Day Zero: Les Houche Rendezvous
So you've followed along as Mark, Darby, and I walked from one side of Britain to the other, from the Irish Sea to the North Sea on the Coast to Coast Path! You basked in the cliffside sunshine, and cowered out of the gale force storms, as Tim and I (and special guests) walked beyond Land's End on the Cornwall Coast Path! And you felt the burn, and smelled the Scotch, as we crossed the highlands, bagged Munroes, and climbed the highest peak in the British Isles on the West Highland Way.
It was time for the next great adventure.
Long past time, in fact. The WHW, my last big walk, had been in 2008. At intervals, Mark, Darby, and I (and others), had sparred, negotiated, and dithered over countries, walks, routes, dates. The years slipped away. Admittedly, at least part of the problem was… drama inflation.
Basically, I wasn't all that enthusiastic about doing a walk that was going to be markedly less dramatic, less spectacular, less grand, than the ones I'd already done. This ruled out a heck of a lot, and left not all that much in. On my radar, principally, were the Tour du Mont Blanc, and the GR20 in Corsica. Each of these had issues, particularly for people with reservations about sleeping in refuges, plodding through snow, climbing on iron ladders and chains, etc. There was also of course the regular problem of trying to solve an equation in too many variables the preferences and schedules of a whole group of people.
Finally it became clear there was only one way this was going to happen: I had to nail down one other person, and the two of us nail down a walk, a plan, and the dates and then simply invite others to [take another look for their sacks and] join in.
Now it's a well-understood problem of travel companions that, generally, those who have the money don't have the time; and those who have the time don't have the money. Well, I'm privileged to know a man and one of only two who has the money (he's a well-paid IT guy) and the time (he's a well-paid IT guy who pays himself, i.e. runs his own software company)… and also has the all-important ability and inclination to walk hundreds of miles and climb thousands of feet, with all his crap strapped to his back.
Some call him TIM.
And Tim did what he virtually always does when I suggest to him a mad, masochistic, overly ambitious plan of adventure.
He said: "Sure."
To my indescribable gratification, and merely days later, the estimable Mark George Pitely signed on to the expedition. Regular vicarious adventurers in this space will recall that he not only walked across England with me, but also trekked across 10,000km (and nine countries) of Africa before that, and braved much of a month-long European Grand Tour even earlier. He is, it might be said… old school. Moreover, he's a genuinely incalculable boon to any trip that I was going to say any trip that involves tents, wayfinding, long-distance vision, tinkering, pun wars, patience and good humour (leavened with curmudgeonly griping)… but let's just leave it at: he's an incalculable boon to any trip. Whatsoever.
We had a potential fourth spot on the roster; and, really pushing the boat out, my lifelong best friend Alexander M. Heublein booked in. I advised him that there wasn't a single Marriott on the route, and further warned him that this was going to necessitate some advance training that he might find painful, pointless, and stupid. But he bravely signed on the dotted line anyway, and got busy researching and buying a load of badass, high-tech trekking gear that would be the envy of us other three schleppers along the trail.
I will pause at last only to note, by way of introduction, that this did turn out to be, by some measure, the grandest and most dramatic walk we've done yet. It included, but was by no means limited to:
- gobsmackingly beautiful mountain vistas
- ass-smashing, neverending, unprecedented, merciless climbs
- equally eternal, knee-pulping descents
- traverses over treacherous icy escarpments and steep snow diagonals (necessitated because we were there recklessly early in the season)
- at least one genuine, no-bullshit, breath-stealing, this-could-really-be-it dice with death
- climbs over cols and around glaciers of soul-tweaking beauty and grandeur
- close encounters with Alpine wildlife (such as ibex, chamois, and marmots)
- nights in remote refuges that were perched in absolutely unbelievably stunning mountaintop settings (that could only be reached by Alpine trekkers, and resupplied by helicopter)
- other refuges that could have benefited by some trace of hot water, and a little ventilation
- crossings of half-iced-over rivers, waiting to plunge to an icy death (or at least extreme icy discomfort)
- truly miraculous, God-is-smiling-on-our-trek weather (perhaps the only reason we were able to complete/survive the walk that early in the season)
- mountain-top, crystal-clear, Alpine-peak-reflecting lakes
- sections of the trail that consisted mainly of iron ladders, hand-spikes in the rock, and lengths of swaying climbing rope
- gut-busting (if often puerile) humour, inspiring selflessness and support, and the other blessings of camaraderie and the company of great friends
So without further delay (there's been plenty), I proudly give you:
the Next Great Adventure the Tour du Mont Blanc.
