From Switzerland to Italy to France and back

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By Jack Crowe

Cycling columnist

Wednesday Journal cycling columnist Jack Crowe has been in the Alps hiking the Tour de Mont Blanc, a 110-mile walking trail that passes through parts of Switzerland, Italy and France. The hiking began Sept. 3. He's due back Sept. 20, but Crowe has kept a journal of his journey and sent us a few entries to which we have edited down. So here goes:

Borders change quickly in the Alps without much fanfare. As we do our tour we will hike from Switzerland to Italy to France and back to Switzerland.

We stopped at a terraced vineyard along the lake called Vinorama for its combination of wine and views. The lake water was sea green, like in the Caribbean. Two gypsy looking fishermen cast off some rocks nearby and two Swiss men prepare to don scuba gear. 

Then we drove to Matiny in the foothills of the Alps where we visited an art museum built on what once was an expansive Roman town. You don't expect high culture this close to the Alps, especially not a fine collection of modern art from the first half of the 20th Century, including Picasso and friends. There was a sculpture garden with Rodin, Renoir, Ernst, DuBuffet.

And the snow-capped Alps are revealed from the balcony of our hotel, the Hotel Splendide which only has a few late season hikers like us. From here on, it will be Gites with open bunk space. After a dinner of cheese and mushroom fondue, we retire. On Monday we start our hike.

We avoided the "haute" route which we were told would lead to death defying descents and took instead the "low" road through a rising mountain vale. It was all uphill with increasingly dramatic vistas. We climbed above the tree line and then kept climbing …

By noon we had climbed to the Grand Col Ferret. This was a big deal. It was like turning a corner but the corner took hours of climbing. First the tip of snow-capped Mont Blanc appeared in the distance, then little by little the range, 360 degrees of sky high mountains, glaciers too many to count, waterfalls in every corner. It was like Machu Picchu only instead of seeing it from one place you get to savor it from all around.

… We still had a three-hour climb to Refugio Buonati, named after a famed Italian hiker. This climb, at the end of the day, never seemed to end. The place was so remote it is supplied by helicopter. 

Next day: Starting again, we were headed down from the mountains to the Italian metropolis. The book said it's a three hour and 50-minute descent to Courmeyer. Some hikers said three hours. It took us six. All downhill at a steep grade. Imagine pointing your toes straight down for six hours while trying to avoid nasty rocks.

The path was sometimes muddy and slippery, other times rocky.  We stopped for wild blueberries and raspberries or to catch our breath. Tired, feet swollen, back aching, we finally trundled into Courmeyer for a very welcome pizza and risotto con fungi (mushrooms). And so ends another day.

Next day: On the trail, we have brief encounters with hikers coming the other way.  When we are climbing, they are descending and vice versa. There are various Italians ("Giorno"), lots of French (always a pleasant "bonjour"), Scots, Aussies and Kiwis. You try to guess the nationality of the approaching hikers and give the appropriate salute.

We left the piste and found ourselves in a deep forest climb. Heading up to who knows where. Roots stuck out of the narrow trail. Rocks clung. Branches lashed. If you forgot the trees and the mountains and the pleasant weather, if you forgot everything except the narrow trail heading unceasingly upwards, it felt something like Frodo inching his way to Mt. Doom.

But we were not heading to tragedy, we were looking for Refugio Vieille. And suddenly, as we crossed the tree line, it popped up. The top of a ski hill, as open as that scene in The Sound of Music. And we stopped for Aranciata and chocolate at this funky resting place.

It was 11 a.m. and the sign said two hours and 50 minutes to our final destination, Refugio Elizabeta. That included more climbing above the treeline, a big descent into a valley with a lake with copper colored mountain water, and a final big climb to the Refugio which overlooks a glacier.

Eventually, we arrived at Elizabeta (named for a young woman who died tragically in the Alps).  This place is rustic and cramped. We're hoping no one shows up to claim two spots in our already cramped alcove. And so another day ends.

Next day: The sleeping quarters were tight.  Think 58 people sleeping in a typical Oak Park house, most of them in bunks in the attic.

Today had a big exclamation point on our journey. We were headed for Col de la Seigne, at 7500 feet the highest pass of our tour, the last look at Mount Blanc for a while, the border between Italy and France, the superhighway for medieval trade, a battle ground between Italy and France during WWII.

We continued down a road to the valley bottom.  Just short of the little hamlet of Les Chapieux, we stopped for a nap on an outcropping of rocks. It was a shorter day and we were in no hurry to reach the Alberge de la Nova.

Contamines Montjoie, France. We lunched, taking in the view, before descending yet again for another highlight of the day, a rope bridge suspended over a glacial waterfall. It looked like something out of Raiders of the Lost Ark. You had to embrace the swaying to get across. Further along, we inched above a steep cliff that had metal ropes inserted in the cliff to steady shaky climbers …. and so ends another day.

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