Hiking the Tour du Mont Blanc Express – Day 2 (Video)

On this leg of the hike, we trekked from Les Contamines up the Chemin Roman and through the Contamines Montjoie Nature Reserve to the Col du Bonhomme. At an elevation of 7,641 ft, it’s still not the highest point on this route. However, the steep, rugged climb provided us with sweeping vistas of high peaks and beautiful landscapes.

After reaching the Col du Bonhomme, we were only about halfway done with the hike. Since our destination for the day was the Refuge des Mottets, we had to traverse across more rough and rocky ground to reach the Col de la Croix du Bonhomme. After that, it was on to the highest point on the Tour du Mont Blanc, the Col des Fours at an elevation of 8,750 ft.

Instead of this being an 11-mile hike as we had anticipated, the route ended up being more like 15-20 miles. I almost gave up completing the tour after this, but some encouragement from my friends helped me to keep going.

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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

Facing Fear

A lady from church blessed me with the beautiful journal pictured here a couple of years ago and all the pages remained blank until just recently when I decided to take it with me on a trip to Europe to hike the Tour du Mont Blanc. Days before this adventure of a lifetime, an adventure I had prayed and waited for, I was gripped by fear. I should have been excited, and I was, but I just couldn’t seem to shake the fear of the unknown. The fear that something might happen to me. That something might happen to someone I love or that something might happen to my cat while I was away.

I had never been to Europe before and didn’t quite know what to expect. I also hadn’t flown on an airplane, not even on a domestic flight, since being hospitalized with a DVT in my leg two years ago. But there I was, about to go on a long haul flight. The DVT was a traumatic event and my life hasn’t been the same since.

I’ve battled fear my whole life and overcame it many times, but I’ve never been as fearful and cautious as I’ve been since that scary experience in the hospital, not knowing if I was going to live or die. During my time in the hospital when I was scared and alone, before anyone came to visit me, two of the things that helped me overcome that challenge were, of course, prayer and also the gift of writing. Somehow, lying in that hospital bed, I managed to snap a selfie with a smile on my face and write a rather lengthy blog post on my phone while going through the fire, so to speak. It was my way of looking fear in the eye and laughing in its face.

And so that night, a few days before my trip to Europe, and every night of that journey abroad, I committed to filling the pages of that journal with my heart, with my tears, my hope and my trepidation, whatever bled out onto those pages. I purposed to pour everything into this sweet gift from my friend.

And when I set out to walk that Tour du Mont Blanc, I took every one of those fears and doubts and laid them on the trails, into the dirt under my feet. I knew there was healing to be found on that journey. There was love to be found. I did it all in the face of fear, because perfect love drives out fear.

Keep hiking!

~J

A Tale from the TMB

The look on my face explains how I felt on much of the Tour du Mont Blanc. It’s the anguish you feel after you’ve reached the summit only to realize you’ve still got one, two, three more summits standing between you and your destination for the day. Or when you discover that the downhill section you’ve been looking forward to is much more challenging and taxing than the uphill slog. One thing is for sure, the trails in Europe are not the same as our trails here in America. Trails that I once considered insanely brutal pale in comparison to the trails in the Alps. However, at the end of the day, every painful step, every moment of agony, every tear shed was all worth it.

Maybe you find yourself in one of life’s uphill slogs and you’ve reached one of those false peaks only to be disappointed when you realize there is another, bigger peak towering between you and your goal. Stay with it. Keep putting one foot in front of the other. Don’t try to take on the mountain all at once, just one methodical step at a time. Don’t forget to admire the views along the way. They get better with each step. Before you know it, you’ll have reached your goal. It won’t be easy, but it will be worth it. 🙂

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.

Tour du Mont Blanc on a Budget

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Photo Credit: National Geographic Expeditions

Whether you’re young, old, or in-between, chances are you’ve created a “bucket list” or some other type of list of things to do, places to see, etc. Maybe you’ve got a ton of things on your list, consisting mainly of things you know you won’t have the time, energy or money to do in your lifetime. Or maybe you’ve got a more practical short list of things that are attainable where you can actually envision checking things off one by one and being able to pat yourself on the back with a sense of accomplishment. Maybe you don’t have a list at all, but a dream that one day you will do X, Y, or Z. Whatever the case is for you, just know that it’s not impossible.

