Béatitude: walking the TMB as a solo-traveler (TMB Part 3 of 3)

Béatitude (French) – supreme happiness; a state of blessedness

A couple of weeks ago I read a New Yorker article titled “The Glossary of Happiness” which led me to Dr. Lomas’s website indexing “‘untranslatable’ words related to well being from across the world’s languages.” I started to compile a list of my favorite foreign words from the website, and many of them aptly describe what I saw and what I felt while walking the TMB. The French word béatitude is one such word that describes my experience.

The beginning

I flew into Zurich (cheaper plane tickets) and immediately hopped on a train to Geneva. Just riding the train brought back fond memories of living in Switzerland. The familiarity of navigating public transportation, buying chocolate bars at Coop, and watching Lac Léman creep into view made this seem more like a foreign homecoming rather than a tourist visit. I took a bus from the Geneva airport to Les Houches, where I stayed at Gite Michel Fagot. I immediately tried to re-immerse myself in French by talking to any and everyone in (my very poor) French. I met two Chinese girls also traveling solo and enjoyed a multicultural dinner by speaking in French to other table mates, thinking in English, and then translating/speaking in Chinese. Here, I also met a couple from Quebec, Manon and her husband.

Les Houches to Les Contamines

I walked the first day of the TMB with my two new Chinese pals, Audrey and Lee. They were pretty slow hikers, so it took the whole day. I was a little worried about the size of my pack, since my shoulders felt pretty sore by the end of the day. Thankfully, I hiked much faster on subsequent days so my pack weight never became a problem. When we arrived at Les Contamines, I met two Australian friends, Brianna and Marcus.

Les Contamines to Col de la Croix

We had our first big climb (1500 m) on the second day going up to Col de la Croix. I bumped into Brianna and Marcus as well as Audrey and Lee along the way. I arrived at Croix du Bonhomme around 12:30 and set my stuff down. Later in the afternoon, I hiked up to Tête Nord des Fours and got a spectacular view of all the surrounding mountains. At dinner, I was placed at a French speaking table. A very jolly man (I call him my French Grandpa #1) spoke slowly enough for me to understand the conversation. We also saw several bouquetins while eating dinner! The joys of staying overnight in the mountains!

Col de la Croix to Rifugio Elisabetta

I set out early in the morning since I figured it would be a long day. While on the Col des Fours route, I walked through quite a few patches of snow and a great extent of slippery shale. Thankfully I saw a group of hikers in front of me, so I knew I was on the right path. Amongst that group was my French Grandpa #1! I caught up to him and we walked together to Refuge des Mottets, where we saw Manon and her husband. After sharing an Orangina, we continued the climb to Col de la Seigne. At the col, we had great views of Mont Blanc and the surrounding valleys. I arrived at Elisabetta around 1pm and got settled into the hut. Here, I met my two favorite American pals, John and Harriet, who are about the same age as my parents. They did their undergrad at GaTech but have been living in Oregon for 20+ years now. I also met two other med students, a couple who recently graduated from college, and a French engineering pal from Montpellier. Rifugio Elisabetta was my favorite place of the entire trip because the hut was the physical embodiment of TMB camaraderie. The staff was warm and welcoming and the atmosphere was lively. (The food was also fantastic. Gotta love Italy!) Traveling solo on the TMB is a pretty easy task since you meet different people every single day. However, upon leaving Elisabetta, I felt a pang of loss that was irrationally disproportionate to the amount of time I had spent with these acquaintances. Each day I met new people, but each day I also left my newfound pals for the next location, knowing that our paths would likely never criss-cross again. Borrowing from the Positive Lexicography Project, a Japanese word perfectly describes what I felt: mono no aware – pathos of understanding the transiency of the world and its beauty. What I felt was mono no aware on a microscopic, individual level. When we cross paths with others on the trail, there’s an acknowledgement of the transiency of that interaction and relationship. While the interaction itself is something rather precious and beautiful, we experience the pathos knowing that the beauty of the moment will pass all too quickly.

