Travelers seeking more meaningful adventures are embarking on modern-day pilgrimages. The idea of engaging in a pilgrimage is a common theme in almost every world religion and reflects humanity’s desire for fulfillment. These transformative endeavors test physical resolve and reward people with awe-inspiring and spiritual experiences.
The journey begins
A desire for contentment has touched the hearts of many modern pilgrims, including Suzanne and Bill Heinrich of Ashland?, ages 67 and 69.
The couple previously completed 500 miles across northern Spain on the Camino de Santiago de Compostella in 2014. Their motivation for another pilgrimage was simple –
their love for walking, hiking, fitness and the outdoors. “Our motto, especially as we get older, is if you rest, you rust,” says Suzanne Heinrich.
The couple learned about the Tour du Mont Blanc from fellow travelers on the El Camino de Santiago. The Tour du Mont Blanc consists of 10 or 11 days of hiking the Alps by starting in France, hiking into Italy, then into Switzerland and back to France. At about 110 miles, it’s shorter than the Camino, but more challenging in regards to altitude and elevation. “It seemed like a good second thing to do,” says Bill Heinrich.
Preparation is key
The Tour du Mont Blanc is not a spur of the moment trip, and the Heinrichs did not treat it as such. They researched, planned and prepped for nearly a year before setting out in August this year.
This particular trek is one of the most popular long-distance hikes in Europe. Advance planning allowed the couple to find and reserve the places they would need to rest in between climbing. “We needed 12 places to stay, each night at a different place along the route,” says Suzanne Heinrich, who found lodging in a combination of mountain refuges and hotels. “You hike up one day and stay overnight in the mountains, then down the next day to stay in the valley. Repeat this over 11 stages.”
The Heinrichs were careful about what they brought. Packing light saved heartache and physical pain down the road, as extra weight equals more effort during the climb. The couple knew that if something wasn’t essential, to leave it home. A few necessary supplies they brought were a hat, sunscreen, water bottle, a few toiletries, gloves and minimal first aid. Finding the perfect pair of shoes was also a pivotal part of their preparation. A high quality pair of boots or shoes was a worthwhile investment. “Train with your shoes,” advises Bill Heinrich, “and put a bunch of miles on them before going.”
Let’s get physical
“Our motto, especially as we get older, is if you rest, you rust,” – Suzanne Heinrich
Exercise and physical fitness were a regular part of the Heinrichs’ lives long before they did the Tour du Mont Blanc. Even though the couple routinely hiked and cycled, they began specific training for the tour in March. “To prepare, we hiked over 700 miles, with an accumulated elevation gain in excess of 134,000 feet,” explains Suzanne Heinrich. They hiked almost every day, or every few days, until the week before flying to Geneva, Switzerland. Each of their hikes were about two hours, or up to eight hours, per day. While many sources state you can hike the Tour du Mont Blanc if reasonably fit, the Heinrichs felt extra training was necessary. They saw other people, who appeared fit, stop and turn back because the hike was more difficult than anticipated.
Fortunately, there were plenty of local hiking trails with varying degrees of difficulty they could use. “We trained entirely in the Ashland watershed,” says Bill Heinrich. He created an Excel spreadsheet to track their training. By recording elevations reached and miles hiked, the Heinrichs could get a feel for how fit they were and what they still needed to do.
Some of their hiking trails included the Jabberwocky and Bandersnatch. Each one helped improve the couple’s stamina and endurance in preparation for the big event. “We don’t have mountains here like the Alps, but 13 miles up Mt. Ashland tests your ability to climb,” says Suzanne Heinrich. They carried full backpacks for the last month to bring their training to the next level.
Exhausting and rewarding
The Tour du Mont Blanc is physically and mentally challenging. The Heinrichs hiked up to 11 hours a day over uneven terrain and were confronted with steep ascents and descents. “Steep elevation gains were at least 2,000 feet, and up to more than 4,300 feet each day,” explains Suzanne Heinrich.
After a rough second day due to jet lag and a 9-hour time difference, the couple’s outlook brightened. Exhilaration replaced exhaustion. “I was in the groove and loving it!” says Suzanne Heinrich.
Modern pilgrimages are often a spiritual experience for travelers. It taught the Heinrichs to live life to the fullest, they report. Traveling light also showed the couple that you don’t need a lot of material things to be happy. “My faith was strengthened each day I hiked,” explains Suzanne Heinrich.
To be present in the moment is a common takeaway for people who go on modern pilgrimages. The Heinrichs say they are happier and healthier after completing the Tour du Mont Blanc. “I have great calf muscles now,” jokes Suzanne Heinrich, “and I’ve learned to be grateful.”