Hope and Peace and Pain – Part 2
This is the second of five installments of an article that first appeared in Trail & Timberline magazine. Read the first installment here. The Walker’s Haute Route takes trekkers through the alps from Chamonix, France, to Zermatt, Switzerland.
Day 4 | Vilette to Cabane du Mont Fort
We start the day with a bang: Stolen walking stick!
Fantastically, the trail climbs quite steeply. And it does so for five hours.
We spot a girl coming up behind us as we’ve stopped for a snack of Toblerone and fine, Swiss potato chips. It seems to be the same British girl from the previous day. But where’s the Yankee? She greets us with bon jour and now we’re quite confused. Didn’t she hear us speaking English?
Once past, Brianna and I discuss the possibilities. Is it a different girl? A doppelgänger? Are our eyes failing? Were the two of them not together in the first place? Finally, after much conjecture on this most serious of matters, I reckon he’s just being lazy (or suffering from an injury) and has taken the ski lift while she’s hiked.
At the next trail junction, she happens to be there again, looking confused. I decide to inquire.
Two points for me. It was the same girl we had seen the day before; and he was taking the lift. Turns out he had injured his groin. I mention his groin only because it makes for an interesting aside later in this tale; normally I wouldn’t talk about groins.
Kerfuffle settled, Brianna and I push on and head toward Cabane du Mont Fort, amongst the clouds.
That night, we see the two of them together again. I approach and tell the man that he is a rotten scoundrel for being lazy and taking the lift. We strike up a conversation and make new friends over dinner and card games. We learn the game of whist.
Minus two points for me. Our new friends are Aashray Lal and Mandy Crawford, both from Glasgow, Scotland. Ashray is of Indian descent; he spent his childhood in India, Saudi Arabia, London, and, now, Glasgow. Mandy is Glaswegian, through and through. They are young medical students. Mandy’s backpack must be big enough to carry Brianna in it the next day.
Outside this stone-built alpine hut, the sky shifts from misty, backlit sunset to soupy fog bank and back again.
Day 5 | Mont Fort to Cabane de Prafleuri
We have breakfast with Aashray and Mandy, the first faces that have become familiar to us. They head out a few minutes before we do. When we leave, we see them coming back towards the hut.
“Getting a bit of a warm-up in before tackling the real route?” I ask. It turns out it wasn’t their first wrong turn.
Lucky for us, we acquire new trekking partners on this, one of the finest days of our fortnight on the trail. We’re in known chamois and ibex territory, and in combination with the dangerously spectacular views, the lush green mountain slopes we’re coursing through nearly bring us to our knees. It’s all broccoli-green slopes merging with sinister tongues of glacial debris, whipped-cream snow bowls, and shark-teeth ridge lines. Then, passing from one valley to the next by another drastic col, it’s all barren metallics and glacier-scoured rock valleys.
Meanwhile, it was getting warm and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to go swimming in a glacial tarn. Yes, I did it for beer—a beer from each of the three witnesses. But, in the end, it was most satisfying to know that I just swam in 33-degree water in polar bear-themed boxer shorts in front of two near-complete strangers.
For lunch we have a snowball fight, then make our way to Cabane de Prafleuri, where a liter and a half of water is a luxurious 8 CHF. I settle for three beers.
We sleep next to 20 others, including the “hand man.” Without any barriers between mattresses, I give Brianna the wall slot. I deal with the man whose hand seems to creep ever closer to me throughout the night. I go to the bathroom and when I return? Yes, his hand is draped across my domain. Needless to say, Brianna stayed warm the rest of the night with a human blanket.
Day 6 | Prafleuri to Arolla
Without words, we’re now a group. We head out together, down past Lac des Dix, Pas du Chat, all the while learning about our new friends. They’ve both traveled quite a bit. Aashray has toured southeast Asia, trekked to base camp on Everest, visited cousins in Santa Cruz who say “oh…my…god” a lot. Mandy lived, worked, and wandered through Australia for six months, and has been skiing at Sugarloaf Mountain in Maine with her primary school. To that I gasp, “Oh….my….god!” To fly across the Atlantic to ski at Sugarloaf seems mad. The Scottish don’t think it is particularly out of the ordinary, and then we learn how inexpensive it is for them to go just about anywhere in the world. Hence, their palmarès.
I finally ask: it turns out they are not a couple, though they’ve known each other for a decade or so. Aashray comes from a long line of doctors. Mandy’s father is an accountant who works in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and takes the ferry from Scotland every week.
We slowly work our way down to Arolla, having tackled another sharp ascent and descent which seems to roil the knee; they cruise ahead. We’ve finally found another place to camp—only our second opportunity to legally do so—while they stay at Hotel du Glacier for their last night on the trail.
We meet for dinner. With their stay they receive a fine four-course meal; for us, it’s the savory melted cheese in a pot (fondly called fondue). We play no cards, but remain embroiled in conversation. We talk about what we like to cook and eat when we’re at home. We all agree that hummus is one of the best foods there is. And, chocolate is also very special.
We say goodbye and Brianna gets some Scottish pain ointments from Aashray. He had been putting them to good use on his groin; she will now slather them on her knee. It is of no concern to her. She seeks relief.
We head down to the campground in the rain, in the dark, on a trail of mud in our sandals. A fellow camper has decided to set up his tent two feet away from our tent door, though there is a soccer pitch worth of grass to choose from.