Flip Byrnes crosses valleys, climbs mountains and soaks up village life on the epic Tour de Mont Blanc.
WALKING routes criss-cross Europe like a mass of spiderwebs and entangle the choice-laden hiker. For alpine scenery lovers, should the choice be France, Switzerland or Italy? The 170-kilometre, border-hopping Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB) covers them all in one of the most spectacular walks in the world.
I lived briefly in the shadow of Mont Blanc, in Chamonix, and a decade later the mountain draws me back - not to climb it but to walk around it. Circumnavigating western Europe's highest mountain (4810 metres), the TMB isn't just a hike but a delicious eight days of linguistic, culinary and scenic change covering a trio of countries and cultures, numerous dialects and seven mountain passes.
Lured by the promise of valley floors and alpine highs, places of solitude and charming villages on the ultimate alpine journey (plus the occasional fondue or five), I take the opportunity to pick up sticks, head for the hills and explore an area I incorrectly assumed I knew.
Le Tour to Trient
It's a Mexican stand-off in the car park of Le Tour at the head of the Chamonix valley. I've been dropped in this gorgeous hamlet by a local French friend. He's convinced I should start hiking. I'm convinced I should savour a pastis in a gaily coloured outdoor cafe, basking in sunlight reflecting from the Glacier d'Argentiere.
But the compromise of a chairlift ride gets me going. During the winter months it carries skiers but now it's my personal transport to the Swiss border, an unexpectedly gentle beginning to the Tour du Mont Blanc.
While diehard walkers sniff at the short cut to Col de Balme, I have no such qualms. Merely 30 minutes later I'm skipping through empty alpine meadows on the descent to Trient, intrigued by quaint, abandoned huts dotting mountain flanks like forgotten bath toys.
I've driven past tiny Trient in my favourite Swiss valley often, never pausing. Today the picturesque community is abuzz as a refuel spot on the North Face Ultra-Trail race, athletes running in 48 hours what it takes trekkers a week to complete.
At midnight I'm still shimmying to the band in the festive refuel tent with that long-awaited pastis in hand, watching exhausted athletes arrive. Strolling home, fellow trekkers call "Allez!" to competitors whose headlamps bob like fireflies.
Trient to Arpette
Walking clockwise, contrary to the popular route, means avoiding the crowds. It also means that when selecting today's route (a leisurely low level or challenging higher route are available daily), there's no one to prevent a spontaneous commitment to the 2556-metre Fenetre d'Arpette pass, which is later revealed to be the most challenging stage of the tour.
But my legs are feeling frisky and the scenery distracts from the relentless ascent. The day is exploding with rays, the Trient Glacier making an icy dive to the valley floor far, far below. It's a heart-hammering 1385-metre vertical rise.
After a morning of solitude, I'm greeted at the pass by a sea of trekkers picnicking. I join in, enjoying the rewards of hard work: a panini and view of mountain ridges pleating in on themselves as though they're crumpled stone tissue; the Alps revealed in all their glory.
Having sprung up the mountain like a goat, on the descent I'm an escargot. An old knee injury flares and I'm overtaken by French pensioners. The tour operator delivers luggage to each stop and it's a stroke of luck I'm carrying only a day pack. It's a humbling end to a challenging day and after a hearty meal of wine-soaked veal I collapse on my bunk bed, legs spent.
Arpette to La Fouly
Yesterday's beating by the Arpette has made things personal and I'm determined that nobody with a Zimmer frame will pass me today. I fuel up on a goat's-cheese omelet and set off early.
After two days spent surrounded by spiky peaks, today is a gentle walk featuring Swiss villages and valley-floor life. In Champex a fisherman displays his catch; in Issert someone has cultivated a curious gnome garden and, as thoughts drift, an orchestra of sounds intensifies. The base is a brook, accompanied by syncopated bird chirps, staccato notes of insect buzz and occasional crescendos of wind.
Finally, at the hamlet of La Fouly, there's much talk of the cuddly-sounding Big Ferret (le Grand Ferret), a 2437-metre pass, tomorrow, and a cheese farm. The grapevine has been buzzing about this farm and in my imagination it's become the Cheese Palace, bursting with yellow treasure. Pathologically obsessed by cheese, I load my pockets with Swiss francs, anticipating a lunch tomorrow fit for a queen.
La Fouly to Refuge Elena
I'm having a moment. I can see the Cheese Palace. But I'm not in it. In fact, nowhere near it. I'm off the grid and on the, well, I'm not sure exactly where I am.
An elderly British hiker, Tony, is a little shocked to find me alone, halfway up an alpine meadow, eating chocolate biscuits. He asks what I'm doing here and it's an extremely good question.
