proceeded to snore like a locomotive. After several hours of lying awake, unable to sleep and hearing others in the room shifting as they also attempted to sleep, I finally took it upon myself to nudge the woman’s bed each time she began her aria in an attempt to curb the noise. After the third nudge she sat up and snarled something at me in Italian. When I answered in English she returned, “Two people can’t sleep. Do you have a problem with that?” I told her that, much as I didn’t want to wake her, her snoring was so loud that it was impossible to sleep. She didn’t apologize or even acknowledge that perhaps she was making everyone else unhappy, but instead called to her sleeping husband and asked to exchange beds with him. That solved nothing, of course, and when her snoring started up again, I got so miffed that I packed up my backpack and headed out to the front of the hotel to sleep on the lawn chairs there. It was freezing but I got a rather good doze in while gazing up at the stars.

Last night was my first night sleeping in the tent. The refuge I was hoping to stay at, Rifugio Elena, told me that there were no places left and the only place available was the open field out back. It was a ruinous place where every other step had you stepping into cow patties and it smelled like a dirty barn, and the wind coming off the col above was glacial, but inside the tent it was warm enough. I slept very well.

Tomorrow I’m off north across the northern portion of the Tour. Four more nights to go.

Categories
Europe: Travel Hiking Journal Mont Blanc: Travel Travel Ultralight Backpacking Walking

Alpine Journey 5: Italian Grasshoppers

It’s Thursday morning in Courmayeur, Italy. I just arrived yesterday evening after a very hard day of walking. I was so tired and my legs hurt so much last night, I couldn’t go up and down the stairs at the “dortoir” (a hotel where many people stay in one room… everything is expensive here so I have to be very careful with money. Luckily I am the only person here! Though it is a bit lonely) I am staying at.

Today is the fifth day of the walk, but I am resting for the day. So far the walk has been absolutely wonderful. I can’t express how beautiful the mountains here are and how BIG they are! Mont Blanc, which I saw yesterday, is 4800 meters tall, 1000 meters taller than Mt. Fuji, and when you look at it you feel very very small. Yesterday when I took a lunch break above the valley I sat for an hour just looking at the whole range while eating French bread with “Tombe” cheese (it’s like Blue Cheese, but I like it much more) and Haute Savoie sausage (salami).

I’ve met a lot of interesting people, especially every night at the mountain huts. Yesterday I walked with a French man named Sebastien who took me to see one of the biggest glaciers in Europe, the Glacier de la Miage. The rocks at the end of the glacier (called “morraine”) took a half hour to climb! We sat talking at the top of the morraine where it was very quiet and we could see the whole valley below. Right along the outside edge of the morraine nestled the ruins of an old Roman settlement. Sebastien commented on how quiet the area was. We strolled through it and just didn’t have words for both the enormousness of the elements and the sheer sense of peace. I also met a big group of French elderly people who, though we couldn’t understand each other, laughed a lot and invited me to drink some local specialty liquor with them. Whenever we met on the trail everyone would raise their walking sticks and shout, “The German-Filipino from Japan!”

People here are walkers, real walkers. Some of them have legs so rippling with walking muscles that it is a bit intimidating, but also inspiring to get myself to be out in the mountains a lot more than I have been. The walking times listed on the trail signs always seem too enthusiastic and I can never quite finish the trails at the same times, though that probably has a lot to do with all the times I stop to take photos. A German family, whom I met at Refugio Elisabetta, laughed when they saw me taking my photos, “Ah, what can you expect, he’s Japanese!”

The weather has been very sunny and hot. My sun tan is dark like chocolate now and I’m sure when I get to Japan many people will think I come from Pakistan or India. I entered my first town in Italy yesterday and it is very strange to be here with everyone speaking Italian. Everything looks Italian, even the grasshoppers, which move slowly and have many bright colors. I wonder why Japanese grasshoppers move more quickly than Italian grasshoppers? Kicking through the grass along the side of the trail and smelling the great variety of herbs that grew there, I wondered if the grasshoppers themselves had developed a philosophy of “Hasta Maniana”?

Strangely I haven’t seen any Japanese at all on the trail, very unusual, for Europe at this time of year. I wonder where they all went? The only Japanese I’ve seen so far during this whole trip was a bus load of them getting off to enter a Japanese restaurant in Chamonix. Though I know how homesick one can sometimes get from eating strange food every day, I just can’t understand how you can specifically organize your travels to a foreign country just so that you can eat the same food you eat at home all the time.

It is raining here in Courmayeur and I will walk downtown to look at the stores and maybe get something to eat. Tomorrow I will start walking again.

Categories
Europe: Travel Hiking Journal Mont Blanc: Travel Travel Ultralight Backpacking Walking

Summer Peaks

It’s that season again when I can start up into the heights and go for long walks. This summer I’m planning to go to the Alps to walk the Walker’s Haute Route (these pcitures must have been from an earlier part of the season) from Chamonix and Mont Blanc to Zermatt and the Matterhorn. It’s not a technical route, so I don’t have to worry about glacier crossings and unpredictable terrain, but since I’ve been having excrutiating cramps in my legs due to diabetic problems, I’m really wondering if I’ll be able to be in shape in time for the walk. I’ve been running and walking ten kilometers every day to and from work and doing calisthenics at home (including following the Billy’s Boot Camp DVD) and in earlier years this would have gotten me in great shape by now, but the cramps are pretty debilitating. Very, very frustrating. I will be going to see a new doctor on Thursday. Hopefully she will be able to help me with the preparation instead of telling me that the trip is not possible. Right now this trip means a lot to me in terms of finding some confidence in myself. And besides I just need to get out of Japan!!

I will start in Zürich, Switzerland, where I will stay for one night before heading west toward Chamonix in France. Along the way I will stop in a town or two to see a little bit of Switzerland’s lowlands, before heading up into the hills. In Chamonix I will take a day or two to acclimatize and make sure my condition is all right. If it is I will start off on the two week walk, carrying minimal weight, with an ultralight backpack and gear (shouldn’t be more than 5 kilos at most). I want to walk the trail slowly, with stops along the way to savor what I came so far to see and to write and take photos. I may even go on side trips to neighboring villages and towns in Switzerland and Italy. After the walk I will head into Italy and spend a few days there, hopefully visiting some architectural sites. If my legs are having trouble I will walk along an easier trail and take my time with writing and drawing. Either way I think I will have a memorable trip.

I’m sorry about the state of my blog lately. For some reason I can longer access it from home and can only do it from work, where I don’t have much time to write. Have to work out the kinks.

I’ll post more about the summer travels and will try to get some photos of the seashore near my house that I recently discovered.