Peaks and Valleys: Tales from the TMB

In September I completed the Tour de Mont Blanc: nine days of hiking around the biggest mountain in Western Europe. It was an epic adventure. Here is a hodgepodge of stories I wrote in my journal during and after the trip, reflections on an arduous and spiritual journey. Hope you enjoy.

Day Three

Italy

On my left, I am faced with history. A densely packed glacier guards the high mountain pass, above which lies the distinct border between hiking and mountaineering. Up there, there are no trails, only ice picks and shivers. The tenacious land. From the base of the glacier leaks a cascading stream, which divides into petite waterfalls. Other streams flow down the mountain, like thin veins fuelling the heart of the valley below. Ancient red rock hints at millennia, boasting of a permanence that us humans cannot relate to. We are ants on the great expanse.

Borders- Day Four

Courmayeur, Italy

Crossing country borders is in some ways arbitrary, but in other ways not. Sure, ‘Italy’ is a made-up concept, with no physical reality, but many people are imagining it constantly. Identities are formed and territories drawn out. Culture is maintained, so when I go into a restaurant, there is a man flipping pizzas behind the counter, not chopping charcuterie boards, like they do in France. The mountains, however, are indifferent to these human preconceptions. They rose from the centre of the earth long before we were civilized, and stood mighty over us throughout our rise to relative competence. We draw pink lines across their ridges, divide up the ranges into ‘your mountain’ and ‘my mountain’, but at the end of the day, it is just a big rock. No person can lay claim to it. After climbing a mountain, you have not conquered it, merely participated in its grandeur for a fleeting moment. 

Day Five

Valley Del Monte Bianco, Italy

The only sound I can hear is the thunderous stream emerging from the Mont Blanc massif. It is riddled with archaic glaciers and terrifying rock faces. It looks impassable, like a dragon’s lair. It’s incredible that anyone has climbed it. In the distance I see Col de La Seigne, the French-Italian border, from which I came. There, the mountains twist and turn like a cinnamon roll, topped with jagged needles and an icing of snow.

A marmotte is vocal: high-pitched cries that echo through the land. The forest here is less dense than in France, and the peaks are gnarlier. The valley mirrors Chamonix valley, but with a more subtle, natural feel. There are no helicopters churning the air into noise. The mountains are just mountains, not obstacle courses purposed for human achievement. The place is less photographed. Things are as they are.

Alone on the Mountain- Day Five

La Peule, Switzerland

Fourth night wild camping. The tent set up is easier now, and I feel more comfortable camping under a cloud. I have been rained on already, so if it happens again I won’t panic. It’s a lovely way to spend the evening, resting alone on the mountain. No signal, but open space for my mind to roam. Halfway through my adventure. Will I be a changed man once I return? Do I need to be?

Hoping the cloud will clear and I’ll be blessed with stars tonight. The joy that would bring would relinquish any camping anxiety; all concerns of storms or grumpy farmers washed away by the Milky Way.

The Spirit Guide- Day Six

Lac Champex, Switzerland

Frazzled and disoriented, I settled in Mimi’s cafe for a tea. No mask and no health pass- no problem. I was belligerent from fatigue, but I meant well.  As I was sipping my Earl Grey, I met Max, a Swiss-German man described best by the word zen. He was so relaxed, in fact, that over the course of our conversation, my anxious tone dropped and my shoulders slackened. If you were to have measured it, I’m sure my heart rate slowed too. The man spends his time motorbiking through pristine European countryside, when he’s not hacking his way across glaciers with ice picks. He had chunky fingers and an arm full of tattoos. 

Max was on the trail later, sat cross-legged, listening to Buddhist teachings about ‘emptiness’. He was cooking a sachet meal, some kind of potato pasta twirls: cheese and flour. His plan- if he had one at all- was to camp at 2,200 metres on top of the pass. He walks at his own pace, and if he gets tired, he just pitches his tent and calls it a night. Anywhere. He reminded me to slow down and enjoy myself; his presence gave strength to my stride. Solo adventures are empowering, but there is nothing like a friend to make the journey meaningful.

