So this isn’t a race recap, but it is a recap of one of the greatest trips that I have ever been on. This trip happened back in the fall of 2016 but I remember it like it was yesterday.
To give this some background, in 2015 I took a “break” from school and was working as a Co-Op at American Axle and Manufacturing. The whole year of 2015 I worked somewhere between 45 and 80 hours every week. I was developing good experiences that would help me later in life but the hours were slowly killing me. (luckily I don’t work that much any more). At the beginning of 2016, I returned to school with a new outlook on where my college career was taking me and a little extra dough in my pocket.
I was planning on saving this money and using it to buy a motorcycle or something else that hadn’t presented itself yet. My mom suggested that I take a trip the next summer instead of buying a motorcycle. I wasn’t sure about it because I had no idea where I would go. I toyed with the idea and after some more pushing from my mom, she had found a trip that would turn out to be the most amazing trip. She had found a trip that involved trekking around Mont Blanc for 10 days. The trip was through a company called G-Adventures and it included a guide and also trekking with about 10 other people. After a few more pushes from my mom, I decided to book the trip. So now I had something to look forward to.
So let’s fast forward through the boring parts of wrapping up school and ordering things for the trip and get right into the trip. The trip was in August and it would be right before school started back up so it would turn out to be the perfect thing to end the summer with. I flew out of Grand Rapids to Dulles before boarding the long flight across the pond. I landed in London Heathrow and had one more connecting flight over to Geneva Switzerland. The trek started in Charmonix, France so I had a transfer take me from Geneva to Charmonix. During the ride over to Charmonix, I kept staring out the window of the car and looking at the massive mountains that were all around me. I snapped a few pictures along the way but I couldn’t wait to get to my hotel in Charmonix.
I finally arrived at my hotel in Charmonix and check in. The hotel was a small hotel but it had a really homey feel to it. My mom had given me the advice of not taking a nap when I got to the hotel but I totally ignored that advice. I took in the view from the hotel room and then promptly plopped down on the bed and fell asleep. I got to the hotel around mid-day and the nap I took lasted until 5 or 6 pm. I had arrived a day early so I could have some time to get acclimated. After waking up from my nap, I was starving so I ventured outside of the hotel for the first time in search of food. The biggest struggle with this was being in a foreign place and not knowing the language very well. I finally found a place and sat down for dinner. Dinner is usually eaten a little later in Europe so it wasn’t very busy. I can’t remember what I had for dinner but it was pretty good. After dinner, I walked around the city for a bit before heading back to the hotel and crashing for the night.
The next day, the other people that I would be trekking with would be showing up. I woke up and went downstairs for breakfast. Breakfast was simple (as it always is in France) and it consisted of croissants, and corn flakes. It was simple but very good. I met the guide that would be taking us around Mont Blanc. After breakfast, I had all day to explore before I would need to be back to the hotel for a pre-trek meeting with my guide and the others I would be hiking with. I spent the day walking around Charmonix in awe of all of the outdoors shops and places to eat. If you think Boulder Colorado is outdoorsy, it has nothing on Charmonix. You could name anything outdoors related and it was there. I was still very young in my trail running career but all of the running shops had me wanting to buy everything running related that I could find. I ended up purchasing a Salomon hydration pack and a UTMB (ultra trail du Mont Blanc) buff headband. Both are still used to this day. After looking around town, I had heard about the glacier that is on Mont Blanc called Mer De Glace. I found out that you could actually go inside of it. So I bought a train ticket (more like a mountain train) and took it up to Mer De Glace. There were two options to get down to the glacier, walking or taking a small gondola. The gondola was packed so I decided to walk (it wasn’t that far). As I walked down, there were signs that showed where the glacier was at different points in the past. I finally made it down to the glacier and walked inside. It was chilly inside (as expected) but it was interesting to see the inside. There had been pictures on the walls and ice sculptures made to show the history of the glacier. It was pretty crowded in the glacier and I am not one for big crowds, so I took in the sights and then made my way to the exit. I made my way back up to the train car and took it back into town.
It was nearing time for the pre-trek meeting so I headed back to the hotel. Since I had arrived a day early, I had to switch hotel rooms because the company that the trip was through had booked the hotel for the trip days and i would be sharing a room with one other person for one night before we started the trek. Not a big deal at all. I went down to the small dining area for the pre-trek meeting and I met all of the people I would be spending the next 10 days with. I was a little surprised that I was the only American within the group. Our guide was from the UK along with a few others, a couple of people from Australia, and one from Ireland (but lived in Dubai if I remember correctly). there were a few others but my memory is not serving me well right now and I can’t remember where they were from. We had a good mixture of people on the trip and I think there was 10 or 12 of us in total (again, it was 2016 and memory isn’t serving me that well right now). Little did I know, I would get to know these strangers a lot over the next 10 days. Our guide went over what gear we absolutely needed and what things were up to us to bring. We then decided to go out for our first dinner as a group and enjoyed a delicious meal before starting our trek in the morning. We wrapped up dinner and headed back to the hotel to put the final prep into our gear and get some sleep before the morning.
