Alpine Journey- Part 3

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Bonhomme South

All summer the miasma of diabetes had wrung havoc from my legs, rendering me at times incapable of taking a step without excruciating stabs of pain shooting through my thighs. So as the Tour of Mont Blanc trip loomed before me I worried that there was no possible way I was going to be able to complete the journey. The first steps up the foothills to the southwest of the Mont Blanc Massif filled me with apprehension, for the further I ventured away from connections with towns and up into the wilder region of the mountains the greater the risk of getting stuck up there. I had to grip my shoulder straps tightly and set my heart for the distance, telling myself I could do this and that I wasn’t going to let diabetes defeat my love of mountain walking.

Peter Doppelganger

Tetes Nord de Fours

Going Back to Old Ways

All throughout the foothills surrounding the Mont Blanc range, especially in France and Switzerland, young families have returned to the villages to bring new life back to the old chalets and byways.

Aiguilles de la Pennaz

Me Nearing Bonhomme

I moved much slower than I would normally have walked in days past, but, in spite of being out of breath and falling behind everyone along the way, the hills and slopes rolled by and by mid-afternoon I found myself gazing at the vista of the alpine crags.

Big Climb Near Bonhomme

The mountains grew bigger and bigger, almost frighteningly so, with a mass and ominousness that I had never experienced with the high mountains in Japan. At once both a sense of dread mixed with unutterable joy nagged at the back of my mind. It was all still too new to get lost in; even my photos felt tentative, as if trying out a grander horizon.

Last Climb First Day

Alpine Violets

End of Winter

As the late afternoon sun began to approach the line of peaks to the west and I still hadn’t reached the refuge where I hoped to stay for the night and no one else was in sight, I began to lose heart that I would make it. Clouds were gathering and it looked like rain. Breathing heavily I topped one rise and came upon this memorial to winter. Out of breath I plopped down on an outcropping and laughed like a man drunk.

Bonhomme Sheep

The Refuge de Bonhomme sat above a tumbling valley resplendent with emerald green grass on every rounded slope. Upon setting my pack down and scanning the panorama below, I witnessed the famed alpine sheep seething across a distant peak. For the first time I could picture the landscape the Heidi so adored.

Bonhomme Walkers

Bonhomme Ibex 1

All my life I had dreamed of glimpsing Ibex. They represented an almost deity-like symbol of the remote and legendary world of the Alps, a place where only intrepid mountaineers and hardy shepherds could venture. So when I finished my dinner and glimpsed a lone Ibex tossing his horns along a dark ridge, I grabbed my camera and stalked outside as fast as caution allowed. The Frenchman, Sebastien, who had befriend me over a beer, laughed and cried out, “What’s the hurry? They’re so tame you’re guarantied to see one! I just wonder about that bright red windshirt you’re wearing, though!”

Bonhomme Ibex 2

Bonhomme Walkers 2

Bonhomme Figure

Bonhomme Ibex 3

Bonhomme Meal

The refuge was so different from what you get in Japan. People sat around meeting one another and welcoming people they didn’t know. Two refuge staff members brought out guitars and sat on the kitchen counter singing songs to candle light. Outside night fell, turning the world blue while a powerful wind howled across the rooftop.

Bonhomme Distant Peak

I fell asleep to the pattering of rain against the bedroom window and the rise and fall of Sebastien’s breathing. The stout wooden walls felt solid in the mountain air and the bed a safe haven. I slept so deeply that I cannot remember that night.

Grass Chapieux

Descent Chapieux

Chapieux Puff

One thing I discovered as I walked was that you were never far away from at least a hamlet. To my surprise the Alps in Japan were much wilder and required that one be a lot more self-sufficient. I was able to buy fresh Tambe cheese and still-warm baguette at a local bakery near the bus stop here in Chapieux.

Chapieux Bus stop

Villes des Glaciers

Rest Stop at Villes des Glaciers

My first glimpse of an alpine glacier came here in Villes des Glaciers. At one time the glacier must have held an otherworldly spell over the village below, but today so much of it had melted away that mostly only orange hued rock remained. Throughout the walk I saw clearly that all the glaciers had melted away to but a fraction of their former grandeur. It was humbling to such powerful forces of nature burned away to nothing.

