Hiking the Tour du Mont Blanc Express (Video)

In August, my friends and I fulfilled a big dream together and hiked the world famous Tour du Mont Blanc. This trek had been on my to-do list for a while and I was scoping it out with REI Adventures when a friend suggested that I join their group. They were doing the express version of the hike in 6 days, so their trip was more budget-friendly.

REI’s trip was 13 days, so it was nearly double the price of what we paid, and that didn’t even include airfare. It’s a little bit crazy to take on this level of a hike in such a short period of time, but entirely doable. We saw a video of a couple that did it in the same amount of time, so that gave us more confidence.

The trip wasn’t without its challenges, though. However, this first day of the journey was relatively mellow and provided a good warmup for the rest of the trip. On this first day, we hiked from Les Houches, France via Col de Tricot and Le Truc into Les Contamines, France where we spent the night. It was a total of 11 miles with 4,728 ft elevation gain and 4,144 ft elevation loss.

Off to Great Places!

I dropped Mr. Frodo off at the pet hotel Friday morning shortly after 8am and went home to finish my last bit of packing. The driver showed up promptly at 11:15 as promised. I got a nicer Mercedes than I had requested. The driver, Arman, was very nice and professional and we had a good conversation on the hour-long drive to the airport. I wasn’t trying to be all high society or anything. I had a voucher for this great car company and decided that my first trip to Europe was the best opportunity to use it.

Mr. Frodo and I

My airport shuttle

When I arrived at the Tom Brady International Terminal at LAX, I realized I had never been to that part of the airport before. When I went to Israel two years ago, I flew on an American airline, so I was in a different wing. As I entered the terminal, it felt like I was in another country already. I heard so many different languages being spoken and so many dialects that I was in awe of all the diversity around me. The terminal was really amazing and had a nice shopping mall inside. I noticed lots of people walking around carrying neck pillows and thought it would be a good idea for me as well, so I bought one on the way to the gate.

I hadn’t had a chance to eat breakfast so I braved the long line at Panda Express and ordered a chicken entree. Since I was already in vacation mode, it didn’t bother me that this wasn’t part of the vegan diet I was supposed to be on. I didn’t even eat all of it, just enough to get rid of the hunger. I knew dinner would be served on the plane.

I had to make this leg of the journey alone and face my fears only with God’s help. I was already heartbroken from having to leave Mr. Frodo at the pet hotel. Of course, he didn’t take it well, as usual. I just showed him as much love as possible and prayed over him before I left, but I had little time to be sentimental. I was also worried about my own health and wondered how I would hold up on such a long flight after the DVT I had two years ago.

The plane, an Airbus 380, was the biggest plane I had ever seen. When I stepped on board, the fears I had became less relevant. As the plane backed out of the gate, I knew I was past the point of no return. I said my prayers and left everything in God’s hands. I followed my doctor’s orders and took one full-strength aspirin per day for three days prior to the flight and wore my compression socks to prevent my calves from swelling. I sat in an aisle seat rather than my preferred window seat so that I could get up and walk around as much as possible. The stairwell in the back of the plane was great to use as a stair-master to keep my blood flowing.

The stairs in back of the Airbus 380

I was a little scared initially because it felt like the blood wasn’t circulating well in my right leg. It started shortly before I boarded the plane and lasted quite a while. About halfway through the long flight, the blood felt like it was flowing normally again. The flight went very well otherwise and I arrived in Paris Friday morning on time. Paris’ airport didn’t seem much different than LAX, except maybe a little more chi-chi.

Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, France

Stephanie with a huge lollipop.

The arrival in Paris marked the end of my solo part of the journey as I met up with my friend Stephanie who had arrived a few days early to tour Paris. We were flying into Geneva, Switzerland on the same flight and would meet up with the rest of our friends there. I was thankful to not have to go into Geneva and have to figure out currency conversion and the airport transfers alone.

We were on AF 1442 to Geneve

The flight from Paris to Geneva was only an hour and fifteen minutes. I was randomly assigned a window seat with extra legroom at no additional charge. I didn’t mind since the flight was so short. They served a snack and I must have dozed off shortly after that. I was awakened by a bump and realized the plane had just landed.

