“You’ll remember the mountain refuges are beautiful,” I said casually, compelled to disturb what lay hidden in his memory. “That’s half the reason for going.” It was shrewd of me to work in the idea of fondue, red wine and good company; we booked a flight, and four months later, arrived in the shadow of Mont Blanc (4,807m) in Chamonix, France.
The Tour du Mont Blanc is a challenge for anyone, regardless of age, condition or state of mind. A bucket-list pilgrimage for long-distance hikers, it is a 170km, high-altitude journey on foot, a ritual walk through great landscapes and drama that plugs hikers in to something unquantifiable, yet life-affirming. While I travelled for a love of people, food, drink and culture, my father had always been drawn to places that weren’t as easily accessible. The mountains appealed because of their unreachability. Hikers, he once told me, came to learn about themselves.
That first sunlit afternoon, it was instantly obvious we’d made the right decision. The pathway ahead was quiet, little more than a few bell-clanging cows, a couple of errant dogs, a rosy-cheeked French farmer en route to his summer cottage. Hedgerows and thickets of wild Alpenrose lined the trail’s edges. On the horizon, stone-faced peaks sat above the plateau, skirted by pine forests and chequerboard fields. Quick-footed hikers trotted past us, eyes focused on a ridge that marched south to the Italian border. But there was no sign of worry etched on my hiking partner’s brow. Only determination.