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Plan “B” is for Breathtaking: our unforgettable, impromptu family backpacking tour around majestic Mont Blanc



For two solid hours, we’d been climbing up steep, rocky switchbacks to reach le Col Ferret - a 2500-metre-high alpine saddle separating Italy and Switzerland.


Across the far-below valley we’d just left behind was the southeast facade of iconic Mont Blanc, “King of the Alps”: a miles-wide massif of jagged granite soaring into snowy peaks, with ten immense glaciers each carving beds for dozens of magical waterfalls plunging into the valley below. 


It’s as epic a mountainscape as you can get on this splendid planet without a sherpa and severe altitude sickness. For this, the ten-day Tour du Mont Blanc - 170km circumnavigating the King, from Chamonix, France, to Courmayeur, Italy and back via a corner  of Switzerland - is Europe’s most famous and popular backpacking trek. Some 20,000 hikers a year, from around the world, spend six to twelve months plotting out each stage and sleep spot.


We’d just decided on it last week - after two broken teenaged arms forced our family of four off of a Baltic bike tour and into Plan B.



And so, on this second morning with old hiking boots and overly heavy packs, our feet were still sore and our legs still wobbly from yesterday’s 20km initiation up and along the precipitous ridge above le Val Ferret with the front-row view.


But our spirits were as high as our elevation.


“This place is spectacular,” marvelled 14-year-old Sitka.


“Yeah, I can’t believe we’re here seeing this,” added big brother Heron.


We were feeling pretty fortunate that our hastily improvised detour took us to such an idyllic new route.


And then we reached the top.


The trail led necessarily away from Mont Blanc for a short spell through some alpine Swiss valleys, and the only way downward was through steep funnels of snow.


Sure, we saw our fellow hikers giddily gliding down the toboggan mountain on their butts. But our next glance was at our two sons’ left arms - or more precisely at the two casts protecting them.


“Don’t worry, Mom,” reassured 16-year-old, six-foot-one Heron, whose pack was heaviest of all. “We got this.”


“Yeah, it actually looks like fun!” chirped Sitka. “Okay, I won’t slide down. I’ll just walk.”


Falling on broken arms at this stage would be devastating, no less in the middle of alpine nowhere. But in the end, parenting teenagers means trusting them to know their limits. And after so many trials and challenges on our bike adventures together, our teens had proven themselves many times over.


Just then, a French guide climbed up from the opposite direction with a dozen exhausted snow-climbers in tow.


“Oh it’s fine if you put your crampons under your boots.”


Crampons would have been a good idea, we thought. Add that to the list for next time, when we’ve had more than a week to prepare. 


Instead, we kept on improvising. Ed embarked down the slippery descent with his 40-pound pack, digging in his heels with each step to make a path for his boys, who followed with empty shoulders so they could keep their balance down the Dad-trodden trail using their lone hiking pole. Joce followed after to keep an eye on her herd, then Ed climbed back up to shuttle the boys’ bags on his back.


“Just one at a time, love!” shouted Joce as Ed gamely tried lugging 60 pounds downhill.


“All good, I can do it!” claimed Ed, milliseconds before wiping out, almost riding the butt-slide face-first all the way down the valley, then bringing the bags down one at a time.



It wouldn’t be the last time we had to adapt during our ten-day trek, but we did borrow crampons from a fellow family of Canadians we met en route, just to be safe.


The Tour du Mont Blanc, or TMB, is the very definition of earned awesome: sublime hiking trails through verdant spruce-and-maple forests, and across alpine steppes with regular, dramatic views of mountain and valley - but only after damn difficult physical exertion.



Sure, there are bus shuttles, baggage services, fancy (and crazy pricey) refuge meals and beds, and even gondola short-cuts that feel an awful lot like cheating when you’re (like us) slogging up slopes with freeze-dried meals and full-on camping gear. 


But we didn’t meet anyone having it easy on the relentless climbs or knee-punishing descents - whether they were obvious newbies with little daypacks and a lot of huffing sounds, sturdy veterans with larger loads like ours, spry retirees who were actually the most composed of all, or even the hyper-fit jerks who were running - yes, running - the route with water vests and folding poles. 


Everyone was earning their awesome at their own level of fitness. 



And also at their own comfort level: one look up at the dangling Brévent gondola in Chamonix, rocking precariously back and forth in the ferocious wind against the grey-sky backdrop, convinced us to take the long way up.


“Why would anyone want to go up in that?!” mused Joce, loud enough for everyone around us to hear. A few couples looked up and started consulting amongst themselves.


