Two women. Twenty(ish) mountain passes. One hundred miles. And a lot of cheese.
“Sitting up here, I feel immensely proud of what we just did,” Kirstin said as she looked down the valley and pointed to a mountain far in the distance, “I can’t believe we came from all the way over there.”
“Me either.” I smiled and handed her a wad of bread, while she traded me a wedge of cheese, “I’m really proud of us, too.”
“I was so angry while we were climbing up though.” Kristin said, and we both burst into giggles. “Camel was OUT.” ‘Camel’ was the name of Kirstin’s self-proclaimed hiking alter ego, who emerged every time we had a tough climb on the Tour du Mont Blanc, a one hundred mile hiking circuit that loops through France, Italy, and Switzerland. Laughing about the sudden appearance of Camel each day helped us smile through the slogs uphill rather than succumbing to our frustration at the physical difficulty.
We were lying in the sunshine on top of the Grand Col Ferret, a high alpine pass between the ski towns of Courmayeur, Italy and La Fouly, Switzerland. My legs felt leaden as we rested amidst the wildflowers, but despite my exhaustion from the killer climb we had just completed – rising almost 3,000 feet in less than a mile and a half – I felt entirely content.
The Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB) is a stunning multi-day trek that circumnavigates the Mont Blanc mountain range. As you hike, you stay in small mountain hostels called refuges or rifugios (depending on which country you are in) where you receive breakfast, dinner, and a dormitory bed to sleep in – all of which are huge perks compared to ‘normal’ backpacking trips, because they facilitate traveling light, and because the refuges serve food that is ten thousand times more delicious than what I usually cook while backpacking (there really is no comparison between my stale-half-freeze-dried-salty-tasteless bean soup mix and the meal we had at our last refuge: homemade tomato soup and fresh rolls, followed by a roasted chicken and vegetables, followed by a handmade apricot tart and coffee). Most people hike the TMB in 10-12 days, allowing them to relax while they meander from town to town, eating cheese, drinking coffee and wine, getting to know other hikers, and scaling one or fewer mountain passes each day. Basically, it is a backpacking/foodie/coffee snob’s dream trip, a delicious and beautiful sensory adventure.
My best friend of five years, Kirstin, and I took a bit of a different approach on our TMB trek, partially by design and partially because we decided to embark on the trip about three weeks beforehand. Kirstin was in the midst of moving from near Frankfurt, Germany, where she had lived for the previous year while completing a Fulbright fellowship, to Berlin, and thus had a limited amount of time to spend hiking before she had to return to the city to work – seven days to be exact – so we knew we needed to compress our trip. Despite having discussed the idea of my coming out to visit her over the past few months, we were waiting for Kirstin’s German visa extension to be finalized before we could pull the trigger and initiate the trip. When the paperwork finally came through, I rushed to book our beds at the hostels each night, sending a few poorly-worded emails in French with my mom’s help (thanks Merm), without consulting a guide book or paying careful attention to the mileage or elevation gain that we would traverse each day. I knew it would be a strenuous trip, estimating that we would hike about 15 miles per day across mountainous terrain, but felt that we were up to the task – and, worst case, knew that we could make our exit at one of the numerous towns along the way.
As we eventually found out, I accidentally created an itinerary that would require us to hike all of the alternate TMB routes, each of which (as we would later read) our guidebook described as more beautiful and more physically challenging than the normal TMB routes. Whoops! Luckily for me, my chosen travel partner took this intense plan in stride (heh heh) and together we smiled and sometimes grimaced, together through all of the ups and downs of the trail (sorry… I couldn’t resist).
Kirstin and I met on Halloween during our freshman year of college, and when we tell other people about how our friendship began, I always joke that I pursued her. But, essentially that is the truth – from our introduction, I knew that I wanted to be her friend. Although quite different – where I am talkative and hyper, Kirstin is artsy-cool and initially more reserved – we make a dynamic, supportive pair and together bring out the goofiest, happiest, most honest side of each other. We share a love of hiking and backpacking, and had often lightheartedly talked about going on an adventure of this scale throughout our friendship, but never seriously thought we would ever actually do it. So when Kirstin decided she would stay on in Germany at the same time that I had finished my LSAT and finally felt capable of traveling abroad to visit her (read about my struggles with OCD here to catch the meaning of this reference), we knew that we had to seize the opportunity and actually make the idea a reality. It felt really cool to mutually prioritize our relationship and make time for each other, especially because in our society romantic relationships often seem to carry more weight than friendships in terms of how we allot our time and energy. Both Kirstin and I really value the friendship we share, an importance that also extends to our other best friends from college (you know who you are people!). While discussing it on trail, Kirstin and I both remarked how we would be willing to make sacrifices in order to live in the same place with this group of friends, because the happiest times that we can each remember are those when we are together with these women.
