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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!”
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.
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.
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.
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.