In the summer of the 2011, when Sage was just weeks shy of his 2nd birthday, we set off on a 6-week adventure to walk from the shores of Lake Geneva through the French Alps to arrive at the sun-drenched Mediterranean Cote d’Azur. This would be our first thru-hike (or long distance point-to-point backpack) with a tot in tow and we learned a whole lot along the way!
The name of the trail that we would follow is “La Grande Traversee des Alpes” (aka the Grand Traverse of the Alps or the GR5) and it spans 660 kilometers from start to finish. The trail passes through a vast region of mountains and valleys, most notably the Mont Blanc massif. The northern section of the trail is classically alpine – think lush and dense forests studded with emerald lakes, remote refuges and ancient villages, powerful seasonal glacial torrents and an abundance of wildlife. As the trail approaches the southern coast, the terrain becomes more distinctively Mediterranean – hotter, dryer, less reliable water sources, symphonies of cicadas and the scent of fresh herbs in the air. The act of passing through such varied terrain is part of the wonder of a thru-hike.
One of the reasons that we settled on a thru-hike in Europe was the network of back country mountain huts (refuges) and the relative close proximity of villages scattered throughout the mountains. These two factors allowed us to still travel a considerable distance by foot without ever carrying more than 5-6 days of supplies at a time. And while we carried all of our own gear and camped most nights, we also enjoyed treating ourselves to the refuge offerings of snacks, beers, a warm fire, lively conversations and even the occasional bed. Logistically this looked like Mat carrying Sage (and as much gear crammed into the remaining pockets and dangling from the sides) while I carried everything else. (Check out our gear list here).
Not surprising, our days were filled with walking – a lot of walking – through varied terrain and weather conditions. The nature of a thru-hike is that the days take on a beautiful and simple rhythm…waking and warming, breaking down camp and playing 3D tetris squeezing our gear into our packs. The days were easily filled with walking, breaking, dipping in irresistible pools of water, refilling drinking water, consulting maps and guidebooks, searching for and setting up camp once again, washing out the day’s clothes (and in this case, diapers), exploring and finally nurturing and resting our tired bodies.
Although the days may seem fairly repetitive, the stages and each of its days are still vivid in our minds. On our first day, it felt as if we were riding an uplifting tectonic plate as we climbed away from Lac Leman into the high country for the first time. Our bodies ached as this stage marked by much climbing and bodies adjusting to the thru-hiking life. But we were graced with ancient villages, tasty pastries and cheese, meadows of wildflowers and at times the Dents Blanches and Mont Blanc massif stared us directly in the faces (and yet sometimes we could only imagine their presence as they hid themselves behind thick damp clouds). We celebrated the completion of our first 7 days on the trail with a family feast, two days of rest and some much needed drying and resorting of gear in our uncle’s chalet in the Chamonix valley.
Heading south from Chamonix-Mont Blanc, our adventure was completely dominated by the scenery and weather systems of Europe’s highest mountain, Mont Blanc (literally “White Mountain”). Here we got a glimpse of the true power of the mountains as we faced fierce July snowstorms and days of downpouring rain. We shared an unspoken bond with our traveling posse of fellow thru-hikers that trudged on day after day through the elements. Each night we formed a small camp together and huddled in the small protection afforded by our tents.
The Vanoise presented the perfect storm – enough snowfall to keep all but the hardiest at bay, clear skies and views at times, refuges bursting with kindness, chamois and bouquetin (antelope and ibex) roaming through the mist, and a fresh dusting of white on the faces of thousands of year old glaciers.
We were greeted by the gentle serenity of the Queyras and the Ubaye where people seemed most at ease with their place in the mountains. Families roamed these more gentle mountains, many in search of mushrooms, some singing as they walked, all rosy cheeked and joyfully enjoying les montagnes. It was here that we first cut Sage’s hair and tossed some of his baby ringlets off the Col de Fromage.
The deep blue glacial lakes got warmer and warmer the further south we walked, as did the ambient temperatures. In the Mercantour, you could almost squint the eyes and imagine yourself in Muir’s Yosemite filled with dramatic scenery and crowds. The park’s southern section hosts a plethora of 4,000 year old petroglyph carvings of bulls, geometric shapes, tools and simple human forms in the Vallee de Marveille.
And in the last section, of which there are two variations (GR5 and GR52), we came to sense the increasingly nearby (yet mostly out of sight) azure blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea. The conditions were arid, the air heavy with the scent of sun-roasted aromatic plants and our gaze frequently followed the path of sunbathing lizards on the limestone rocks. But the days were straight up hot – the kind of heat that makes you wonder if your whole being might spontaneously burst into flames. In the end, it was not the rain, wind or snow that would crack us, nor the myriad of cols or endless steep descents, but instead the desert-like conditions of the Mediterranean foothills. As we stumbled into Sospel, we located a source d’eau and did everything but bathe in the public fountain. It was like nectar from the heavens. And at that moment, it was clear to all of us that our trek was over. We were out of the Alps and while there remained 1 or 2 (dry, hot and mostly waterless) days left to arrive at the coast, we had nothing left to prove and were eager to enjoy a few days on the beach before catching our flight back to the States.
And as with any adventure, not everything went as planned. We endured weeks of relentless rain and snowstorms, so much that we frequently thought of bailing to the sunnier GR10 on the Mediterranean island of Corsica. Ultimately, we stayed the course but several times sat out storms for days in a hotel or refuge. We sent some gear onwards and purchased other much needed gear along the way. Occasionally, we opted to bypass extended sections of roadside walking by sticking out our thumbs and relying on the generosity of strangers to slingshot us further ahead on the traill, thereby shortening our total journey to 420 kilometers. We lost our camera and all of our pictures from the trip. And we dealt with the inevitable inconveniences of diaper rash, mild illnesses, blisters, back spasms and other pains.
And still yet, in the end, somehow, we did it. We traversed the Alps as a family, all for one, and one for all.
All in all, it was an epic journey, one where we all grew and where we all found some clarity in the peaks. And while Sage may not remember a single moment, when he’s hanging off a porta-ledge deep in the Karakorum we’ll have no one to blame but ourselves.