Hope and Peace and Pain – Part 1
This article first appeared in Trail & Timberline magazine. The Walker’s Haute Route takes trekkers through the alps from Chamonix, France, to Zermatt, Switzerland. This is the first of five installments.
Of walkers, Robert Louis Stevenson said, “He who is of the brotherhood does not voyage in quest of the picturesque, but of certain jolly humours—of the hope and spirit with which the march begins at morning, and the peace and spiritual repletion of the evening’s rest. He cannot tell whether he puts his knapsack on, or takes it off, with more delight.”
We arrive by train from Paris, late in the afternoon rain. Brianna and I are traveling like the rather strapped fans of spontaneity that we are. What to do? Well, there’s finding a cheap place to sleep and a cheap place to eat. And then there’s wandering in Chamonix.
We wander a bit; European villages are best discovered through the art of impulsive choice. Why worry about later when you can feel good about what you’re doing now?
Eventually we find Hotel Le Boule de Neige. Just maybe, the Hotel Snowball is the same place I stayed years earlier, when passing through Chamonix (having traveled over the Alps from Italy by a series of big téléphérique and small télécabine) before heading to Barcelona.
The Snowball has everything we need, which at this point is a well-built roof; the rains are still trickling. We’re shown to our room: we have Mont Blanc views, and the crisp Alpine air blowing through the window allows for a warm, mummified sleep in the down duvet. We dream of backpacks.
Day 1 | Chamonix to Trient
We’re treated to homemade banana pancakes in the morning. Then, it looks to be a fine day for some walking.
Chamonix to Argentière to Le Tour to Col de Balme. Before you begin, the names don’t mean so much—they’re just foreign names that you may even have a hard time pronouncing. Then, you spend all day climbing toward these names, these places, reading them over and over again in your guidebook, on the trail signs, buildings, and alpine huts. Then, you’re in these names, in these places, and they become something: they become your own discoveries. You’ll never forget their sound, their sight, that feeling of freedom. So many more places to absorb.
We cross the border from France to Switzerland at Col de Balme. Brianna’s mysterious knee pain commences somewhere on that first ascent. Over hours of descending, the pain level increases to what we’ve dubbed “threat level nine.” Reluctantly, we let it dawn on us: The entire trip is, as unimaginable as it may seem, in jeopardy. Do we abort? Already?
We limp down the neon green grasses into Switzerland and the Trient Valley, stumble through the scattered homes of Le Peuty, and reach the village of Trient and its one accommodation, the Relais du Mont Blanc. As we try to find beds, confusion ensues: a concoction of language troubles, unfamiliar customs, and chaos in the combination dining room/reception desk/bar/convenience store. Perhaps it’s because I don’t speak French, and Brianna, who does, can’t feel her knee, her leg, or her tongue at this point. Alas, we get beds, a fine dinner, and more.
As we eat, we eavesdrop on the strangest trilingual family dynamic that we’ve ever witnessed, including a dinner-time, pants-unbuttoned belly rub by the young mother. An American man speaks English to his German-speaking son and wife. They respond in German. He speaks to the waitress in French. Occasionally, the parents converse in fluent German. Sometimes, the father would make the son speak French to the waitress. It is hard to comprehend. For all their conversation and intelligence, their entire dynamic is awkward. They don’t seem enthusiastic about life, or each other.
Come to think of it, Brianna doesn’t either, given her knee has exploded (or is it imploded) on this, the first of 13 days of Alpine trekking.
A British man is left at the bar by his hiking compatriots. He orders two more beers and two more shots of whiskey and sits quietly by himself.
We’re off to bed, avoiding the obvious.
Day 2 | Trient to Champex Lac
Sticker shock. Swiss extortion. We learn that dortoir must mean “little for lots” in French. We pay 70 CHF (Swiss Francs; about $70) per person to sleep on a 2-inch thick mattress next to 14 strangers.
We put those terrible thoughts behind us. We are in Switzerland. It is beautiful.
We debate the terrible thought of broken anatomy. Our procrastination is aided by the communal computer in the corner. Where should we go? Zurich? Rome? Hell, Prague isn’t that far away. A short search for train tickets across Europe leads us nowhere: We both know what we really want to do is move on, onto the trail, outside, up the path, through the pastures, over the col, onto the next valley, and on.
We get our packs and start walking somewhere, desperate not to stop. Finally, the ubiquitous yellow-signed junction forces a decision. Do we proceed? Do we veer off course and toward a bus link?
“F*** it!” Let’s do this.” She is angry at her knee. At 5 feet 2 inches, 110 pounds, Brianna is a force to be reckoned with. We continue upward; she’s just committed to 12 days of various amounts of pain. Me? I’ve just let her.
We head for the Fenêtre d’Arpette, a ragged col some 4,457 feet above where we now stand, alongside a magnificent scene: the Glacier du Trient. We borrow a branch from the side of the trail; young people never start with trekking poles. The scenery, the stick, the sensation of being lost far from home bring the pain down to level two.
Over the col, we head down to Champex Lac in the rain. The long day is saved by the mighty stick. We eat a Swiss favorite, rösti, made of potatoes, cheese, bacon, onions, and tomatoes and it is just right: It is warm, and it is filling. We only slightly wince at the price.
We transfer weight from pack to pack, hers to mine. I scold Brianna for bringing reading material. That’s because she has chosen one of her favorite books to bring along: the 6-pound unabridged translation of “The Count of Monte Cristo.”
It gets left at the campground treasure bin. Look for it when next you’re trekking through Champex.
Goodbye, Count. Hello, knee.
Day 3 | Champex to Vilette
From Champex Lac we stroll along grassy trails, passing back and forth with what sound like an American young man (with his New York Yankees hat) and a British young lady. We’re strolling through beautiful pastures and working villages, passing by understandably gruff Swiss lumberjacks. It’s all a pleasure to see.
We get caught in the rain again, so the rain gear goes on. The sun comes out; the rain gear comes off. Dark clouds; rain gear on. Winds pick up, rains turn to downpour. Now it’s the hood-down, wet-stare walk. Of course, the skies clear, and the heat builds. The rain gear comes off.
We reach the day’s terminus village and, again, we find ourselves wandering, this time through rustic Le Châble. There’s meant to be a bed and breakfast here, but we’re too foreign to find it. Along the way we spy the hay in people’s garages, stilted homes from the 1600s, and the character of this Swiss hamlet, defined by its craftsmanship, tidiness, humble proportions. Nothing here feels large or daunting or pretentious.
At the only hotel we can find, Hotel du Gietroz, across the river in Vilette, we consume an exquisite dinner of lamb in a burgundy sauce, a fried mountain of polenta, soup, salad, and chocolate mousse. And we thought we were going to live inexpensively. And eat poorly. And sleep in a tent. And dine on bread and cheese and chocolate. But we can’t. And we’re fine with that.