Hiking the Tour du Mont Blanc at an 80-Year-Old Snail’s Pace
By Michael Lanza
Our bus winds up a narrow road in the Vallée des Glaciers, below snowy peaks of the French Alps. We boarded it with about 10 other trekkers after a late-afternoon thunderstorm ripped the sky open while we enjoyed a café and tea with chocolate mousse and a slice of blueberry pie at the Auberge de la Nova in les Chapieux, a speck of a village along the Tour du Mont Blanc. As the bus rumbles into Ville des Glaciers, a cluster of old farm buildings, I ask the driver to stop.
My 80-year-old mother wants to get off and hike.
The rain has ceased, so my mom suggests—since we’ve only hiked about five miles so far today—that we hike the final 30 minutes uphill to our destination, a one-time dairy farm turned mountain hut, the Rifugio des Mottets. I glance around at the other trekkers on the bus—all of them somewhere between one-third and one-fourth my mother’s age. None are getting off with us. They are all content to ride the bus to the hut. As they all silently watch the old lady get off to walk the rest of the way, I’m pretty sure I see some sheepish expressions.
We are on day two of a nine-day trek on one of the most popular and majestic trails on the planet, the Tour du Mont Blanc. A roughly 106-mile (170k) footpath encircling the “Monarch of the Alps,” 15,771-foot (4807m) Mont Blanc, the TMB passes through three countries—France, Italy, and Switzerland. The trek normally takes at least 10 to 11 days and entails a demanding 32,800 feet (10,000m) of elevation gain and loss while crossing—depending on which route variants one takes—10 or 11 mountain passes, the highest approaching 9,000 feet (over 2600m).
My mom, Joanne Lanza, and I are hiking alone only today; eight others in our group took a longer and more arduous route to tonight’s hut, and two more will join us in two days, in Courmayeur, Italy. And those two facts illustrate a prime attraction of the TMB.
Although the genesis for this trip was my desire to help my mother realize her dream of hiking in the Alps, my wife and two teenage kids, strong and experienced hikers and backpackers, would never hear of me going without them. Plus, I invited along some extended family and friends with a range of comfort levels and stamina in the mountains (but fortuitously including people who speak two of the three languages we will use on the TMB). Our group comprises a dozen people—we could field a soccer team.
Facing the challenge of finding a multi-day Alps trek that could accommodate a diverse group, I had settled quickly on the Tour du Mont Blanc. Scenically, it has few rivals in the entire world, and we would sample the mountain culture—and food—of three nations. But most conveniently, the TMB passes through towns and villages and crosses roads frequently. While we will spend three nights in mountain huts—all in stunning surroundings, a unique Alpine experience that I wanted everyone to have—we will sleep most nights in hotel beds, something Mom’s 80-year-old muscles will appreciate. And the availability of public transportation almost every day allows Mom and anyone else to skip or shorten a hard section or sit out a rainy day.
Those convenient logistics led me to think this plan might actually work.
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Now, walking beside my octogenarian mother up the Vallée des Glaciers toward the Rifugio des Mottets, the only sounds are the soothing rumble of the river, the Torrent des Glaciers, and the far-off moans of an icy wind blowing off the 12,520-foot (3816m) Aiguille des Glaciers, looming above the valley.
Mom admonishes me to slow down. “Remember,” she says, “you’re hiking with a snail.” (Her informal hiking club proudly calls itself the Snails.)
We have barely begun a long, hard trek, and neither of us really knows how it will go for her, attempting to walk a substantial portion of this trail that wraps like a 106-mile-long lasso around the tallest mountain in the Alps. Although she continually amazes me in her physical stamina and pain threshold, still, the notion of an 80-year-old embarking on a multi-day hike through the Alps is kind of nuts.
But neither of us worries much about what lies ahead. And that calm optimism just may be the source of her strength.
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The Tour du Mont Blanc in Italy
An icy wind blowing down from a severely cracked glacier just above us scours the outdoor deck of the Rifugio Elizabetta Soldini as we step outside on our fourth morning on the Tour du Mont Blanc. Clouds the color of battleships cling to the tops of jagged peaks flanking the glacier, but down the Val Veny below us, rows of spires stand silhouetted against blue sky.
We’re heading in that direction. And my mother has made a unilateral decision to throw out my carefully crafted agenda.
Today, we face a nine-mile hike, with a substantial stretch of uphill, from the Elizabetta hut to the resort town of Courmayeur, Italy. I had expected my mom to walk an easy mile with us to a road and catch a bus to Courmayeur. But she decided that plan sounds a little too sedentary. She wants to hike the entire distance.
I will share this truth with you: The stereotype of the kindly old lady is a myth. Octogenarians can be irritatingly strong-willed. Especially the ones that go hiking.
