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How I Learned to Love Hiking the Alps Alone When My Best Friend Bailed

By Miranda Smith

Jul 13, 2018

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On the 10th day of the trip, Lac des Chéreys offered some of the best views of the route. 

Photo by Miranda Smith

On the 10th day of the trip, Lac des Chéreys offered some of the best views of the route. 

You’ll never get lonely on Le Tour du Mont Blanc, a hut-to-hut hike through France, Italy, and Switzerland.

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Sport Hostel Chamonix was closed—its windows were shuttered and all doors locked. I checked my confirmation email and there it was in the fine print: “no arrivals after 20:00.” It was 23:00, or 11 p.m. Too stubborn to check into an expensive lodge and too embarrassed to ask for help, I wandered aimlessly through Chamonix wishing I wasn’t traveling alone.

Just days before, I had thought I would be embarking on this adventure—a 110-mile hike through the Alps—with my best friend. The previous year, a 60-mile trek through the Sierra Nevadas had left us craving another alpine adventure. We settled on le Tour du Mont Blanc. We had picked dates, mapped routes, and booked flights. Then I received a message a week before our scheduled departure: She was not going to make it.

We had planned to camp during our trek, but without friend or tent, I took advantage of the trail’s many refuges.
My first thought had been to cancel the trip. I couldn’t have survived in California without her. What chance did I have trekking through three foreign countries alone? Worse still, she was supposed to bring our camping gear—I had only my boots and a sleeping bag. Already in Europe, I mulled over alternative itineraries that might be better suited to a solo traveler: a visit to family friends in Belgium or a trip to Florence, maybe. But my heart was still set on le Tour du Mont Blanc. 

I had wanted this hike to be a girls’ backcountry camping trip—a re-creation of what my friend and I had done in the Sierra Nevadas. But le Tour du Mont Blanc was an adventure of its own—and as I would eventually learn, one that’s perfectly suited for the solo traveler.

An Osprey backpack was one of the only pieces of proper hiking gear I had in Europe.
That night in Chamonix, alone and hotel-less, I slept under the stars in a campground at the edge of the city. The next morning I rose with the sun, eager to leave before other campers could ask what I was doing outside without a tent, alone and unprepared. It was a question I wasn’t sure I could answer. Even my dad, a man who has always encouraged me to travel independently (and who had once used a tarp to fashion a shelter for six people in the Pyrenees), wondered whether 11 days in the Alps was an expedition beyond a 21-year-old’s pay grade.


I pushed these doubts aside and wandered back to town to purchase a headlamp, a map, and the English guidebook my research had pointed me to: Kev Reynolds’s Tour of Mont Blanc: Complete two-way trekking guide. I shoved this new gear into my half-empty 65-liter Osprey pack and set off. Without proper camping gear, I’d have to depend on the refuges, or alpine lodges, along my route. The first, a place called Gîte Michel Fagot in Les Houches, was just a quick (free) bus ride from Chamonix.

I read my guidebook so thoroughly, I felt like Kev Reynolds was a friend by the end of the tour.
After checking in with a pleasant young French woman, I settled in a sunny spot next to a dog named Ice Tea to pore over my guidebook. The trail I would follow runs through France, Italy, and Switzerland and around Mont Blanc, the tallest mountain in the Alps at 15,78 feet. At the higher altitudes, snow and ice are common, even in the middle of summer. And while the fastest trail runners can complete the 110-mile loop in 20 or 30 hours, most people scale the five major mountain passes at a much slower pace, covering about 10 miles each day.
At 20 years old, Dorothee was one of the few hikers younger than I was and the only other woman hiking alone that I met on the trail.
As I read Reynolds’s tips on traversing snow (use trekking poles), I overheard a young woman ask, in English, for a single bunk. The voice belonged to Dorothee, a 20-year-old German-Irish girl who, like me, was solo hiking le Tour. She had the same English guidebook. Thrilled to identify with another traveler, we made quick friends. Dorothee had begun her trek in Switzerland, so she had already hiked three days of the looped route. As she told me about the well-marked trail and panoramic views, I could feel my confidence growing; if she could do it, surely I’d make it too.

Then another hiker at our table—a Parisian man—interjected to express his amazement and congratulate us on our bravery. He did “not know any girl who would do a thing like this.” Dorothee didn’t seem bothered by the comments, but his disbelief resurfaced my fear of inadequacy. If no other girl would do a thing like this, who was I to attempt it?

Dorothee and I sledded the snowy stretch down le Col des Fours.
It wasn’t the last time we’d hear that question. “Why are you alone? Does your mother know you’re here?” one woman asked as we marched over the French-Italian border at 8,255 feet. But my doubts dissolved a little more with each step and with every mountain pass I conquered.

Dorothee and I traveled together for five days. Sometimes we’d walk separately, as she was faster than I was on the inclines. Other times we’d hike side by side, stopping to dip our toes in frigid creeks, pet grazing cattle, or sled down a snowy stretch on our rain covers.

Refuges high in the Alps allow hikers to sleep under roofs, eat warm meals, and meet other travelers during their trek.
In the evenings, we’d sit at an English-speaking table for a family-style dinner with other travelers. We often found ourselves among the same group of people, and soon we began to recognize one another out on the trail. There was a British father and his teenage son, an American family blogging about their trip, and a crew of four quick-witted Canadian guys. We all had the same guidebook. On our fourth night together, after a hard day of trudging through rain and hail, our group huddled around an unfinished wooden table over beers and a game of cards. I looked around at the smiling, sunburnt faces of my new friends and thought about how I would never have met them if I had been sleeping in a tent with my best friend as planned.

For the next six days, it was as if the training wheels had come off—I was finally a solo traveler.

Staying in refuges each night relieved me of the responsibility of carrying 11 days’ worth of food and shelter through the mountains; better yet, it allowed me to connect with other travelers. Instead of diving deep into uncharted backcountry, I walked along safe, well-marked, well-traveled trails that weaved past quaint hamlets and chalets, never far from civilization. And what the three-country trek lacked in challenging wilderness, it more than made up for in panoramic views of the snow-capped Mont Blanc massif.


Le Tour du Mont Blanc treated me so well that when it came time to part ways with the last of my new friends as they slowed down, sped up, or completed their itineraries, I was no longer afraid or embarrassed to hike alone. For the next six days, it was as if the training wheels had come off—I was finally a solo traveler. I welcomed conversations with the new people I met over dinner, but came to relish waking up with the sun and, without a word to anyone, slipping out of the refuge to immerse myself in the beauty of the Alps. Now when people would ask whether I was traveling alone, I could reply with confidence.

On my last full day of hiking, my view over the still-frozen Lac Blanc was the best of the trip.
I walked my way out of Italy, through Switzerland, and back into France, all the way to Les Houches, where my journey had begun, 11 days before. As I stood in front of Gîte Michel Fagot, I remembered how lonely and self-conscious I’d felt the last time I was there. Now I was alone but proud. Ice Tea greeted me at the door, and the young French hostess looked up from her cooking and recognized me. Her face lit up. “You’ve made it!” she said.

>>Next: 8 of the World’s Greatest Hut-to-Hut Hikes

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