Women’s March on Washington

img_2347This didn’t look like most hikes I take, but it will likely remain one of the more important days walking I’ll spend walking (well, stood, mostly, although we did cover about 8 miles on foot).

img_2445HOLY CRAP! What an amazing day. So many people, standing and marching (in DC, it was mostly standing—there was literally no room to march for streets stretching out a couple of miles). A block and a half away (and around the corner) from the stage, I didn’t hear the speeches. But it was inspiring and humbling to stand among so many, young and old. We talked, we laughed, we chanted, we helped each other out, we read signs, we saw points from different angles.

With essentially no cell service for most of the day, I didn’t know the tremendous outpouring around the world, or even blocks away in DC for that matter. I didn’t see many friends who were somewhere in the masses, too. But I did get to hang with some friends, old and new, and with strangers, sharing their concern and their energy. And I’m catching up on was happened today. Thanks for everyone who’s shared.

In DC, you’ll see pictures of enormous crowds on the Mall. The Mall was actually where we went to get some breathing room AWAY from the crowds down Independence and packed in so tightly in side streets that people couldn’t move.

Trump is a disaster already, and it’s going to get worse. A lot of our political “leadership” lacks the courage to do what right rather than what they think will get them re-elected. We’ll use that as a tool. Our media has failed us, repeating tit-for-tat posturing rather than trying to find and report facts and the truth. But I’m heartened by those who will not go quietly into the darkness. I’m convinced people will rise. (The politicians who don’t see that will be in for a surprise.) We will be resilient, and we will resist. Trump will go. I hope we’ll also recognize that as bad is he is, Trump is a secondary disease. We’ve got to treat that now. But we also have to recognize that he’s just a symptom of a larger set of issues we must address, too.

It’s going to be a struggle. But, Yes We Can. So…Let’s! Coffee up, people. We’ve got work to do.

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Part 2: Tatahatso Canyon

If you were tooling down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon somewhere near RM 38 in Grand Canyon river parlance, you’d pass the mouth of Tatahatso Wash. You might notice the pool at the mouth, but not give the drainage behind it, largely invisible above and behind the 50-foot cliff that rises from the pool, a second thought. But what a cool drainage it is. In the end, I enjoyed the slot and the challenge more than the loop through Big Canyon that we’d just completed (and that’s saying something– Big Canyon was great).

dsc_1825Post-Big Canyon foray, Bruce, Bob, and I drove up the road to Tatahatso Point to revisit Tatahatso Wash (Bob, Mo, and I had been there two years earlier, but had to scratch the technical descent because of illness).

A note about driving across the Navajo land to Tatahatso point–it can be confusing! Even having been out there previously, it was difficult to follow the written directions. Bruce’s GPS came through (although on a bit of a convoluted route).

We reorganized gear and camped the night at the point for an early morning start.


Early-ish, anyway. We started walking at 7am.  We made great time to the break, down the sketchy slope, and boulder-hopping, scooting, scrambling, and a bit of thrashing, to the top of the Redwall for a lunch break in about 4.5 hours of walking (allow more time if you aren’t familiar with the route).

In retrospect, we probably lolly-gagged at lunch a little too long before what proved to be a long–and awesome–slot.

The pools at the top of the Redwall where much deeper than the last time I was there. This suggested the slot would be wet, a good suggestion as it turned out.


Following lunch, we plunged in. Literally. The first rap was into a pool deep enough that even this 6’5″ guy needed a short swim to get across. It was clear a group had been through recently, as the anchor was new and in good shape. We’d run into several more like this through the slot, but we still had to clean a few and build a few.

Todd Martin’s Grand Canyoneering lists the second rap at 75′. It may have  been from wherever his anchor was placed, but from the anchor right at the top of the chute, we found it to be a good 90′ straight down into the pool (we had to extend the pull side of our 160′ of rope with a good 20′ of webbing). Yep, into the pool. Another deep swimmer. We did a lot of swimming, and we were glad for a layer of neoprene in the cooler Fall temps.

