A couple of months ago, nearly three years to the day since we took our first hike as a family of five, we finally saw a tiny glimmer of light at the end of that baby-carrying tunnel.
Since moving to the mountains five years ago, we had never gone for a hike without at least one child on at least one of our backs. And a bag (or few) full of STUFF.
Climbing every mountain, fording every stream… the hills were alive but the going was slow, what with the increasing number of kilos strapped to us.
Over the years the loads have fluctuated, as old kids grow and new kids arrive. Alpine Boy finally grew too big to be carried, and impressed us all by walking up here aged four:
Alpine Girl moved from our fronts to our backs, and then finally found her feet and used them to climb Le Mole, a few days before her fourth birthday:
But more about those another day. Let’s ignore Julie Andrews for once and start at the very end, a very good place to start.
As I was saying (bear with me): a couple of months ago, nearly three years to the day since we took our first hike as a family of five, we finally saw a tiny glimmer of light at the end of that baby-carrying tunnel.
We climbed a mountain. And Alpine Baby walked all the way.
All the way, people! Way to go.
Looking for tips to get your three-year-old to hike to the top of a very big hill?
Tip number one: hide the carrier. We shunned our big frame carrier and opted for the Ergo (my all-time favorite piece of baby kit). Which we then rolled up very small and sneaked into Alpine Boy’s rucksack. The thought-process being that if she didn’t know she could be carried, she wouldn’t whinge to be carried.
And weirdly, it worked! For most of the time.
Tip number two? Big them up. We’d been telling Alpine Baby for about a week that she was going to climb a mountain, walking all the way like a big girl. She was so excited it never occurred to her that she was being totally conned – that doing a huge walk up the side of a bloody big mountain when your legs are half the size of everyone else’s is actually not a treat.
(On the subject of treats: tip 3 is never leave the house without a huge bag of Haribo. Bribery is your friend. Embrace it.)
And it all worked!
We climbed Pointe de la Trechauffé, and if clichéd Alpine experiences could be bought then we’d certainly have got our full money’s worth out of this trip.
Starting in a picturesque tiny hamlet perched on the hill; wandering up for a picnic at the first pass, with a view to sing for and snow still to play in; moving on through a Disney forest just perfect for picking up pine cones and peeing behind trees; scrambling up a steep cliff of mud and clambering over fallen logs strewn on the ground like giant Mikado sticks; and then the pure excitement of stairs in the mountain (real stairs! Kids very excited about this one. I guess stairs are more exciting when they each step comes up to your knees).
Alpine Baby was in her element, and Alpine Boy and Alpine Girl were loving showing their little sis how easy this mountain lark can be.
More cliff climbs after the stairs, and then a quick look down an ‘interesting crack’ in the rocks (which, on closer inspection from the other side actually turned out to be a ‘bloody enormous bottomless wound in the world’s surface that would instantly swallow any child who wobbled near the edge’).
Slowly edging the kids away from this Door To The Underworld (trying to look cool and not freak them out, while all the while internally screaming “step away from the hole! It’s an enormous bloody great HOLE! Fall down there and you will actually DIEEEEEEE!!!!!”), we carried on, and suddenly – there we were! The summit!
She’d done it. We’d all done it! Minimal whinging, no family members lost down bottomless pits, and a fantastic first for three-year-old Alpine Baby. Result.
We even managed to get back down in one piece, all present and correct. Result indeed.
No matter how far we walk, the last half hour is always the worst: the car just seems to get further and further away and each step becomes more and more painful. But all that faded into insignificance as Alpine Papa and I smugly basked in the glory of finally owning three fully-hiking offspring.
And in fact we were still smugly basking a week later when, psyched-up with success, I decided we were going to hike the whole Easter weekend in Sixt Fer à Cheval, a simply amazing place less than an hour away.