View from the window seat on the short flight to Geneva, Switzerland

When we went to collect our luggage, Stephanie told me she got a text from our friends that they left Amsterdam late and we would most likely get to meet up and share the airport transfer with them after all. They were scheduled to arrive in Geneva well before us and probably weren’t going to wait if our flight was delayed. After we all met up at baggage claim, we stopped at the ATM and withdrew some Swiss Francs (because the machines didn’t give us the option to select Euros) and headed over to the Mountain Drop-offs station to meet our driver who was already there waiting for us.

It was raining when we left the airport. And I don’t mean the LA kind of rain where it’s barely misting. It was really raining. The air was so moist and cool. It was great that the van was large enough to hold all twelve of us and that our other friends we had yet to meet up with had made other arrangements since they were arriving much later.

On the way to Les Houches

We passed a Mont Blanc sign on the way to Les Houches

The drive to Les Houches, France from Geneva took about an hour. Our driver, Johnny, was very friendly and talkative. He taught us the correct pronunciation of some of the French names we saw and recommended some clubs in Chamonix since my friend Tina and I wanted to check them out. We’re not typically party people in the clubbing sense. We just wanted to do something out of the ordinary in a new place.

The Hotel Campanules in Les Houches, France

View of the snow-covered Alps from the Hotel Campanules

When we arrived in Les Houches, I wasn’t really prepared for the cold temperatures we were met with. It had stopped raining but the ground was still wet and there was a lot of moisture in the air, so it felt good to get inside the cozy hotel. For some reason, my room wasn’t ready, so I had to wait a few minutes. I wasn’t happy about that because I was so exhausted and just wanted to rest, but I had to be patient. Finally, the clerk came and brought my room key so I was able to go put my heavy stuff down and relax a bit before meeting up with the group to discuss the next day’s itinerary.

They used keys instead of room cards here

Inside the hotel lobby

A place to relax in the lobby

Fireplace in one of the common areas

The hotel was rustic yet charming. It was more like a chalet. I had a single room that I loved. Although it didn’t have a spectacular view of the mountains as I was placed facing the back of the property, I had a peaceful view of the woods. I loved how everything was so green there. There was fresh snow on the mountains, but the clouds covered them providing us with only a partial view.

My room with a view of the woods

After discussing our plans for the next day, some of us walked the grounds checking out the scenery and taking pictures. I was in awe of that beautiful place, and that was just the tip of the iceberg. I so looked forward to hiking the Tour du Mont Blanc and seeing more of what that part of Europe had to offer. Our first dinner in France was excellent.

Hanging out in one of the common areas with friends

The first course, a shrimp appetizer

Pork loin for the main entree

Pear and ice cream dessert

Afterwards, we were fueled up and ready for the next day’s adventures!

~J

A Visit to Carrizo Plain National Monument

I was originally set to camp at Carrizo Plain National Monument this past weekend with friends, but due to the rainy weather on Friday, coupled with a series of other events, the plan fell through. After hearing all the talk of Carrizo and seeing the breathtaking pictures, I knew I needed to get up there and soon. The wildflowers won’t be there forever.

I thought about maybe driving up there for a day trip on Sunday or Monday and decided I’d sleep on it Saturday night. When I woke up Sunday morning, I knew I was supposed to go, so I checked out the BLM website to see the recommended route on getting there and what to see, saved it, got in my car and hit the road.

The route that I followed took me to the north entrance of the monument and BLM recommended driving down Soda Lake Rd. to explore the length of the plain and exit on Highway 166 at the south end. It sounded like a great plan to me since I wanted to see as much as possible in the time that I had.

Somehow, I ended up taking a left turn too soon and thought I was on Soda Lake Rd., but it turned out to be Elkhorn Rd. There was a sign pointing to Soda Lake, so I thought I was going the right way. It wasn’t necessarily the wrong way, just not what BLM specified in their directions.