In all seriousness, I think she’ll do fine—probably. Yesterday, hiking about six miles from Rifugio des Mottets to Rifugio Elizabetta, Mom had crushed the 2,100-foot ascent to the Col de la Seigne—a jaw-dropping mountain pass at 8,255 feet (2516m) where we crossed into Italy—in well under three hours. Not bad for a snail.
She naturally can’t match the pace of anyone in our group—especially the teenagers, my nephew, Marco, and my kids, Nate and Alex, who frequently bound ahead beyond sight and earshot. But she keeps plodding steadily forward, accompanied by me or others. Whenever the faster hikers stop to take pictures or grab a snack, she inevitably comes puttering along, the proverbial, persistent tortoise somehow always catching up with the hares.
Her unflagging clip yesterday, in fact, resulted in us arriving at the Elizabetta hut by early afternoon—earlier than I had expected. And she apparently wasn’t tired yet, because when Alex, Marco, our German friend, Guido Buenstorf, and I announce we were taking an afternoon hike up a steep trail behind the hut to an overlook of the glacier, she was the only taker. An entire afternoon, she told me flatly, “is too long to just hang around in the hut.”
After a 45-minute walk from Elizabetta down the valley, we make a long, 1,500-foot climb through forest and then over open, grassy, wildflower meadows onto the rolling terrain of a ridge forming the southern wall of the Val Veni. Across the valley, the Brouillard and Freney glaciers carve wide paths amid a quiver of dark stone spires. Clouds obscure the heights of Blanc, but the view is breathtaking almost every step of the way.
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About four hours after leaving the hut, we reach the top of ski slopes high above Courmayeur and descend a chair lift and gondola into town, where we meet up as planned with my sister, Julie, and her 21-year-old daughter, Anna, at the Hotel Crampon. That evening, we gorge on an excellent dinner at Ristorante La Terrazza, our meals ranging from margherita pizza for Alex and Marco to an exquisite gnocci in wild boar sauce that my wife Penny and I both eat.
A Dream of Trekking the Swiss Alps
In many ways, the route that led my mom and me to the Tour du Mont Blanc stretches over far more miles than we’ll hike this week. She has hiked and backpacked with me all over the U.S. for more than three decades. Bridging more than half my lifetime, it’s a route that we have kept walking together, in all honesty, longer than I’d ever expected.
In fact, I’ve twice thought that she and I had already taken our last, major hike together: the first time on a weeklong hut-to-hut trek in Norway’s Jotunheimen National Park that turned out cold, wet, and hard, when she was 75; and then hiking Mount St. Helens when she was 76, a very strenuous, 10-mile, 4,500-vertical-foot day that stretched into 11 hours before we finished. A year after St. Helens, when my family took a weeklong, hut-to-hut trek through Italy’s Dolomite Mountains, she very much wanted to join us. I reluctantly told her I didn’t think it was a good idea, and given how hard that trek was, I still believe that was a good call. But I know missing that one greatly disappointed her.
Then my father got cancer. No one suffers from that horrible disease more than the patient, of course. But a terminal illness affects the lives and decisions of a victim’s entire family. My mother took no major hiking trip for two straight summers. He passed away 16 months after being diagnosed, two days after their fifty-sixth anniversary.
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Last winter, she turned 80. She had been telling me for several years—probably going back to when she was a spry young lass barely past 70—that she’d love to hike in the Swiss Alps. The Tour du Mont Blanc seemed to offer the right opportunity to finally show her the Alps on one of the world’s great treks. My sister, Julie, offered to join us, hiking some days while providing critical logistical support by accompanying our mother on buses and trains around two harder sections of the TMB. As it turned out, they would also elect to take a long bus ride instead of joining the rest of us on day six, hiking through hours of wind-driven rain over the Grand Col de Ferret at 8,323-foot (2537m), the mountain pass where we stepped from Italy into Switzerland.
She’s remarkably fit and agile for her age, and tough. But at 80, there’s no getting around the fact that her biological clock resembles an hourglass whose bottom lobe looks nearly full. Problem is, the top lobe has opaque sides—we can’t see how much sand remains in it. Compounding matters, she had been sidelined for most of the spring with a foot injury, and wasn’t able to resume her exercise program and training hikes until only a month before we flew to Geneva.
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But as she bluntly reminds me, “I’m not getting younger. I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to do these trips.”
Our options seemed clear: Go to the Alps this year, accepting the risk that it may prove too hard for her, or risk regretting never having tried it. We hardly had to discuss it before deciding to go.
Hiking Over the Fenétre d’Arpette
The water of Lac de Champex offers a razor-sharp reflection of the intensely green mountainsides across the lake as nine of us form a conga line of boots and backpacks, walking through the small, post-card town of Champex-Lac, Switzerland. The sun feels warm and the morning air chilly as we set out excitedly for our eighth day on the TMB.
