5500′ Day in the Alps

Up until I did the Haute Route with my friend Craig, a regular day in the backcountry was maybe 1500 to 2500 feet of elevation gain.  On occasion we went further and higher depending upon whether we were with my kids or not and where we were; there are incredible places to go in the Cascades that are lower elevations.  Usually we try to get to amazing places and enjoy the journey - but sometimes it's all about reaching a goal and really pushing ourselves.  We'll do a tough day hike especially if we are lucky enough to spend two nights in the same camp.  Craig will always find a summit somewhere and encourage me to climb with him.  I never say no.

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The Haute Route is a well known trek across the Alps from Chamonix, France (within view of Mt. Blanc) to Zermatt, Switzerland and ending on the Matterhorn.  It follows a stretch of the Tour du Mont Blanc, another famous trek.  Craig and I thought this would be challenging but fun.  It ended up to be much harder than we thought and quite the reach physically.  The trek covers 115 miles as you hike over passes, or cols, in the Alps and stay the night at the top in a hut or at the bottom in a small village, all of which have fountains of drinking water in the center for villagers and hikers alike!  Both were absolutely amazing adventures but it was what we saw in between that really blew our minds, from the views to the wildlife.  I think the best part was meeting people from all over the world doing that same trek.  Anyone that started their hike on the same day would be roughly on the same itinerary for two weeks, even if we never saw anyone on the trail during the day.  At night we would all meet up and go over the stats of the day and plan out the trail for the next; it was extraordinary and we still keep in touch with some of the people we met there.

The summer of 2014 was a cool and rainy one in Europe.  In fact, we awoke at the top of one pass in our hut - just three of us staying there that night - to find it had snowed overnight.  On July 30th!  The Haute Route has substantial signage along the way at important junctions but the primary path is that of colored arrows painted on stones along the way - and now they were covered!  It was absolutely stunning but we had to wait until lines of communication opened up for the rangers to get us a weather report before we risked heading out for the day, wearing whatever warm clothing we had for this surprise storm.

One day in particular we knew would be a long one - we had three cols to climb, a total of 5500' of elevation gain.  Each pass is pretty strenuous, very steep and some dangerous.  Snow can make rocks slippery and sometimes we were on ledges (I did not especially enjoy that).  The second col required us to climb an incredible steep boulder face followed by an even steeper scree slope - so steep that steel chains were installed at the top because there was no other way to get up to the top aside from pulling yourself up, it was that vertical. We were already pretty tired by that point and I was at a breaking point.  When I finally got to the top of that col, I found that it was only about 10 square feet and then it descended steeply down the other side.

Something about the alps had my equilibrium all out of whack; I had some difficulty with balance and that small area perched way up high and between two incredibly steep trails only added to my discomfort that day.  You can see just how unhappy I was 2/3 of the way through that day and the rise to that second col in the two pics above.  Amazingly, the people in the remote villages are so used to the altitude and steep climbs - some village streets required the use of our hiking poles, they were that steep - and it was common to have people in their 70's passing us by on their day hikes up to an alpine destination!  It was incredibly inspiring...and remarkably humbling!!

Craig, who I met in college when I was only 18, is the most generous hiking and backpacking companion in addition to being strong and knowledgable.  I trust him implicitly in the backcountry and he knew on this day that I was at the end of my rope. I was encouraged to see that he, too, was exhausted - it wasn't just me that had been pushed to the limit.  We did have emergency camping equipment with us and he offered to stop anywhere along the trail if I hit the end of the rope.  He also knows that failure is not an option for me and though the final push to the hut was a steep uphill (really?), I made it.  When we had calculated the elevation gain for the day and realized it was a personal best for both of us, I gave myself a break.  There really is nothing else quite like making your way across the Alps, up and over mountain passes.  No regrets, and of course to spend it with my friend of more than thirty years was the absolute best part of it.

We both had our ups and downs on that trip - Craig got very ill in the middle of the trip so when he was down and out I went out for a day hike alone.  Sometimes just being way out there is all you need.

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