Somewhere in the deep murky pool at the base of the third rap, Bruce unknowing dropped his camera. (Reward for the return of this camera hereby offered!) That’s a shame, because Bruce had taken some great shots in Big Canyon, and was the guy who had recorded much of the morning’s scamper down the wash. A short while later, my camera battery died, and I found my backup battery wasn’t charged. (The OEM battery had given a false positive in the after-market charger back at the hotel in Flag.)

While Grand Canyoneering lists 7 raps, we did 9, and we don’t think that included the “tricky downclimb”.  A couple of times we diverged from at least the previous group’s selection to avoid what we felt was an unnecessarily exposure approach to the anchor.

Given what appeared to be a very recent descent, I was surprised by one anchor. It was a different webbing than the new stuff we’d been seeing, but still looked newish and supple. It seemed in great condition. I really wanted to inspect the whole sling though, and that took some doing since fine debris had clogged the pinch point. I worked it at for a minute and was able to free it enough to slide the webbing. It showed on short section that was severely abraded, with about half the material gone. I suspect we would have been fine, but it does speak to the importance of not just assuming the anchor the last guy used is fine today.

What a long, beautiful slot. It was taking some time though. It was getting late in the day on this post-Equinox trip. And then we stuck a rope  on the penultimate slot. Maneuvering for different pull angles was awkward and ineffective in the deep pool, and eventually Bob ascended to work it loose, followed by a a sporty slide-jump into the pool. (Alas, Bob dropped his Ushba Basic ascender in this deep pool–and thus another reward offered for this piece with sentimental value.)

The section of the slot between this second-to-last rap and the final exit is spectacular. You’ll see others’ photos with some interesting pillars carved into the wall. And in them, you’ll generally see bone dry narrows. Not so this time.  I was enamored with the swim through the twisted corridor in this section–again, the water was deep. And a bit chilly. With the above mentioned camera woes, and because it was getting late and the light was fading, we’ve got no photos of this area.

Finishing the last rap in the dark, we plunked down to spend the night on the debris field beach at the mouth of the wash.

Morning came with the plan being a leisurely float down the river with a side-trip to Buckfarm Canyon. (Not as grim a prospect as the following photo suggests!)

Oops. Perhaps we were a bit too leisurely in our approach. Perhaps we were more concerned about running the riffles in our pack-raft pool toys. And I know we were a bit thrown by the speed we made it down the river. We ran the rapids (really riffles) at Buckfarm before we even realized we’d just passed our objective. And made it to President Harding Rapids in about 2.5 hours, much faster than the 4.5 hours we were expecting.

Had we had enough rope along, we would have done a quick loop through Tatahoysa at this point. But we didn’t. So there we settled in to dry out our gear, eat some food, and drink the can of cider that Bob found floating in the river.

The hike up Eminence Break is steep, but it’s pretty straight-forward (Bruce decided to try to a sportier high-route near the beginning–not necessarily recommended). The footing is good, and the route is solid even when you’ve got to use the hands. Not recommended as a first trail, but in terms of Grand Canyon river-to-rim exits, it’s toward the lower end of the effort scale.

A great little loop. Hat tip (or propeller beanie tip) to Bruce and Bob for a great time!

(More photos)

Tatahatso Point

(Once again!) “We survived the ordeal by drinking our own urine.”




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Part 1: Jane and the Reynolds Boys visit Big Canyon

Jane on Rappel - Big CanyonRather than an extended dance mix Sufferfest in the Grand Canyon, Bob and I talked ab0ut doing two short loops this Fall, Big Canyon, and revisting Tatahatso where we’d had to skip the narrows on a previous trip. Bruce signed on. And Jane was able to join for the first loop.