Before I knew it, it was morning and time to start the trek. We put our packs on and headed out of Charmonix. We took a couple of buses and a gondola to get us to a better starting point on the trail because the trail leading out of the Charmonix would have been strenuous and difficult. (Plus we only had 10 days with a rest day so there was no way we would be able to do the entire Tour du Mont Blanc (TMBC)). At the top of the Gondola, that looked a little sketchy to me, we took our first group photo before setting off on our first major bit of the trail. The first day was spent getting to know each other and learning how the trek was going to go. The weather was mild in temperature and overcast with a small bit of sprinkles. I put on my rain jacket just to keep the moisture off of me and stay warm even though it wasn’t that cold. We hit our first hut and took a lunch break. We bought lunch from the hut/hostel and sat down to eat it. Once finished, we continued on down the trail. As we were leaving, I got my first experience of European out houses. I thought they would be similar to the US but I was wrong. It was a porcelain square with 2 foot steps and a hole in the ground and a string to pull for a flush. (Note to anyone hiking in Europe, I recommend stepping off of the foot steps before flushing. It likes to splash a little bit). We continued on for the trek and I continued chatting with the others. It was really cool to see all of these strangers coming together and getting to know each other. The trail runner in my wanted to run ahead and run the trails but I reeled that side of me in (mainly because I had a pack on) and hiked with the group. I was surprisingly not the youngest one there but I was close but age didn’t matter to anyone on this trip.
Before we knew it, we were at our stopping point for the first day and had reached our first hostel. (Yes everyone back home told me to watch the movie Hostel before I left and no I did not watch it). I was also about to get my first experience in a hostel. Most hostels in Europe do not allow you to wear your hiking shoes in the hostel so we switched to our “camp shoes” so we didn’t track in dirt. Dinner at most hostels are usually pretty similar in the food that they offer and how they operate. Dinner is usually at one large table in a community setting so we sat together as a group and we ordered some drinks. Not long after getting our drinks, the workers at the hostel disappeared. I asked our guide what had happened and she informed me that the hostel workers went to eat as it is customary that the workers will eat dinner before they serve you dinner. The staff came out after their meal and got us more drinks before coming out with food. The first course was a soup with cheese as an addition. It was simple but very delicious. The next course was a meat dish and was also very good (I can’t remember what it was). The first day had taken us approx. 14 miles and we hiked from Les Houches to Les Contamines-Montjoie. The hostels also had community sleep areas so everyone had their own sleeping sheets but we were pretty close to one another. But after a long day of hiking, nobody cared and we all slept soundly.
Day 2 of hiking brought sunshine and warmer weather (this would last for the rest of the trip). We would be hiking from Les Contamines-Montjoie to Les Chapieux and it would be a difficult day with lots of uphill hiking. On the uphill sections, we would all have different paces so our guide would tell us to go for 10 minutes or so before stopping and waiting for the others to catch up. This allowed us to break off into smaller groups and get to know each other some more. I honestly don’t remember a lot from this day but the views were stellar and the company was great.
Day 3 brought us more good weather and our first “border” crossing. We had cross over into Italy and we had the option to either take a taxi/bus into town or hike some more into Courmayeur. Most of us decided to continue hiking and it was well worth it! The views were spectacular. We descended into Courmayeur and I instantly fell in love with the city. We stayed at a hotel instead a hostel because the next day would be a rest day.
The next day was a rest day so we had free roam of the town and myself and 3 others decided that we wanted to go to the top of Mont Blanc. We hopped on some buses and made our way to the base of the mountain where there was a big rotating gondola that would take us to the top of the mountain. There was a long line and we debated on heading back but there was guy saying something in italian that I could not understand. But the guy switched from italian to french and then to English. He said if we bought tickets online, we could avoid the lines and skip to another line. So I pulled out my phone and bought the tickets while the others gave me euros to pay for the tickets to go to the top. We got in the other line and were on the gondola within minutes. (Hooray for internet!). The gondola was a spinning gondola so everyone could see all of the views and it was amazing. We reached the top and there was a section that we could walk on the snow (it was 140000+ ft high) and see the views. I walked on the snow like it was nothing but watching the two Australians walk on the snow was hilarious. After taking a few pictures we made our way to the overlook where there was a restaurant and a bar. One of the guys asked if we wanted a beer (I wasn’t much of a beer drinker yet) but I said yes so I wasn’t the odd man out. He came out with 4 beers and we sat out in the cool fresh mountain air drinking the beer and it was (to date) the coldest, tasteful, and most refreshing beer that I have ever had. To this day, I still have no idea what beer it was. After we finished our beer, we headed back down to the base of the mountain in search of some food as it was getting to be around lunch time. Once at the base, we found our way to a pizza shop and ordered some pizza. There was a little confusion when ordering, because pepperoni in Europe is considered as sausage. But after we cleared this up, we enjoyed some delicious pizza. After lunch we explored a little bit before returning to the hotel for some much needed rest.
