When my last child left home, I felt a newfound sense of freedom. I can do whatever I want, whenever I want. With that freedom came the question: "Are there only charter vacations for me for the next several years?" No, now is the time to realize the experiences that I didn't get to do when I was 20-25 years old, like most of my friends did. I'm 51 years old and have always been physically active, so physics is not an obstacle. My three children think it's great that I want to experience the world and they are excited for me and look forward to hearing about my experiences. I have given myself an adventure framework of five years ahead. The five years is because I'm confident that I can stay in relatively good physical shape for at least another five years.
My first journey alone
I have never traveled alone before in my life, even when I was younger. Therefore, this journey was not only a physical journey, but also a journey of experiencing myself alone in the world on my own. The idea of climbing mountains and hiking in the mountains has always fascinated me. I have avidly watched many programs, read books and followed social media about snow, skiing and mountaineering. Therefore, one of my first goals was a mountain. I had a few mountains in mind: Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Mera Peak in Nepal and Mont Blanc in France, the last of which became my start. I chose Mont Blanc because it is in Europe and because the duration of the trip is one week. There were also considerations about altitude sickness and the distance from home, as I was traveling alone for the first time.
On September 14, 2022, I booked the trip through 'MontBlancGuides' with a departure date of June 7, 2023. Then my preparations began, which for me is a big part of the joy of traveling - the joy of anticipation.
Day 1 - Travel day
After a long day of traveling to Geneva airport, I arrived at our meeting point, a chalet - The Castle in Chamonix, France. I arrived as the last of 10 registrants due to some delays. The other participants were three ladies and six men from Canada, America, England and Germany respectively. I was assigned a room with a nice young man named Nick, who was 25 years old and from England.
On the first evening, we were given information about what would happen the next day and a bit about the following days. We were also told that the trip we were going on the next day was a test to see if we could climb Mont Blanc or if the travel agency would have to decide that they could not let us climb Mont Blanc. This could either be due to lack of strength or altitude sickness.
Day 2 - Chamonix
At the beginning of the day, a guide came by to check our equipment. I was missing an ice axe, B3 boots, crampons and a harness. Once everyone had the necessary equipment, we set off from Chamonix towards our destination in Italy, a drive of about two hours.
We prepared for our first trek up to the hut where we would spend our first night. The hike up was challenging and steep, a 3-hour journey. Along the way we stopped for water and were taught how to put on crampons and harnesses. Everyone kept up well and after covering 2710 meters of altitude, we arrived at the Rifugio Federico Chabod hut around 16:00, where we would stay for two nights. We went to bed early as we had to get up at 03:30 to start the day early. I don't think I was the only one who had trouble sleeping that night. I only managed to get maybe 1.5 hours of sleep.
Day 3 - Grand Paradiso
We had breakfast at 04:00, but I didn't eat anything as I'm not a breakfast eater. We started our hike at 05:00, still in the dark and with very cold weather. We start by wearing a helmet, headlamp and harness. When we reached the Laveciau glacier at around 5.15 am, we stopped to put on crampons and tie ourselves together with ropes. After that, we only stopped for short breaks every hour and a half and our views were dominated by snow-capped mountains as far as the eye could see. Around 8 o'clock we took a break to eat something. I wasn't able to eat due to stomach problems, but I tried to drink something as I was aware that dehydration could be a risk if I didn't get enough fluids.
At some point, I started to feel worse and became increasingly nauseous. By the time we stopped for a break at noon, I was really sick. I felt like I was going to throw up, dizzy, and my legs felt like they were heavy sandbags I could barely lift. At this point we were around 3700 meters above sea level, and the first thing that comes to mind is that I can't understand why I got tired so suddenly, and maybe it's because I wasn't in the physical shape I had hoped for.
The guides we had with us made a quick decision and decided that I and two other students should turn around and go down. We were followed down by Claudio, a very experienced and incredibly cool guide from Italy. Claudio quickly got us down safely. Already after the first 5 minutes I felt much better. My legs were okay and the dizziness had subsided, but the nausea continued. Claudio explained to me in his broken English that altitude sickness can affect anyone, even physically strong people. At that point, however, I was just disappointed and tired of the situation. We returned to the hut and I went straight to bed and fell asleep. I woke up after a few hours and heard that the others had returned from the top of the Grand Paradiso. I tried to be happy for them; they were all exhilarated after their summit experience. But I really felt like I had suffered a defeat. I was only about 300 meters from the top of the Grand Paradiso and it gave me a bit of a mental breakdown. That feeling actually stayed with me for a couple of days, even after I got home from the trip. We stayed overnight in the hut at an altitude of 2710 meters.
Day 4 - Back to The Castle
We got up around 6:00 am and at 8:00 am we started the descent from the Rifugio F. Chabod hut down the mountain. While we were descending, one of the guides came up to me and asked if I wanted to join him on another mountain. He told me that I was physically strong enough for Mont Blanc and I should know that he had seen many strong men give up mountaineering at 2000 meters. He tells me that it's individual whether you can handle the altitude. If I want Mont Blanc it's not impossible, I just need several days to declimatize.
We arrived back at The Castle around 14.00, where we met with all the guides and organizers of the Mont Blanc tour. We discussed the options for all of us when it came to climbing Mont Blanc. Once again, I was told that I was physically strong enough to take on the challenge, but due to the need for extra days to acclimatize, they couldn't take me to the top. They offered me and the other two an alternative trip, possibly to the mountains in Switzerland. All three of us were keen to do this, and we were told to be ready at 9:00 the next morning to meet the guide who would be joining us.
