Mont Blanc Circuit - Part 2; August 10-17

We're back in Chamonix, successfully having completed the Mont Blanc Circuit. It's difficult to spin a story from our trek -- every day followed pretty much the same routine:
  1. Up early for hut breakfast. (Small moment of anticipation: anything more than coffee, bread, and jam? We variously saw juice, cereal, yogurt, cheese, espresso, and the flakiest of French croissants.)

  2. Pack up and set out.

  3. Hike, with varying distances and difficulty but always plenty of elevation (facts and figures below), and frequent fabulous views.

  4. Arrive at the next hut in the 2:00-5:00 range, depending on the day's hike. (Big moment of anticipation: what would the sleeping arrangement be? Private room, or large dormitory?)

  5. Relax, read, play games, talk with other hikers, shower, etc. This time could be particularly nice in a remote hut with good weather and outdoor tables.

  6. Dinner. (Medium moment of anticipation: how good at this hut? We were disappointed only occasionally, and the adults routinely enjoyed a half-carafe of wine -- two, on a particularly reckless evening.)

  7. A few more games, reading, then to bed, with overnight comfort depending greatly on the accommodations and company.
Since there's no story to tell, here instead is a collection of random topics.

Ups and downs. The total elevation gain on the circuit is just under 9000 meters (about 30,000 feet), with the same elevation loss since we ended at our starting point. That's equivalent to hiking from sea level to the top of Mt. Everest, and back down again. It's not that big a deal over 13 days, but we met some people hiking the circuit in 8 days, and there are the nutcases (or superheroes, depending on your point of view) who do it in 24 hours as part of an extreme running race.

Other measures. The trail is about 105 miles long, but distance is rarely considered. Signposts mark waypoints in hours -- we'd add 50% over the course of a day for stops, sidetrips, and general dawdling. We most often measured our progress in altitude (we have an altimeter), which usually felt like the most relevant measure.

Crowds and weather. The circuit has a short season, peaking mid-July to mid-August. We could already see the crowds thinning a bit in the second week of August. We could also see the weather starting to change -- hikers crossing a pass two days behind us reported pushing through a couple of feet of fresh snow, with some difficulty finding the route. We encountered a bit of snow ourselves (photo 5), though nothing deep or dangerous. In the end we did quite well with weather: considerably more sun than cloud, and by a stroke of luck the only day with nonstop rain was our layover in Courmayeur -- it put a crimp in our activities there, but much better that day than one on the trail.

Well-being. Aside from the expected fatigue on long hiking days, we had no physical issues on the trek. Every day we saw other hikers taping toes and wrapping knees, but except for Emily's ingrown toenail appearing the last couple of days (she wanted to make sure we mentioned it), we were problem-free. In fact, other than Jennifer's mashed finger (update: dark purple nail still intact; fingertip still swollen), and the mild illnesses reported in earlier travelogs, physically we've been doing very well on the entire trip. We've been doing well psychologically too: Nobody is homesick or tired of traveling, and interpersonally we're faring as well as one might hope for given how much time we're all spending together, and how little (i.e., none) on our own.

Wildlife. Wildlife isn't a feature of the Alps, or Europe in general. We saw a few birds of prey, and a number of Ibex (photo 7), but those only when we were at higher elevations and far from towns. Tim also located some "wilddead," as seen in photo 8.

Guidebook. The one used by English speakers (actually by all except French and Italian speakers) is Tour of Mont Blanc. It became our indispensable companion, although it was unintentional when we snapped a picture (photo 6) so similar to the one on its cover. Interesting tidbit: On our previous family hiking trip to the Alps 11 years ago (Tim was a year old; Emily minus 7 months), we met the author, Kev Reynolds, in a tiny Swiss mountain train station that we'd all ducked into during a sudden rainstorm.

Trekking poles. 90% of Europeans hike with dual trekking poles, even on short walks with no packs. Their virtues are extolled frequently, in part by the pole manufacturers of course. We brought two pairs with us -- Jennifer has now become a total convert, and Emily prefers to use them too (photos 3 & 4). The remaining family members maintain that real men use their own two legs.

Cheese. We improvised lunches on the trail, often sampling the local cheeses. Since all three countries (France, Italy, and Switzerland) consider cheese a specialty, there was a tasty selection to enjoy. We also were delighted when the proprietor of a small Swiss guesthouse we were staying in agreed to make labor-intensive raclette for our dinner.

Uphill motivation. In the last travelog we smugly reported on the enriching history lessons Alex provided as a distraction during long uphills. In the latter part of the trek, which was a little more difficult overall, inexplicably the history lectures were replaced by long tales comprising the series "Apollo's Alpine Adventures." (Apollo is the pet dog Emily continues to daydream about in great detail, and lobby for with gusto.)

Memories. When we crossed the ski slopes high above Chamonix, Jennifer scoured for the exact location where she'd fallen off an unduly steep Poma lift during a family ski vacation 34 years ago (clearly a traumatic experience, given the vivid memory). By the third time she was sure she'd found the spot, Alex and the kids were bored with her quest.

Next: We'll spend a day in Chamonix, during which we'll need to figure out where to go next! We're due in Morocco September 1st, so a tentative plan is to make our way in that direction via southern France, the Pyrenees, and a  bit of Spain

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