Big Canyon is one of the tributary drainages of the Little Colorado river. We tackled this as a loop, driving to the Big Canyon trailhead (as described in Todd Martin’s Grand Canyoneering), having camped and spotted a car at the Salt Trail trailhead the night before.

img_2302The roads across the Navajo tribal lands (permit required) can be confusing, but Bruce’s GPS took us right to the Salt Trail trailhead. (Be prepared for a few misses is you’re relying on written descriptions alone.) After the obligatory gear futzing to prepare for the trip, and a beautiful sunset, we hunkered down for a very windy night, sandblasted by strong winds all night, with gusts seemingly in excess of 50 mph.

Morning found us piling into Bruce’s jeep for the quick shuttle to Big Canyon. (Thanks again, GPS!)

The approach involves picking one’s way through some Class 3 hiking (or Class 4, depending on the specific line you take) down a steep ravine to Sheep Wash, and continuing to Big Canyon. It’s some fun hiking, especially as the narrows start to form and the scrambling returns.


dsc_1718Water levels in Big Canyon appeared lower than in others’ photos. (This was in stark contrast to the trip a couple days later in Tatahatso, where we did a lot of swimming.) But water was still flowing over the little falls below the spring.

While this likely isn’t a canyon that’s visited a lot (yay for difficult approaches!), it may be that every group feels it has to leave it’s own tangled mess of webbing on top of the other tangled messes. Boo! I found I was cutting away a multi-colored spaghetti of nylon at every anchor. Two words on this: If you’re rebuilding an anchor, please remove the previous stuff, and pack it out. And in the Grand Canyon area, black is the standard webbing color–keep the funny colors for your propeller beanies. (Bruce might be willing to lend you his.)

Proceeding down the canyon, the travertine falls and the pools at their bases are beautiful. Some wading, and a couple of very short swims. And a lot of fun.


Big Canyon Emerald RoomEventually you pop into the double-falled Emerald Room. As it was getting late, and we were getting cold, we opted to rappel canyon right and avoid the plunge into to pool.

Plopping down, we removed neoprene and continued on to the Little Colorado. Hint, stay left and stay high and go all the way to the river–within about a foot on this trip–to pick up the trail leading downstream. The routes to the right and down the middle proved quite sporty!

From there, we walked downstream a short ways to eat dinner and camp.

After spending the night under a mesquite tree, we walked another 100 yards downstream, to the mouth of the Salt Canyon trail, and found the much bigger campsite used by AZFRO. We would have had a lot more elbow room and much less silty water to filter there!

From that point, it was a pretty straightforward hike up the Salt Trail, including some fun Class 4 up near the top. We exited and went to retrieve the Jeep. Jane headed back to Flagstaff and Bruce, Bob, and I headed up to Tatahatso Wash for Round 2.

More photos of the Big Canyon foray.

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A few short ones in RMNP: Thunder Lake, Lily Mountain, Estes Cone

While in Colorado last week for a reunion with some of my favorite people in the world (fellow Peace Corps volunteers in the Central African Republic), we managed to tack on a quick overnight, and some other short hikes in/around Rocky Mountain National Park without having to wrestle with the very crowded Beaver Meadows entrance.

250px-Thunder_Lake_Patrol_CabinFirst, Karen and I did a quick hike 6.8 miles up to Thunder Lake, pleasant walking on a well-established trail. Being the first day away from home (200′ elevation), the last mile or so above 10,000′ had the lungs working overtime as we raced to beat the potential thunderstorms. The thunderstorms came, but we didn’t bear the brunt of it. Because of a permit mix-up at the RMNP office, we got the stock campsite, very nice, quiet, and closer to Thunder Lake than the others.  On the way back the next morning, we stopped by Ouzel Falls and Calypso Cascade.

With the full group in place, we wanted a couple of quick hikes that didn’t take away too much of our time together. The first day, as others were acclimating, we strolled the 3.8 mile RT trail up Lily Mountain, with a fun scrambly bit at the top. This was finished with a quick drive into drive from some whisky drinks, vodka drinks, and lager drinks at the iconic Stanley Hotel.

