The Tour du Mont Blanc was my retirement present to myself, but was I really up for it? Would everyone be much younger and fitter than me?
Before dinner at Champex, we meet for a briefing session over a beer on the terrace. There are 12 of us including Martin, the leader: seven men and five women, mainly fifties and sixties. Martin is an experienced man of the mountains. He’s very reassuring – yes, of course we can all do it. The pace will be relaxed, but we must aim to keep our packs to about 20lbs.
After dinner we go upstairs and weigh our packs, trying to decide what to leave out. After a lot of packing and repacking we turn in early. Most people sleep fitfully, thinking of the challenge ahead.
The first day is not too taxing, mainly valley walking, but the promised fabulous glacier views are obscured by cloud and it has started to rain, which continues most of the evening.
The following morning, the rain has stopped. After buying picnic food we climb out of the valley, above the treeline into alpine pastures. The clouds start to lift; we are really in the mountains now. After elevenses, we walk through our first snowfield. As we approach the Grand Col Ferret, on the Italian border, the clouds descend. It’s very cold and windy, but as we drop down into Italy the sun emerges. It’s another world: we can see for miles. There are snowy peaks and glaciers and carpets of alpine flowers.
In the next few days, we quickly get used to our packs, the high level walking and the cramped accommodation. Every day is different with views constantly changing. We walk through three countries and experience differences in food, buildings and language. But there are almost always glaciers, snowy peaks and alpine flowers in view. There is also the excitement of staying somewhere different almost every night. It’s good to walk with a group with plenty of time to chat, compare notes and provide support and encouragement when needed.
Two weeks later we return to Champex and celebrate in the local cafe. We’ve done it! Tired? Yes, but exhilarated and with a strong sense of achievement. Not so much a holiday but a brilliant experience, with a good group and supportive leader.