Thursday, August 11, 2022

French fried

Trail running above Rustrel, France

As we left the higher altitudes of the Aosta Valley, headlines blared warnings about a heat wave sweeping across Europe. Paris expected to hit 41C (106F!) Great Britain would see temperatures it had never before seen. We were heading south to a typically balmy region of France, where our friend Pieter and his wife Jill (technically, they were already legally married since their wedding had to be postponed in 2020) were planning an elaborate ceremony on July 21. Haze from nearby wildfires filled the air and my lungs were pinched with inflammation. With all of the travel and social mingling, we continued to take Covid tests that continued to be negative. So the only explanation I had for how lousy I was feeling is, "Summer still sucks for me, even in Europe."
We took advantage of the six-hour drive to Saignon to visit the Ecrins, an especially rugged section of the southern Alps in France. We only had time for a quick evening excursion, climbing toward Glacier Blanc as threatening clouds and thunder rumbled overhead. I was nervous about the weather and already felt like a bear was sitting on my chest. I considered just turning back for the car as Beat blazed up the steep trail, annoyingly strong for being a mere two days recovered from his 53-hour march around the Matterhorn. At least he looked good in his race T-shirt and classically Italian neon shades that were his prize for finishing the Cervino Matterhorn Ultra Race. 

We climbed as high as I could muster before Beat waited long enough for me to catch him. I admitted that I was tired of gasping for breath and just wanted to go home. I confess, at this point, I wanted to go home-home, as the weight of this long trip was wearing me down. Again, I am certainly not complaining about the privilege of traveling for five weeks in Europe. I love being in these mountains and they are worth the sacrifices. But it does take a lot of energy to cope with the lack of respites that help me manage anxiety at home: Solo time. Established routines. A cool and familiar place to sleep at night. Autonomy in how I spend much of my day. Predictability in my diet. Cold drinks. Oh, cold drinks! How I miss cold drinks. 

But, our stay in the Ecrins was quite nice. We rented a room from an Italian man who cooked us a delicious three-course meal with an assortment of unique delicacies including local smoked trout, prosciutto and melon, pesto tortellini, and an incredible soft cheese for which Beat and I would pay top dollar if we could ever find it again. It was probably our best meal of the trip, with no disrespect intended for the fancy dinners before and during the wedding, which were also delicious. 

Château de Rustrel

For our time in the Provence, we stayed in Rustrel. We rented an apartment in a 17th-century feudal castle that had recently been renovated to include the town hall, an art studio, and several rental properties, among other things. How neat is it to live in a castle for a few days? And it was special — beautiful grounds and sweeping views from our third-story apartment. However, we didn't consider what it would be like to live in a castle — a structure built with insulation that few modern buildings can match — during a time when temperatures were climbing into the high 90s every day. The upper levels of the castle held the heat like an oven, and the only barrier we had against it was a single fan. 

A view of Rustrel and the surrounding ochre hills

I don't think I've done so much sweating in all of my life. Each night I'd lay sprawled on a sheet and panting. My legs, glistening and bare, were soon pockmarked with mosquito bites. If I drifted to sleep at all, it was a feverish daze, and I'd often wake up drenched in sweat. More often I just lie awake in the stifling darkness, slowly losing the will to live. My core was so overheated that instinct convinced me if I moved my body at all, I'd pass out and possibly die. Honestly, this seemed like not the worst outcome. It did answer a long-standing question: Would I survive if I had to move to a tropical climate? No. No I would not. 

The heat also eroded my already tenuous grasp on my anxiety. On our first day in Rustrel, we walked to a local bistro for lunch. The only available seat was directly in the sun. I sat across from Beat watching sweat pour from his neck like a faucet. Quickly, my heart rate shot into the 150s and my breathing became shallow. I felt like a dog trapped in a hot car. I finally wheezed at Beat that I was seconds away from a panic attack if we didn't move, so we reseated ourselves at a different uncleared table in partial shade. After that, I lost interest in restaurants. I will trade the sweat and panic for day-old bread in private, thank you very much.  

This area reminds me of Kodachrome Basin State Park in Utah

Appropriately, the local attraction just happened to be a redrock “desert” called Colorado Provencal. Pieter called the park a “tourist trap,” but I was eager to check it out. There I was, feeling anxious, hard-boiled, and homesick, and here was a uniquely familiar place in my far-away backyard. 

Colorado Provencal was once an ochre quarry. Erosion following the excavations exposed unique rock formations. So it’s hardly natural, but it is a novelty, and thus is quite popular despite being relatively far from anywhere. You need reservations to visit before noon, so Beat and I had to wait for the full heat of the afternoon. Still, as I had nearly forgotten, it’s more tolerable to move through heat than it is to sit still. Airflow at least helps sweat work in your favor. 