I've accidentally ended up on the Little Ferret (le Petit Ferret). Like many smaller siblings, the Little Ferret is more aggressive than his big brother, steep and rocky. Across the valley sun glints off what I suspect is the cheese farm roof.
Tony follows my eyes. "I'm afraid," he says wisely, "you'll have to kiss the cheese farm goodbye."
I take it like a body blow. As an aside he says that sometimes the path less taken is the right one. I silently disagree as Swiss francs clank, unused, in my pocket.
The scenery today is barren; it's a rocky, high-altitude wasteland. It feels soulless, friendless and, above all, cheese-less. When crossing the summit marking the border of Switzerland and France, I decide that entering a new country will alleviate my disappointment. Then I stop, dumbstruck, by one of the most awe-inspiring vistas to be found outside the Himalayas.
Of all the tour's views, this is the most spectacular: a panoramic Hall of Fame of peaks, featuring Gran Paradiso (4061 metres), Monte Rosa (4634 metres) and the star of the show, Mont Blanc at 4810 metres. Her first appearance since Le Tour, she's stepped out of the wings to take centre stage.
Heading down to the refuge at Mont Dolent's base, there's a moment to reflect on Tony's advice. Today, I was completely alone with nature. No clanking walking sticks. No voices. Tony was right - getting off the beaten track can be the best mistake of all.
Refuge Elena to Courmayeur to Refuge Elisabetta
Today, I'm fast-tracking to Courmayeur by bus before hiking seven hours to the Refuge Elisabetta Soldini, the most atmospheric refuge on the route. But first I'm distracted by the bright lights of Courmayeur. It's Wednesday, market day, and it's easy to lose time haggling over prosciutto, formaggio and fruit, and poking at antiques and wool. Meanwhile, storm clouds silently gather over the peaks.
The first spots of rain fall. Instead of traversing the fog-surrounded Val Veni mountain tops (usually offering point-blank views of Mont Blanc), I take another bus and walk two hours to the refuge. I break out the iPod and arrive in time for a warm grappa with a group of English university students.
The refuge is charming, nestled on a mountain flank below a glacier. We sleep in a dormitory, packed like sardines, listening to the lullaby of raindrops on tin.
Refuge Elisabetta to Les Chapieux
Just as the Alps can be benevolent, with blue skies and caressing breezes, they can also turn nasty, with winds of icy anger. Suddenly.
Ominous clouds follow as I head to the Col de la Seigne at 2516 metres. Passing a terrace hut perched on the mountainside, dark clouds part and sun hits the patio like a spotlight on a stage.
Unable to resist the invitation, and assuming I'm alone, I drop my pack for a quick dance while the iPod clicks into a particularly uplifting tune. However, I'm not alone as two sets of curious eyes peer around the corner. Drats, zee Germans! Again!
A pair of German trekkers have caught me in the past few days singing to myself, playing solo on a playground flying fox and now dancing alone on a balcony. Finding amusement as a solo traveller can be tricky. I think I've been creative. They surely think I am insane.
Scurrying to the pass marking the Italian-French border, a wall of rain awaits. An excellent excuse to pause for milky hot chocolate at Refuge des Mottets, served in steaming bowls. Ah, the civility of France.
Today's walk is only four hours to Les Chapieux. Strolling before dinner unearths plaques by the hotel, laced with fresh flowers.
As a border town, there was fighting here during World War II. Among others, two brothers lost their lives, Joseph and Felicien. I think of their descendants and wonder if the flowers are from them.
Les Chapieux to Les Houches
I've become pretty Zen about the weather, not even bothering to check the forecast. If it rains, there'll be hot chocolate stops. If it doesn't, picnics with stunning views. Win-win; I'm learning to take whatever the mountains care to give.
It's the final significant mountain climb. The night was shot with wolverine howls and I climb through clouds to the Col du Bonhomme (2329 metres) in pre-dawn darkness, nervously brandishing walking sticks.
I arrive just as morning breaks. Clouds float below like a flotilla of fluffy ships, farewelling me from the adventure before my return to civilisation. Onwards awaits the chic streets of Les Contamines before Les Houches at the bottom of the Chamonix valley, a neat termination to the circular trek.
In just eight days I feel I finally know the area and Mont Blanc more intimately. Villages and mountains are no longer just names or contours on a map but words evoking memories of the perfume of roasting chestnuts in cosy huts, the taste of a bold merlot with new friends, unparalleled vistas and paths soaked in history.
The writer was a guest of UTracks.
Etihad has daily flights via Abu Dhabi to Geneva, etihadairways.com. There are transfers from the airport direct to Le Tour, mountaindropoffs.com.
The self-guided Mont Blanc Classic runs from June to September and includes seven nights of mountain refuges and hostels/gites, breakfasts and dinners and daily porter service, from $1020. 1300 303 368, utracks.com.