Scott, John, and I decided to round out the trifecta with a quick 3.7 miles (one way) walk up Estes Cone to crack the 11,000′ mark. And it was pretty quick, at about and hour and 20 minutes to the summit. There we had a great 360-degree view of the area including the Long’s Peak diamond, I got to school a couple of youths about rock-throwing etiquette (i.e., don’t), and Scott and John sat by and watched as I watch ambushed by a chipmunk. After cheese, crackers, and a summit soda, we trotted back down to continue the festivities.

Lovely. You don’t have to do a 14’er every time, and you don’t have to look too hard to avoid the crazy traffic in the park.


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6 Day (or 6.5 Day!) Tour de Mont Blanc Itinerary


Refugio Elisabeta, a wonderful oasis after my shortest day of the day, and home of risotto, wine, cheese, oatmeal stout, and the gracious Marta

I walked around Mont Blanc (read a bit more narrative and see some pictures). Here are my thoughts on how to cover the TMB in 6 or 7 days. Your mileage may vary. And there are lots of ways to slice and dice this. (And here are some TMB gear recommendations.)

This was done at the end of June with the longest days of the year, and a couple weeks before the crowds really take over, so I made no reservations and always had great flexibility to go the distance I felt like.

Day 0

Stay at Hotel Slalom (alas, now sold and no longer operating as a hotel!) Nice place, and VERY convenient to the traditional start/finish of the TMB (the old start is literally right across the street. The new start, maybe 100m up the road. The owner, Tracey is extremely helpful and accommodating—and served the best breakfast of the week (both times). UPDATE: The Hotel has been sold…and is not a hotel any more! C’est dommage!

Day 1

The plan: from Les Houches to Refuge De La Croix Du Bonhomme – 29km – 10-11 hours book time. Actual time about 10.5 hours, with a very long lunch (over an hour) in Les Contamines.

This worked pretty well, even with the nasty weather for the last few hours, rain followed by snow as I gained elevation. A decent place to pull up short would be Refuge de la Balme, allowing you to sleep lower your first night. (Or if you’re itching to move, push forward to Les Chapieux.

Day 2

The plan was to take the variant via Col des Fours to Ville des Glaciers and on to Refugio Elisabeta. (about 17m and 6-7 hours.) However, fresh snow and visibility dropping down to a couple meters, combined with my inappropriate footwear, made that less then prudent. (Two very fast hikers did take the route—these guys flew by me after—and it took them ~2 hours longer than expected, navigating one step at a time by GPS, with visibility about 1-2m and no signs of markers/footprints.)

Instead, I walked the main route down to Chapieux and then back up to Elisabeta. 22km, 8 hours book time. This was my easiest day, despite the fact that it was also the day that I felt the acclimatization/elevation issue the most—I walked more slowly than normal for me, and still made Elisabeta in about 6.5 hours.

I LOVED Refugio Eliabeta. Food and drink were awesome. Nice house wine. Nice craft oatmeal stout. Marta was a gracious host. That said, the were 12 guests that night. Capacity, which they hit in busy season is 90. I wouldn’t have enjoyed it as much with 89 other guests crammed in. I might have pushed on to Courmayeur.

Day 3

The plan was to haul ass to lunch in Courmayeur  (18km/5 hours) and then on to Refugio Bonatti (12km/4.5 hours) for a 30 km/9 hours day. I took a long lunch in Courmayeaur—could have spent a couple days wandering around there. I also took about a 45 minute delay at Refugio Bertone, grabbing a cup of coffee, and waiting to see what the weather was doing. A thunderclap just before Bertone, didn’t lead to anything, and I continued to Bonatti.

Bonatti is well-run, and the hosts are great. Since locals can hike up from the road in about 30 minutes, they do, and it was crowded, even in the pre-season. I’d probably push on to Refugio Elena which was a pretty easy 7km past Bonati, giving me more options on the remaining days.