Swept Away- Day Seven

Triente, Switzerland

Sometime in the gloom of early morning I felt the pangs of nausea, and knew that I would throw up. Not right that moment, probably not for a few hours, but soon- that was a guarantee. The evening before, I devoured a burger as big as my head. It came out dripping with sauce and beef blood, promising to satiate me after ten hours of trekking. Before the tour I was vegetarian, but long hours on the mountain made me crave meat. A nod to my savage roots, perhaps. The burger was as satisfying as I had hoped, albeit a sloppy mess. And my stomach was not prepared.

All the weather forecasts predicted rain with an arrogant certainty: precisely zero hours of sunshine were coming my way. In the calm before the storm, I was comfortable, because my tent had been developed in the Alps. I trusted it to endure whatever mother nature hurled at it. At five am the rain began, and the wind grew from a murmur into an anxious howl. The side of my tent rushed up into my face, and I felt cold condensation conspiring against me. The only thing holding my shelter upright was my body, and my humble dwellings were stir-fried in the sizzling storm. Despite the carnage outside, and because I wasn’t in it, I was cosy in my sleeping bag. Meanwhile, insidious liquid crept into my tent.

Then, all hell broke loose. The waterproof roof flew off, exposing me to the elements. Rain was coming hard and fast, and finally, I had to get up. It was a mad dash to grab my valuables and huck ‘em down to the hotel toilet. Phone, passport and bank card, I’ll come back for the rest. The roof of my shelter caught like a sail in the gale winds, flying off on an adventure of its own, as my adventure fell to pieces. Some school kids were camping too, and they provided a fitting soundtrack of piercing screams, in the gloomy night. 

There I was, head on the table, unwilling to move and unable to warm up. Shortly after my house blew away, last night’s burger returned with a vengeance, leaping out my stomach and dive-bombing the grass. And again. Shivering and soaked from the cold and the rain, I took refuge in an outhouse by a hotel, dressed to the nines in every piece of clothing I had. My head remained on the table for a few hours, while I pondered how easy it would be to call my mum for rescue. She was only a thirty-minute drive away. Someone offered me an apple, and I pecked at it for an hour, before my body rejected it too.

Then, through the storm clouds of my mind, a playful voice rose up, teasing me to carry on. “Go on, I dare you”. My despair underwent a beautiful transformation, into humour, and suddenly anything was possible. So I stood up, donned my raincoat, and walked back into the storm.

The biggest tribulations are not the ones we choose for ourselves, but the ones that come unexpectedly. My plan was not to scurry out of my tent at five am and throw up, but it happened. I got sick, and now I need to figure out how to keep going. The reward for finishing will be monumental, and if I bail now, I’ll have to come back. Better carry on. 

Ladders- Day Eight

Chamonix Valley, France

Buzzing with adventurous spirit, I led the way up to Lac Blanc, my spark rekindled from sleep and a vegetable curry. At the refuge in Triente, Switzerland, I stayed in a yurt, wrapped in blankets while the storm pounded the ground outside. There, I met Anale, a courageous Canadian girl who was wild camping the TMB alone. While I was coddled by the comforts of civilization, she was on the mountain, in the icy rain. We got along like a California forest fire, and were hiking together up to the French border. We had already climbed six hundred metres, but there were fourteen hundred left- my biggest day so far.

Rain steadily poured, and all was grey, except for snapshots of the valley through the cloud. We had climbed plenty, for the chalets were like matchboxes among the verdant trees. The forest gave way to hardy shrubs and bleak rock faces as we approached 2,000 metres. An anthropomorphic stone towered over us, like a spirit guarding the mountain pass. And then there were ladders.

