Sunday, September 11, 2011

Italy, day one

It is currently 11 a.m. Sunday, September 11, in Courmayeur, Italy. Church bells are chiming in the square where I just watched three very nervous friends start the 200-mile epic that is the Tor des Geants. I found an internet cafe, a couple hits of espresso and a few quiet moments to upload some pictures to my blog.

Beat and I flew into Zurich on Wednesday afternoon and drove through the northern Alps to Chamonix, France, then through a tunnel that cuts through the heart of Mont Blanc to Courmayeur, Italy. Jet lag had us up at 4:30 a.m. after a fitful night of sleep, so we wandered the deserted streets of town as the first hints of dawn rose over the mountains. I was in a bit of a stupor, sleep-deprived and confused, struggling to read storefront signs before I remembered I can not read Italian, and gazing up at the jagged pinnacles of Mont Blanc that towered more than 11,000 feet over my head.

We crossed town and started up the trail that serves as the race course for the Tor des Geants. We passed a group of trail signs that listed destinations in terms of how hours and minutes of hiking time it would take to reach them. I asked Beat why they didn't list actual distances. "Because that doesn't matter," he said. Sure enough, the trail shot toward the sky. Everything is so steep here that distance has been rendered meaningless — climbing and descending endless mountains is all there is. I tried to comprehend what this meant for 200 real miles.

As we crawled up the trail, dripping sweat in the cool morning air, we passed a number of stone huts in various states of use and decay. Having become accustomed to undeveloped wilderness in Alaska and Montana, it was strange to see so much humanity sprinkled throughout these rugged mountains. "What did people do with all of these structures?" I wondered aloud. "Did they actually live up here?" A few cows sauntered past, ringing those famous Alps cow bells. "People probably still live up here," Beat said.

We tried to nap in the afternoon, unsuccessfully, and then walked out the front door of our rented apartment toward Mont Cormet, Courmayeur's "house mountain" (our term) because of its proximity to town.

We started at 4,000 feet elevation and climbed to 8,500 feet in what was likely less than three miles — again, a meaningless measure of distance here in the Alps. Our total climbing on the day was close to 6,000 feet, and we weren't even actively seeking out a tough effort. It was just an exploration day, a rest day, our first day in Italy.

It was difficult to take it all in, to comprehend the scale of these massive mountains and the depth of the history and culture steeped within. I was grateful that I had more than a week in this place to try.


  1. Great pictures and descriptions, it's a beautiful area! Enjoy your time there.

  2. My God, this is breath taking! The Mother Earth never stops to be the most beautiful and have us forget all the other crap...

  3. It's been a long time since I've been in Italy, and unfortunately, I didn't get to the mountains. Thanks for the great shots and enjoy your first trip OUS! Good luck Beat!

  4. So beautiful! I need to find a reason to go. And a winning lottery ticket. I hope you enjoy the rest of your stay, and good luck to Beat!

  5. To Jesse -- The only reason you need to have to go is wanting to.

    We've not been to Italy -- yet -- but have done four 5-week bike touring trips into the French Alps and vicinity in the past five years. All very worthwhile. Bike touring there, we found something new and interesting around every corner -- fueled by fresh breads, pastries (first thing in the morning, they might still be warm) and cheeses (none of the cheeses are orange).

    MikeS in Juneau

  6. absolutely gorgeous! Have a great trip!

  7. People probably don't live in the tiny stone houses in the mtns. They might be for summering with livestock in lusher pastures.

  8. mm hmmm Like I said, a kept woman...

  9. Jill... thanks for taking us all there with you! You have such a way with words and pictures!

    I've seen pictures of this area and have followed UTMB for the last few years but I've never wanted to go there more than right now after reading your accounts.

    Keep us on the trip with you so we can live through your words.


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