Photo from the Distant Journeys website
Fifteen years ago, in July 1998, our family took a hiking vacation in Switzerland. We arranged the trip through Distant Journeys, which sets up self-guided trips for adventuresome souls. My husband and two children qualify as adventuresome, if I do not.
We flew to Geneva and took the train to Chamonix, France. The plan was to walk halfway around Mont Blanc – starting in Chamonix, through a corner of Italy, into Switzerland, then back to Chamonix.
Distant Journeys had arranged hotel or hostel rooms for us each night, and those locations also provided dinner and breakfast. Each morning, we were to buy a lunch, either from the hotel where we had stayed the previous night or in a local grocery.
The first morning, we left the civilized half our belongings in the basement of the hotel in Chamonix. We only needed to carry the clothes and toiletries needed for our five-day hike, and our lunch for that day. A van took us from Chamonix to the trail head in Italy. Then we hiked up, up, up over a mountain pass into Switzerland, and down, down, down to our first night’s rest.
Me, after the first day of hiking (notice the new boots)
My husband, daughter, and I (son was otherwise occupied) had been on a practice hike in Kansas, so our new boots were broken in. (The same boots that fell apart in Whistler, Canada, last December.)
But Kansas is flat. Our practice hike was no preparation for Swiss mountain passes. I was so tired that first evening that I could not eat. I was so tired that night that I could not sleep.
The next morning came, whether I wanted it to or not. That second morning, we set out through a long forested valley. The valley was mostly flat, and I loved it. Until 3:00pm, when the trail abruptly turned uphill. We climbed for over two hours, late in the day. I was exhausted again when we finally reached our second night’s lodging on a pretty mountain lake.
I really wanted a rest day at that lovely lake, but we had no rest days in our schedule.
The third day we climbed some more, through unfenced cow pastures (yes, Swiss cows really wear bells) until we got to a ridgeline in bright sunshine. The ridgeline went up and down and up and down for most of the day. Finally, it descended into a town, where we spent that night.
The fourth day, we rested, whether it was on the schedule or not. At least, my daughter and I did. We took the train to that night’s destination, while my husband and son hiked through another long mountain pass.
The train only took an hour to speed us the same distance the men in our group spent all day hiking. My daughter and I arrived around 10:30 in the morning – too early to check into the hostel where we would sleep that night. The town was a sleepy vacation spot, and there was nothing for my daughter and me to do. We wandered the streets, but there wasn’t even a store open to buy a Coke.
Finally, we checked into the hostel. The rooms were tiny, with several bunks in a room. We spread our belongings on four bunks to claim them, and hoped the other two bunks in that room would be left vacant. But around 10:00pm, just as our family was about to go to bed, two Frenchmen joined us.
The fifth day – our last! – we hiked back to Chamonix. The hike ended at a ski resort above the town, and we were to take the tram down. We reached the ski resort about lunch time.
Shortly before lunch, it started to rain. It poured, is more accurate. Our boots and clothes got soaked, and our feet squelched with every step.
The wind at the top of the mountain blew so hard that they closed the tram. We waited. Finally, the tram re-opened. We rode down and walked back to the hotel where we had left our dry clothes.
Our boots did not dry out that night. We packed them wet (what else could we do?), and took the train back to Geneva to enjoy a couple of days of urban sightseeing.
This distant journey was another example of diversity within our family. The hiking style each member of our family adopted was a clear snapshot of his or her personality.
Daughter, ahead on the trail
My son, at sixteen, bounded with energy. He loped ahead, came back to share a random thought or two with whomever would listen, jumped from rock to rock, then loped ahead again. He probably added an extra mile to his hike each day with his ramblings.
My daughter, thirteen, walked methodically at an even pace that ate up the miles. When she got to a bend in the trail, she stopped and waited for the rest of us to catch up. She had brought a copy of Gone with the Wind, and she read the long book through twice that week, engrossed in the Southern saga while traipsing through Alpine scenery.
My husband, the most experienced hiker among us, stayed behind me to catch me if I fell. Or, more likely, to push me if I stopped.
I was definitely the slowest one in our party, and the least fit. I never did fall, and I only stopped occasionally. Which is why I really appreciated my stolen rest day. I never got to catch my breath on the trail, because the kids were ready to move on when I finally reached them.
And that’s the story of our hike halfway around Mont Blanc. Through the whole trip, we never saw the mountain. Even when we walked in sunshine, clouds shrouded Mont Blanc.
But we came away with family memories that will endure as long as the mountain.
What are some of your memorable family vacations?