It was never a question in our minds. As soon as our son was born, we were headed to the Alps. Perhaps it is the optimism of a new parent, but we didn’t consider whether we would have the energy, the practical knowhow, or even the willingness to carry a newborn baby to the top of mountain peaks. I remember looking up how much a baby would weigh at ten weeks, and being satisfied that it was only around 5 kilos, and that would be a breeze!
Our little River cub came along at a huge ten and a half pounds. It slightly threw the projected weight off, but C-section or not…we were headed to the Mount Blanc Massif. This time we chose the Italian side, hoping to learn a little more about how the Italians interact with the Alps. Our friends generously allowed us to stay in their apartment in La Thuille, a ski resort by winter, and perfectly situated for some hiking adventures at 1500m.
As soon as our baby bear cub was placed on my chest, we knew he had a heart of adventure. He was named River, for we felt he was a sweet and peaceful soul, but determined about his direction. Joel and I have always been on the same page about instilling in any child a love of nature and the outdoors. There are some things a classroom cannot teach, like bravery, resourcefulness, resilience and awe. In our opinion, you can never start those lessons too early…even at ten weeks. We figured if we immersed him in the Alps, maybe he would love them through osmosis!
Thankfully ten-week-old babies tend to sleep a fair stretch of the day. So, I would feed Riv and load him into the carrier. We would then proceed to hike our hearts out for a few hours as he slept. My favourite thing about being a mother is watching River stare at things in wonder as he sees them for the first time. Can you imagine our delight watching River’s face as we peeled him out of the pack at the top of a windblown peak? You would expect a newborn to scream their head off, but River…well, he was in wonder. His tiny eyes sparkled and bulged as he took in the vistas before him. Snow capped mountain chains sparkling in the summer sun, crystal blue alpine lakes, jagged rock faces, roaring waterfalls and cowbells ringing in their alpine meadows…he took it all in his stride. We knew we had a keeper… this kid was born to be wild.
River, even when asleep, was aware of the mountains. This was particularly evident on any descent, as he would grab a handful of fabric from my t-shirt, as if to say, ‘It’s OK mummy, I trust you. I’m just holding on for the steep bits. OK?’ Both Joel and I loved these moments, as it felt as though River had conquered the climb and mastered the decent, too. We marvelled that a newborn baby even had a sense of balance…maybe it was reflexes, but he felt in on the adventure with us!
The magnificent Mt Blanc was always the one constant with many of the hikes we completed in the region. However, a more impressive view of the mighty summit would be hard pressed to find than at the top of Col de la Croix. Here is the equation that made it so perfect: 1 crystal clear sun-filled day + 2 dry-cured meat sandwiches + 3 old castle-like ruins + 300 catholic teenagers singing resonant hymns in Italian + more mountain peaks than you could count = a perfect summit. Many would say that the perfect summit should be serene, quiet, reflective and deserted. In fact, I would usually be among those. However, the combination of hearing the hymns mixed with the mountains was a special memory I will keep tucked away in my pocket for a very long time. Before Dad passed away he said that he would watch over us all as a butterfly. Up there on that windswept summit we had one photo taken of us as a family. Can you believe at that very moment a butterfly flew through the frame and was captured in the film? It was as though Dad was there, watching over our new little family as we breathed in the fresh air at the top of Europe.
The Val Ferret is an extraordinarily beautiful part of the famed Mount Blanc Trail (MBT) and we were determined to hike this stretch. Gifted with a string of sunny days we set our sights on Refugio Walter Bonatti and upon arrival tucked in to a hearty mountain lunch. I am not sure if there are many things in the world that could top a well earned goulash at a cosy mountain hut with vistas broader than your vision affords you.
It was lovely to see many adventurous families enjoying the trails with their little ones. Although, River was by a long shot the most junior hiker to grace the paths! We had countless funny looks when fellow hikers realised that I was not indeed carrying hiking supplies, but a live wriggly backpack! The reaction would go one of two ways – admiration or shock! The thing I love about any holiday in nature is that like-minded people surround you. This is by virtue of the fact that if you didn’t appreciate the outdoors you wouldn’t be there in the first place! Therefore we had some very interesting and friendly conversations along the trails with people from all around the world. Having a child tends to break down cultural boundaries as though they never existed in the first place. I suppose having a child is a universal experience, no matter where you are from. I didn’t realise how much I would enjoy this aspect of having a baby, and how many doors this would open. River was dishing out the smiles left right and centre, and was a real crowd pleaser. That’s my boy!
Holidaying as a family of 3 was a beautiful experience. The summits were more satisfying sharing them with our baby boy. Sure, we were not able to hike 10-hour days anymore, and stay up late singing in mountain huts (usually with Germans!). But what was important to us was that we were still up there in the mountains, doing what we loved, baby or no baby. We made sure we had some down time to break the days up for River, otherwise he would have spent the whole week in a backpack. In La Thuille we had access to a gorgeous pool looking out over the mountains and Riv chilled in his little tent whilst we basked in the sunshine and swam in the pool.
Riv has always been an exceptionally strong baby. When he was born he lifted his neck and observed the room with curious eyes… ‘hmmm this looks different to the womb!’. He has continued in that vein and at 3 weeks he was bearing his weight on his legs. His favourite thing to do is stand up, so that is probably why most pictures of him include him upright, walking along holding our hands, or straining to see as much as possible! River was a particular admirer of waterfalls and fast flowing water – a true resemblance to his name! He is so alert that he even strains against the car harness. One of us had to sit in the back singing him silly songs to pacify him as we wound around mountain passes, or popped over the pass in to France!
When the time came to leave the Alps it was as though our insides were shrinking alongside the view of Mount Blanc as it faded in the distance. As much as our minds love London, our spirits love the Alps. For us, it is more than a holiday destination. It is what makes us feel alive and in touch with the earth we live upon. We yearn for River to hear the rushing of streams, the ring of the cowbells, the whooshing of the wind, the steady plod of feet following a mountain trail, the crunch of the snow, the silence of the snowflakes and the calls of the marmot – as the sounds of his childhood. Joel and I felt something stirring within us, perhaps the next adventure for our little family…who knows what form that will take, only time will tell!