We walked the 1.5 miles to the park entrance and purchased a ticket for the one-mile loop through the hoodoos. In that short space, we were approached by no fewer than five rangers who reminded us about the extreme fire danger and to be sure and stay on the marked path. Beat was not thrilled about being corralled along sandy paths to look at a mostly fake miniature version of something we can experience in sweeping expanses closer to home, but I loved Colorado Provencal. It quelled some of my homesickness and helped the heat seem more reasonable somehow. 

Ah, bromance. Daniel and Beat at the hilltop restaurant in Saignon

The wedding festivities were an adventure in themselves. The evening prior to the ceremony we attended a dinner at a beautiful French restaurant on a hilltop overlooking much of the region. We were glad for the company of Colorado friends Daniel and Lindsey, as the events were a barrage of awkward social interactions and language barriers and I was fairly nervous about all of it. The pre-wedding dinner started fashionably late around 9 p.m. and was still going strong when we clocked out well after midnight, citing the tough ride we had planned the following morning. 

The famously bald upper slopes of Mont Ventoux

Another nearby feature we discovered when browsing maps is Mont Ventoux, a prominent mountain that looms over the rolling hills of the Provence. The road that snakes over the summit has become a staple for a long stage in the Tour de France, climbing a vertical mile (5,050 feet) in a mere 12 miles on grades ranging from 7 to 9%. The training app Zwift turned this climb into a segment that has become a favorite of ours. It’s a mind-numbing grind, and the graphics mimic reality with enough proximity to provide a truly enjoyable experience. It’s difficult for me to explain my love of Zwift to those who can’t fathom enjoying indoor exercise, but the combination of physical difficulty, visual stimulation, and virtual proximity to others hit the same synapses that I engage in outdoor excursions. I love that I can do so from the comfort and ease of home. 

Anyone who has ridden Ven-Top on Zwift will recognize this view: You're almost there! 

Still, a chance to climb Mont Ventoux in real life was too enticing to pass up. Beat and I set up bike rentals in Malaucene and planned an early start (as soon as the bike shop opened, 9 a.m.) to be back in time for the wedding. Because of the mountain’s prominence, the summit is often raked by high winds and “always cold,” according to Pieter. I didn’t believe in this cold for a second and packed four liters of water — two of which I had frozen solid over two days in the tiny apartment freezer — in my hiking backpack. One of the things about Ventoux I was looking forward to was the commute there and back — two full hours in the car with the air conditioner on full blast. Beat did the driving. He’s been very kind in volunteering to pilot these narrow, winding roads when he knows how much driving adds to my stress levels. 

Road markers indicate the distance to the summit and grade for the next kilometer

It was another hot day — already over 30C (86F) and climbing at 9 a.m. as we pedaled the rolling pavement toward Bedoin, the official start of the Zwift segment. I purposely brought my leaky hydration bladder so it would continuously drip icy water onto my torso. Between this and the wind chill, those hours riding Mont Ventoux were one of the few times all week that I didn’t feel overheated — even when the wind chill was a mere 4 mph at my plodding pace. I didn’t feel strong, but I hadn’t expected to feel strong and wasn’t fussed about killing myself trying to set a PR on this climb. Beat motored ahead and I hung back, pedaling at a manageable pace and marveling at the strange familiarity of the landscape. 

Quick pic at the peak. The summit sign itself was far too crowded to approach

The road was a veritable circus of vans, cars, motorcycles, and many dozens of other cyclists tackling the climb that morning. Every mile or so, an enterprising photographer snapped action shots and then ran toward me waving their business card and urging me to buy the portraits online. I managed to escape a couple, but one caught me on a particularly steep grade and grabbed my backpack, stuffing the card in a pocket. Ventoux is Disneyland for cyclists, but it was fun for the experience it was. Despite legs that felt like they were filled with sand, I was having a great time. It was amusing how much climbing this summit “felt” like Zwift, how my muscles remembered the strain of a particular hairpin, and how my overall pace was comparable. The time (~2:30) would have been one of my slowest on the Zwift segment, but given the heat, my fatigue, and moderate heart rate, it’s about what I would have expected. 

A typical "trail" above Rustrel

The wedding was a lovely affair on the grounds of a 12th-century abbey. I regret that I didn’t take any photographs. It was, of course, relentlessly hot. For more than an hour we sat on hard chairs in the sun, drenching our dress clothes while listening to speeches in Dutch and French, both languages I don’t understand, so it was … hard. But the emotion was apparent, and even I am not so jaded as to not feel the love at a wedding, so I appreciated the opportunity to be there. Pieter and Beat met at the 2014 Tor des Geants and have become inseparable Alpine adventure buddies, teaming up nearly every year for the PTL. It started as a kind of mentor-mentee relationship — Pieter is 19 years Beat’s junior — and has blossomed into a valuable partnership. So it was an important occasion to share, and I’m glad we could. Delicious wine and food flowed for hours, along with music and dancing, with the latter still going strong at 1 a.m. Pieter’s 80-something grandmother was still out and enjoying dessert when we finally had to tap out, beyond exhausted. 