Aiguilles des Glaciers

16 Responses

  1. Awesome. Oh, I laughed at the melting snowmen, too. :-)

  2. I’m enjoying all these wonderful photos and your adventure. It must give you great pleasure to revisit that journey again through your images and posting it in your blog.

  3. I second marja-leena’s comment. What a wonderful way to go back to your trip and visit again. I was thinking of this over dinner last night, as my son and I were reminiscing about some of the short walks we went for back in Shimane. It made me want to compile the photos like this and retell the story so that we never lose those memories… Now if I can just find the time.
    Loving these posts, keep them coming.
    :^)

  4. hikingharry

    Hi,

    thank you for posting the story of your hike and the photos.

    I have read of your travels over at backpackinglight.com, and had thought about meeting, but my vacation was to early for that. It is very nice to see the area around the Col du Bonhomme in better weather – it was very foggy, when I was there.

    So I relive the Tour du Mont Blanc again through your story and pictures.

    I too should do somethimg with my photos of the Tour du Mont Blanc and the Walkers Haute Route.

    I am looking forward to your next posts. :-)

  5. Ivy, I debated whether to stop and take a picture of the snowmen when I came upon them, but now I’m glad I did. Little things like that make for memories.

    Marja-Leena, yes, I did have a wonderful time looking back at the trip through the photos. It’s especially poignant when I am trying to determine how to wring them through Photoshop to bring out what it is that I felt at the time. I surprised myself sometimes with ending p with a certain image that at first I had set aside in favor of another.

    Steve, I have to figure out a better way to show the collection of photos here. I used to have an online gallery, but I still haven’t found anything that I like that is elegant, simple, and beautiful to look at. Been looking at Piclens, shich is quite nice.

    HikingHarry, welcome! I’ve seen your posts on BackpackingLight on occasion, but it’s good to have you visit here. I don’t post about UL hiking enough, but you may find some interesting posts if you go back a little. I prefer to concentrate on the trip rather than the equipment, so there aren’t a lot of things written about gear. It’s too bad that we couldn’t meet on the TMB; it would be been a lot of fun to walk a little with another BPLer. Also I’d love to see your own photos of the trip. Just to see a different point of view of the same places would be very interesting.

  6. Great, Miguel! Always love to hear about your hiking adventures.

  7. Miguel – the photos are stunning, just stunning. What a beautiful part of the world to walk through. I was also impressed with, and rather envious of, your kit – you did go light! I wish I had that discipline…!

  8. Hi Lisa. I’m glad you’re still here. Sorry about the long absences lately. Still it is important for me to keep that connection with you. Hope you’re doing well.

    Hi Chris, great to get your comment, as always. And thanks for the compliment about the photos. I’m not really happy with the way I’ve touched them up in PhotoShop… way too much noise. I’m stumped for how to lower the saturation and lighten up the darker images, such as the ones with great contrast, without causing the images to gain a lot of noise. And perhaps I went overboard with the desaturation?

    My kit here is actually quite a lot heavier than I would normally go these days. Since I was also traveling as a tourist and needed to carry the extra things for visiting cities, such as a proper pair of pants, change of clothes, guidebooks, and toiletry kit, the weight and volume added up. You should have seen, at the beginning of my trip, the look of the youth hostel clerk in Zürich when I approached the front desk wearing my skin-tight black running tights! And my subsequent mortified blush when she announced, in a loud voice so everyone in the lobby could hear, “Oooo la la! Just shake your tush, why don’t you!” I went downtown the next morning to quickly buy a pair of much more conservative zip-off trousers. That added weight of course.

    After seeing the unaccustomed height of the Alps and losing confidence in my ability to shelter myself while up there, I went out and bought a small tent, which is much heavier than the spinnaker cloth shaped tarp that I normally use in the mountains here in Japan, a fully enclosed, single skin shelter which only weighs 350 grams. My fears were partly justified, because it did snow twice while I was on the walk and the winds were often ferocious. But from the campsites that I encountered there was never any need for a full-on winter shelter. With the skills I now have with tarps and using ultralight gear I would have been okay.