Day 4

Head to La Fouly for lunch, book time, 20km/6 hours, and on to Champex (15km/4 hours). (This was a back-up stopping point, depending on how the previous days had gone–but not needed.)

Even with the bad weather slog up and over Grand Col Ferret, my new-found hiking partner and I made it to La Fouly in 5 hours. We were pretty close to book time for the continuation to Champex.

Stayed at the Pension En Plein Air. Food was OK. Showers were awesome! Long and hot!

Day 5

This was to have been a very big day. Champex – Fenêtre d’Arpette – Col de la Forclaz (14km/6.5 hrs) Quick lunch and on to Tré-le-Champ (13km/5 hours), and then energy permitting, another 6km to Refuge du Lac Blanc.

But my trail companion and I made some weather related decisions, decided to head for the Refuge du Col du Balme, and then continued on to Montroc when the Refuge was closed (and the Auberge la Boerne was full.) This was about a 10-hour day, with some extra walking back and forth between Montroc and Tré-le-Champ because of poor signage and a not sufficiently detailed map.

Day 6

This would have been a hike out from La Blanc to Les Houches. (20km, 8hrs) But having decided the day before to add a ½ day, the new target became Refuge de Bellachat. With bad weather, very poor visibility, and poor trail markings, we opted not to take the standard route over Le Brévent. Instead, we took a lower down and up alternative to Bellachat—this turned into a long day with about 10 hours of walking through rain and mist with a leisurely lunch at La Flégère in the middle.

We arrived at Bellachat prior to its opening for the season, but having phoned ahead, we knew they’d accept us as the only two guests that night. What a great view of the Chamonix valley, Mont Blanc, and the Bossons glacier right off the deck. Bellachat is a simple refuge, but what a view!

In good conditions, the hike from Lac Blanc to Les Houches would be pretty fast and easy.

Half-Day 7

This was a bonus day. And glad I waited for the clouds to clear. Rather than the simple 7km/2.5 hours walk down to Les Houches, I added a ridge walk up from Bellachat to get some better views, and then a more meaning path down. This added ~3km and an hour or so, but it was worth it.

Spent another great night at Hotel La Slalom before catching an early shuttle back to Geneva for the flight home.

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Mike’s Slackpacking TMB Gear List – June to September

TMB MarkerHaving just walked the Tour de Mont Blanc, I thought I’d share gear recommendations.

You’ll find it easier walking 110 miles (170 kilometer) up and down through mountain passes if you keep your gear light. And on the TMB, you’ll have ready access to shelter, beds, and food, so you really don’t have to carry that stuff (unless you want to).

This list should work from mid-June to mid-September, but do check the weather forecasts. If you’ll have extended periods below freezing or are expected to be walking through heavy snow for longer periods, you may need another, warmer layer and heavier footwear. With care, you can easily keep your pack weight below 15 lbs (7kg) without the need for a lot of expensive gear—pretty much all you need to carry is extra layers, clean clothes for the evening, and a few sundries.

Sound like too little? On my trip, I bumped into several runners, completing the TMB in 4 days, with even smaller/lighter packs. (And several carrying big monster packs from hut-to-hut.)

This is a gear list for those who intend to stay in refugios/hotels, rather than camping.