But we’re still talking about last night’s dinner.
At the Hotel Alpina, a six-room inn located at the end of a road on one of the highest points in Champex-Lac, overlooking a bucolic valley and more glaciated mountains, we had the best meal of the trek—and, many of us agreed, one of the best dinners we had ever eaten. The multiple courses began with croustini de serac a l’huile de ciboulette, followed by filet de veau (veal) a l’orientale, pain de pomme de terre (potato bread), and a dessert of poire (pear) gourmande au caramel au beurre demi-sel. Looking around the long table where the 12 of us were seated, I could see everyone doing exactly what I was doing: savoring every bite in our mouths for as long as possible.
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Today, taking advantage of the TMB’s logistical flexibility, we’re splitting into three groups. Mom, Julie, and Anna will enjoy a rest day, taking public transportation to our next inn, in the village of Finhaut, Switzerland. The rest of us will hike two different routes from Champex to the Col de la Forclaz, near Finhaut, where I’ve arranged rides for us to the inn.
Guido, his wife, Inken Poszner, and our Boise friend Fiona Wilhelm opt for the nearly 10-mile (16k) primary TMB route via Alp Bovine (where they will confirm a rumor that the best pastries on the Tour du Mont Blanc can be bought at the dairy farm there). My family, Marco, and our friend Jeff Wilhelm (Fiona’s father) turn onto the 8.7-mile (14k) TMB variant that ascends nearly 4,000 feet (1199m) to cross over the Fenétre d’Arpette mountain pass at 8,743 feet (2665 meters)—one of the two highest points on the TMB.
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We follow a quiet country lane past some private homes and small lodges, beyond which the road narrows to a footpath. As we ascend a valley, the way grows increasingly steeper; we clamber over large talus boulders. After slogging uphill for a solid four hours, we wade into a small crowd of trekkers lounging in the cool breeze at the Fenétre d’Arpette, a notch in a mountain ridge. On the other side, the broad, crevassed tongue of the Trient Glacier hangs down into the valley we’re descending. Not far down the other side, we hear a loud crack and look up to see ice calve from the glacier and rain down cliffs exposed only in recent years as the glacier, like most others in the Alps, continues a fast retreat as the climate warms.
At the Col de la Forclaz, a pass with a busy, two-lane highway and a powerful wind both cutting through it, we’re met by Ilse Bekker-Maassen, who owns the Chalet Bekker with her mountain-guide husband, Edward. She transports us to her inn, a homey place in the woods overlooking Finhaut. That night, Ilse serves us a dinner of raclette, a traditional meal of Switzerland’s Valais region, consisting of raclette cheese melted over bread and potatoes which everyone would have devoured even if we weren’t ravenous from a big day’s hike.
It’s now official: We have been spoiled by the food along the Tour du Mont Blanc.
A Big, Last Day to Chamonix
For our trek’s ninth and final day, Ilse suggests an alternative to stage nine of the Tour du Mont Blanc. Instead, Ilse points out on the map a roughly six-mile trail from the Emosson dam, a short drive from Finhaut on the border of Switzerland and France, to the little village of Le Buet, where we can catch a short, inexpensive train into Chamonix. The trail follows a high ridge across the valley from the TMB, offering constant views of the Mount Blanc massif rather than hiking along its flanks, as we would on the TMB. So we decide to do it, and a bluebird morning sky portends one of the trip’s nicest days.
Ilse offers to drive us to the dam, but notes that anyone interested can also begin from Finhaut with an uphill hike of almost five miles and 2,000 feet just to reach the dam. Some of us opt for the longer day—including, of course, my mom, who I had actually, fleetingly imagined might be feeling kind of tired.
We hike the relentless ascent at her snail’s pace. Below us, Finhaut slowly retreats into the distance, revealing the village as a cluster of homes and hotels clinging to the steep mountainside. At the dam, we meet up with those who drove up with Ilse and eat lunch in the restaurant. Mom looks as fresh as if she’d accepted the ride instead of hiking there.
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Beyond the dam, the trail immediately presents us with a short traverse across an exposed rock face—a no-fall zone with a fixed chain in place as a handrail. A trekker coming from the other direction says there are numerous similar sections for the next couple of miles. Julie, who’s recovering from a shoulder injury suffered a few weeks before the trip and has hiked with one arm in a sling all week, decides to turn back and take public transportation from the dam down to the valley; Inken and Guido join her.
For the next couple of hours, Marco, Alex, Anna, and I shadow my mother, lending her a hand or spotting or boosting her when she needs it; but she does most of the work of hauling herself up and down under her own power. I can see the kids are proud of being part of her team. They keep pulling out their phones to shoot video and pictures of her scaling these short walls of rock.
