“Come forth into the light of things, let nature be your teacher.” William Woodsworth
Our personal reasons for deciding to circumnavigate Mont Blanc were as diverse as the hiking group itself.
One was using the physical challenge of the hike as a reminder he is more than a successful entrepreneur. Two were already best friends but wanted their girl-time bonding in the pristine wilderness.
And me? For me, it has been an especially draining year–physically, mentally, and especially emotionally. My best friend had died in a gory car accident just months prior.
I knew that in order to fully digest the complex emotions surrounding such a sudden tragedy, I needed to escape the noise pollution of society and think clearly once again.
And so to the mountains I fled.
Whatever our reasons for signing up, one thing was clear: We all hoped the crisp late August air of the Alps would be therapeutic on our circuit of Mont Blanc, Europe’s largest mountain at 15,770 feet, with tour operator Boundless Journeys.
Little did we know it would provide much more. The journey of our motley crew of five strangers began in the quaint French ski town and official base of Mont Blanc, Chamonix, where we first shared our goals and inspirations for the journey over cheese fondue.
The Tour du Mont Blanc, a stunning circuit through Switzerland, France, and Italy, is one of the world’s greatest inn-to-inn hikes and adventures.
Our guide, Irene, assured us that no matter personal abilities, we would succeed and complete the circuit as a group. And before we had time to second guess our strengths, the next morning we were off.
The first day of the hike I kept uncharacteristically quiet, drowning in my own thoughts unless interrupted by cowbells noisily dinging in the Swiss fields. I had planned on hiking through the Alps with my best friend, Erica, just months from now. When a split-second accident abruptly ended her life, it had been hard for me to find true joy again.
Her untimely death brought me down a rabbit hole of morbid thoughts about our own mortality. I felt guilty for the opportunity to enjoy it when she could no longer.
On the second day of our hike, our group was enjoying a picnic lunch that Maria from The Sound of Music would have envied.
My melancholy thoughts were interrupted in the most Swiss way possible: Engulfed by the majesty of the Alps, enjoying fresh ham and bread Irene picked up the local village, the sole male hiker in our group asked me in all sincerity, “Olivia, did you cut the cheese?”
To note: I have a slightly immature sense of humor. Here I was, with a group of strangers, picnicking in a fairytale landscape in the Alps, and I thought my fellow hiking friend presumed I passed gas.
And for the first time in months, I truly guffawed. I swear the nearest village, six miles, and countless cow pastures away, could hear me as I erupted in a laugh that I had held prisoner insider since the night of the accident.
I will forever be indebted to alpine cheese because, after this misunderstanding, I remembered how natural it feels to smile. Ironically, our post-lunch hike was to be the most difficult of our odyssey, climbing the beastly hill known as Truc and about a 4,000-foot descent into the village of Les Contamines-Montjoie, once a town of chamois hunters and smugglers.
But suddenly this radical gain and loss didn’t sound so arduous. Because instead of feeling alone and lost, I engaged with my hiking comrades, realizing we had much more in common than I initially thought. We mused about dreams, world travels, families, love, and, important for me, loss.
Before we knew it we had reached our quaint hotel and it was time for a much-deserved dinner. Though we had just trekked more than eight miles over an intense incline and decline, though my legs may be mistaken for jelly, I felt entirely rejuvenated and ready for the longest day of our trek yet–twelve steep miles.
I’ve started noticing Erica all around me following her untimely death. I chuckled to myself when the trailhead of this next hike began at pilgrimage chapel of Notre Dame de la Gorge – a church of unique and stunning baroque architecture.
A few years prior we had adventured through Europe together and Erica–an art historian specializing in 17th-century architecture–was my built-in professor.
She was with me, tightening her hiking boots and stretching in preparation for the day.
I won’t lie. I have never been as physically challenged as this day. We galavanted through broad alpine pastures, over the Col du Bonhomme (7,600’) and eventually descended through a verdant, winding valley before we reached the remote summer village of Les Chapieux.
Part of the challenge was that I tore my right knee in a skiing accident years prior and it had been a looming fear prior to the hike. On mile 11 of our difficult day, I lost concentration and twisted my leg, the weight of my daypack causing a minor sprain.
And yet, with Irene’s guidance about how to best manage my injury, with a group member volunteering to carry my pack (along with her own!), with the constant laughing and meaningful conversations that made me forget about the pain, we made it.
A lack of phone signal and internet connection as we enjoyed a home-cooked dinner with ingredients fresh from the fields we had voyaged through capped another successful day with Boundless Journeys.
Soon the rhythm of waking up with the sun, packing what we needed for the day, and hiking to our next warm shower, meal, and luggage delivered by man became the norm.
As we meandered through dramatic landscapes shaped by hillsides and carved by river, as we snaked our way from village to village, we noticed changes in language, cuisine, architecture, and culture.
In Switzerland, our hiking was often in rhythm to cowbells noisily dinging in the field. In the medieval town of Courmayeur, Italy, we enjoyed gelato and pizza as our rewards for the day, strolling the stone streets of the city. France, of course, meant cheese aplenty–Raclette, Reblochon, and Beaufort cheese, oh my!
Through it all, our group bonded over the literal highs and lows, over moments where we couldn’t imagine hiking that foreboding hill in the distance and those where we looked back in awe of what we had accomplished.
A bittersweet end to our communal journey nine days later as we arrived back to Chamonix, with sore muscles, expanded perspectives, and lifelong memories.
The challenge and the beauty of the mountain was now a part of each of us–and no matter the reason for joining the program, we all arrived back changed.
I recently found my journal from the summer months prior to the Tour du Mont Blanc with Boundless Journeys. Worse than feeling sad and lost, I described my state as void of emotion.
This journey taught me to express and embrace the ability to feel and connect both with nature and other humans.
And for that, I am forever grateful.
AND ITS NOT JUST ME WHO FEELS CHANGED AFTER A TOUR WITH BOUNDLESS JOURNEYS. TAKE A LOOK AT THESE TESTIMONIALS FROM PAST TRAVELERS. IF YOU'RE SO INCLINED, SIGN YOURSELF UP FOR A 2020 OR 2021 ADVENTURE IN THE MOUNTAINS HERE. What a gift to give yourself. The challenge, the beauty, the majesty of it all is like no other. Whether you’re a twenty-something, corporate executive, stay at home parent, or retiree, you will be changed…. Changed for the better. Jenecca P., Newport Coast, CA This trip was almost a pilgrimage for me. As an older hiker and not a world traveler, it was apparent to me that my time was running out for undertaking a trip like this…I am an armchair traveler who got out of the chair into the scenery. The trip took everything I had and the result was that I had the time of my life. Leonard C., Roslyn Heights, NY Friends and family kept asking me why I would go back to do the Tour du Mont Blanc again. ‘Go Somewhere new!’ All I could think to say was, ‘it’s kind of like a really good movie you want to see again. I’m going back because I need to and I can.’ Nora F., Akron, OH