  • Pack. Think roughly a 30L-40L pack. If you get much bigger, you’ll start finding other stuff to put in. So don’t get a bigger pack! Bigger than 40L? You’ll probably fill it, and now you no longer have a light pack. Use something that fits you well and is comfortable. Get an HMG Windrider 2400 or the Southwest 2400, and your pack is waterproof. (I prefer the solid material pocket of the Southwest because I’m frequently off trail and it snags less. Other like the mesh of the Windrider to speed drying of things that get wet.) Otherwise, I recommend a trash compactor bag in the pack rather than a pack cover–pack covers still allow water in through the uncovered part against your back! If you’re not in the market for an expensive bag, look at the Osprey Exos 38 or similar.
  • Boots/Shoes.  I don’t think you need boots. (As someone who hiked for years with bad ankles, I also don’t think most boots helped with ankle support.) Even if there will be some snow. Get a good, comfortable hiking shoe with GoreTex surround. (I’m not normally a fan of GoreTex in footwear…but with a good chance of rain and snow, they’re worth it here.) Don’t use a lightweight trail runner unless you’ve absolutely kept your gear weight down—and you’ve tried hiking the ups/downs in them, with your weighted pack. See for example, La Sportiva Primer Low GTX, North Face Ultra, or Salomon Ellipse GTX. Later in the season, I’d go with my Altra Lone Peaks, although their soles aren’t great on snow.
  • Sleep sack. A comfortable silk sleep sack for the refugios.
  • Hiking Poles:  I like two, Leki Corklite. Smaller people will like lighter carbon poles better, but I’m a big guy. (Some people don’t use them at all—I like them for uphill and downhill alike.)
  • T-Shirt. Not cotton. Just one You do not want to carry too much.  Weight is your enemy.  And we won’t notice the smell! I really like wool (Smartwool, Ibex, Icebreaker). Rinse your hiking shirt out at the end of the day (it will dry quickly) in your hotel/refugio (where permitted), and put on your clean shirt (below) for hanging out and sleeping. Change back before you start hiking in the morning.
  • Long Sleeve Top, wool or synthetic.  Again, just one. Lightweight. If the forecast calls for warm temps, I bring instead a second T-shirt and a pair of sleeves like cyclists use.
  • Rain Parka—Light shell, per your taste. My current favorite is the Outdoor Research Realm. Good waterproofness, and VERY breathable.  Alas, in mens only. The fit is very fitted. I’m normally a large-tall, but the XL fits great. (Note, for 2018, the Realm has been discontinued and replaced in the OR line by the Interstellar Jacket.)
  • Rain Pants. Marmot Precip are a good, light, value choice. My favorite though are Mountain Hardware’s Stretch Ozonic. Super breathable. And they look like pants, and shiny and swishy–passable in-town wear instead of those tights (below).
  • Fleece Jacket or light down sweater, with hood. You do need to be prepared for snow, even in the summer. I prefer the down for the weight-to-warm ratio.
  • Tights (or long johns). One pair—These are my post shower pants. In warmer temps, I’d omit these for a very light second pair of shorts in late July/August. This is extra weight—but a nice comfort item when staying in the refugios/hotels.
  • Shorts. One pair. This is what I hike in, down to just above freezing. If it’s cold or nasty, pull on the rain pants. The OR Ferrosi are perhaps my favorites shorts ever (and I’ve tried a lot!), light, breathable, water-resistant, and fast-drying.
  • Light gloves, preferably waterproof. Optional: add a waterproof over-glove. It you get long days of rain (or snow!), you’ll want dry hands.
  • Undies, two pairs. One pair to walk in. One pair for the refugio. Fast-drying so you can rinse and reuse!  (Rinse the walking pair in your shower.) I’m partial to wool, but go with one of the synthetics if you like ‘em.
  • Socks. Two pair, plus a light liner pair. Again, a pair to walk in, a pair to rinse. Liner as a spare or if you think blistering is a problem. (Get the right shoes, and it shouldn’t be!) I prefer wool, and generally wear Darn Tough for their tight weave and durability. NOT COTTON.
  • Hat with brim. Long sunny stretches (or long rainy stretches).  The Sunday Afternoons Ultra is the best of the goofy looking sun hats. Wide brim, great back-of-neck protection, good ventilation. It stays on well in the wind from any direction. (The front brim will flap a bit in a strong headwind.)
  • Warm Hat. Nice for cooler nights, and emergency backup. Or one of the adapted head/neck gaiters.
  • Bandana. Cotton—multiple uses.
  • Wristwatch. If you want…helps coordinate meet up stops and just useful to know how long you’ve been going to help gauge distance.
  • Flashlight, preferably LED headlamp. With fresh batteries in light.
  • Duct tape. several feet wrapped around your trekking pole or water bottle, or folded into a small rectangle. Also a small role of coaches tape or Leukotape–great for blister prevention and treatment.
  • Any special meds, and maybe a micro first aid-kit/emergency kit…., just a few Advil/allergy/bandaids.
  • Emergency Blanket. Mylar or similar. I don’t think you should backpack in the mountains without one. If you, or someone else gets injured or stranded, this could make a big difference. a few oz. piece of insurance against unexpectedly very cold weather in a sleeping bag or wrapped between clothes. Also a signal device in an emergency. A must-have.
  • And guide book if you want. I used Kev Reynolds two-way guide, but careful cut out the direction I wasn’t using and some of the supplemental material. Definitely helpful at a few confusing spots along the way. And a nice aid to plan your day.
  • Passport, credit card/ATM card, and cash.
  • Toothbrush/Paste: A small tube of paste. Small soap/shampoo. And any other toiletries—but don’t go overboard. Blistex or something to keep the lips soft.
  • Small tube, high SPF factor. You don’t want to carry the 16oz bottle. Pay a couple extra dollars for the small amount.
  • Toilet Paper/hand cleaner/Ziploc bag to pack out your toilet paper if needed. A few small stuff sacks and Ziplock Bags: Keep your stuff dry and organized. Yes, there are a lot of place to take care of business along the route–but there are also long stretches where you’re on your own.
  • Water Bladder/bottles. You shouldn’t need to carry more than 2 liters. Bring some tablets to treat water in an emergency.
  • A few ounces of snack food—you can replenish as you good, especially if you like bread and cheese.
  • OPTIONAL: Knife/Swiss Army Knife/Leatherman:  I carry a micro leatherman.
  • OPTIONAL: Camera. If you want. Can use smart phone, which can also hold a backup map. If you bring a smart phone, bring a way to charge it. (Refugios generally have a few outlets you can jockey for…but you may need an adaptor.
  • OPTIONAL: Pen/Pencil/Paper/Book. (Another use for your smartphone.)
  • OPTIONAL: Traction device, which you may carry or not, depending on conditions. If you plan to camp.