I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list.

-Susan Sontag

I have so many places on my list that I don’t think I’ll even get to put a dent in it before I “kick the bucket”. But I’ve decided to take it one destination at a time and see how far I can get. I have been wanting to visit Italy for at least the past fifteen years or so and year after year, I have purposed to do it, but a plan never fully came together. I saw a really great Italy adventure package offered by REI and set my sights on doing that someday. It’s expensive, but it’s REI, so I know it’s a quality experience. Their trips also don’t include airfare.

While perusing the REI adventure trips, I came across another trip to put on my list: the Tour du Mont Blanc. On this trip, I found that I could visit Italy, France and Switzerland all in one trip as I completed the trek around the base of the Mont Blanc. How exciting! Except that the trip costs more than $5,000 not including airfare. I decided I would need to put this one on my list for a couple of years or so down the road while I saved the money and vacation time needed for the 13-day trek.

I was so excited about adding this new trip to my ever-growing list that I shared the link to my Facebook page. A friend saw it and told me that he and a group of other friends were planning the trip for this year and he was going to add me to the group so I could get all the information. I was blown away when I saw that they were doing the same trip for a fraction of what the REI version was listed at. I read through all the details and then quickly signed up and paid my deposit. I couldn’t miss out on such a great deal and on the opportunity to share such a fun experience with amazing friends.

Many people end up with these extravagant bucket lists of places they’ll never go for one main reason. They think they can’t afford to travel. I used to believe that, too, and then a wonderful opportunity fell right into my lap. The best part of all is that it’s not going to break the bank.

Book Early

For a popular trip like Mont Blanc, it’s best to book at least a year in advance. The hotels and auberges along the route fill up quickly and late summer is their peak time, so to ensure that you can get all your accommodations, jump on it a year in advance. Also, tour companies have lower prices the farther out you book, so be sure to inquire about deadlines and deposits.

Be Low Maintenance

As opposed to taking a tour led by a guide, my friends and I are doing the self-guided tour offered by Macs Adventure. Self-guided basically means you’re on your own during the trek, but the company books all of your accommodations and luggage transfers in advance. All we have to do is take what we need for our day hike to the next village and our luggage (up to 30 lbs) will be waiting for us at each stop. Because we are doing the express version of this trek, we will accomplish in eight days what the REI trip and other trips do in 13 or more days. Yes, we’ll be hiking quite a few miles each day. The base cost for our tour is $1,245, plus $200 for a single supplement.

Sign Up for Flight Alerts

Once you’ve booked the tour itself, you’re over halfway there. Unfortunately, this isn’t an all-inclusive package (which would cost more) so you will need to shop for the best prices on flights. You can book flights a year in advance and there are advantages to doing that. You will most likely get your first choice of flight times and you won’t have to worry about trying to book later. The thing is, airline prices go up and down and are unpredictable. I wasn’t able to book my flights when the rest of the group did, so I signed up for Google Flight Alerts where I would receive alerts anytime there was a change in price for my selected flights. Due to a flight alert, I was able to book my round-trip flight to Switzerland from LAX for a total of $700. It was a steal! While I didn’t get the exact same flights as my friends booked, I did book on the same airline with a flight that arrives in Switzerland thirty minutes behind them. I will also be on the same return flight for one leg of the trip from Switzerland to Paris, France.

Those are just a few tidbits on how to cross a big trip off your list if you really want to make it happen. Don’t let financial limitations stop you from doing something extraordinary. Pay your bills and then do your research to determine what it will take to get one thing at a time crossed off your list. Be on the lookout for opportunities that may fall into your lap. Those things do exist, just look what happened to me. I’m able to do what I’m doing because an opportunity presented itself.

The next thing to work on is the physical preparation necessary to hike the Tour du Mont Blanc, which I’ll share more about later. 🙂

Hike on!

~J

Traveling. It leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.

-IBN Battuta