Classic Tour du Mont Blanc: backpacking with a difference

``Il faut aimer `a marcher.'' The Swiss villager standing beside the trail had been sweeping the opposite side of the steep valley with binoculars as I came up, spotting the small goatlike chamois for the coming hunting season. The scene was spectacular: off to the right a blue-white glacier tumbling down from the high cirque, the sun's rays not yet reaching over the mountains to the valley floor. It was another thousand feet up before the trail leveled out. We chatted a few moments as I explained that I was an American, making the classic Tour du Mont Blanc . . . on foot. Yes, he was right, you'd better like to walk! In 13 days on the trail we had seen hikers of many nationalities, but with the exception of the 17 members of our own group, not a single American. And this at a time when you were as likely to hear an American accent as a French one in Paris or an English one in London. We were with tourists of a different calling, for sure.

This was an international Sierra Club hike, arranged by volunteer leaders Dick Williams and Marj Richman, both from the Washington, D. C., area. This was backpacking with a difference, for although the daily hiking was ``moderate to strenuous,'' according to the trip description, each night was spent in small hotels in the villages along the route. Some were layover days when we didn't change towns, but every day could be spent hiking if you so chose.

The trip started and ended at Chamonix, circling counterclockwise around Mont Blanc. Each day's hiking ranged from 9 to 15 kilometers. The names of the towns are largely unfamiliar because they are relatively far off the beaten path: Les Contamines-Montjoie, Les Chapieux (which consisted of about five houses and a fromagerie!), Courmayeur (where the gellaterias were outstanding, not your usual hiking-trip dividend), Ferret, and Champex. The trail leads from France into Italy and Switzerland, then back to France, through a long succession of high passes.

Staying in hotels had its compensations, to be sure. Huge, deep hot baths every night were one, as were delicious meals in the hotel restaurants. But there was an unexpected physical price -- every day you hiked up out of the valley, and every night you had to come back down. And while I had counted on the 150 kilometers of horizontal hiking and the 40,000 feet of total climbing, I wasn't prepared for the wear and tear that 40,000 feet of coming back down would add.

My advice for anyone preparing for a trip like this is to really get your legs in shape, so that you don't overstress them in the downhill part of the hike.

Where there was a choice of routes I always took the high road, and I'm glad I did! The scenic payoff was truly spectacular.

What did you see that you can't see hiking in other Alpine terrains -- such as the High Sierra? Well, how about three monks hiking in the snow, wearing their habits and carrying ice axes? They were out on a day-hike themselves from the Grand St. Bernard monastery. How about four or five ibexes, called ``bouquetins,'' grazing in stately splendor above 10,000 feet, their huge horns arcing gracefully over their backs? And a simply stunning array of glaciers pouring in suspended animation down the steep valleys. And for goodness' sake, don't forget the sparkling villages and their gardens!

We learned the meaning of Carl Sagan's ``billions and billions'' on this hike: It's the number of brilliant Alpine wildflowers in midsummer.

And perhaps most memorable of all is the symphony of sounds as you walk along high Alpine trails. First, what seems like complete silence. But then as you concentrate, you hear the wind, then giving way to distant waterfalls. A new sound which you can't quite make out begins to blend and then overtake the falling water -- and suddenly you can't help smiling as you recognize the bells -- cowbells! Big ones, deep ones, all different shapes and sizes. And then you're right alongside the herd and it's a most amazing and joyous cacophony of sound, unlike anything you've ever heard. Then it, too, fades to an almost-silence -- but for bird warbles, more waterfalls, more wind.

This was truly hiking with a difference. It would be perfectly possible to make up your own itinerary, find your own hotels, find your own group. But the experience of the Sierra Club leaders takes almost all the guesswork out of it. And surely for at least the first time it's worth the extra cost.

If Alpine hiking is one of your suppressed desires, I highly recommend not putting it off any longer.

Practical information. For more details of this and other hikes contact the Sierra Club, 530 Bush Street, San Francisco, Calif. 94108. Tel.: (415) 981-8634.

A planning note: if you intend to try this sort of trip on your own, the Sierra Club publishes an excellent guidebook, ``Footloose in the Swiss Alps,'' by William E. Reifsnyder. The book, along with high-quality local maps, will get you where you want to go with very little difficulty.

An equipment note: Over half the hikers, myself included, had opted for lightweight boots in lieu of the traditional heavy leather boots. Mine were by New Balance; others were by Danner, Hi-Tech Lady Lites, and several other manufacturers. Looking at those long ups and downs, I calculated that my old boots cost 200,000 foot-pounds of energy, just carrying them for the uphill part of the trip; my new ones took only 80,000. That 120,000 foot-pounds of energy not expended lugging boots meant a lot more comfort for me!

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