A high old time

Milind Bhide
Saturday, 8 September 2018

The Tour du Mont Blanc trek in the Alps may be rigorous but it refreshes your mind

Twentyfive years of trekking all over the Himalayas has been an extremely fulfilling and humbling experience for me. Plus, traversing the familiar and obscure routes makes it feel like home now. I have been to destinations as varied as the iconic Everest Base camp trek (seven times), the Namdapha rainforest trek in far-off Arunachal Pradesh, and the treacherous mountain passes and snow-covered glaciers in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh.
Given my extensive trekking experience, I readily agreed when I got to trek the famous Tour du Mont Blanc in the Alps, a trekking circuit through France, Switzerland and Italy. Crossing five mountain passes and covering around 165 km, you’re treated to some of the finest views in the Alps with most of its major mountain peaks. It is a tough trek, with steep incline ascents and gradual declines. A minimum of eight to 20 hours of daily walking is the norm. The trail is well-defined and well-marked, and is hugely popular with trekking enthusiasts all over the world. How could I not agree to such an amazing opportunity?

I had dozens of questions about it though. After all, this was my first trekking trip outside of India, and away from the Himalayan terrain I was so familiar with. I was wondering how the entire trek would unfold. Despite all my research, I was still quite apprehensive.

But after meeting our guide Luke, a warm and effusive man, I wondered why I was even worrying in the first place. He made me and my trek-mates feel at ease. We flew into Geneva and made our way to Les Houches, a small town in the Chamonix Valley, an hour’s drive away. This was the starting point of our trek.

And true to what we had heard, the trek was indeed tough. Our days typically began at 8 am and ended at 5.30 pm, sometimes at 6 pm. We trekked through forests and mountain passes or cols.
Ours was a relatively experienced trekking group of 14. The route taken was through France, Switzerland and Italy, finally culminating in France again. Unlike the traditionally favoured anticlockwise treks, it was a clockwise one.
Apart from the splendid views, the highlight of the trek was the food — the fresh, local produce. Our lunches on the trail consisted of bread from a local bakery, fresh vegetables and fruits, local cheeses and cold cuts. We bought this from local markets at the beginning of the day and then distributed it among the group.

Sitting together on a grassy patch amidst some utterly breathtaking landscapes and breaking bread together was an unparalleled experience. The local wines and cheeses were worth sampling here, each region having its own specialty. We had soups and local specialties for dinner at the hotels, followed by generously portioned desserts. At the end of each day, we either relaxed in our hotel, or explored the local towns. These were the days leading up to the FIFA World Cup Final, and there were many enthusiastic fans catching match screening in the nearby bars and pubs.

Some of the interesting people we met en route were aspirants to the Ultra Tour du Mont Blanc (UTMB), an ultra-marathon where athletes complete the 10-day Tour du Mont Blanc trek within 24 hours.
In the Col de la Forclaz pass in Switzerland, we chanced upon a herd of indigenous Swiss cows, interestingly all with their own cowbells. We also came across some old World War II bunkers, the one in Forclaz supposedly used to keep the German troops from entering France.
Technically speaking, the Alps were unfamiliar terrain for me, very unlike the Himalayas. But I felt at home here, even in a different country. That’s the magic of the mountains; they welcome you with open arms, no matter where you go. 
My first trek in Europe was a big hit — I’m looking forward to explore more of the Alps in the future!

(The author is an accomplished trekker and MD & CEO of Countryside Adventure Holidays, a Mumbai-based adventure travel company)

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