Saturday, September 15, 2018

Chamonix, after

After "only" 115 kilometers with 10,000 meters of climbing in the PTL, both Beat and Pieter decided they could use a little rest and relaxation in our quaint little village chalet. I was grateful that we didn't need to leave the Chamonix Valley right away. Beat still planned to start the Swiss Peaks 360 on Sept. 2, which meant not much rest for him, but three more days of hiking for me. Yay! 

Pieter and Beat lounged around the chalet and Beat enjoyed the company of the neighborhood cat. We never figured out the name/sex of this cat or who he/she belonged to, but the cat showed up at the window at regular intervals in the morning and evening, almost on schedule. He/she seemed completely uninterested in the kitty treats we purchased, but loved to bask in attention.  

Rain persisted through Wednesday night, and Thursday brought a low cloud ceiling and light drizzling rain. It seemed a dull day for hiking, but no opportunity should be wasted. Beat and Pieter recommended I follow this year's PTL course to the Albert Premier hut. The high mountain refuge is part of the famous Haute Route from Chamonix to Zermatt, but PTL shirked the popular trail in favor of an obscure track along a sharp ridge that gains most of the necessary 5,000 feet of altitude in less than three miles. Pieter called it "efficient."

The trail proved even sketchier than I anticipated — although I really should know PTL better by now. Mist wafted through the fog as I clung to wet rocks and thin branches, skooching along ledges slicked by greasy mud. There were spots where slipping could have been catastrophic, and whether or not my feet would stick to the muddy ground was always in question. Usually I am frightened when footing is bad and exposure is high, but on this morning my mood skewed more insolent. "You really should know PTL better by now."

As I cleared treeline and found better traction on a rocky spine, the fog began to thin. Soon I rose into something I definitely wasn't expecting — another bluebird day. Hazy views of a gray moraine sharpened to jagged blue ice on Glacier du Tour, crowned by pretty peaks like Grand Fourche.

Okay, Beat was right. This was an awesome route.

I suffer from extreme shyness when I'm traveling internationally, to the point where I will go out of my way to avoid public spaces where I might have to talk to someone. It's unfortunate, I know. Not only does it mean I don't meet new and potentially interesting people, but it also means most of my meals are a variation of bread, cheese, tuna, raw vegetables, and fruit that I purchased one time at a grocery store. I walked past the Albert Premier refuge and marveled at this huge modern building (140 beds, built in 1959) built atop a rugged ledge beside the lip of a glacier, thousands of feet above the nearest road, with any amenity one could hope for in a hotel-restaurant ... and kept walking. I rounded a saddle and continued along the moraine beneath Aiguille du Tour, where I enjoyed my apples and cheese as a cold wind carried the billowing fog closer. Brief lulls amplified an expansive silence. This was no place for a human, this desolate land of rock and ice. There may not be much wilderness in Europe, but you don't have to walk far beyond the fingers of civilization to feel infinitesimal.

At 9,000 feet, it was too cold to sit for long. Amid my revelry in solitude and the raw indifference of nature, I noticed a long string of people making their way across the Tour glacier. There must have been at least 20 in the group, moving in an evenly spaced single-file row over a steep section of ice. I speculated that they were a group of novices learning glacier travel by following a guide — and what spectacular trust this would take on such intimidating terrain. My main mental barrier to learning new things is that I don't trust anyone to make good choices, least of all myself.

For the return, I opted to follow the main trail. Even still, I didn't see that many hikers. Just this group on the ridge, then three more groups heading up with big backpacks, helmets, axes and ropes. Later I learned that the cable car, which was running when I left for my hike, had shut down. I know this because I stopped and asked about purchasing a ride down the hill (so lazy, I know, but I was proud of myself for approaching someone and talking to them.) The guy seemed extremely apologetic — not the usual attitude I see in France. I guessed he'd already told a number of disappointed tourists that they were going to have to human-power themselves down the mountain.

The weather was beginning to clear at lower altitudes, and I still had extra time on my schedule thanks to a lightning-fast descent on real trail, so I opted to make a side trip across the Swiss border via Col de Balme and the Croix de Fer. Grassy exposure! It was a bit of excitement, and then it was time to walk my own butt down the mountain.

