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.