When we got back to the hotel, we had some time before dinner, so I went to the hotel bar and asked for a mojito. The bar tender, who spoke very little english, knew what I was asking for and walked out the back door. I was confused but then she came back with fresh mint for the mojito that had came right off of the plant and into the mojito. I would have 3 more before dinner. Dinner was a 3 course meal for something like 35 Euro (which wasn’t bad). I started out with a meat and cheese platter (which could have been an entree) and I ate some of it before sharing it with the table because I still had 2 more dishes coming. I had a pasta dish and a dessert and both were very good. The hotel had laundry service so I had some laundry done that was much needed. After dinner we sat out on the lawn for a bit and we were chatting with some people that were on vacation from somewhere else in Europe (I forgot) and they thought I had a Texas accent an that I was from Texas. I told them I was from the midwest and they were shocked. We sat out on the lawn for a while and eventually the stars came out and we saw a shooting star. Soon enough, we made our way to bed because we were back to hiking the next day.
Day 5 we were back to hiking and we would be crossing over into Switzerland. The weather was still sunny and great and the views were getting better and better. The conversation was still very good with all of the people I was hiking with and we were becoming a small family. When we arrived at the hostel at the end of the day, I met a couple of ladies that were doing the trek without a guide who I believe were from Traverse city and another gentlemen who was from the midwest. It was crazy to find people that knew where I was from in a place so far from home. When we got to the hostel, we got a beer and enjoyed the sunset before dinner. After dinner, I ordered a hot chocolate. The hot chocolate had the consistency of a melted chocolate Hershey bar but was super good. We sat out under the stars for a while before turning in for the night.
The next couple of days started to mush together but the group was growing tighter and tighter as the days went on. We enjoyed good food and good company every day of hiking. Before we knew it we were in the last day of hiking and we had reached our destination. We sat down at a restaurant for a celebratory beer before taking the bus into town. We all had a bunch of memories from the trip and these memories would last a lifetime. While I don’t remember every single detail of the trip, I remember the important parts and the great family that I hiked with. Coming back into Charmonix was bittersweet as it was the end of the trip and time to say goodbye to the people I had just met 10 days earlier but I was ready to head home and get back to school.
After returning to the hotel, I noticed that they were setting up the start/finish line for the UTMB and series of races that took place in the next week. I had one of the people that I trekked with send me a picture of the completed structure after I had left to catch my flights back home. Throughout the trip, the guide was very knowledgeable of if we were on the trail that the UTMB trail ran through and I was grateful for this as I someday hope to run the UTMB. I returned home, happy I took the trip and ready to return to school but also wishing I could have stayed and continued hiking until my legs fell off.
Some highlights from the trip are below:
At one refuge (I don’t remember which), we stopped for lunch and 3 of us ordered the Carbonara that was made for 5+ people but we ate the entire thing and it was the most delicious carbonara that I had ever had (and still had to this day).
The people I met were amazing and I still stay in contact with them via social media and we became a small family during the trip.
Our guide was very knowledgeable and was able to provide details all throughout the trek while maintaining a fun atmosphere.
I cannot wait to go back and race the UTMB or any other race that happens during that week.
The food was amazing and I wish I could get the same food here in the US.
Most days we would visit a local shop for bread, dried meat, and cheese to make lunch with and it was the most amazing lunch every time. I wish the US could follow in the footsteps of this method. Everyday, I would say, “I cannot get a better view for Lunch” but the next day I would get a better view. It was spectacular.
Traveling alone was not as bad as I expected. I developed friends that I didn’t think I would and I still keep tabs on them to this day.
While I’m sure I left off a ton of details of my trip, it was an amazing experience and if anyone wants to discuss it I am always happy to talk about it! It was one of the most amazing trips of my life (so far) and I cannot wait for the chance to go back. The people I met and the memories will last a lifetime!
— Alex Ball