The trail turned into a vertical wall, scaleable only by a series of slippery ladders. Anale looked concerned, so I fake laughed to exude confidence. I had not planned for this. Clutching my sleeping bag and poles in one hand, and grabbing the precarious rungs in another, I hauled myself up the cliff, leading the way. One mistake and I would tumble down the rocks, on an express train to the hospital or the morgue. To lighten the mood, I blasted disco out of my phone, making the affair seem joyful, rather than foolish. My gloveless hands ached in the cold rain, and my body temperature plummeted. The ladders came again and again, and I felt like a contestant in American Ninja Warrior. Alone, this would have been a nightmare, but with a friend, it was bearable. She joked that at least there would be someone to watch her die if she fell.

Finally, the ladders relented, and a sign informed us there was only an hour until Lac Blanc. We scanned the rocky terrain, looking for a potential camping spot. Then, the rain hardened into snow. This was a day of extremes, and winter had come early on the mountain. We scrapped the camping, and sipped Irish coffees in the refuge instead. Warm and alive.

The Final Hike- Day Nine

Chamonix Valley, France

Lingering clouds were sucked away by the icy night, and the true majesty of the Mont Blanc Massif was unveiled. Ragged needles and monstrous peaks shone bright in the ethereal blue morning, just as the sun crept into view. Slipping on flip-flops, I joined friends admiring the scenery. A wild chamois was perched on a rock below, also in awe of the world we shared. 

The last day. If all went to plan, that night I would be chilling on my sofa, drinking champagne and feasting on all the food I could find. But I still had to get there. We were cocky, Anale and I, thinking that because it was our last hike, it would be easy. We brought minimal provisions: one bottle of water and a few slices of cheese. I figured we would be finished around noon. 

No maps were consulted, and soon we found ourselves on a ski slope to nowhere. We had gone the wrong way. Refusing to turn around, I led us up a razor-thin trail more suited to a goat, so steep I had to use my hands to pull myself up it. Thirty gruelling minutes took us to the top, and with it came a painful realisation. We had wasted our energy, climbing two hundred metres just to descend right after. Our path down was fraught with tumbles, gravity hijacking my heavy bag and sweeping my feet from under me. Fatigue was taking over, and we had no water left. Anale’s belly rumbled, and there was nothing left to say. 

Finally, we found the right trail, and began the long descent towards the quaint village of Les Houches. A stream appeared at last, and I drank without hesitation, much to my friend’s disgust. “That literally came from dirt”, she said. Who cares! Water was water, and after all it had been through, my immune system was strong. The ground flattened out, and at six pm we were back in Les Houches. We passed through the ceremonial archway, and we were finished. 

It was surreal, walking so far, only to return to the place where I began. Over a hundred miles, up and down, across endless peaks, vast forests and glaciers. Blue skies, thunderstorms and snow. Sometimes I felt anxious, but much less than I do in the city. My worries weren’t about bills or career choices, but the essentials, like where to sleep that night. The people in the refuges were open and kind, with stories to tell.  After surviving storms and gruelling climbs, I wore no mask when talking to others. I was nothing but myself.

Mountains- 30th November, 2021

Brecon Beacons, Wales

Two months have passed and I have moved out of the Alps, back to a city flatter than a pancake. Stress was building up and I just had to escape, so I did. I went to the nearest mountains I could find and climbed the highest peak. It was cold as hell but it had to be done. It taught me some things.

As I rise above the world, the sky opens, and so does my mind. The anger and frustration I absorbed from the city leaks out into the atmosphere, and I can finally breathe. All those things that seemed to matter so much shrink to the size of a pebble, and are entertained as passing thoughts, before consciousness becomes boundless once more. The scale of mountains reminds you that you are small in the scheme of things, and encourages you to look beyond yourself, into the beautiful world. That shift from looking in to looking out seems to be the fix for so many of our problems. Live high, and your imagination is as wide as the heavens, live low and flat and your cramped world is all you will know. In any case, if your world feels small, make a change. There is so much more to see.

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