Guided by Yellow Diamonds Part 1

In the chilly, misty morning, I make my way out of my tent. I discover I have gotten a new blister, this time on the bottom part of my little toe. For the past couple of days, I have walked hour after hour, putting one foot in front of the other – sometimes just matching the previous step. Still, this does not feel tedious, and there is something a little poetic about it; how every step takes me further. No matter what I do or how much time passes, I am always advancing. You just don’t walk backwards.

The Tour du Mont Blanc is regarded as one of the best hiking trails in the whole world and has been as tough and beautiful as promised so far. The little yellow diamond-shaped signs painted on rocks and tree trunks guide my way around Mont Blanc, Western Europe’s tallest peak. My plan is to hike over 170km over ten days, carrying everything I will need in my backpack – from food and utensils to camping gear – through some of the most awe-inspiring landscapes I have ever seen in France, Switzerland and Italy.

After packing everything in my backpack I set off again. Although the campsite was pretty busy, I enjoy the first half of the day all to myself. Traditionally, this hike is completed in an anti-clockwise direction, but when researching for the trip I decided to do it the other way around. And so this morning I leave everyone behind, just as I have done in the previous days.

It is beautiful, how much wilder the scenery seems when there are no people around to corrupt it. I walk through an almost hidden trail, barely visible in the close horizon. Fat, loud bells hanging on grazing cow’s necks greet me as I make my way through Switzerland. Their sound accompanies me all day through green prairies and peaceful slopes. The peaks in France just yesterday were extremely beautiful and almost intimidating; Switzerland today gives me a feeling of tranquillity instead…

It’s almost unbelievable, how far my own feet can take me. Only two days ago I spent the night in France, tonight I will sleep in front of a glacier in Switzerland and tomorrow I will walk through the border into Italy. I encounter myself on a different mountain every evening and walk all day with the certainty that I will watch the sunset from that distant location. Maybe tomorrow, I’ll watch from that valley that I can just make out over in the horizon?

All the strange faces of people passing by are not forgotten, and you know there is a friend in every single one of them. I find friendship in the Spaniards who let me sleep in their room when I could not find my friend at the campsite, or the warmth in Shane’s smile when we unexpectedly see each other again in France after having met briefly in Italy.  It’s in that morning I danced to Imagine Dragons with Sanjay, Peter and a French couple just because it was extremely early and cold. It is the happiness everyone shows as they say good morning and pass by, the selflessness with which fellow hikers help each other. Everyone is human and on the trail you meet the best parts of them.

From Switzerland I cross into Italy. However, not everything is easy and joyful. The weight of my backpack combined with the long descents and endless assents have a massive impact on my right knee, which starts hurting after the fourth day on the trail. It takes an hour of limping before my joints warm up and it is easier to move and, by the time I get to Italy, the pain that returns every morning is almost unbearable.

Italy is the land where the food is great and the sun unforgivable – I can actually feel its rays slowly burning my skin. This is the sixth day walking and as I walk past some of the most beautiful mountains I have seen so far, I am certain that I will not complete the journey. Every step I take brings more pain with it and I try my hardest to hold back the tears every time I move my right knee. I am not going to make it.

Guided by Yellow Diamonds Part 2

It feels as though lightning strikes my leg as my heel touches the ground and I do not want to lift it, I do not want that storm to come back. Still, I have to keep moving. So, less than a second afterwards, I lift my leg and take another step, bringing that piercing pain back.

Then I look up and see the Italian side of the Mont Blanc massif… and right next to me are these mighty mountains coated by small boulders. The rocks slide down slowly, their movement only perceptible after the accumulation of many years. I cannot help thinking that there is something more to it, that maybe the mountain reached greatness and then crumbled, or perhaps it was slowly detaching itself from that coat of rocks, trying to reveal its true shape.

I look back on the trail and can just make out the spot where I camped last night. I look forward and there is no one around, there is no trail, just these eternal mountains shining with the first sunrays. In that moment I feel freedom. I do not have to get anywhere, nothing obliges me to finish the trail; but somehow I know I can do it, and I will. I realise I do not want to be anywhere else and I am ready for the challenges the second half of this hike might bring.

For the remainder of my trek, it feels like I am exactly where I want to be and should be- except when I am in the middle of a really steep hill. Then I want to be at the top of it as soon as possible! Much of the time, I encounter myself on a summit, and after a few deep breaths, I almost forget all about the challenging ascent that I have just gone through. I become conscious of the present moment, there is nothing else but ‘right here’ and ‘right now.’

As I continue on, everyday worries disappear and I start to appreciate the small things. Sleeping in a bed, a hot shower or using an actual towel feel like a big luxury after only seven days of hiking. When you commit to a trip like this, you are sacrificing – or even avoiding – comfort. What is it about this kind of adventure that makes us lunge for them? Most of the time, your standards of living are lower than your everyday lifestyle, yet the trip is so fulfilling. What do we gain from it? I guess the only way to explain this is by getting outside of yourself, and then the reasons become obvious.

I remember looking up at a plane one evening before crossing back into France and feeling peace. I thought about people moving, people worrying about getting places in time, people making a fuss because events were not going as planned. There, in the mountains I felt so removed from all of that. How much we tend to overthink and worry without realising that, in the end, we will get there.

It is the simplicity of hiking that makes my soul content. My basic needs become smaller with every day that passes and simple things satisfy me immensely. How easy it is to wake up at six in the morning, knowing I have a good day ahead of me. I am self-sufficient, I do not need much, and I am perfectly happy.