I was looking for an attraction called “Overlook Hill” and the Soda Lake Boardwalk. Well, I saw a big hill on the left with tons of people ascending, so I thought that was the overlook. The trail took me to some stunning views and I got to see lots of pretty flowers, mostly of the yellow variety. However, the trail just went on and on and kept ascending further into the mountains. No one seemed to know where it ended, so I stopped about two miles in and turned back. I didn’t want to spend too much time in one place. Plus, the trail was very steep in spots and I didn’t want to burn myself out too soon.

I followed the road further down and ended up on a dirt road which I later discovered was 7-Mile Rd. It brought me close to the shores of Soda Lake and I was expecting to see the boardwalk soon, but I never saw it. There were plenty of opportunities to pull off to the side of the road and take pictures of the flowers and I later walked down to the shore of Soda Lake for an up close and personal view.

The next stop was the visitor center where I was surprised to find a line waiting to get in. It was such a small building that they could only allow so many people in at a time, which turned out to be a good thing. Once inside, I asked the rangers where the boardwalk was. They took out a map and showed me and that’s when I realized why I hadn’t seen it. I turned off too soon and missed it. But it wasn’t a big deal. The overlook and the boardwalk were only about two miles the other way on Soda Lake Rd. so I went there to check it out. I didn’t want to miss anything.

After visiting the Soda Lake Overlook and Boardwalk, I headed back south down Soda Lake Rd. as the ranger suggested and encountered a long stretch of dirt road that did eventually take me to Hwy 166 to go home, but it was a bumpy ride. At times, I was afraid and thought that I should turn back and leave the way that I came in, but I stuck with it and was treated to some more amazing views, pronghorn sightings and a beautiful sunset.

Hiking Modjeska Peak

After going on two 12-mile back to back hikes in the Redwoods last week, I hadn’t planned on hiking over the weekend. But when my friend Danielle suggested I check out the group hike posted for Saturday and mentioned that my other mountain sisters, Aida and Ava were going, I decided that maybe another hike would be in order. That is, until I saw that it was listed as 17 miles. I immediately thought to myself, ‘there’s no way I can do that!’ I hadn’t done an 17-miler since last year before my calf injury.

Silverado CanyonI looked up Modjeska Peak in Orange County and tried to acquire all the details I could find on the hike. I hated to miss an opportunity to hike with my “tribe.” (For more on finding your hiking tribe, see my article for Oboz Footwear coming soon.) Since Danielle mentioned that the hike was all on a fire road, I figured it was doable, and that it was worth it to hike as far in as I could and then I could easily turn around if I didn’t feel up to hiking the entire distance. Plus, Danielle said that she and the others would probably not go all the way to the peak anyway.

Hiking into the ForestThe group met at the trailhead to start the hike at 7:30am. I didn’t arrive until 8:00 and my boots didn’t hit the pavement until 8:15. My bed was so comfortable and I thought of a million other things I could do that day, but I pushed myself and dragged my body to the car to hit the road. I texted Danielle to let her know I’d be late and told her not to wait for me. She said she would start hiking, but go slow and wait at the major junction so I’d know which way to go.

Out of the CanyonI hiked most of the way alone, except for all the vehicles on the road. Oh yes, this fire road is open to jeeps and other off-road vehicles which I wasn’t aware of before the hike. It was like walking on a busy country road. At times, I didn’t even feel safe and contemplated turning around early on. The road ascended gradually up the canyon for about three miles on pavement before it turned into a dirt road and started climbing out of the canyon to some nicer views.

Climbing HigherOnce I began the climb out of the canyon, I felt like I was making progress and was motivated to continue. I gave up on hiking with my tribe and figured they wouldn’t wait for too long before heading up the mountain, so I took my time and focused on taking pictures, experimenting with a real camera. This was my first big hike in Orange County and I wanted to take it all in, fully immersing myself in the experience. I only saw a couple of other hikers on the trail. Everyone else was either in a jeep, truck, or riding a dirt bike. There were also only a couple of mountain bikers on the trail.

