After getting married in May, Dr. Darian Smith and his wife, Nicole, chose to spend their honeymoon doing something out of the ordinary, hiking one of the world’s most beautiful long distance trails, passing through France, Italy, and Switzerland.
While many people are lured to the beauty of the Alps, but only wanting to enjoy them from small European towns, Darian and Nicole, who both enjoy the great outdoors, were not only drawn to their beauty, but also the challenge that the majestic mountains offer.
“We wanted something that would be authentic, something challenging we could grow from and something that would give us memories we could share with our future children,” said Nicole.
“It’s also one of the top hiking destinations in the world for backpackers,” Darian added.
What also drew the couple to the area was that Darian had an interest in running the Ultra Trail Mont Blanc (ULMB), an ultra marathon. After hiking and running additional mileage along the route each day, Darian’s interest has only grown.
Previous to the trip, Darian and Nicole trained by hiking with packs around Pilot Mountain, running and getting in any cardio they could.
After training and purchasing a topographic map and a guide book, “The Tour of Mont Blanc: Complete two-way trekking guide” by Kev Reynolds, they set out for their trip on July 19. After traveling to their starting point in Italy, Darian and Nicole averaged 11 miles over the course of eight days, and finished on the ninth day by pushing their limits and hiking 18 ½ miles.
While hiking, Darian and Nicole carried packs weighing roughly 25 pounds, which held their sleeping bags, tent, food and cooking supplies, first aid kit, rain gear, extra layers for warmth, and sunscreen. To save weight, they opted to not carry sleeping pads.
“Extra layers were very important because of the elevation changes and because it got cold at night,” Darian said. “We also hiked through snow, but we were there when they had the least amount of snow, which is in mid-July and August.”
Darian and Nicole met many other people, including seasoned hikers who had hiked the trail multiple times.
“We met a British couple and another British guy who had hiked the trail four times. He was retired from the British Army,” Nicole said. “We also met a family from the Netherlands and a young couple from Canada.”
“We averaged seeing 20-30 people daily and would see the same people because we would do accordion style hiking and pass each other,” Darian said.
With over 100 miles to cover, there were many different options for bedding down each night, from sleeping in a tent to staying in a warm bed in a hostel.
“We stayed in two high-altitude hostels (refuge), and we stayed in one hotel. The rest of the time, we camped in our tent at a campground,” Nicole said.
Darian added, “They discourage you from setting up camp on the trail, but we came real close to camping on the side of the trail in Switzerland because it was pouring rain. There was one tent set up and it was flooded. Luckily, we ended up getting into one of the high altitude hostels, where they feed you breakfast and dinner. Everyone was happy to be there.”
Nicole explained that the first one they stayed in had 20 beds in one room.
“They had a coin shower that gave you two minutes of water and only a minute of it is warm water,” she said. “The other refuge was the complete opposite. We had our own room with our own bed and we shared the shower on the hall, but it had warm water the whole time. That’s the one we stayed in after the rainstorm.”
Nicole and Darian also faced challenges with steep climbs along Mont Blanc.
“One of the most difficult parts was Fenetre d’Arpette, which was a true mountain pass, where you’re gaining 3,000 feet over boulder and ice fields with really steep places where you’d have had to have three points of contact,” Darian shared.
Nicole said the hardest part for her was when they reached the top of the pass and were going back down the boulder field, essentially climbing down what they had just climbed up, but on the opposite side.
“It was challenging physically, but I liked it,” she said, adding that there was a rewarding view from the pass. “To the left as you are going down, you have a view of this massive glacier, called Glacier du Trient. It was so beautiful. It was an alternate route we took. I was really nervous about doing it in the beginning, but I’m so glad we did.”
Nicole said there were several alternate routes they could choose from that were more challenging.
Darian stated that the most difficult part of hiking Mont Blanc was staying the course.
“I think the most difficult thing was just making sure we were going in the right direction the whole time. The trails were marked really well, except in France. Sometimes the distances and times were off, but their signs were the prettiest. In Switzerland, everything was so pretty and perfect; and Italy over did their signs,” he said.
Darian and Nicole encountered a few high altitude storms with sleet. On their first day, Nicole said after taking an alternate route, they ran into a lot of scree (loose stones), causing their feet to slide more than usual.
Nicole said at the end of difficult days she was usually really sore, but because they were well fed and rested, when she got up in the morning, it was like starting fresh.
As for the food, they really enjoyed the cheese, sausage and chocolate they found along the Tour of Mont Blanc.
“Most days you pass through a town and every two or three days we would re-supply at a town market, and sometimes the campgrounds would have beer. When we stopped, we would stock up on cheese, sausage, chocolate,” Darian said. “We started with dehydrated American food and ended up eating sausage, cheese, chocolate, and peanut butter. The peanut butter saved our lives in calories. We put it on everything.”
Although there were some challenges along the Tour of Mont Blanc, the beauty and memories made it all worthwhile.
“I liked when we hiked up the Col de Tricot. It was just a really long hike; we were looking forward to eating lunch,” Darian said. “There was a herd of sheep that kept trying to nibble on our packs. We had to kind of push them away.”
Nicole and Darian also saw marmots, falcons, cows grazing on high altitude pastures, donkeys, horses, and miniature donkeys and horses.
Nicole said her favorite moment was at Refuge d’ Elisabetta in Italy.
“This was my favorite because we were going to have a tough trek, so we treated ourselves to lunch. We ended up running into this interesting hiker who recommended that we go to (Refuge d’ Elisabetta) to eat,” she explained. “They served fresh pasta and gnocchi. They also have amazing espresso, which kept us going. It was freezing at the peak, where we ate. I ate the lasagna and Darian got the gnocchi.”
Another great moment for Darian and Nicole was when they were presented with a bottle of champagne at their campground, called La Fouly, in Switzerland.
“They gave us a bottle of champagne because they knew we were on our honeymoon,” Nicole stated.
In reminiscing about the beauty along the Tour of Mont Blanc, they said the entire trail was beautiful; however, their most beautiful memory was on the Italian side.
“You had 8,000 feet of rock, ice and glacier in front of you and you are already at 7,000 feet. The Alps just rise up so steeply. They aren’t as high as other mountain ranges, but they rise up so steeply so the valleys are very narrow because of it,” Darian said, adding that one of his favorite photographs he took along the trail was an outline of Nicole leaning against a tree in the shadows with a view of the snowy white capped peaks behind her.
After completing the challenging trail, Nicole and Darian are looking forward to doing more memorable adventures in the future.