Climbing Chamonix

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The Mont-Blanc Express, though tiny, proved to be just enough train to get to Chamonix. The skiing village was just one of many that dotted the valley with the same name. From the ground the valley looked like it were gently cupped by the fingers of the Aiguilles de Chamonix and the palm of the Alps. My adventure pal Mackenzie and I got in just as the sun set, but the lack of light and excess of fog made Chamonix look like a blue ghost town, a few months before skiing season. We couldn’t see just how high the mountains climbed, as 100 meters from the ground they disappeared into the fog. The next morning out of our skylight, it seemed like we had been transported somewhere new; the October sun evaporated the evening’s haze, lending blue skies and an incredible view of Mont Blanc, the tallest peak in the Alps and Europe.

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Our 6€ map in hand, we set out to hike up the Aigullette des Posettes, a day hike with medium terrain–just enough to get by with careful walking, but could involve a bit of climbing. After taking the Mont-Blanc Express to the La Tour stop, we found another ghost town at midday. The train disappeared into the mountain, so we followed signs near the parking lot and began to climb.

I would consider myself to be relatively athletic, but in no way would I think to own walking sticks or a pair of crampons–those shoes that make it look like you’re walking on the bellies of porcupines. I took more breaks than I’d care to admit, but it very well could have been the increasing altitude and the deceptive cool mountain air against the bright sun and my fast-exhausting body. When we began, the tree cover kept the rocks cool and we walked on a spongy carpet of pine needles. But as we climbed (and stopped) and climbed (and stopped), the trees thinned and we could start to see the peaks around us and the valley below. We passed by more experienced hikers with walking sticks and high-altitude smiles. Their reinforced vigor in marching their way down the mountain could have been due to gravity helping them, or more likely the knowledge of our “we’re almost to the top” mentality versus their “you’re not even close.”

 

I thought we had reached the top several times. But after pushing my panting body, nearly moving by hand each leg up to the “peak,” I would see several more meters of trail left and another peak to surpass. A metaphor for life, perhaps. Or just the showings of a really bothersome trail.

Once our eyes could see over the top of the last trees, we took another rest on a rock clearing and couldn’t stop saying, “It’s so beautiful!” while grabbing the sides of our faces in awe.

We reached the top about five times; every promising peak revealed another feat to overcome. Some snow hidden under a twiggy bush kept us motivated for the last haul. I felt a sun burn grill onto my nose. My thighs, back, fingers ached and longed for the hot tub that bubbled in anticipation for us back at the hotel. But our heads were literally in the clouds. All around us were mountains—we’re equals. And when we finally made it to the cold, quiet top of the peak, we sat eating our trail snacks with the most beautiful view.

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We stayed on the top for about 20 minutes because the sun was setting and there were black birds swooping down and perching close to greet us. Some were tagged, which made me think that they’d learned that interacting with humans meant a reward. Our way down was more of a sprint—racing the fast-disappearing sun and succumbing to gravity like our fellow hikers had earlier in the day. I would have rolled down if I could.

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The next day we decided to do a shorter, easier hike near Mer de Glace (Glacier Bossons). Like most of our assumptions so far, we were wrong. This hike was not any easier nor did the sharp and constant incline and our inability to find signs (making our own trail directly into the glacier—probably not allowed) made it longer. To get to the trailhead, we took the Mont-Blanc Express in the opposite, southwestern direction and walked up a steep, paved road for about half a mile. When we did see a trail sign pointing into the forest, we stopped and stretched—something we didn’t do the day before. This trail, however, appeared to be in the middle of a tree-chopping expedition. A construction clearing of broken twigs and shredded mulch wasn’t quite the trail views we had in mind, but we ducked into the forest cover and followed the sound of water until we found the glacier.

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And what a glacier it was–or wasn’t, rather. I suppose you could thank global warming for that. I could some semblance of what a glacier looked like to me–a white and blue heap of ice–if I squinted all the way to the top of the peak. We heard shouts of encouragement from people at the glacier’s designated viewing point. We tried climbing up the loose, steep rocks right into the belly of the valley, but the glacier seemed to get no closer. It became dizzying just how steep the rocks were and my options for safe footing became less and less, so we called it a good enough effort and headed back to walk along the glacial rivers in town.

 

The preferred method to get to the Alps’ peaks–and the most expensive–is taking the Aiguille du Midi up to the viewing point for Mont Blanc. We were headed out to Geneva that day, so I wore a dress and leggings before our last-minute excursion to the top. Who knew taking a 10-minute gondola ride could yield such a drastic drop in temperature? I shivered in my sneakers but it was well worth the effort. There isn’t a bad view in sight.

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