The Provence — somehow paradise

The following day, in the throes of Ventoux and wedding recovery, we stumbled out the door for one more hike through the Rustrel hills. It was by then fairly late in the afternoon, 99 degrees, and these local trails are nothing but rubble and chunder, badly overgrown with prickly brush and dry grass. The air was thick with humidity and haze. All of this aggravated my asthma to a degree that I was panic-puffing my inhaler, and yet I reveled in the experience. It was like coming full circle through the branches of Hell to arrive back at fun. 

This way to Mont Blanc, only 13,000 feet higher!

Our next stop was Switzerland, but we took a couple of days to visit Chamonix, a part of Europe that almost feels like home. I haven’t been back to this French mountain town since 2019, and I’ve really only experienced it amid the madness that is UTMB week, so it was nice to see a relatively quiet side of the valley. We spent two nights with our friends Rob and Ali in Les Houches, enjoying conversation about American politics and evenings at a Canadian bar that serves hamburgers and fries — not to mention Perrier on ice! 

Not really pictured: Big drop. I'm a right-foot dabber so I especially dislike right-side exposure

We had relatively fantastic weather — it was still hot, but not as hot. We took advantage of the conditions to climb 7,000 feet out of the valley to a middle perch on the Mount Blanc ridge, Tete Rousse. I’ve long been nervous about this route because it includes a fair amount of exposure, albeit mostly protected in via Ferrata style with ladders and chains. Exposure tends to induce vertigo, which isn’t simply a fear of heights — it’s a reaction to heights that induces dizziness and nausea so debilitating that it becomes paralyzing in its worst forms. These days I tend to avoid exposure or at least long periods of exposure because I never know how my brain will react. 

This may be an easy ladder, but it's a long way down!

Oddly, I experienced no vertigo on this route, despite situations that would typically be extremely triggering for me. In general, my vertigo has been more absent (though definitely not gone) for much of the summer. I wonder if higher levels of generalized anxiety prevent these cortisol spikes, or if it’s something else … tough to say. It does make “spicy” trails a lot more enjoyable because while I am still fearful and uncomfortable, I’m not on the verge of losing my shit. Still, I never know when vertigo might strike, so I’m not about to take any big leaps out of my comfort zone. 

What remains of the Tete Rousse Glacier

Tete Rousse was a gorgeous spot, but also a little bit sad. The glacier leading to the refuge — while still uncrossable for us without gear — is almost gone. The couloir leading to the upper slopes is so unstable and raked with rockfall that local officials had to institute a hard closure of the main route to Mont Blanc. They even closed the refuges because people were still climbing illegally, leading the mayor to call for €15,000 fines for everyone to cover the inevitable recovery and funeral expenses. 

The climb to Tete Rousse. Any route above 2,500 meters is going to traverse tricky boulder fields.

Views 7,000 feet down into the Chamonix Valley.

Lots of ibex near Tete Rousse

The lower flanks of the Tete Rousse Glacier

Beat on Aiguilettte des Houches with Mont Blanc in the background

Before leaving Les Houches, I introduced Beat to what has long been my favorite spot in all of the Chamonix Valley, Aiguilette des Houches. It’s my favorite because it’s a relatively quiet spot, it’s a 4,500-foot march straight up just to get there, but there’s nothing difficult or scary about the march, and then you have the most fantastic view of Mont Blanc. Beat thinks these kinds of trails are “boring” but he was amenable to my "easy" Sunday stroll. He did agree that it was a beautiful place to be on a sunny day in July. Ultimately, I was sad to leave France, especially Chamonix, with legs nicely toasted and a mind that had finally settled in for the long haul.


  1. It's so "Normal" as to hardly be worth commenting on your fabulous photos. How I wish some of my life had been spent in the exotic places you visit and hike.
    The narrative you write is so touching to my deep emotions and mental attempts to comprehend that I hate for it to end. No other writer is so brave, courageous, open about her personal feelings as you. Apparently I am but one of thousands of people who are immersed in your writing style. Thanks, thanks, thanks.
    A large portion of AK is subject to rare rainfall that is causing flooding where for years it was safe to build houses and roads, that are now wet, including houses. I do yearn for winter and the frozen water, snow, coolness. And especially for more photos and revelations as you write. Rich Runser.

  2. The Tour De France has been a favorite for many years, probably a couple of decades, before Armstrong's mess.

  3. Wow, that is quite a trip. Glad I can travel vicariously via your posts. Kinda like Anthony Bourdain shows, but with less political instability 😄

  4. Thanks, Jill, for continuing to share your adventures with us!

    For next summer, you should come to Norway! Outdoor paradise! Moderate temperatures, mountains, wide open landscapes, no wildfires, and, at least in the southern half, not even midges!
    I spend the summer there and it was fabulous! After reading so much from you, I'm pretty sure you will like it there as well!


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