For a long time, my relationships with other women in the context of outdoor sports like skiing or backpacking were very competitive. Based on the idea that in order to be accepted as an outdoorswoman I had to keep up with the guys that I skied with and differentiate myself from the other women who were “high maintenance”, “catty”, and above all, “couldn’t hang with the guys”, I tended to view other female skiers as a threat (and other outdoor women shared a similar perception of me). This type of internalized misogyny defined many of my female relationships. I was very competitive with my female classmates in school and teammates in sports, and also saw many of my girlfriends as competitors for the affection and acceptance of the guys that we hung out with, but my female friendships in the outdoors were most strained by this phenomenon. Viewing other women as threats to my identity as an outdoorswoman was quite degrading to my self confidence, and reinforced the lower value that society assigns to women (especially in outdoor contexts). Suzannah Weiss sums up this concept succinctly,
“When we consider ourselves a rare exception to our gender for being easygoing or strong or more focused on inner qualities than appearance, we insult all women and therefore ourselves.”
It wasn’t until college that I started to break down this negative perception of other women, a process that I am still working on (and probably always will have to work on). Despite being in awe of her, my relationship with Kirstin was one of my first female friendships that was based on mutual encouragement and pride in each other’s accomplishments, rather than subtle, competitive vibes.
I think the turning point for me was a summer that Kirstin and I spent living on our college’s campus between Sophomore and Junior year. We both played on the Division III varsity soccer team at that time, and that summer we trained for the upcoming fall season almost every day together. Kirstin was, without a doubt, the best player on our team (she played on a club team in high school that sent many girls to Division I schools), whereas I was a routine benchwarmer, having restarted playing soccer my Sophomore year of college after a three-year hiatus. The difference in our skill levels removed a mental road block for me; knowing she would always play on a different level than I would allowed me to see Kirstin solely as a friend who could coach me and push me to work harder, get fit, and build my skills, rather than a threat. Transforming Kirstin from potential competition into a role model marked the beginning of an alteration in my perception of female relationships, and has had an hugely positive impact on my life. Both of us look back on our workouts that summer, hours of exhausting sprints, runs, drills, and lifts, fondly, as the beginning of a closeness that was founded upon mutual encouragement of and pride in each other.
“What the heck.” Kirstin looked at her watch and then looked incredulously at me, “We shaved 45 minutes off that climb.”
I grinned back at her, “Wow! Look at us go!” While she grabbed her water bottle, I pulled a chocolate bar out of my pack and wiggled it in front of her face. “Time for a treeeat!”
We sat atop the last big mountain pass of the TMB (actually there were about four more significant climbs to go, but for some reason we felt this was our last at the time), our sweat cooling and gluing our shirts to our skin. As I looked out over the mountains in front of us, I compared this climb to those from our first day on the trail, and thought about how much Kirstin had improved in speed, self confidence, and endurance in six days – I felt really proud of her. I grew up hiking in the mountains, and, though a bit out of shape at the start of our trip, was used to the big climbs and long days on trail, whereas for Kirstin, who is from Milwaukee, WI, hiking the mountains on the TMB was a newer experience. She is a fantastic athlete, so I when I was planning I knew that she wouldn’t have any real trouble with TMB, but it seemed like each day on trail she got better at mentally and physically tackling the climbs that we faced and became more confident in the mental and physical strength that she has always possessed.
Recognizing my feelings of pride for Kirstin, I thought about how amazing it felt to be happy for a friend instead of jealous of her, and how special it was that Kirstin and I had gotten this opportunity to spend a week hiking together. We passed the time sweating up and down climbs, eating treats at little cafes, sitting quietly and relaxing together, and drinking beers as a celebration of our hard work each day. We reinvested energy into our friendship after living in different countries for a year, and rediscovered how much wonder, excitement, and goofiness you can find when you are in the outdoors with your best girlfriend. Hiking the TMB with Kirstin was definitely one of the best weeks of my whole life. Cheers to Kirstin, and to all of the other wonderful female friendships that exist in the world – I hope we as women can continue learning to build each other up and take pride in our accomplishments as we climb.
Sources Cited and Trip Planning Resources
Cultural Bridges to Justice. “Internalized Sexism/Internalized Misogyny.” Web. http://www.culturalbridgestojustice.org/programs/sexism/internalized-sexism/
Weiss, Suzannah. “7 Sneaky Ways Internalized Misogyny Manifests in Our Daily Lives.” Bustle. December 18, 2015. Web. https://www.bustle.com/articles/130737-7-sneaky-ways-internalized-misogyny-manifests-in-our-everyday-lives
Interested in doing the TMB? Check out these resources.
Mon Tour du Mont Blanc is a completely free hut-to-hut trip planner that utilizes a cooperative between all the refuges along the TMB. You can calculate the hiking times between refuges, compare prices, check refuge availability, and can make your reservations directly from the website. Check it out here: http://www.montourdumontblanc.com/fr/index.aspx
Information about the TMB, Chamonix (a typical launching point for the TMB), buses and other transportation options can be found here: https://www.chamonix.net/english/summer-activities/trekking/tour-of-mont-blanc
Those who need to do an expedited version of the TMB can use this blog entry as a reference point. While the authors provide a little more information than necessary, this couple completed the TMB in six days, and provide a lot of info about refuges, what to expect on a condensed hike, and possible shortcut options. https://mrandmrsadventure.com/2017/04/06/hiking-the-tour-du-mont-blanc/
Another hiker’s perspective on the TMB: https://www.theguardian.com/travel/2015/jul/19/trekking-tour-du-mont-blanc-the-alps
Additional planning help and packing lists can be found here. https://www.theoutbound.com/katie-yarborough/everything-you-need-to-know-about-backpacking-tour-du-mont-blanc