Rifugio Elisabetta to Courmayeur 

In the morning, I ran into John and Harriet on the trail. I convinced John to eat his applesauce with a straw (I did too) while we had lunch. Not much else to say here except that it was a short hike and I ate a lot of gelato in Courmayeur.

Courmayeur to Rifugio Bonatti

Since the regular TMB route would work out to be a very short hike, I decided to take the Mont de la Saxe option. I got a little lost and ended up descending the mountain in the wrong direction. After about 30 minutes, I realized my mistake and had to reascend the mountain. Bummer. I was relieved to make it to Rifugio Bonatti in the early afternoon. At Bonatti, I met my French Grandpa #2 (aka Lucien). I was chatting with him about the hike and mentioned I had gotten a little lost. He asked me where I was going the following day and immediately pulled out all his maps and elevation charts to show me the path for the following day. Then he offered for me to walk with him, and I figured, why not?

Rifugio Bonatti to La Fouly

French Grandpa #2 got ready very early in the morning and we were ready to go by 6:40 am. We hiked to Rifugio Elena, where we stopped for a mid-morning coffee break. All morning, French Grandpa #2 showed me different plants and their uses (e.g. broccoli sauvage can be used to treat inflammation, which plant roots are used to make réglisse, etc.) From Elena, we began our ascent. As we climbed higher, we climbed into a cloud. We walked in the cloud for a good hour, only able to see several steps in front of us. I was very thankful to be walking with French Grandpa #2 in the cloud, because I’m sure I could’ve easily gotten lost without him. At one point, we paused to savor the complete, utter quietness the cloud provided. After we descended, about an hour from La Fouly, we sat by the river to eat lunch.

La Fouly to Champex

It was a very short hike and the views were so-so.

Champex to Trient

Stopped by Bovine Alp hut for a delicious cherry tart! When I arrived in Trient, I sat at a table outside waiting for the hotel to start accepting check-ins. As I read my kindle, I heard someone call my name, which felt strange. It was some American pals I had met at Elisabetta!

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Trient to Argentière

I tried to hike quickly because there was late-morning rain forecast. I was rather happy to leave Switzerland and travel back to the French part of the trails, with the grander views and friendlier people. Since the mountain huts were all booked, I had to stay in Argentière. While eating an ice cream, I ran into my French Grandpa #2! He finished his tour in Argentière since he was gearing up to actually hike up Mont Blanc!

Argentière to Chamonix via lac blanc (well, almost)

On my last day of hiking, my goal was to hike up to Lac Blanc and then past La Flégère to Le Brévent, and then take the cable car down. I left early (because of the forecasted rain), however dark clouds started arriving mid-morning. I had to cut my route to Lac Blanc short and book it to La Flégère. Along the way, I met a kind, old French man who was doing day hikes around Chamonix. We chatted for a good 15 minutes before we parted ways. As I made my way to La Flégère, I got caught in some sprinkles–the beginning of a downpour. I took the cable car down from La Flégere. While at the cablecar station, I ran into a kiwi friend (we had previously met on Day 2 of the TMB), and we reflected on our past week on the trail.

Thoughts

It was strange to walk around Chamonix, once again around so many humans and so much commercialism. I immediately missed the quietness of standing in a cloud, of the alpenglow at sunset, of the camaraderie on the trail, of mid-morning fruit tarts with a café (guilt-free, no less!). It was a wonderful 10 days on the trail and I would walk it again in a heartbeat.

Fjellvant (Norweigan) – being accustomed to being or walking in the mountains

The fjellvant life is the type of life I want to live. What timeless beauty the mountains hold, both in the scenery and in the visitors.

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2 thoughts on “Béatitude: walking the TMB as a solo-traveler (TMB Part 3 of 3)

  1. Loved reading about your experiences…..TMB has been at the back of my mind for so long and reading about your hikes have only strengthened my resolve 🙂 Not to mention, the photographs are simply amazing!!! 😮 🙂

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