Father-son team cross alpine trek off bucket list

‘The roughest roads bring out the best in people,’ says avid hiker and Collingwood resident, Mike Barlett

Two local men checked another ‘adventure of a lifetime’ off their bucket list.

Collingwood resident Mike Barlett and his son, Dan Wynnyk, recently undertook the famed Tour du Mont Blanc, a 170-kilometre circuit known as one of the most incredible and demanding alpine treks in Europe.

Barlett has been an avid hiker for over 60 years and, in that time, has tackled dozens of bucket-list treks. About 20 years ago, he started an annual tradition of attempting a new route every September, bringing alone anyone who was foolish enough to join him. 

The list includes, but is not limited to, world-famous hikes such as the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, ascending Kilimanjaro, trekking in Nepal, Tombstones in the Yukon, Mount Fuji in Japan, and Canadian favourites like the West Coast Trail and Gros Morne National Park. 

“It’s just something I really enjoy,” Barlett said. 

After growing up in Burlington and spending some time in Tofino, Barlett and his wife, Nancy, moved to Collingwood two years ago. Despite hiking through some of the most notable places on earth, he now lived steps from Canada’s longest and oldest footpaths, and it didn’t take long for him to realize that there was some incredible hiking here, too. 

“It’s funny how you don’t even realize what is right in your backyard,” he said. 

And it’s a good thing too, because years ago, he learned a very valuable lesson in hiking: get fit to go, don’t go to get fit. 

So, to prepare for the Tour du Mont Blanc, Barlett climbed Blue Mountain every single day for the three months leading up to his departure. His favourite trail is Cascade, but even that couldn’t prepare him for the journey he was about to embark on. 

As the plane touched down in Zurich, Switzerland, sometime at the end of August, the copilot made an announcement. It was Barlett’s 76th birthday, and to celebrate, he was embarking on the ambitious Tour du Mont Blanc with Wynnyk, his cousin, Randy Barlett, and long-time friend Brian Towsley. 

Their plan was to hike the trail counterclockwise, and they had budgeted eight days to do so. In hindsight, Barlett said it might have been a “little too optimistic,” as most hikers do the tour, which encompasses France, Italy and Switzerland, in 10 days, with a full rest day in the middle.

The hike had been recommended by someone they met on their expedition to Iceland the previous year, so they enlisted a bare-backs adventure travel company that supported their eight-day itinerary. Part of their package included a service that shipped their duffle bags forward to their intended accommodation each night, so they packed a day pack containing only the necessities. In Barlett’s case, those necessities included a spark plug of whiskey and a couple of cigars “in case of an emergency.” 

The first day quickly highlighted the challenge that lay ahead of them, but after several hours, a wrong turn and a couple additional hundred metres of elevation, they made it to their first refuge. After a drink and a shower, in that order, Barlett lit a cigar and played a game of Chinese checkers with Towsley while they awaited dinner.

They sat down with an eclectic collection of 40 or so other hikers, including a 35-year-old oncologist from Quebec, a couple in their 60s from the Netherlands, a French woman in her 20s leading a hiking group, and a 75-year-old veteran hiker from California. 

Barlett sat among them, the volume of voices increasing as they swapped stories and shared advice, and was reminded of the old saying, “the toughest roads bring out the best in people.”

The days that followed saw everything from stunning mountain views and snow-capped peaks to small and picturesque towns, accumulating over 10,000 metres of height gain and descent as the four men navigated ten mountain passes. One particular ascent, to a high point called the Col du Bonhomme at an elevation of 2,329 metres, was especially taxing and the view from the top took their breath away, quite literally. 

“I thought I was in pretty good shape, but this climb used up all the gas in my 76-year-old tank,” said Barlett. “Near the top, I was running on fumes, but I made it.”

After day six, the four men unanimously decided that they had gotten their fill of hiking and their remaining time would be better spent back in the town of Chamonix, where their journey began. They had completed 112 kilometres of the Tour du Mont Blanc and were thoroughly satisfied. 

Now with some extra time in Chamonix, Barlett and Wynnyk decided to go paragliding and found themselves standing on a cliff towering 1,500 metres above the small town. They soared down the mountain in front of a cascading waterfall and across the face of a glacier, providing a major highlight of the trip for the father and son. 

They spent their final evening dining “alfresco” at a lakeside restaurant under twinkling lights before departing home the next morning. “It was a fitting way to end a wonderful trip,” said Barlett. 

Of all the trips he’s been on, Barlett said every experience is completely unique. If anything, he said knowing that he has another adventure ahead is exhilarating in itself. 

Even if they don’t know where the next one will take them just yet. 

“You have to step outside your comfort zone and take advantage of the opportunities in front of you,” he said. “Expand your horizons. As my son says, ‘life is not a dress rehearsal.’”

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