Wednesday, October 17, 2018

TMB Day 4: Resting and Digesting in Courmayeur

Day Four
July 20, 2018

Starting point: Courmayeur, Italy
Ending point: Courmayeur, Italy
Distance: 0 miles
Height gain: 0 feet
High point: 3rd floor of Hotel Edelweiss
Lunch: Le Vieux Pommier
Accommodation: Hotel Edelweiss

An inconspicuous sign at the top of the Col de la Seigne on Day 3 indicated that we had walked from France into Italy.  On the TMB trail, it was not immediately noticeable that we had crossed a national border besides the fact that people started saying "Buongiorno" rather than "Bonjour," but the moment we sat down to eat our first meal at the Rifugio Elisabetta was the moment we realized that we were definitely in Italia!  The Italians do not mess around with food - they are dead serious about what they put on the table.  As if we weren't already dying of happiness from the polenta, pizza, and cured meat plate from Day 3, the following "rest day" in Courmayeur turned into a gastronomic exploration into the cuisine of the Aosta Valley.  Courmayeur is a small Alpine resort town in northwest Italy, nestling at the foot of Mont Blanc in a region known as the Aosta Valley.  It ain't Rome, Venice, or Florence, but this town is somewhat of a hidden treasure with a vibrant local culture all its own.  We were really grateful to have a full day to relax and basically eat our way through Courmayeur after three very tough first days on the TMB.  Despite being a very small town, Courmayeur has so much to offer, with its intimate alpine atmosphere, its charming cobblestone streets, and those quaint yet exotic Fiat Panda Four-by-Four's.   In between snoozing and feasting, we learned so much about Italian culture in the just-over one day that we spent there.  

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Once Upon A Mooncake...

We both grew up with the tradition of eating Cantonese-style mooncakes (月餅) around this time each year, to symbolize the Mid-Autumn Festival.  Like all other Lunar-calendar-based holidays, the Mid-Autumn Festival falls on a different day every year.  The only reliable cue of its arrival is the appearance of mooncakes for sale at the Asian grocery stores.  I'm not sure how our parents decided on which ones to buy - there were so many different kinds, and they all look equally gorgeous to me. But one thing is for sure: our parents never bothered (or dared) to make these themselves. So, when Wes told me that he wanted to attempt this task, I knew that it would be a beast. He knew too, but when does this guy ever back down from a complicated cooking challenge?

Mooncakes consist of a thin, tender pastry skin enveloping a sweet, dense filling, and may contain one or more whole salted egg yolks in their center as the symbol of the full moon. They're intricately imprinted with floral patterns and characters representing longevity, harmony, etc.  I must be getting old, but I think that the ones from the store are extremely sweet, quite oily, and full of suspicious preservatives.  I figured that making them ourselves would give us control over all of those elements and some creative freedom. I have always fantasized of matcha-flavored mooncakes, so we experimented with that. I also do not like to eat the chalky and overly salty egg yolks, so I developed a recipe for a faux egg yolk using kabocha squash, which uncannily bears the same color.

This process was not without bumps in the road.  Sometimes, potholes.  It was almost impossible to find golden syrup. The black sesame filling did not come together. We hadn't thought of pre-soaking the red beans overnight.  We needed to find a spray bottle.  The coconut oil that we bought was not correct (should have bought virgin coconut oil, not filtered).  The kitchen scale was running low on batteries.  Conversions, fractions, division, multiplication, subtraction, plain old addition, and keeping track of all of those measurements... my brain was going to explode.  Our first batch turned out great-looking, but bad-tasting.  Our second batch turned out bad-looking, but great-tasting.  And our final batch turned out just right, thank the Lord.

