Part One: Arriving in Chamonix
Story and photos: Saskia Wehler
http://www.saskiawehler.com // @alpenlust
Translated by: Stephanie Kotz
Every summer we hike across the Alps. Usually we have a hard time deciding which route of the many possible ones we should take, but this year the decision was made quickly by the new hiking guide (by Rother) about the Haute Route. The panoramas of the 4ks of West Switzerland are addictive.
This year we wanted to start at Mont Blanc in Chamonix and arrive in Zermatt.
The well known alpine tour, the Haute Route, is discarded quickly: it requires a lot of equipment to cross glaciers, more weight, too risky for two and too difficult for my dog. My dog Lin has mountain experience, but there’s no goofing around with crevasses. I’m so excited about the proposed Haute Route hiking tour that I hastily thumb through the book to look if there aren’t any difficulties on the route that would get in the way of hiking the tour with a dog. Immediately I notice a picture of a vertical 30 meter high ladder, also glacier passages. How would Lin master those? She’s already equipped with the Ruffwear Doubleback™ belay harness. We would be able to rope the dog up. Additionally, we need some adequate dog packs for her food and water.
My choice was the Ruffwear Palisades™ Pack. We already had tested many pack systems and had tried to combine them with Ruffwear’s belay harness. Nothing could resist the abrasion of the rocks. This time we needed a really stable and reliable solution. But how could the Doubleback Harness be combined with the Palisades Pack? I wrote to Ruffwear in the USA, explained my problem and how I wanted to modify my Doubleback Harness, and asked whether they had some extra buckle attachments for my Palisades Pack. They did! I was so happy when the solution finally dropped in my mailbox…the quick-release buckles! I just had to sew the buckles onto my Doubleback Harness. Now I had a professional belay harness and secured to it weather resistant and comfortable packs which should be able to handle this tour.
One Sunday at the beginning of August our small group of three, my husband, Lin and I, start on our journey together with 25 kg of carefully chosen luggage spread on our three backs. A 10 hour train trip to Chamonix without any breaks to change trains is Lin’s first small challenge! She masters the trip fantastically, resisting the urge to pee, moving between crowds and bulky suitcases, holing up underneath the baggage net so she won’t be in the way. She wants to do everything the right way it seems…she just wants to be part of this!
To travel by train so far to the west has something literary. Not only the scenery changes while you’re looking astonished out of the window like a traveling salesman, but also the dialects, languages and social structures change from region to region. As we finally get off the train in Chamonix we’re greeted by rain. I was so looking forward to this stronghold of mountaineering enthusiasts that I had decided long before that no weather would be able to take away the charm of this town. That way we’re enjoying our first coffee sip by sip in Chamonix at the Chambre Neuf! So amazing! WE are in Chamonix!
The next day the sky clears up! Every now and then it allows the three of us and all the other hundreds of tourists from all over the world to see the highly anticipated view of the Mont Blanc! Like being zoomed in, he’s looming above the town’s rooftops. This day is for acclimatization. We do this extensively in all the hip mountaineering shops of the town. Tomorrow our tour should begin in Argentieres. The starting point was a compromise. Although the cabin room in the Chalet du Lac Blanc had been reserved via phone call and direct credit card payment weeks in advance, I noticed just two days before our departure that dogs aren’t allowed in the area of the Reserve Naturelle des Aiguilles Rouge. That’s why we had to pass up the amazing stretch of the Grand Balcony Sud together with Lac Blanc. A few variations were thought through and I experienced a helpful mountain community on Facebook – but leaving Lin in unknown care even shortly was out of question. Therefore we bypass the area of Aiguilles Rouges.
Coming from Argentieres we join the actual route to Col de Montes and hike on the tightrope path, the Aig. des Posettes, to the Col de Balme an 2204 meters. Behind us is the Chamonix Valley with Mont Blanc, to the right in the southeast the Glacier du Tour and the Glacier des Grands, in front of us the Refugio du Col de Balme, – a unique mountain hut. Built in 1877, it served as a frontier cabin and sits exactly on the border between France and Switzerland. In 1929 modifications were carried out and today the hut is still offering 20 beds. When you step into the old cabin room, you’re stunned by the old retro charm of the dusty interior. Like requisites for a mountain movie of the 50ties old billboards hang on the wooden walls. Large size postcards from the time of the first color films are resplendent in mapstands by Iris Mexichrome. They didn’t have many buyers, those winter pictures, in which winter was still a real winter. On quality paper with undulated corners and brown edges they show you photos of a long gone era. Therefore it’s not surprising that the innkeeper seems to be also from that time. Bent over to the ground and wrestling every step grudgingly from her body SHE seems to be the ghost of the old frontier cabin. Hard of hearing, bank notes in her hand and apron pocket she shuffles to her guests who somehow don’t fit into the air of this room with their stylish sports outfits.
Outside the weather is nasty. Dull sky, the mountain scenery is fanned by cold wind. The first snowfields are crossed to Lin’s joy who celebrates every field with extensive rolling around.
We continue on the path of the Tour du Mont Blanc. Passing the grassy slopes of the alp Herbagères and at last walking down steep turns through the forest we finally arrive at the valley floor with the roadway to Trient. Here the feeling of hiking in long gone times is present as well, here and there ruins of old palace like hotels, still existing hotels, blessed with the shabby charm of once glamorous times. It seems like alone in Trient’s strikingly pink painted village church that era is still remaining.
Our accommodation, the Auberge Mont Blanc, is lovely. Dogs aren’t allowed, but no one is annoyed when I enter the quarters inquiring with my malamute. The German loyalty to regulated organization and house rules has been abandoned here – in the middle of this mix of peoples from all over the world. We feel so comfortable in this singsong of languages that is gathering at the long, heavy wooden table in the dining room. Water jugs, wine, fresh baked white bread and warm food goes from hand to hand. Later we’re sitting on the small patio on cheap white plastic chairs. Our gaze falls repeatedly on the pink church up in the village. Suddenly I think of Hape Kerkeling. Movie clips from “I’m Off Then” cross my mind. This place would have fit well in the movie. Almost perfect. We’re on a pilgrimage! I think, not on the way to Santiago de Compostela, but somehow every long distance hike is like a little pilgrimage. I don’t want to leave this time bubble, – this cave of people, voices, languages, of encounters with people and landscapes, the teamwork between human and animal. I like it so much, it adds so much to my life with these inner and external pictures. This thought is going to recur, again and again during this tour till the end in Zermatt. I don’t want to leave this hiking, this continuum of flowing, seemingly endless available time.
Hiking is addicting. You become addicted to this SPACE, to the self-achievement of walking to places, to the poetry of pictures next to the path, to the roughness, the wilderness, the simplicity, the antiquity, to idyll, to vastness. I want to copy this landscape – with my eyes and I want to carefully recreate it in the present time using my memories.
Continued in Parts 2 and 3…