Monday, September 12, 2005

The Alps, French Style

After reluctantly leaving the peaceful nirvana of Gimmelwald, we headed off to Chamonix, France for some more hiking and exploring some of the higher peaks in the Alps. After eight connections and a bunch of breathtaking views of the Alps region, we arrived into Chamonix just in time to grab some dinner at a local joint and socialize with our fellow b&b members (half of who work for the owner who runs a mountain bike tour service).

The difference between Chamonix and Gimmelwald was striking. Chamonix's sister city is Aspen, Colorado; although I've never been to Aspen so I can't compare but Chamonix was bustling with outdoor stores, ski shops, pubs and the like. Your typical mountain tourist town built for those visiting first and foremost. Ok but definitely a much different vibe from waking up with cows outside your window. The other surprising aspect of Chamonix was the huge number of British folks working in the various shops, pubs, etc. Becca just gave up using her French after awhile because there was so many of them. In talking with our various b&b mates the best answer we could get was it was a destination for mountain biking and ski bums who get by working various odd jobs.

Allright, on to the good stuff. The first was an unlikely one; as we spent Sunday touring around Chamonix, we saw people finishing the Tour de Mont Blanc. A 155km adventure race that started in Chamonix that included total elevation gains of over 8500m, three countries and alot of tired looking finishers. The winners finished in 24 hours and the rest had a maximum of 45 hours to finish it in (the normal person hikes it in 10-11 days). To see the finishers come down the home stretch was an emotional moment; some finished with their families, some with teammates or people they'd met along the trail and others were quite happy to go it alone. But the sense of accomplishment on people's faces was one Becca and I won't ever forget.

The next two amazing days were spent taking full advantage of the absolutely crystal clear views of the French Alps. Waking up on Monday, Becca and I decided to scramble on to the first train to Chamonix and hoof it up to the lift to the Aiugille du Midi. Leading up to now we'd been told horror stories about the queues at the lift and how important it was to get there early.

Fortunately for us, Monday was the official end of the French holiday so we bought our multi-pass (which gave us free reign over all the various mountain transport for 36 hours) and joined the various mountain climbers for the 7:45 ascent to 3842m. When we got to the top (and Becca was able to get me over the wooden bridge that had a 1500m drop) we were rewarded with a panoramic view of the French, Swiss and Italian Alps, including such famous peaks at Mt. Blanc and the Matterhorn. We also got to watch the extremely geared up climbers walk out and start their ascent of Mt. Blanc all with about 5-6 other people around us. Definitely made for a more enjoyable experience, especially compared to our visit on the way back from Italy where by lunchtime it was wall to wall people.

Italy you say? After I was finally getting settled in to the idea of being up at over 12,000 ft. we decided to go explore Italy via a gondola that is suspension only. Although we though we'd be more scared going across on the this, the trip ended up being very peaceful as we cruised over a number of glacier valleys and got to spy down at all the crazier people who were hiking in between them. I don't think our one-year backpacks are really equipped for anything like that. The view from Italy back to the Aiguille du Midi were very nice which was fortunate since the entire Italian side was socked in with clouds and pretty much MIA. Once these clouds started roaming in our direction, we decided it was time to head back as there were a number of signs reminding us that gondola service could be suspended at any time. Although the clouds ended up holding off, we were happy to be a little closer to solid ground once again. All in all though just breathtaking views of the various jagged mountain ranges and the enormity of the Alps in this area. One would think that Mt. Blanc would stand out at over 15,000 ft. Instead it is simply the largest bump on an huge mountain range that certainly defines the area.

We spent the afternoon and the next day taking hikes around the area. The afternoon was spent hiking from the Plan l'Aiguille (the mid point station on the way up to the Aiguille du Midi) to the Mer de Glace and its cool ice cave they build every year. A pretty hike albeit rocky at times that wasn't necessarily highlighted by the view (though it was nice) but instead by our conversation on the train down by this incredibly precocious 7-year-old English kid from Oxford named Daniel. It's hard to recap it but my highlight was him asking Becca "do you want to feel my muscles" and then flexing his arms followed by his legs as well as his correcting us on a number of various issues all while explaining the biblical background of his first name. I was imagining this is what Becca was like as a child, minus the "feel my muscles" bit.

The second day we took the gondola up to La Flegere (the trip up to 1894m confirmed to us it was a good idea to not hike up). From there we first did a 2 1/2 hour round trip hike from La Flegere up to Lac Blanc (2352m) then back up higher to L'Index (2385m), the station above La Flegere. On the modified chair lift ride back down to La Flegere, Becca's panic attack kept us both occupied as I tried in vain to convince her to go to her 'happy space'. After eating lunch at La Flegere, we hiked another two hours across the 'balcony' to PlanPraz (the station halfway up to La Brevent, located at 2000m). Though this second hike officially only had about 106m of elevation gain, the ups and downs we did on the way there felt like that amount 4-5x over. We were rewarded with a number of amazing views of Mt. Blanc and the rest of the mountain range we'd hiked around the day before as well as the physical satisfaction of having done 4.5 hours of almost all uphill hiking at 2000-2500m. Not bad for a couple of aging wanderers, eh?

Of course we then showed our age by spending the last day just laying low, enjoying the nice weather and having a fabulous dinner of raclette and a bottle of wine, looking at the Alps with the cows ringing their bells in the distance.

The Alps for me was one of the most anticipated part of the trip coming in and it definitely met expectations. The biggest difference between the two sets of mountain ranges is the terrain; the French Alps are much more rocky and jagged vs. the rounder greener landscapes of Switzerland. As a whole, I know my vote lay with Switzerland but we were also glad to have explored both and had a chance to see some amazing sights in each. In all a tiring yet very enjoyable time up in Mother Nature enjoying the beautiful scenery. Can't ask for much else.


PS To see the rest of the pics on flickr, look for the Chamonix tag.

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