On a clear, sunny day I’m told that the view from the Col de Balme (Balme pass) is one of flowered Alpine pastures and the glinting glaciers that hug western Europe’s mightiest mountains. On this day though, low clouds clung to the ridges, soaked the meadows and reduced visibility to no more than a dozen metres. I shifted hesitantly along the trail, moving by sense as much as by sight until, after a couple of minutes, the soft outline of a building sprang out of the smoky grey. It was the Refuge du Col de Balme, and on a day as cold as this, its promise of a warm drink and a chance to dry out was welcome indeed.
Between the 18th and early 19th centuries, it was all the fashion among the aristocracy and moneyed elite of England and other parts of northern Europe to travel in extravagant style around southern Europe in search of art and classical culture. In 1741, two upper-crust English gentlemen doing this Grand Tour paused for a while on the idyllic shores of Lake Geneva.
As anyone who has visited the lake knows, on clear days there are magnificent views of a snow-draped mountain range off to the west. This is the French Alps: home of the highest peaks in western Europe, including the biggest of them all – Mont Blanc (4,810 metres).
Today, we all know the Alps as a skiing and trekking playground, but back then the Alps were still a little-known, wild land rumoured to be populated with wolves, bears and fearsome monsters of the night. Tales of bloodthirsty creatures didn’t stop the views from piquing the interest of these two men though, and they set out to explore.
On their eventual return to England, the two wrote a newspaper article recounting their adventures in the Alps. It was written in tones of such passion that the public's imagination was lit, and soon afterwards floods of visitors started to map out walking trails and attempted to summit the highest peaks. This was the birth of modern trekking and mountaineering.
The world-renowned Tour du Mont Blanc (normally shortened to just TMB), a 170-kilometre circular hike around Mont Blanc, is the end result of the first exploratory trails those early trailblazers laid down. Passing through some of the best scenery in the European Alps, and taking in parts of three countries (Italy, France and Switzerland), it's not a surprise to learn that the Tour du Mont Blanc, which requires walkers to haul themselves up and down 10 vertical kilometres over the two weeks it normally takes to complete this circuit, is one of the most popular long distance trails in Europe.
Back in the cloying mists of the Col de Balme, I was discovering that the refuge here was a very different beast from the modern, comfortable and efficient refuges, hostels and hotels I’d found elsewhere along the TMB. Instead of bright lighting and young, smiling staff, it had dusty shelves and handwritten notices, tinged yellow by time, giving grave warnings not to eat your own picnic inside the building. Bustling about the refuge, the proprietors, a tiny elderly woman and her stern-faced husband, barked orders to hikers who’d barely had time to sit down: “Have you ordered anything yet? No sitting here without buying something.” When a group of burly Spanish walkers committed the near mortal sin of trying to eat a sandwich they’d made themselves, they were swiftly reprimanded and chased out by the woman, who was but a fraction of their size.
I’d already been walking the TMB for the best part of a week when I’d stopped to warm myself with hot chocolate in the Refuge du Col de Balme. Over the course of the past few days I’d realised that the TMB, and my experience of it, was going to be a bit different to most other long-distance mountain treks I’d done. For a start, I was on a small group tour organised by Australian boutique hiking company, Raw Travel (rawtravel.com), which offered a chance to skip the less interesting sections of the route.
It was the first time I’d done an organised group tour walk, and before setting out I’d been somewhat uncertain about how I’d feel about walking for days with people I didn’t know in a country that I have called home for the past two decades. As it turned out I needn’t have worried, because with just four of us it hardly felt like a group tour at all.
The actual art of walking the TMB quickly started to follow a pattern. A big breakfast to build up the energy stores; a long and often-quite-steep ascent through forests, open pastures and, finally, rocky mountain wastelands to reach a high pass where we'd sit out of the wind and eat a packed lunch before a more drawn-out, easy-on-the-legs descent back into the valleys. Although the day-to-day pattern was the same, the scenery itself grew more impressive with every passing day. Sometimes the trail wound for hours through coniferous forests where mosses hung like curtains from branches and unseen birds sung from shaded corners. At other times, it floated through Alpine flower meadows, the colour of rainbows, with clouds of swallowtails and red admiral butterflies flapping lazily in the warm breeze while the sun twinkled on distant snow fields.
There are some moments of the walk I recall in more clarity than others. On one particular day, the morning’s walk began with my treading in the footsteps of the legionnaires of Rome as I walked sharply uphill along a still partially paved Roman road and over a domed Roman bridge.
None of us will ever know if Caesar’s men ever stopped to take in the mountain views along the higher stretches of that bit of trail, but I like to think that from the Col de Croix du Bonhomme, where the TMB finally veered off from this 2,000-year-old trade route, that even such battle-hardened men had been inspired to stop and savour the views back down the valley over folds and counter folds of glacier-squashed rock.
On the final afternoon of our walk, we reached the cable cars and ski runs high above the chichi ski resort of Chamonix, from where we started. The trail was suddenly filled with a diverse crew of day-trippers who'd caught one of the cable cars up. There were paragliders and hikers, mountain bikers and trail runners, picnicking families, Parisian tourists and shoppers in big sunglasses and designer labels. Despite our differing holiday expectations we'd all gathered on this mountainside to enjoy the same views over the valley to the silent summit of Mont Blanc, the White Mountain.
And as we stared, I bet we all knew exactly how those first Alpine pioneers must have felt when they looked up at the Alps from the shores of Lake Geneva.