And so begins the weeklong saga of stumbling our way through learning how to make our own mooncakes.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

TMB Day 3: Refuge des Mottets to Courmayeur

Day Three
July 19, 2018

Starting point: Refuge des Mottets
Ending point: Courmayeur
Distance: 17.6 miles
Height gain: 4170 feet
High point: Col de la Seigne (8255 feet)
Lunch: Rifugio Elisabetta
Accommodation: Hotel Edelweiss

Today was the unintended longest day of the trek for us. We would be leaving France behind and crossing into Italy at Col de la Seigne. Inspired by our dinner companions the night before, we made a last-minute decision to combine Day 3 and 4 in order to give ourselves a much-needed rest day in Courmayeur, a bustling small city in Italy that many trekkers use as a start/stop point.  It's informally known as the "Chamonix of Italy."  Many people manage to get all the way to Courmayeur at this stage of the trek by taking advantage of a cablecar ride leading down the mountaintop into the Aosta valley. Since we were doubling up on days, we decided that our tired joints could benefit from the cablecar ride, too. Plus, we were really looking forward to having Day 4 as purely a rest day. Little did we know that the last cablecar was to leave long before we could arrive, so we ended up walking the entire four miles down to Courmayeur on weak knees and burning thighs. Maybe it was the extended lunch at Rifugio Elisabetta (a side-hike in itself, and our first meal ever in Italy) that did us in, but that food was totally worth the stop. At the end of the day, we celebrated with two enormous pizza pies - undeniably the best pizza of our lives!

Friday, August 10, 2018

TMB Day 2: Refuge Nant Borrant to Refuge des Mottets

Day Two
July 18, 2018

Starting point: Refuge Nant Borrant
Ending point: Refuge des Mottets
Distance: 10.5 miles
Height gain: 4446 feet
High point: Col des Fours (8743 feet)
Lunch: Sack lunch from Refuge Nant Borrant
Accommodation: Refuge des Mottets

Apparently it never rained on Day 1, so when we looked at the forecast on the morning of our second day, we shrugged off whatever we saw and used our physical state to make the ultimate decision on what route to take. Going down the creaky wooden stairs to breakfast still felt like I was balancing on invisible rocks, and both of our thighs and calves were burning still, but we both knew that we were destined for the high route, anyway.  We came here to maximize our experience and we never shy away from a challenging hike back home, so since it was only Day 2, we figured we could stand for another beating.

The variante route would take us over three mountain passes and into the Valley of Glaciers.  This route also reached one of the highest points on the entire trek: Col des Fours. After that, it was a long, tiring descent into the Valley of Glaciers, eventually reaching the Refuge des Mottets. Coming down from the Col des Fours was even longer and steeper than coming down from the Col de Tricot the day before, and it also involved some waterfall crossings and some very rocky areas that would have been really difficult to do without trekking poles. We barely saw anybody else on this trail, but that was probably also because we had taken, as always, an extended lunch break in the middle of the day.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

TMB Day 1: Les Houches to Refuge Nant Borrant

Day One
July 17, 2018

Starting point: Les Houches
Ending point: Refuge Nant Borrant
Distance: 12.1 miles
Height gain: 3547 feet
High point: Col de Tricot (6955 feet)
Lunch: Refuge de Miage
Accommodation: Refuge Nant Borrant

"The bare statistics of height gain and loss, and the amount of time calculated to walk this stage, underline the fact that it's a demanding route for a first day.  But it's also a magnificent section, rich in high mountain views and a worthy introduction to the Tour of Mont Blanc." (Reynolds 43)

The nerves were prickling when I woke up this morning. The first thing we did was check the weather.   It had been nice and sunny the whole day before, with only a little rain at night, so it really surprised me that today it was forecasted to rain pretty much all day.  We continued to gape at the raincloud icons on our phones for a while longer, in disbelief, as if we had the power to will the predicted storm away just by staring at the screen.  Reservations tonight were at an isolated refuge twelve miles away on foot.  In fact, we were locked into reservations for the next nine nights at a variety of huts, hotels, and BNB’s in France, Italy, and Switzerland.  So, waiting another day to begin the trek was definitely not an option.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Day 0: What We Did Before the Tour du Mont Blanc

Day Zero. As we learned in Europe, everything seems to start at Zero. So, the first floor in Europe is actually the second floor. We even saw elevators with a negative-1 floor, but we won’t go into that. Maybe this is just a classic example of how Americans live in their own world, just like how we had to convert every measurement from the more universally-accepted metric system into feet and miles as a part of our preparation for this trek...