Tim and I met at Gatwick, from whence we shared a piddling 1h10m in the air to Geneva. The TMB, as you will have inferred, is a loop one which passes through the Alps of France, Italy, and Switzerland. The most popular starting point, however, is in Les Houches, a little mountain village nestled up on the eastern edge of France. The closest int'l transport links to Les Houches are in Geneva. We all had one another's flight details; but Tim and I were only on the ground about five seconds before who rocked up but Alex!
We wasted no time in throwing our respective bags on the slab.
The winner of such a pissing contest is, of course, the man with the smallest and lightest bag. Tim, handily the overall winner, was fascinated that Alex's bag seemed to be nearly twice the volume and weight of his. He thought this might not be augur particularly well for Alex's enjoyment of the walk, not to mention the climbs…
Yes, for the first time in my life I bought a new camera while the old one was still pretty much working. I picked up a Fujifilm FinePix HS20EXR seduced by the panorama mode, which I had first seen in action in Cinque Terre; and also, I confess, by its outrageous 30x zoom.
We needed wait only another handful of minutes for: Mr Pitliv! (Mark!) He looked exactly the same except with the addition of the awesome van Dyke beard. "I was expecting less hair," I admitted dryly. Amazingly, we realised the two of us had not laid eyes on each other in person since the C2C in 2005. Mark had no cash, and hadn't booked his spot on the shuttle, but we pretty quickly sorted those issues. We also pretty quickly fell into our designated roles for the trip. I, for instance, was Dad, scolding Mark for his feckless booking- and Euro-lessness. Mark was the smart-ass little brother, quickly clocking the size of Alex's bag:
Michael: A dead guy?
Chastened, Alex binned his hair dryer.
We all piled into a ChamExpress shuttle, like drunks into a police van, and just like that we were rolling up into the Alps.
Tim: It's been in conception, for what a year? Longer?
Michael: Heh. For me, the hard work of planning is finally at an end. Now you bozos have to do the walk!
I shouldn't harp on it too much, but this trip was also by a factor of about five the most difficult I've ever planned. The TMB has multiple alternate segments many of them desireable, but not all of them feasible, based on weather and our physical endurance; we were so early in the season that the refuges were basically opening on a rolling basis right in front of us; many of the segments and mountain cols might or might not be passable that early in the year necessitating massive contingency planning… In the end, I put in many scores of hours, made dozens of phone calls in French and Italian (Google translate open on my screen), had to cross-reference multiple distance tables, town facilities lists, route maps, refuge web sites, and trekker messages boards and ultimately had to install new software just to map the branching logic of the route and trip plan. It genuinely made my brain hurt. But here we were!
Deep in a tunnel under the mountain, Alex taught me how to use my new camera. He also discoursed on some other relevant tech topics his watch, for instance, which tracks barometric pressure, though you have to know how to interpret it. Both altitude and storm systems two matters of great interest to the mountain trekker! can affect it.
We finally reached our destination: Les Houches, and the Auberge Beau Site hotel. Getting checked in, Tim and I were instantly like: Oh, no not again! Another damned double bed! But the view was nice.
We were also in the room for approximately 15 seconds before we were all (Mark excepted) head down in our devices, for the next half hour getting on wifi, checking route planners, charging up, first post to facebook (Tim horrified that I actually use fb now)…
I was also having a blast watching Tim and Pitely interact. My two white-magic, ultra-secret, impossibly-amiable-and-funny-and-easygoing-and-knowledgeable-and-capable travelling companions were now here on the same trip. Would the universe explode? Or just my head?
We finally wandered out and down the main (and only) drag for drinks & dinner, at a guidebook-recommended joint called Le Delice. I had cous cous w/apricots and cucumber, a mixed green salad, and braised carrots w/petit pois. This could be viewed as a warm-up for later meals on the trail when we'd soon be ordering every single thing on the menu.
By the end of the meal, I don't think I was the only one suffused with a wonderful sense of well-being. Here we were, in this magical place, with very good and fabulous friends and about to embark on the adventure of a lifetime. This was only enhanced by the amazingly vertical mountain we found outside in the dusk upon our exit.
We returned to the hotel, apportioned out sleeping berths, and lay long awake, joking and teasing like ten-year-olds at a sleep-over.
Tim: Christ, this toothbrush is small. It's rubbish! Why'd they have to make the head so small?
Michael: Think of the 1/32nd of an ounce you'll save, lugging it up all those mountains… Ah, we now have an official gayest person of the trip whoever brought the exfoliating facial towelettes.
Mark: You're the one sleeping half-naked with another man.
Michael: Was the Ponds cold cream too big?
Alex: And the Vagasil was too heavy.
Mark: What happens in Cornwall stays in Cornwall.
Tim: Actually, what happens in Cornwall does stay in Cornwall it's so cut off from the rest of the country…