My mother once told me, "If you want to know whether a relationship will work, go on holiday together to a place where neither of you speak the language. If at the end of it you're still talking to each other — and more importantly, in love — then that's a good omen. If not..." So it was with some degree of apprehension, 18 months into our relationship, I asked my girlfriend Zayne, "Do you not think it's about time we go on a proper holiday together, just the two of us?" Admittedly, for most couples, a summer holiday might look a lot like this: beach, tan, wine, repeat. However, since neither of us were good at sitting still, something a bit more adventurous was required. "How about we fast pack the Tour du Mont Blanc?" she said to me, referring to Europe's most iconic hiking route. "It will be fun." I shouldn't have been surprised by Zayne's suggestion, bearing in mind she comes from South Africa where adventure is in the collective DNA, but I was nevertheless taken aback. It was a brilliant idea, although one that could go horribly wrong. Indeed, most romantic getaway itineraries wouldn't include running more than 100 miles around Western Europe's highest mountain, passing through three Alpine countries, all the while, climbing the equivalent height of Mt. Everest. And if my mother was right, it would either become an adventure we'd look back on as the best week of our lives, or the thing that killed our relationship.
As sunshine flows into trees
Our Tour du Mont Blanc experience began and finished in the mountain town of Chamonix—a Valhalla for mountain sports enthusiasts. Whether you're a climber, trail runner, skier or cyclist, you can't help but be awed at the snow-capped Mont Blanc massif that overshadows the town and savor the endless possibilities it presents. We were about to discover a few of them. Living in a large city, even one as lovely as London, can be stressful. Sharing a confined urban jungle with 10 million other people is a daily assault on the senses. Noise, pollution, sitting in endless traffic—peace is not easy to find.
As we ascended, we both entered into a state of mindfulness that I think Muir would have recognized. The mountain was calling, and we must go."
But as soon as we left the Chamonix valley and started our first climb up the Chemin du Delevret, our woes began to evaporate. I was reminded of what the Scottish-American explorer and naturalist John Muir once wrote, “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees." Although he was referring to the mountains of California, as we ascended, we both entered into a state of mindfulness that I think Muir would have recognized. The mountain was calling, and we must go...though not too far, at first.
One turn too many
"I've got to stop," Zayne said, not too far into our journey. "I think I've twisted my ankle." "Yeah, yeah, very funny!" I replied. Then I took a closer look. Her ankle was already slightly swollen. We stared at each other, not quite believing our bad luck. Was this an omen? Barely 10 miles into our holiday and we sat with our feet in ice cold river, eating Jelly Babies and wondering how we'd already managed to hit such a snag. But, of course, life is full of these kinds of obstacles, and we weren't about to let one puffy ankle get in the way of our goal.
Five days is a long time to spend in anyone's company—let alone while running in the mountains. As we slipped from one alpine region to another, we began to slowly peel back the layers of what made us tick: she feels the cold, even on a hot summer day. I like to ascend hills quickly. She loves to stop and smell the flowers or examine fossils. All things considered, the fact that we made 103 miles with only one small blip was, I think, significant. Because I was in peak shape, training for the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, she'd let me move at a quicker pace, advancing ahead for some of the climbs, with the caveat that as soon as I hit a trailhead, I'd stop and wait for her. So, off I'd go, feeling a bit like the scouting collie dog my grandfather had to herd sheep in the Canadian Rockies. My role as scout/sheep dog worked for a while, until I got a little carried away and went, in the words of my girlfriend, "way too far." The next thing I heard were Zayne's shouts echoing down the valley back into Chamonix. It went something along the lines of: "Tobias! Where in the *£$! are you?" Blimey! Had she had another accident? Was it her ankle? Assuming the worst, I turned around and hurtled down the mountain, where I met my angry, red-faced girlfriend coming up the path, looking as if she didn't know whether to impale me with her hiking poles or embrace me. "Didn't you see the turning?" she asked, with a withering look. Clearly, I hadn't. But I also realized she was less angry than she was worried about me, just as I had been worried about her. It's funny the way our emotions tangle up where love is concerned.
A refuge for the night
It was the height of the summer season on Europe's busiest trail and I had taken the precaution of pre-booking our accommodation before we left London. By not camping, we'd be able to travel lightly, carrying only the bare necessities—sleeping bag, passport, trail snacks, a change of clothes, waterproofs and toiletries. And to save weight and hassle, we'd eat our breakfast and dinner at the trail-side refuges. There are dozens of alpine huts to choose from along the trail, and it was hard to tell ahead of time just how — er, luxe — ours would be. Knowing that, we were still surprised when we arrived at our first refuge midway up the Col du Bonhomme. A slim French girl announced she'd show us to our room. "Voila," she said with a smile and in broken English, "Here is the sleeping for you. Bonne nuit et dormez bien!" We stared in silence. Dominating the center of the room was one giant bunk bed, with six spaces on the top and six spaces on the bottom. Clearly, this refuge operated on a first-come first-served basis—most of the accessible spaces had already been taken. We were like sardines in a can. It was not really the romantic retreat I'd had in mind. "Didn't you book us a private room?" asked Zayne, her voice hovering on that razor's edge between laughter and tears. I explained that I honestly thought I had. She took a deep breath. "It's so lucky for you I brought my ear plugs." She laughed and I joined in, nervously. But that was only day one. Four days later, we were back in Chamonix — tanned, fit, happy, smiling and very much in love. Nothing, as the old song goes, "had marred our joy." Two years later and now married, we look upon our first holiday adventure together as not just a deeply bonding experience but one of those bedrock memories that will last a lifetime. Frankly, neither of us can wait to do it again. Read the Gear Guide here!