By Friday morning, the rain had settled in at all altitudes, just in time for the start of UTMB (every year!) I lounged around with Beat and Pieter, but by late morning decided it would be best to get some steps in. Why? I don't even know. I tend to become a bit manic here in the Alps, and even drizzly, gray days are not to be wasted. PTL had passed right through Les Tines, so I followed the GPS track blindly up the nearest mountain. The route worked its way from a steep trail to a faint path along rocky outcroppings with waterfalls, until I was clinging to ladders and precarious cables strung along a narrow ledge slicked with mud. Oh, PTL, I really should know you better by now.

Somewhere along the cliffs, my GPS batteries died. After I replaced them, the GPS took a full hour to find satellite signal again. Since I no longer knew where the PTL route went, and didn't really care, I veered onto a faint cat track. Hard rain pelted my coat as I crawled up a grassy slope so steep that at times I was literally on my knuckles and knees. Weirdly, I was really enjoying myself. There's something so eerie about a ski area in the summer, shrouded by fog, with lift chairs creaking in the wind. Chamonix, after the apocalypse. I cued up a Modest Mouse album — The Moon and  Antarctica — and indulged in exquisite melancholy.

So long to this cold, cold part of the world.
So long to this bone-bleached part of the world.

After my GPS came back online, I chose to descend something that looked like a road on the map, but was merely a cat track that plummeted off the mountain with frequent 50-percent grades and gravel so loose and muddy that I had to walk backward and dig in with my knuckles to prevent butt-sliding (which would have ripped apart my pants and most of the skin on my backside.) Ugh. I should have stuck with the PTL cable luge, although there was likely at least one easier way off this mountain. Well, at least I was back in time to meet up with British friends who now live in Les Houches. We gathered at their favorite pub to watch 2,500 UTMB runners pass, eight kilometers into the race. I was enjoying my drink and too lazy to join the fray, so this is the best photo I got — Jim Walmsley blasting through the streets about ten seconds in front of the pack. Most people who read my blog probably followed UTMB to some degree, so you know what happened. Most of the top runners — and all of the U.S. favorites — gradually imploded in both predictable and odd ways, until the guy who was disqualified from Hardrock won. (Blah blah blah.) It was an exciting race to be sure, but I admit to caring less about UTMB as years go by. I was avidly into this race when we first came to Chamonix six years ago, but now I have doubts I'll ever go back myself. No, my failure to complete a loop around Mont Blanc will likely outlive me. And that's okay.

Okay, maybe I still care a little about UTMB. On Saturday afternoon I set out toward Flégère with some hope of spectating the leaders as they blasted down their final descent. I missed seeing Xavier but did manage to catch two through four. This guy is Norwegian runner Hallvard Schjølberg, who went on to finish fourth. Go underdogs!

After passing the aid station, I continued into thickening fog toward L'Index, for no other reason than a desire to rack up some vert and close out a big week. For the Sunday to Saturday seven-day stretch, I ended up with 36,383 feet in 70.6 miles, which on paper closely shadows but in reality doesn't even compare to Beat's 34,500 feet in 71.5 miles of much more difficult terrain that he did in about 50 hours of PTL. In writing these blogs two weeks later, one issue I forgot to mention was the shin I bashed on my birthday, which continued to bother me throughout the week. I wrote it off as a deep bruise until Saturday, when it occurred to me that I might have actually fractured the bone in a minor / stress-fracture sort of way. This possibility gnawed at me throughout the night — how could I have been so stubborn to keep hiking on it? And even worse, what if I can no longer hike the rest of the time we're in Europe? Since Swiss Peaks 360 started the following day, I opted not to confess my fears to Beat. But I did decided that if my shin continued to hurt in this way in Switzerland, I'd take it easy, for real this time. 

1 comment:

  1. " you don't have to walk far beyond the fingers of civilization to feel infinitesimal." A well turned phrase...and so true.
    Box Canyon


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