And, it must be said, at their own level of financial means. We’d heard that the TMB is not for the faint of heart or the light of wallet - but what we discovered was that the two factors are inversely proportionate: pay more, carry less. But at least there exists the opposite proposition. For the legions of tent-campers with whom we shared a field each night - too adventurous, stubborn, or unwealthy (or, in our case, all three plus late-to-the-planning) to have reserved more comfy accommodation - you can suffer for your savings. 


And as we can attest, the awesome is all the more sweet.



There were treats to be had à la carte, of course. You come across the odd village almost every day for ice cream, fries, pizza or fresh fruit. We supplemented our camp meals with groceries most days, and bookended our trek with much more affordable indoor nights.


You can also ramp up the suffering by carrying all your own food and wild-camping (bivouac en français), though the rules differ by country as to whether, when and where you can surreptitiously pitch (in France only from sunset to sunrise, in Italy only above 2500m, and in Switzerland only above the tree line).


No matter how you roll around Mont Blanc, though, the routine is the same: each morning, hours of seemingly endless climb averaging almost 1000m of elevation gain a day; lunch at the top with a splendid view that makes it all very well worth it; and all afternoon back down again - with alternating moments of pure awe and reflection as to why exactly you’re doing this, again?



Indeed, there’s a certain communal feel to the whole experience. As we would pass the same groups at each one’s staggered snack stop, and then get passed by each of them again at ours, we made new friends young and old, in English, Spanish and French, from across Europe, North America and Asia. 


Each with their own story, all walking the same path. 


Surely everyone else had the same nasty foot blisters, achy knees and bruised shoulders as the older two of us, right?


And then, in our case at least, there’s a day that stretches your physical limits, your emotional sanity, and your family cohesion. On Day Eight (having started counter-clockwise in Courmayeur rather than the traditional Chamonix), we started climbing toward Col du Bonhomme in a teeming rain that abated every half-hour or so before mocking us anew a while later. By early afternoon we reached the summit, soaked and surrounded by heavy grey.


Past the crest, again, a vast field of snow along the mile-plus-long ridge.



Thanks to our new friends la famille Fontaine, we had crampons.


But they didn’t have anything for hail. 


Exhausted from the long, bouldery climb, we grumbled along - the kind of hike where your feet keep moving unconsiciously, because if you thought too much about your situation, you’d stop. And if you stopped, you’d likely not start again.


The constant, pea-sized ice pellets actually had us chuckling for our misery.


Then the sky lit up for a split second. And seconds later, a long, roaring clap of thunder. 


Really?



Several more flashes of lightning seemed to be getting closer as we trudged through slushy snow and goopy mud amongst the granite slabs in the angry storm. There were other groups of hikers in front and behind us - could we have all lost our grasp of basic survival instincts at the same time?


Just as each of us were ready to throw something off the cliff to our right (okay, probably just Ed), Joce caught sight of the day’s awesome.


“Woah, look at that over there!”


What in the heck could possibly be… woah…


Several miles off in the distance was the edge of the vicious storm cloud. And a thousand metres downward was a sparkling alpine lake perched above a sun-drenched valley. It looked like a portal to another dimension.


We hadn’t seen blue sky all day - and we still couldn’t - but someone somewhere was dry and happy.


There was hope for us after all.


Soon we came across a refuge and changed into dry clothes over four tiny, expensive mugs of hot chocolate. The rain stopped, then started up harder again. On the interminable walk down, Ed slid out twice after warning his one-armed sons to be careful, caking his bottom half thoroughly in fresh, thick mud and probably some cow poop.


We arrived at the tent-filled field in the tiny village of Les Chapieux, surrounded on all sides by spruce-covered mountains and a glimpse of mighty Mont Blanc up the valley, just in time for the rain to subside. We splurged on some Wood-fired pizza and also dined on rehydrated pad thai. Ed improvised a laundering of his shorts in the creek, and we all hung our wet clothes on our hiking poles to dry, until the rain came again a few minutes later.


It was that kind of day.


But hey, if you want the awesome, you’ve gotta earn it.



Ten days on the Tour du Mont Blanc weren’t necessarily on our family bucket list, but fortune stepped in and guided us to a spectacularly challenging, fulfilling quest. Through lush forest and alpine snow fields, across raging glacier streams and over a dozen alpine passes (and back down again), we refined our resilience and made more memories.

 

The towering aiguilles of the King of the Alps - seen from all possible angles - were surely the star. But the little Italian and Swiss and French hamlets and valleys and farms and people make for a superb supporting cast. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime mountaineering experience that’s accessible to most anyone with the will to suffer for it - however much suffering one can take. 


If you’ve got a year to plan for it, we’d suggest you get started.


And if you don’t, at least remember your crampons.














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