After our meeting, it was time for a long-awaited hot shower, the first since Wednesday evening. There were no shower facilities at the hut up on the mountain, so it was much needed.
Day 5 - New day, new mountain
At 9am we met up with our guide, Tim, from New Zealand. Tim pulled out a large map covering the entire Mont Blanc area. He suggested we drive to the lift and take it as far up as possible. Then we would walk over the mountains and spend the night at Refuge Albert 1 in France. If we wanted to, we could continue the next morning towards a mountain peak and then spend the night in the Cabane Trient, located in Switzerland.
We took two lifts to the summit: first the Charamillon gondola lift and then the Col de Balma chairlift, which took us up to around 1700 meters. From there we had to walk up to a hut close to the border between France and Switzerland, Refuge Albert 1, which was at an altitude of 2702 meters.
The hike up is nice and we walked at a steady pace with breaks along the way. The final climb up to the hut was really steep; it felt like we were going straight up. We put each step hard into the snow and chopped the ice axe firmly into the snow to secure our way up.
When we reached Refuge Albert 1, I was treated to the best piece of banana cake with whipped cream and the best cup of coffee I'd had since arriving in France on June 7th. We were allocated beds in a 12-person room and as we were the first to arrive, I got to choose my bed first. I enjoyed the beautiful view from my bed. There was time to relax and enjoy the view of the glacier. However, I only got about 1.5 hours of sleep that night, which was not optimal as a day of about 7-8 hours of hiking across the glacier awaited us the next day.
Day 6 - Hike to the summit
The day started at 04:00 with breakfast and coffee and at 05:00 we set off across the Swiss border. The plan was to climb a small mountain at 3400 meters and then descend to reach our accommodation. The day starts off cold, but the snow is good for walking, the mountains seem completely deserted and shortly after leaving the hut we didn't meet any more people on the mountains. The sun broke out over the mountains and it gradually became very hot. The sun's rays baked down on us and on the snow, so it was extremely important to remember sunscreen every time we took breaks. The snow started to become soft and heavy to walk in, which made our progress slower than expected. So we decided to take a shortcut and rappel down a snow-covered crack. Whether it ultimately saves us time is hard to say, but at least we gained some extra experience. We took short breaks about every hour and a half, and our gloves were soaked and dripping with sweat. But we had to put them back on as both snow and rocks were hitting our hands hard. After reaching the summit at 3400 meters, we started descending again and at 3170 meters we arrived at the Cabane Trient hut around 15:00. We closely followed the weather forecast at the hut as there were signs of more rain and thunder in the mountains the following day.
Day 7 - Descent and back to The Castle
On the seventh day, we got up at 4:00 am and left at 5:00 am. Another cold morning greets us, but the snow is frozen and provides a good surface to walk on. Fortunately, we seem to avoid rain and thunder. We move at a good pace down towards Refuge Albert 1. Upon arrival around 11:00 am, we stop for lunch. Around 12:00 noon, we embark on a very steep descent towards the lift. The sun is now shining and the snow has become mushy and heavy to walk on. But as we are on our way down, it goes quickly and we reach the lift at around 14:00. While we're in the lift, it starts to rain a little, but by the time we reach the parking lot, we're out of the rain.
We return to Chamonix and reach The Castle around 14:30. Coffee and a portion of cake are waiting for us. After coffee and a short conversation about our experiences, it's time for a much-needed hot shower, as we hadn't had the opportunity to bathe this time either. The next day I have to travel home again.
After returning home and working through my mental breakdown, I have become more eager to get going again. The mountains and challenges are not finished with me, nor am I finished with them. It's almost as if the feeling of defeat has given me that extra push to 'I can't accept this, I have to try again'.
If I had thought about it a bit more, I would have booked a few extra days in Chamonix before booking my flights. The Chamonix area is incredibly beautiful and impressive, and I would have liked to spend some time exploring it further. The experience of traveling alone didn't feel as strange or lonely as I had imagined. I've met so many friendly people on my trip, at airports, on planes, in restaurants, in shops and especially with my fellow students.
I have had so many great experiences and so many great memories to take with me from the tours, whether I will return to attempt Mont Blanc again, I don't know, but one thing is for sure, my journey of discovery will continue for as long as I can.
In terms of clothing on the trip, I was very pleasantly surprised by what merino wool can and can't do. Everything I've worn of LOOW's products didn't smell, but my fleece clothing, jackets, pants, gloves and bras made of synthetic fabric smelled horribly of sweat...and I should mention that one of my LOOW blouses was worn on all the days I was on the mountains. I'm normally a cold person, but at no point during the trip did I feel cold or too warm where I had wool close to my body.
The next adventure starts on August 8th, when we depart for a 19-day island hop in the Bali area. There will be some rainforest exploration, overnight camping on Mount Rinjani, a 3-day boat trip, Komodo Island, snorkeling, river rafting, ATV riding, relaxation and lots of sun.
In addition, I have many other exciting and challenging adventures in mind. Maybe a small mountain in Nepal, a trip to Greenland over the ice cap, interrail in Europe, Kilimanjaro and Zanzibar, the Camino with my mom, road trips in Australia and New Zealand and hopefully many more.