Camping Gear—Only If You’re Camping!

  • Tent, tarp, or Bivvy sack.
  • Sleeping Bag—appropriate for season
  • Sleeping Pad.
  • Stove/Pot, if desired.
  • Bowl/Cup, spoon, if desired.

If it’s not on this list, and you think you need it, reconsider. Chances are you don’t need it. And you don’t want to carry extra weight. Extra weight is bad.

Don’t Bring

  • A lot of extra stuff “just in case”
  • Too many extra clothes—any extra is probably too much!
  • A 42 pound sleeping bag.
  • Camping stuff if you’re not camping.
  • More food than you need–and remember, you can buy food along the way, often every few hours.
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The Tour de Mont Blanc (or how much risotto could a woodchuck eat if a woodchuck could eat risotto?)

Irises around Mt Blanc

On the final day, I glimpse of what I thought the walk of the Tour de Mont Blanc would be…

There are different kinds of challenges. Sometimes you might want to see how much scuba gear you can carry through the desert. Other times, you want to see how the newbies fare on long Grand Canyon hike.

After my friend Joe pointed me to an article on the Tour de Mont Blanc (TMB), I decided that in might be an interesting challenge to see how much wine and cheese (and risotto and lasagna and…) I could consume while hiking through the mountains.

The answer is, as it turns out, a lot!