We reach a nearly vertical wall of rock about 15 feet high, requiring third-class scrambling up a rising diagonal traverse. My mom looks up at it and, rather than reacting with fear, busts out laughing at the absurdity of it all. “Oh, my gosh,” she says, chuckling. “This is unbelievable.” But with her young aides surrounding her like Secret Service agents, she scales yet another section of this trail that would turn away many people half her age.
To borrow an expression from the French: “C’est incroyable!”
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The Power of Positive Thinking
Years ago, I gave my mother the nickname “The World’s Toughest Grandma” for her hiking feats. (And as we hike the TMB, she is actually soon to be a great-grandmother. Chew on that fact for a minute.) But the source of what many of us describe as toughness or fortitude may reside in an attitude more fundamental to individual human nature—an attribute I’ve seen her manifest countless times over the years, like the day she stared down her fears to scale the cable route up Yosemite’s Half Dome when she was nearing 60. Where some people see a glass as half empty, my mother sees it as half full.
Science has proven that the brain influences the body’s physical health: Thinking positive thoughts boosts the immune system, counters depression, and lowers blood pressure. Focusing on the positive in their lives has helped some people with chronic illnesses live longer, while a positive view of aging can lead to better health and longevity.
Researchers at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine found that, among people with a family history of heart disease, those who had a positive outlook were one-third less likely to have a heart attack or other cardiovascular event than those with a negative outlook; positive people in the general population were 13 percent less likely than their negative counterparts to have a heart attack. According to a University of Kansas study, a simple smile reduces heart rate and blood pressure during stressful situations.
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What does that mean for an old lady trying to hike day after day through the Alps?
My mother doesn’t visualize failure. Even at 80, she visualizes success. She believes she will make it, and aided by her fitness level, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy—and not because it’s easy for her, not by a long stretch. Watching her hike, you can see she’s not walking up and down mountains pain-free. Jeff will tell me later that his GPS measured today’s hike from Finhaut to Le Buet at 10.9 miles with close to 4,000 vertical feet of cumulative elevation gain. For almost anyone, at any age, that’s a huge day. Hiking five of our nine days out here, she will cover more than 43 miles of the 106-mile Tour du Mont Blanc (no one in our group did the entire route), with well over 10,000 vertical feet of climbing.
And yet, to her, the pleasure she derives from it eclipses the suffering. Her optimism is something that many people, of all ages, in any context, could take a lesson from.
All afternoon on the high, rugged traverse from the Emosson dam, we stop repeatedly to gape across the valley plunging away thousands of feet to the glaciers and jagged skyline of Mont Blanc muscling into the brilliantly blue sky. A sprawling massif more than 15 miles (25k) long, plastered with more than 40 glaciers, Mont Blanc comprises some 400 distinct summits, including some of the most famous names in mountaineering history: the Grandes Jorasses, Aiguille Noire, the Dru and Aiguille du Midi. Its true summit towers 12,000 feet above Chamonix, France, and nearly two vertical miles higher than the nearest habitations in Italy, and overlooks seven valleys in three countries.
At one point, while catching her breath, Mom looks around and says, “It’s hard, but it’s beautiful. I’m really glad I did this today.”
With evening rapidly approaching, Anna, Marco, Mom, and I reach the Refuge de la Loriaz hut—we had told the others a while back to go on ahead of us—and begin a long descent on a gravel road through the forest. Shortly after 7 p.m., almost 10 hours after setting out from Finhaut, the four of us reach the train stop in the village of Le Buet shortly before the day’s last train pulls up at 7:41 p.m. Twenty minutes later, our nine-day journey comes full circle with us arriving back in Chamonix.
We stroll down bustling streets past scores of people talking and laughing at outdoor restaurant tables. Approaching our hotel, we see Guido and Inken sitting at a table outside, smiling at us. They congratulate Mom; Inken gives her a warm hug.
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“Watching her walk over to us, it doesn’t look like she just did this huge hike,” Guido tells me.
I just nod. How do you explain people like her? She hasn’t overcome physical pain or exhaustion, of course. She has simply decided it will not stop her from going after a sense of satisfaction that’s larger than the pain. She understands that age eventually wins out over us all. But she’s not giving in without a damned good fight.
She has a simple but powerful force on her side: the right attitude. Not to mention a good, steady snail’s pace.
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Trip Planner: Trekking the Tour du Mont Blanc
THIS TRIP IS GOOD FOR anyone in moderately good physical condition, including children, with the caveat that some may want to skip or shorten harder days by using the public transportation and taxi options available along the Tour du Mont Blanc. The route is well marked and virtually always obvious—especially the primary route—so basic map-reading skills are adequate to find your way without any major problems. There are also enough other trekkers on the TMB, speaking several languages, that you can often ask directions if needed.
Subscribers to The Big Outside can read the rest of this TMB Trip Planner (below), with my tips on planning the Tour du Mont Blanc, and get access to all stories.
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