See that speck of a building below the glacier? It is Refugio Elisabetta, one of a collection of remote hostels on the 110-mile Tour du Mont Blanc.
I would never have stayed there if it had not been for my hiking adventure on the Camino de Santiago.
Perched on a spur in the Italian Alps, Refugio Elisabetta offered triple bunks in a crowded coed dorm and bright orange clogs for walking around an outdoor setting that left me gobsmacked. I showered in minimal privacy, shared a sink with other men, and waited to use the only toilet with a seat. We had lucked out with a private room with barely enough room for one set of bunks, but its tiny window opened to a view of the glacier. The dirty duvet made me wish I had packed my sleeping liner, but I was grateful for the bed after several exhausting days of climbs and descents.
Refugio Elisabetta was a highlight of our two-week trip around the Alps’ tallest mountain. The delicious communal dinner came with quick-binding friendships with trekkers who had traveled from throughout Europe. Some were sleeping in tents in the campground down the slope from the building.
In Camino Sunrise: Walking With My Shadows, I describe the restless night in my first albergue in Spain and how I had ruminated about the lack of privacy in coed dorms and bathrooms. Our first long-distance backpacking adventure eventually guided me to come to terms with ghosts that had haunted me since childhood.
And, oh, so thankfully, the Camino lessons led me to Refugio Elisabetta.
Patience. Sue and I had learned during our pilgrimage across Spain that our perseverance would be rewarded, eventually. I chronicled our trials in Camino Sunrise: Walking With My Shadows.
Mont Blanc had stood tall, 15,771 feet, for the first several days of our 110-mile adventure around the Alps’ highest member. But it had hid from our view.
On the morning after the toughest climbing day of our lives, our patience was tested again as we inched up 3,100 feet toward Col de Seigne. The aches from day three worsened, making us wonder how much more we could take. We didn’t say it, but the Tour du Mont Blanc had made us question why we had attempted such a trek.
Then, at the mountain pass, Mont Blanc’s grand pose was the best pain killer I have ever felt. It graciously posed for photographs with us before we stepped from France into Italy, where we picnicked at nearly 8,300 feet in the crisp, blue air and gawked at one of Earth’s wonders.
We knew the third day of our 110-mile trek around Mont Blanc would be our most challenging backpacking test ever. But were we ready? Our first long-distance trek, Spain’s Camino de Santiago, had taught us to be prepared for surprises at every corner and over every hill.
We climbed all morning, 4,317 feet, to an altitude above 8,000 feet. When Sue reached the snowy mountain pass, or col, she was greeted by cloud cover, which closed in quickly, along with a chill. And then came a realization that reminded us of our climb to O’Cebreiro in Spain. But the bad news in France’s Alps was worse than what we faced on the Camino.
We were one col short. Another climb, on slopes steeper than they look in the photos, loomed. Reg was anything but a happy hiker when he turned sideways in the bottom photo to look back at Sue. The path led up, into dripping clouds, around and over rock and ice. Our rubbery legs and aching knees then faced more than 3,000 feet of descent to our hostel in Les Chapieux.
So how have we learned to endure such difficult times? Our lessons began in Pamplona, Spain, as we took the first steps of our monthlong pilgrimage. We tell and illustrate our story in our book, Camino Sunrise: Walking With My Shadows. Click on “trekking slide shows” in the menu to view Sue’s short slide shows from each of our treks.
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Courage. Sue and I needed a backpack full of it on the Tour du Mont Blanc as we faced climbing into the mountains behind us.
During our two-week adventure around the highest peak in the European Alps, I packed more courage (mixed with a measure of fear) than I ever imagined possible as I tackled the greatest physical challenge of my life. My courage was born on the paths and in the albergues during our walk on Spain’s Camino de Santiago. And I borrowed bravery from Sue, for whom “give up” has never been an option.
Our book, Camino Sunrise: Walking With My Shadows, tells and illustrates our story. Click on reviews on the menu to see comments from readers. I would love to hear what you think.