Monday, October 20, 2014

Tour du Mont Blanc #1 Les Houches, France - Elisabetta, Italy (European Alps)

After a few days of photographing/exploring the Chamonix area, I started my 2 week journey on the 110 mile (177km) Tour du Mont Blanc trail with a 32 pound (14.5kg) backpack. Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB) is one of the most popular mountain trails in the European Alps and features dramatic landscapes. The trail circles around the Mont Blanc Range and crosses the borders of France, Italy and Switzerland. Traditionally, most hikers start this trail at Les Houches, France, south of Chamonix, and follow the trail counter-clockwise which was the route I took.

I left Les Houches in early July in the rain. On the first day, the 12 mile hike was mostly an up hill climb in drenching rain. The trail goes through a beautiful mountain pass decorated with colorful wildflowers but the heavy rain and fog blocked the view most of the time. If the weather was nicer, I would have photographed the dynamic landscape along the trail. Instead, I kept walking fast to reach my next destination.
The advantage of this trail is that the hikers have good options for accommodations along the trail. The mountain refuges offer dormitory-style beds, meals (four courses!), and warm showers at most places all at reasonable prices. Hikers don't have to carry camping gear unless they choose to camp. Many hikers were carrying only a day pack for the entire trail. It was great for a photographer, so I carried my camera gear with clothing but it was still heavy!
To satisfy the Europeans' cheese cravings, the hillsides of this part of the trail is used as a pasture with free range milk cattle looming everywhere along the trail. The cattle mind their own business while hikers pass by. The sounds of the cow bells were background music throughout this journey. I was entering the Contamines-Montjoie Natural Preserve, it continued to rain all day...
On day three of the trek, an unexpected snow fell on the mountain pass. The rain turned to snow during the night and covered the mountain pass ahead in the middle of July! Climbing up the steep snowy Bonhomme Pass (Col du Bonhomme) was challenging with a heavy pack. The misty rain causes bad visibility especially with snow on the ground. This section was supposed to be spectacular mountain scenery and I looked forward capturing the dramatic mountains. Instead, I was hiking on snow with a white out view. I didn't even pull my camera out during the day.

On the 4th day of the trail, I crossed the French - Italian border, which is located on Seigne Pass (Col de la Seigne), in stormy weather. When the weather is nice, Mont Blanc can be seen from the pass but unfortunately it was white out conditions.
Descending the Italian side of the pass, finally sunshine for a spell on the trail. It was magic, the wildflowers and the green meadows were vibrant under the sun! Time to set up my camera.
I found some familiar Alaskan wildflowers in the Alps; Forget-me-Not and Cotton Grass, in the another country on another continent miles away!
I love this blue flower; Blue Gentians.

Old ruins along the trail.
While the sun was out, I was hikied up close to glaciers (Lex Blanche Glacier and Estellette Glacier). I could see the climate change has been affecting European Alps at a high rate; the glaciers here are rapidly receding. Honestly, most of glaciers there were a rather disappointing sight...
This story will be continued in the next update. Please check back!