We went to Europe this summer solely to do the Tour Du Mont Blanc (TMB), a 105-mile trekking circuit with an accumulated height gain and loss of something like 32,800 feet. This route circles the Mont Blanc group of mountains in the Graian Alps, which is a section in the western part of the Alps that dips in and out of three countries: France, Italy, and Switzerland (specifically, between the regions of Aosta Valley, Italy, and Savoie and Haute-Savoie, France). This trek was something that we wanted to do for the challenge, the food, the alpine views, and the multiculturalism. Our expectations were surpassed in all categories. I faced my fear of cheese, Wes faced his fear of heights, and we both faced our fear of unpredictability. And I will flat-out state that this was without a doubt physically the hardest thing either of us has ever done, and hell, it was a lot harder than we thought it would be on the outset.  Because of this, it was the most rewarding, beautiful, and heart-fulfilling ten days together.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Big Pine Lakes Backpacking

Big Pine.  Lone Pine.  Bishop.  These were just the funny little names of the quirky towns that we could always count on for food and gas while driving up the Highway 395 to Mammoth during snowboarding season.  I never would have imagined that these seemingly random places would end up becoming actual destinations for us.  It's true that there isn't really anything much to see or do in the towns themselves, but these towns serve as the gateways into endless options for adventure in the Eastern Sierra that we were totally oblivious to until this year.  Our first trip to Big Pine itself was last September, and we day-hiked to Big Pine Lakes on a whim by driving to the trailhead and doing an out-and-back hike on the North Fork trail.  We saw backpackers setting up their tents on the rocks above the gorgeous lakes, and I remember that we both were thinking, that could be us.

Little did I know that it really would be us.  This place is really popular (for obvious reasons), so we made sure to jump on it as soon as the reservation window opened.  By January, we had already locked in a mid-June weekend and we had most things that we needed in order to spend the night already, thanks to Wes's diligent research.  It was a much-anticipated backpacking trip, and it was awesome.  Of course, parts of it were less awesome, like pooping into a hole in the ground and getting swarmed by HOARDS of these crazy mosquitoes...and the combination of the two...but we would do it all again.  I think that the only thing we'd change is to pre-treat all of our stuff with mosquito repellent and get some stronger stuff... or avoid the season in general.  Wes must have had a hundred bites (if not more) all over his body.  Those dreaded bugs were able to push their stingers through our socks and long-sleeved shirts and even underneath the brim of our hats.  They were not only "ferocious," as the park ranger had put it, but absolutely merciless.  And they were completely unavoidable, despite covering up and bug spraying any exposed skin.

We intended to do lots of side-hikes to see more of the area since we had a full day to spare, but we ended up just being really laidback and hanging out a lot at Lake #2, which is where we chose to set up our tent.  This is undeniably the most beautiful lake out of the seven.  With such a prime camp spot, it would have been silly to not have taken full advantage!  We brought two cameras, our Sony RX1 and also our new Go Pro 6 on this trip and totally went crazy with the photos... we had forgotten how fun it was to have a Go Pro.

Eating the lightweight mountain meals that we brought with us was also a fun and exciting experience.  I'm not sure if other backpackers get as much of a kick out of their food as we do, but discovering the intricacies of rehydrating Backpackers' Pantry pad thai and the oddly satisfying taste and texture of freeze-dried Mexican chocolate ice cream were two of our favorite moments from this trip overall.  We had a lot of fun picking out these packaged lightweight dried foods at REI when they were on sale a while ago, so now was our chance to break them out.

In general, just being far away from all of the conveniences of the modern world was a wonderful way to recharge and reset.  We both had a few weeks of unpredictable and jam-packed work schedules, with Wes traveling out of state for two weeks back-to-back and me starting at a new school with a completely new caseload and picking up extra assignments every day at my second job at the skilled nursing facility.  It was great to have no email or calendar notifications, no alarms to set, and no definitive plans whatsoever.  No decisions needed to be made over what to eat or what chores/errands we could squeeze in, and no communication with anybody who was not present could possibly be had, since there was no reception.  The only things we needed to focus on were our basic needs: obtaining water, cooking our food, tending to our bodily functions, and avoiding bears.  We went to sleep after watching the sun set (at 9 PM or something!) and watched the stars come out through the transparent material of our tent ceiling.  For two mornings in a row, we woke up to Temple Crag looming over us in all of its glory.  It was worth it, swollen mosquito bites, grimy fingernails, sweaty armpits, and all.