My TribeWhen I finally reached the Main Divide, I was surprised to see three familiar faces hanging out there. I was greeted and met with open arms by Aida, Danielle and Ava, who had waited for me like they said. They hadn’t planned to hike any further and decided to wait for the rest of the group to return from the peak, which was in plain sight at this point and only about 1.5 miles away. I was feeling great and ready to take on the peak, so I talked them into it and we got back on the trail.

View from the Top

Modjeska Peak

Another View from the TopAbout halfway to the peak, we met the group on their way down and Ava and Aida decided to turn around and go with them, leaving just me and Danielle going for that final push to the summit. We had the mountain all to ourselves for a while, until a few bikers rode up on their “street legal” dirt bikes. It was a nice time up there with our new adventurous friends who were astounded that we walked all the way up to the top. We finished the hike just before dark. If Danielle’s GPS was accurate, the hike ended up being more like 18 miles. What a day!

Hike on!

~J

Of Trails and Sunsets

This was my first hike to lead since mid-August and it went very well. We hiked the 10-mile Sycamore Canyon Loop at Pt. Mugu State Park near Malibu and ended our beautiful day watching the sunset on the shores of the Pacific Ocean after a feast at Malibu Seafood.

I led this same hike three years ago for a team I organized to train to conquer Mt. Whitney. This was our inaugural hike in the training series. It’s a good hike for those who aren’t used to hiking long distances in that it begins at sea level and is pretty flat for the first few miles until is begins the 700-foot plus ascent to a breathtaking overlook of the ocean. For that reason, I knew it would be a good re-introduction to long distance hiking for me after my injury.

Our hike took us through a peaceful wooded canyon on relatively flat terrain initially, which provided a great warmup for us, as well as a chance to get to know some new friends. It was a pleasure having “Don Viejo” along on the journey. Now at 88 years young, he is quite a trooper and an inspiration to all of us.

After meandering through the canyon, we took a turn to the south, where the real hiking began as we ascended a fairly steep but well-graded path to a junction that provided access to nearby LaJolla Canyon, which is also a gem.

My friends, Danielle, Jeanette and I took our time on the steeper segment and just enjoyed the views around us. We were shocked when we saw Don (who had gone ahead) hiking downhill toward us and told him he was going the wrong way. He said he came to check on us to make sure we were alright. What a gentleman. He had already made it to the junction, backtracked downhill to check on us, and then went back uphill with us. They just don’t make them like that anymore.

Don told us that there was a bench up ahead from where he had just come, which motivated us to get up the hill. However, we didn’t see that bench until about 2 miles later. But when we did, it was a great opportunity for me to take my boot off and rest my foot, which still sometimes swells up due to the effects of the DVT in my calf that continues to heal.

My Low Rise Trail Socks from Minus 33 were an excellent choice  for the day. Made of merino wool, these socks are comfortable, lightweight, and built to go the distance. Not only was there no swelling in my foot, but I also had no blisters or hot spots due to the full cushion of the socks. They were perfect for the 85-degree weather we experienced.

Minus 33 Low Rise Trail Sock

Minus 33 Low Rise Trail Sock

The Minus 33 Low Rise Trail Sock is thin and lightweight, but durable, providing me with great comfort over all 10 miles of this trek. Although there are other more expensive socks on the market, for half the cost, the Minus 33 Low Rise Trail Socks are solid performers. These will be my go-to socks from now on.

After taking in the beautiful ocean views at a popular overlook, we descended back down into the canyon and went to Malibu Seafood for a sunset dinner. After that, we followed a short path leading us through a tunnel that provided direct access to the beach. It was an unusually warm evening, so we were able to play in the waves a bit without freezing our little toes.

It was a fabulous day all around.

Happy Trails! 🙂

Back to Blazin’…Well, not Exactly

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Bottom of the Chair Lifts

I hadn’t been to the Mt. Baldy area for at least a few months as I was leading a series of hikes in the Sierra over the summer. While in recovery from my calf injury that occurred in late August, it’s been slow going, but I’m gradually assimilating into the outdoors again and this was the perfect opportunity to test myself at high altitude.