The TMB is a 110-mile loop around the tallest mountain, really the Mont Blanc massif, in Europe, featuring beautiful views, tranquil lakes, and alpine villages, passing through France, Italy, and Switzerland on the way. Or, as I did it, a 120-mile loop, through rain, snow, and mist, with visibility occasionally dropping down to a couple of meters. The “normal” itinerary is 11 days, but needing to fly to Chicago, I didn’t have that much time, so I planned on 6 days. (I wound up opting to take 6.5 days…with a glorious bit of sunshine and some of those views on the last half-day!)

The hike is generally on well-maintained trails, and often roads, more roads than I’d imagined. While camping is possible, there are a series of Refuges/Refugios and villages where most people sleep. The trail is generally obvious and well-marked, although on occasion some critical junctions aren’t posted, and the route can be less obvious when walking through town. The refugios worked well for me, but I think this is mainly because I went before the main season so they weren’t crowded. I suspect the nasty weather kept even more people away.  I wouldn’t have enjoyed it as much with the crowds.

For example, the Refugio Elisabeta, parked at 7,200′ (2195m), with views of views of Mont Blanc, the Aiguille Noire de Peuterey and the valley below, was delightful. The mushroom risotto was amazing–and you’d better believe I embraced the offer for seconds. Our host Marta was delightful. And both the house wine and the surprising Italian microbrew (an oatmeal stout), were delicious. But the Refugio only had 12 guests that night–it has a capacity of 90, and often hits that during busy season. I had a room to myself, and it wouldn’t have been as nice sharing it with a bunch of other stinky people. (Yes, some people might like that, though.)

This certainly isn’t a wilderness experience, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t an enjoyable hike. There is the potential for a good deal of elevation gain and loss, especially if you stretch the miles each day, and some of the high passes can challenge the lungs of someone who lives near sea level. And inclement weather can add an element of excitement.

For example, near the end of a long first day, not at all acclimated to the elevation, and already wet hours of downpour, I started walking up the Col du Bonhomme, in the snow, in my mesh approach shoes. The temps dropped below freezing. The rain turned to snow. The visibility dropped. At the top of the col, I entered a small warming hut to get out of the wind and wring out some wet clothes. Inside the hut were a couple Israeli guys, one of them in full-body shivering mode. They didn’t know what they were getting into. I encouraged him to take off all his wet clothes and put on dry clothes. And eat something. When it seemed like things were under control for them, I left for the final push to the Refuge du Bonhomme, telling them that if they didn’t make it by 8pm, I’d come back to help. I confess to being quite happy when they trudged in at 7:58, meaning I didn’t have to go back out. It’s probably good to have some experience hiking in snow in the mountains, especially when the forecast calls for snow in the mountains you’re hiking in!

The advice given by many I bumped into along the trails was not to go over the high passes given the weather and poor visibility. I sure wouldn’t have if there were a thunderstorm risk. But generally, conditions were passable, if not ideal. That said, because of the lack of visibility I didn’t cross the Col du Fours or the Fenêtre d’Arpette, both variations to the main route.  On the plus side, I did get to test the subfreezing limits of my summer backpacking gear–no problem except for the inappropriate footwear choice. (For those looking for gear recommendations for this hike, I’ll provide them separately.)

The hike provided an opportunity to dust off my rusty French. It helped. While often there were English speakers, it wasn’t always the case, and frequently the French helped gather richer details on routes, conditions, and where to find more cheese.

I suspect it would have been awesome walking in the warm sunshine with expansive mountain views. All told, though, it was still a great way to spend the week, sometimes focused on the small things, enjoying the moments differently, and enjoying the contemplative meditative benefits of walking through whiteout conditions. For someone looking for a taste of backpacking through the mountains, and a taste of Italian dinners, French cheeses, and Swiss…well let’s maybe not talk about the Swiss food, the TMB ain’t a bad choice!

For those looking for more info on the TMB, do start with Kev Reynolds’s The Tour of Mont Blanc: Complete two-way trekking guide. I will post separately, a breakdown of my itinerary, reviews, and gear recommendations.

(More photos.)


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