It was going to be the perfect weekend: we would skip along the easy, flat path which meanders next to the river, through the giant horseshoe created by the ancient and domineering mountains. We would gaze in wonder at the waterfalls around us, and laugh with glee as bluebirds would flit by and butterflies would land on the giggling Alpine Girl’s nose.
Ha, yeah right.
You really are only as good as your latest success, and that day brought us crashing to the ground.
The walk was as flat as a crêpe, and (bizarrely) crap. The kids (ALL of them) whined from the word ‘go’.
We’d doled out bribery sweets before we’d even got out of the car park. We didn’t have a baby-carrier stowed away anywhere (it had been optimistically – smugly – left in the boot of the car), so of course Alpine Baby immediately demanded to be carried.
It was cold. It was not sunny. There were huge fields of snow everywhere with broken trees sticking out of them, trees which had been mercilessly crushed to death by falling avalanches only a couple of months before. These snowfields had to be navigated with caution, to avoid slipping on your backside or losing your foot into a big wet puddle underneath.
We were going to walk all the way to the end of this fabulous natural horseshoe but soon it became clear the weather wasn’t going to ease up and we would have to complete the loop a bit sooner. This meant crossing over yet more snow and on to a rickety bridge.
Alpine Baby is on Alpine Papa’s shoulders by this point, her tears now indistinguishable from the rain also coursing down her cheeks. Alpine Girl’s whinging has reached it’s peak (mainly, to be fair, because she is knee deep in the white stuff and she’s now got to cross a scary wobbly bridge), and Alpine Boy is doing his best to be courageous but it’s clearly hard when the rain is pouring off his hood and straight down his nose.
And then the hail started. Hail. Of course. Just as we needed to cross another arm of the river.
Where the bridge had fallen down. Of course.
I’m not exaggerating here. It was as if someone had decided to make a horror film based on that kids’ book ‘Going On a Bear Hunt’:
“Oh no! A massive great big bloody river! Can’t go over it, can’t go under it, well have to go… through it!”
The stuff nightmares are made of.
So wade through it we did. Alpine Baby was still safely on Alpine Papa’s shoulders, Alpine Boy just ran for it, jumping from rock to rock (he was wet enough already, a few more splashes made no difference), so Alpine Girl was my responsibility.
Did I mention I had a broken arm? Or, rather, a recently-fixed-but-still-in-a-brace arm. I’d recently come out of surgery for the bone I buggered up skiing over a year before, and there was no way my withered limb would let me carry Alpine Girl.
As I stood at the top of the steep river bank, contemplating the knee-deep water angrily rushing by and somehow trying to swing a four-year-old onto my back using just one arm, a knight in shining armour galloped by and rescued my little princess. Calmly reassuring her, the stranger sprang through the river holding her regally above his head, and floated her down onto the opposite bank before disappearing into the mist. (She talked about him for days after).
And so, gritting teeth, we moved onwards.
The hail and then the rain slowly eased up, as they are bound to do, and the whinging slowly calmed down, as tends to be the case. We limped back to the car, drenched and battle sore, all of us silently swearing never to hike again, I’m sure. Even a steamy hot chocolate in a steamy hot café was not enough to dry us out or warm us up, and we were all shivering as we stumbled to our hostel for the night.
(Cleverly we then left most of our wet clothes in the car that night, and shivered yet further as we put them on the next day. Of course.)
But we had learnt one lesson: we now knew we were not out of that baby-carrying tunnel quite just yet, and we certainly weren’t on the ‘hiking with kids is always fun’ highway (assuming such a thing exists).
So the next day we opted for a drive to an amazing waterfall, right next to the road; followed by a shamefully short walk (with baby-carrier) for some photo opportunities (to stick on Instagram to make us look harder than we really are, of course); followed by burger and chips in the local town; followed by entertainment from the event of the year (a cow beauty contest, naturally); followed by coffee with friends.
Now that’s more like it. We had finally warmed up.
And had finally accepted that working our way through this tunnel ain’t so bad after all.