We took the ski lift up to the Notch, which is at 7,800 ft above sea level. As soon as I got out of the car at the bottom of the chair lift, I felt the altitude. I moved slowly, giving myself a chance to acclimate.

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On the Chair Lift Going Up

When we reached the top of the Notch, I had to take a minute to pause and take it all in, the pine trees, the surrounding peaks, the cool, thin air that gently caressed my face. Tears welled up in my eyes because I was so grateful to set foot on the mountain again. I was home.

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The Notch Burger

We ate a rather undeserved lunch at the Notch restaurant. I called it undeserved because usuallly when we enjoy a meal there, it’s after finishing the grueling Mt. Baldy hike. After burning 3,000-plus calories, it’s justifiable to indulge in a high carb meal and perhaps enjoy a beer afterwards.

This time, we did things in reverse and hiked AFTER we ate. We started up one of the gentler ski runs and made our way toward the Devil’s Backbone Trail. We didn’t have much time because I had a party to attend in the evening, but I just wanted to see how far we could get with the time we had. I was also wearing sneakers instead of hiking boots, so I didn’t plan to go far. Hiking on a steep, rocky trail in sneakers is a no-no for me.

SONY DSCI could feel the altitude with each step, but I paced myself and walked slowly uphill. It took a little getting used to, but I felt like I was being welcomed back to the wilderness. I came across multiple random hearts on the trail and took the time to cherish every one of them.

I hope you enjoy the pics!

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The Art of Doing

I’m a dreamer and I like to encourage others to dream. Dreaming is good. Well, it’s good until you get so caught up in dreaming that it begins to take the place of actually DOING something. What I mean by DOING is putting forth the physical effort necessary to see to it that what worked out so perfectly in your dream will come to fruition.

There are a lot of things floating around on the canvas of my mind, ranging from things I know I need to do, to things I really want to do, to things I’ve started but haven’t finished. For instance, I went on a desert trek in Israel a couple of months ago, volunteered at a youth camp, and toured the Holy Land. I took lots of pictures and recorded videos of the trek and the tour, but haven’t touched any of it. I know it’s going to make a great episode, or series of episodes (I haven’t decided) for the web series…

…if I could just bring myself to do it.

So what’s the holdup?

Well…I also have a ton of video footage to edit from a weekend adventure in the Anza-Borrego Desert here in California. I went there the week after I returned from Israel and had a blast. We caravanned on dirt roads while hanging out of the sunroof of an SUV, explored some really cool slot canyons, went spelunking in mud caves where it was pitch dark, and witnessed one of the most amazing sunsets I had ever seen from the top of a peak above some other freaking amazing slot canyons. This would make a really awesome episode as well…

…if I could just put some action to all of that dreaming.

I also have an upcoming trip this weekend to a breathtaking lake in the Sierras where I’ll be filming another episode of the web series. I’ve got to write a script to break it up into segments like a show because I want this one done right. I’m organizing and leading a group for this hike, so I need to get a lot of things coordinated and I have a limited amount of time to do it.

And I still have the Israel trip and Anza-Borrego unfinished. I also have to do laundry and pack for the upcoming trip. I need to go to REI and pick up some last-minute camping stuff. I need to make sure I remember to pack all my winter clothing to sleep in because it’s going to be in the 30’s at night and I just can’t go out there and freeze. I need to be sure to provide my group with all the information they need regarding this weekend’s trip.

Yet I still need to do those episodes that are waiting in the wings. See what procrastination does? It makes us look busy, like we have so much on our plate, when all we need is proper planning. A good, well though-out schedule will surely solve my problem with ease. But then there’s the issue of keeping up with the schedule. The act of DOING.

Perhaps I should call it the ART of doing. After all, it takes great skill to successfully balance multiple tasks and see them through to completion.

The antidote for procrastination is accountability. Now that I’ve opened up about these things, I’m obligated to fulfill my role of the artist, so to speak, and see these dreams materialize.

I wonder what sort of a tale I will find myself in while taking on this mountain?