At a snail’s pace, my legs burning, I climbed the last mile to the top of the Grand Col du Ferret. Wiping sleet and mud from my eyes, I wondered why we hadn’t picked a more traditional honeymoon. At that very moment, I could have been reading a book on a Tahitian beach or drinking pina coladas in Maui. Instead, I was riding my mountain bike in the Alps—wet, miserable, and exhausted. Looking back down the mountain behind me, my poor husband, Blair, was a mere speck far below.
Several months before, deep in the midst of wedding planning, we’d had an “aha” moment when it occurred to us we could axe the big ceremony and take a dream mountain bike vacation instead. We still got married, of course, but it was a cheap and low-key affair that involved camping and saying “I do” on the rim of the Grand Canyon.
For our honeymoon, we picked a trip we discovered in a coffee table book–The Tour du Mont Blanc. Five days long, the tour covers 105 miles and 32,800 feet of vertical as it circumnavigates the highest peak in the Alps. Best known amongst trail runners and slightly altered for mountain bikers, the route consists of epic singletrack, dirt road, and barely-there (or non-existent) footpaths. It starts and ends in Chamonix, France and works its way through Switzerland and Italy as it traverses high mountain passes.
The trip had sounded like a grand adventure. Now, on the morning of the third day, the route seemed a little too grand. It didn’t help that we were stuck with a group of U.K. riders full of aspiring Danny MacAskills and Bradley Wiggins. One of the riders that I had managed to keep up with confessed to me that he had almost stayed home after he discovered that our riding companions were mountain bike legends in their corner of England.
As I reached the top of the Col, the weather took a change for the worse. Huddled between a lone boulder and a white wooden cross, I struggled to pull on more clothes for the descent. Blair had disappeared entirely in the ominous fog below and rather than waiting for him any longer, I decided to look out for numero uno and get myself down to safety. Immediately, the descent turned ugly as the rider in front of me lost traction on an off-camber water bar. Blood gushed from a deep cut in his knee. I wished him luck but quickly moved on. If I wasn’t even going to wait for my husband, I certainly wasn’t going to risk my life for some cheeky Brit I’d only known for three days.
Other than the horrific weather, the descent was not unlike those on the rest of the tour. It was steeper, rockier, and less defined than any trail I’d ever ridden in the western U.S. Accustomed to purpose-built trails, riding in the Alps was a rude wake-up call. Being from Phoenix, home of some of the techiest trails in the States, I thought I could take whatever rocks or roots the Alps might throw at me. Boy was I wrong, I thought, as I nearly endoed for the third time in three minutes.
Eventually, I passed Foggy walking his bike through a tight switchback.
“I can’t see,” he explained in a deeply accented brogue. Foggy had earned his nickname back home in rainy England for his perpetually foggy glasses.
“Good luck,” I hollered, but my words were lost in the gale-force winds.
The rest of the descent was uneventful—except for the picturesque Swiss cows blocking the trail, a second downed rider, and a bad pass by none other than Blair who had slipped and slid his way back to me.
We dried off and cared for the wounded at a refuge that marked our entrance to Italy. The Tour du Mont Blanc is full of these refuges—shelters along the trail that, as the name suggests, offer refuge to hikers (and bikers) in the form of sleep and eat and drink. Most of these quaint alpine huts are open only a few months of the year due to snow and limited road access.
Dry–or drier–we continued our descent further into Italy, where we stopped again at a homey Italian lodge for lunch. These long and frequent breaks became our saving grace as the days and the vertical feet added up. Seated near a rustic fireplace, I regained feeling in my toes while eating a giant plate of homemade pesto pasta. Jon, a skinny road biker who had been struggling on the descents as much as I had, leaned over to Blair as his post-meal cappuccino arrived.
“What kind of puddings to you eat in the States?”
Blair and I shared a quizzical look, and then my friendly husband dove in. “Well, we have tapioca pudding and I particularly like banana pudding. But we tend to eat more pie and ice cream than pudding.”
Jon gave us an equally quizzical look, smiled, and then asked our opinion on American healthcare. It wasn’t until a week later, when we were visiting London, that I learned that pudding means dessert in England. We also discovered on the trip that a “mech” is a derailleur and a “holdall” is a duffle. Sue, the only other female on the trip, asked me one cold day if I wanted to borrow her jumper and I couldn’t dare say yes since I had no idea what a jumper was. Needless to say, communication proved to be as difficult with our fellow English-speakers as it was with the French and Italians hikers we ran into along the way. Sometimes we reverted to sign language.
Luckily, Blair and I spoke the same language, and we shared our woes in private each night. We counted cuts and bruises, and traded Tylenol and compression socks. After washing clothes in the sink and hanging them from open windows, we joined the rest of the crew for beers. Each of the refuges we stayed at had plentiful beer, comfortable beds, and lovely patios. On the last night, we sat on a patio overlooking crystal-clear Lake Roseland. Another night, we ate dinner with a glacier as our backdrop.
The fifth and final day began with thirty winding switchbacks to the top of the world, followed by a nearly uninterrupted six-hour descent back to Chamonix. The descent began in an alpine field with no defined trail, eventually turned to a technical rock field, and finally became a wild ride through the forest. As much as I love descending, by the time we reached St. Gervais I was ready to be done.
Jon, the roadie, was done also. His face was bloody and he was missing a front tooth. Alas, there was no rest for the weary. Instead, we were loaded into a train and transported upward again for our final descent to Chamonix. The train chugged steeply upward on ancient rail ties that rattled like an amusement park ride.
Finally, with 105 miles down, one-half mile to go, and nothing but flat road remaining, I failed to unclip and fell sideways into stinging nettle. The exhaustion, the fear, the elation of the week all bubbled to the surface and I found myself, a female surrounded by men, in tears and inconsolable. All my toughness over the tour was, at the eleventh hour, reduced to this.
Fortunately, my new husband and my new friends recognized it as a momentary lapse. They picked me up, wiped me off, and took me out for French wine and fondue. As the sun set on the last day of our adventure, we sat in the shadow of Mont Blanc and relived the trip. Despite all of the pain, our stories were full of funny moments and joy. Foggy complained that the end had come too soon.
Next to me, Blair squeezed my hand and I squeezed back. This wasn’t the end of our journey, it was only the beginning. We had many more places to go, together, on bikes.
This essay is the 1st place winner in our #TrailTales essay contest. A big thanks to Zoic, Smith, Full Windsor, and Five Ten for sponsoring the contest!