    Going light like this doesn’t really take a lot of discipline. More it is a slow gathering of knowledge about how to combine gear and how to use one item for multiple purposes. It also takes a bit of overcoming what you’ve been taught until now and alleviating your apprehension by experience with the lighter kit. Every person has a different level of tolerance and when you feel unsafe or uncomfortable then it is time to drop back to where you aren’t putting yourself at risk. Some of the people on the Backpacking Light group that I hang out at manage to go on week-long backpacking trips with packs with less than 2.5 kg of base weight (that’s excluding food, water, and extra paraphernalia like cameras and books, etc). I just wouldn’t feel safe yet in an alpine region with such light and insubstantial equipment. But it can be done, for those with the proper level of knowledge, without danger of losing your life or being cold and uncomfortable. I just count myself still not knowledgeable enough and with a lot of learning to do. Part of that means going out more and experimenting with my own limits, while keeping a back up for when things start to get out of hand. This summer I hope to try going down to 2.5 kg. It will be a revelation if I can pull it off! Basically I always try to keep these words in my head as I winnow out the kit I am selecting for my pack: Keep it simple and elegant.

  9. Wonderful meld of word and image. I particularly like the sun on the grass on the mountainside and the cloud echoing the bowl in the land. Such a great journey.

  10. . . . this was such a beautiful post, gorgeous pics . . . most glad this monday morn for the peek into your adventure . . . :)

  11. I thought my yearning for the Alps couldn’t get stronger. But I been right at the places you have taken photos of. I’ve stood on the balcony at and eaten at that table at the Bonhomme hut.

    And I’d swear I’ve sheltered from a huge heard of sheep at the corner of the building in Ville des Glaciers as they pushed between the buildings and on down the road.

    The TMB is a truly gorgeous route. I’m very glad you walked it and that you’ve found time to post these beautiful images.

  12. I suppose the greater wildness of the Japan Alps is due simply to the lack of a dairy culture, no?

    Great pictures. (Just now getting caught up on my Google Reader subs.)

  13. Thanks for sharing your adventures in the Alps with us! The photos are really beautiful and your writing is as always entertaining and heartfelt.

    I also think that of all the mountain ranges I’ve seen, the Alps are the ones that can look the most threatening. It’s maybe something about how young these mountains are – the rocks everywhere are razor sharp and the vegetation generally looks very tenuous and temporary. When I was living close to the Alps as a kid my parents often took me hiking and we witnessed huge rockfalls and the most amazing, rapid turns of weather on a regular basis. Never felt like this anywhere else in the mountains…

  14. Sorry to take so long to reply. Too many apples in the air! And I think one of them must have knocked me on the head!

    rr: I’m glad the photos made an impression. Amazing how much time I worry about whether my images are good enough. So few of them I’m really satisfied with. So ti is wonderful when someone says that they were moved by them.

    Kate: Glad I could do something to help make your Monday morning a little nicer!

    Dale: Always great to have you drop by.

    Dave: The lack of dairy culture here might be a reason the mountains are wilder, true, especially since cows and sheep and goats do an incredible job of ruining the original habitat! But it is not just that, I think. Japan does have a dairy culture in the north, in Hokkaido, and I think it thrives there because the mountains there are much more rounded and more level. Mountains in Honshu and Shikoku are very steep and there is not much of anything you can do in them, least of all walk in them. It’s also why Japanese settlements always stayed down in the valleys, unlike alpine Europe where the slopes are much more accessible. Japan does have an ancient mountain creek fishing culture, though, but nothing that could support entire villages.

    Thomas: Thanks so much for your comments about the photos. Coming from you, a really great photographer, that’s an honor.

    I’d never been to mountains like the Alps before. On my first approach to Chamonix, using the cog train up the steep slopes in a dark, pouring rain, the mountains seemed huge and inhospitable. Just like you said, they felt very threatening and it took me a few days to get up the courage to head out into them alone. I found myself sitting around in the lodge where I was staying, talking to other walkers or hanging out at cafes just to be in the company of people. Since I had no idea about what to expect people-wise in the Alps I feared the loneliness and the “giantness” of the moutains. Only when I got started and I was actually walking on the trail did I learn that it wasn’t quite as bad as I had imagined, though some truly bad weather might very quickly have changed that feeling. I was lucky I didn’t get any of the big snow storms that other people a month earlier had encountered.

  15. Happened upon your pictures through a Facebook recommendation. What a wonderful trip. Loved the tiny snowmen shot.

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