How an Epic Hiking Trip Changed Me

Tour du Mont Blanc

There are magnificent views at every turn, followed by more stunning beauty.

Over the summer, I spent a couple of weeks hiking around Mont Blanc in Europe with my husband and youngest son. With a peak of 15,781 feet, Mont Blanc is the highest mountain in the European Alps. As clarification, I did not climb the mountain but hiked the Tour du Mont Blanc, a well-traveled trail of 100+ miles that took us through France, Italy, and a French-speaking section of Switzerland.

Because we traveled during one of the hottest summers on record in Europe and fortunately (for us), during a week with limited rainfall, we had a relatively easy time in terms of hiking. While there were many steep places and cliff-like passes, we didn’t have to carry any special equipment to trek over snow-covered or slick-from-rain trails. In fact, many hikers simply wore Alpine-type running shoes.

Still, the trip was an adventure and allowed us to have novel experiences. Going in, I knew that we would have unexpected encounters, frustrations, fears, and moments of awe. I also guessed that the hike would change us in some way. Other than expecting deeper bonds with my fellow hikers, I didn’t know exactly what would happen and how the experiences might affect me.

Now that I am back and have had some time to reflect on my journey, I can relate a few of the ways that the hike changed me:

  • I have a better understanding of the questions to ask before going on such a trip again.

    Tour du Mont Blanc

    Trails are often steep and sometimes rocky.

    I felt that I did adequate research about the hike before we left. I ordered a guide about the Tour du Mont Blanc, read all the literature provided to me by our outfitter, consulted with a physician at a travel clinic about special hazards, prepared physically with numerous training hikes, and purchased outdoor-related clothing and supplies. Further, I learned some French and rightly ignored the people who told me that everyone in Europe speaks English (our outfitter advised that those in remote areas tend to have limited fluency in English).

    Still, there were many things I missed, like the steepness of the hiking ascents and descents; the potential for dramatic changes in weather during the day; and trail signs that omit distance and instead indicate (or rather severely underestimate) point-to-point hiking time.

    We had a fabulous time but there were aspects of the trip that could have gone smoother had I done more research.

    In the future, I will push to receive route notes (detailed information on the hiking route that includes trail descriptions, pertinent information relating to stops, etc.) earlier rather than a few weeks before the trip’s departure. I’ll ask friends (and friends of friends) if they have taken a similar trip to get a perspective from a fellow North Carolinian. I’ll check out YouTube videos of similar treks.

    More importantly, I will be more open to listening to others describe their adventures and heed warnings more readily. With insights gathered from a variety of sources, I’ll prepare myself better.

  • I am more committed to learning foreign languages and understanding foreign cultures.

    In the year before our departure, I brushed up on my French language skills using Rosetta Stone. My digital studies complemented what I had learned from taking French in high school plus what my son gleaned from four years of high school French.

    The Rosetta Stone lessons provided a decent foundation for learning a language, but didn’t contain instruction regarding the people of France and French-speaking countries. That didn’t bother me as it always seemed odd that culture, geography, and even economic topics were taught alongside of spoken and written language skills.

    While my limited language capabilities were somewhat useful and my son’s even more, I discovered that I should have learned more about the culture. Though most interactions went fine, several could have been improved by better understanding of social conventions.

    Going forward, I realize that I need to become more aware of and sensitive to cultural issues in addition to developing better language skills.

  • I am even more dedicated to lifelong fitness and endurance.

    I like to think that I am reasonably fit. After all, just this year alone, I rode 100 miles on my bike in about seven hours; competed in an open-water sprint triathlon; placed first in my age group in a couple of 5K competitions; reached a new personal best in a 10K (54 minutes!); and went on numerous day hikes.

    But my fitness level seemed average among my fellow hikers. Young and old, male and female, carrying heavy packs and light packs, they often passed me on the trail, sometimes hiking swiftly and sometimes running. While I did learn to hike faster and more efficiently, and began to pass others on the trail, I also realized that those who walk these trails on a regular basis develop strong fitness and endurance that surpasses even avid athletes like me.

    Witnessing the strength and speed of others in the Alps has inspired me to continue to build and improve upon my physical capabilities throughout my life.

  • I am less fearful of heights.

    Tour du Mont Blanc paraglider

    Notice the paraglider to the right.

    One of the positive outcomes of this trip is a greater head for heights. I won’t say that I am now ready to start paragliding, skydiving, or BASE jumping, but I did manage to ride on a chair lift, Gondola, and cable car with pleasure rather than fear.

    I also completed several sections of the trail that were near steep drop-offs. Rather than focus on my fear of getting hurt, I began to enjoy the beauty surrounding the hike even more.

  • I have new insights into trail development.

    Tour du Mont Blanc

    There are many fabulous, hiker-friendly stops along the trail.

    Besides the awe-inspiring views, one of the coolest things about the trail is its relationship to the local economy. Nearly all of our hotels (near the trail or along one of its many variants) were friendly to hikers.

    Even more pleasantly surprising was the level of services provided by independently owned refuges on the trail, often miles from a traditional network of paved roads. Many of these provided lodging for hikers, either private rooms or dorm-style rooms. They also served delicious meals and snacks along with beverages that included water, homemade lemonade, soft drinks, beer, and wine. And, though some were more friendly than others, the merchants seemed to believe that hikers were a viable market, not just folks who were simply passing through and spending tiny bits of money.

    This experience made me realize that trails such as North Carolina’s Mountains-to-Sea State Trail can not only enable people to see the state but also benefit the economy.

  • I have greater confidence in my sons and appreciation of their life experiences.

    My youngest son helped us tremendously throughout the trip, more than my husband and I had anticipated. He navigated the hike using route notes, trail signs, and more; he interpreted menus and signs, and conversed in French on our behalf; and he carried water and other items on the trail.

    Watching him use his scouting skills and develop new capabilities has given me better understanding of the depth of his resourcefulness. Not only does he apply what he knows, he also quickly adapts to new situations. As a mom, I gained more confidence that he (and my older son) can deal effectively with novel circumstances and encounters.

Even though things didn’t go perfectly every day and I could definitely been more prepared (and prepared my family in regard to hiking challenges and interpersonal interactions), I am not sorry that I forged ahead and did the hike anyway. Too often in the past, I have been reticent to try something new because of fear or uncertainty of the unknown. But now I am ready and even more eager to allow my travels to give me new perspectives and change me in some unexpected way.