Mont Blanc Circuit - Part 1; August 3-9

We're in the bustling resort town of Courmayeur, having come not quite halfway around the Mont Blanc Circuit. The towns of Chamonix (France) and Courmayeur (Italy) lie across the huge "Mont Blanc Massif" from each other, and there are three ways of traveling between them: drive through a famous tunnel, take a series of gondolas (one of them soaring high above a huge glacier, reported to be an amazing ride), or as we're doing: walk.

We're taking 13 days plus a bit to hike what's traditionally done in 10-11, ensuring we don't push the kids too hard. We also threw in a layover day in Courmayeur, where we're enjoying a real hotel room, restaurants, internet (obviously), and some kid-oriented activities.

Our biggest surprise on the circuit so far has been how busy it is -- not so much on the trails (though they are teeming with hikers, especially when we're in day-hiking range of a town), but how difficult it's been to secure space in the huts (called refuges in France and Switzerland, rifugios in Italy). All of our information suggested that reserving huts a day or two in advance would be fine, but that's just not the case: many huts we called were full well into the future. Reports are that this is a particularly busy year.

Fortunately, we became aware of the busy-hut situation right at the start. Alex spent many hours during our first few afternoons/evenings laying out the rest of the trek and making reservations. Nearly-universal cell phone reception, plus internet via the Blackberry, were indispensable. (The Blackberry also comes in handy for up-to-the-minute weather forecasts.) We've had to adjust some of our hiking days based on hut availability. In one extreme case we thought we'd be forced to go several miles off the route and stay in a yurt, until at the last minute we lucked into four spots in a much better location (but see discussion of converted barn, below). Overall, the itinerary modifications have been fairly minor.

We've met very few Americans while hiking, and most of those were on guided trips. The Mont Blanc Circuit is a staple of adventure-travel outfits like Wilderness Travel and REI. There have been a number of Brits (some also in guided groups), a variety of other Europeans, and one interesting Japanese couple. Hiking as a family pastime is far more common among Europeans than Americans, although we still didn't meet any other kids Tim and Emily's age doing the circuit.

Despite circling around the Mont Blanc massif, the hike is all about ups and downs: over a high pass, down to a valley, over the next pass, down to another valley, and so on. The scenery in the "up and overs" is breathtaking. Most of the valleys have roads in them and some have substantial towns. Arriving in a busy town not long after staying at a seemingly remote mountain-top hut is certainly different from the all-wilderness backpacking we're more accustomed to. One pass marked the crossing from France into Italy -- we
quickly adjusted our trail greeting from "bonjour" to "buon giorno." Later we'll cross from Italy to Switzerland, then Switzerland back to France.

The huts vary widely. We've taken to rating them in three categories; no hut has won out in every category, nor has any been a complete dud.
  • Accommodation. Sleeping has varied from 50 side-by-side small mattresses in a narrow, low-ceilinged converted old barn, to a private room for four with our own sink. Amazingly, the room-with-sink was one of the cheapest places and the barn one of the most expensive. The dormitory-type accommodations do have their challenges -- it doesn't take many 60-year-old male hikers to guarantee some serious snoring.

  • Food. Like most hikers, we're going with "demi pension" (half board) in the huts. Breakfasts are very simple -- typically just coffee, hot chocolate, bread, butter, and jam. Dinners are always "hearty," though the quality varies significantly. We were worried that Tim and Emily would have a difficult time with the food, but they've done quite well, especially since they usually enjoy a treat (crepes, pie, or ice cream if we're lucky) on afternoon hut arrival.

  • Atmosphere. We definitely prefer the small family-run 20-bed huts to the 100-bed operations. The latter offer jovial (and loud) conviviality, including after-dinner music by the staff on more than one occasion. But traditional bedtime is 9pm everywhere anyway, and the smaller huts seem more amenable to chatting with other guests.
One attribute every hut has shared is a spectacular setting -- photos 3 and 4, for example.

Weather in the Alps can be "changeable," and so far we've probably hit about average: our fair share of blue skies, some overcast, and a half-day hiking in a real rainstorm. Luckily, a string of sunny days coincided with the highest part of the circuit.

The lack of computers and towns has, not surprisingly, led to much more "family time" -- more board and card games, reading, and general hanging out. So far the kids have been entertaining themselves quite well: Emily is mastering baton-twirling using a trekking pole (thankfully she has no aspirations of becoming a real majorette), Tim is mentally designing a human-ridable hovercraft to build when we return home, and both kids have been hunting down quartz crystals as we hike. (We were interested to learn that the first man to climb Mont Blanc was a crystal-hunter too.) We also had an unexpected boost in schooling: As a distraction on long uphill stretches, which can last up to a full day, Alex has been lecturing on topics ranging from the fall of the Roman Empire to contemporary American politics. Pop quizzes the following morning suggest the kids have been absorbing the material.

Next: Mont Blanc Circuit - Part 2

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