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Alpine Summer – Part One

My plans to spend the summer in the Alps was all very last minute – I knew I needed to take a break from my Ph.D as it had reached the point of complete life immersion! But, I wasn’t sure what to do – I toyed with the idea of doing a non-stop round of the Scottish Munros – completing all 283 of these mountains would make me the first female from N. Ireland to do so. Further investigation led me to the understanding that I had left it too late to plan such a trip, and would need too much support to do so. I thought about doing some sort of fun, student type summer work – like at a summer camp or something like that, but facing reality, I realised I’ve been there and done that, and I’m much too old to be running around in a brightly coloured camp t-shirt herding up naughty kids.

My third, and final, option was to spend the summer in the Alps – my other half, Neil, from SkiAscent, was spending the summer out there as part of his Aspirant semester towards becoming a British Mountain Guide. To do this, all I really had to do was book a flight and pack my case – it didn’t take much persuading!

I arrived in St. Gervais les Bains, in the Mont Blanc Valley mid-July – since then, I’ve barely had time to check my watch – Breo of course, and I still have another month to go!

The weather in the Alps has been so varied this summer – there’s been so much more snow than usual, the Matterhorn is completely covered and barely been climbed, lots of rain and thunderstorms – sunny days have been few and far between. As a result, very few people who have come with set objectives have left having achieved them. I came to climb, and I’ve managed to complete one climb of any great significance since my arrival. The plus is, I’ve ran more miles, ascended more meters, experienced more trails, and gained more altitude than I ever imaged I would as a trail runner – I’ve even tackled some vertical routes! And, I’ve completely worn out my running shoes.

Currently, I’m in Geneva Airport, awaiting a return flight to the UK – for a break – and wondering where to start, because, looking back over the past couple of weeks – I’ve done so much!

The trip got off to a damp start – I didn’t do much for the first few days and a 5k trail run through the woods above St. Gervais felt like quite an achievement – running at altitude is hard, so I suppose it was a bit of an achievement! The highlight of the week was going to watch the Climbing World Cup in Chamonix – those guys are so strong and such amazing climbers – it made me want to climb! Such a pity I haven’t really been able to – but the time for that will come.

I was then whisked across the mountain pass to Switzerland for the Montreux Jazz Festival – an annual event for me, but this year it was really great since it was so impulsive and relaxed. Then, some Swiss sightseeing – I discovered I’d forgotten to get my Austrian Alpine Club registration – this is absolutely vital in the Alps in case I need to get choppered off the side of something super steep – so climbing was out, even though it was perfect weather for it. We went to Gruyeres – famed for it’s cheese, and just generally lovely and pretty, and boasts itself as home to the HR Giger Bar and Museum – he’s the guy that created the Alien films – apart from that, it’s just a nice place to go! Next, was the Gorges de la Jogne – these are absolutely amazing, it’s a walk and very accessible for all, but so, so, so beautiful!

Back in St. Gervais the weather was good so we made an early start and headed to Les Bois, above Chamonix, to start the ascent to Montenvers – most people walk up or take the mountain train – instead, we opted for the relatively easy Alpine climb, in fact, most of it is a scramble by UK standards – we didn’t even bother with rock climbing shoes, just climbed it in our big boots. The climb to Montenvers is spectacular, it is one of those lovely climbs that can just be enjoyed – it’s not technically challenging nor is it exposed like most Alpine climbs, but the views are amazing and the climbing is great – perhaps because it’s not ‘over-climbed’. The whole route is bolted – making it a great first lead route for aspiring Alpine climbers! From a climber’s perspective, it’s more of an alternative approach, but worth getting the gear out for all the same.

The route takes about 2 hours in total, and topping out is rewarded with a cold, fizzy drink at ???? . From here, the estimated walk to Montenvers is about 1.5hours, I think we got to the Mer de Glace path, just below Montenvers, in about 30 minutes. From here most Alpinists move like whippets – I’m not an Alpinist, and although I quite often move like a whippet, I do not move like a whippet down Alpine ladders attached to a sheer rock face. I may be a climber, but my head for heights, and exposure, could be described as pretty weak. It took a lot of deep breaths to descend the few hundred thin metal rungs and I felt a great deal of relief at the bottom when I finally set foot on the Mer de Glace glacier – located at an altitude of 1913, the Mer de Glace is 7km long and 200m thick, making it France’s largest glacier, and probably it’s most famous since it sits at the foot of Mont Blanc.

To say I felt relief is a bit strange considering I had just stepped onto a glacier – one of natures greatest anomalies, free to move and do as it wishes, without warning or consideration – why should it, I suppose?! Glaciers are weird things – some are snow covered, this was pure skin slashing ice pebbled with minerals and rocks. I love this sort of terrain, almost to the point of feeling no hint of danger whatsoever, and could literally have ran across it – however, one must show respect for the mountains.

After a potter around, I donned my crampons and got hold of my ice axes – I was lowered into a crevice in the glacier for a few picks of ice climbing – I love tool climbing more than I love pretty much all of the things I do and this short time has got to be one of the highlights of my trip – even lowering into the crevice is an art in itself, and this was something I really enjoyed learning.

On the return leg, I prayed, and prayed, and prayed, we would take the lift back to the main path – but, no, we returned via the ladders. Prior, it felt like one of the worst moments of my life. Post, it was absolutely fine – the 1.5hour walk back to the car was much more painful.

Next, we moved on to Switzerland – Neil was working on a range of Alpine 4000m peaks and Alpine Skills courses – I went along for a ‘holiday’ and spent the bulk of the three weeks trail running. I say trail running because I ran along trails, however, I think I undermine the extent of this trail running, since some of it was vertical and some to an altitude of 2500m – most people will only ever walk this sort of stuff!

The big problem with trail running in the Alps, is that it is very unlike Scotland – in Scotland I can run to the top of a number of the highest summits. In the Alps, I can perhaps run to a pretty village, or a certain point, but it certainly felt like I never managed to reach a significant peak as such. Even 3000m peaks aren’t considered hugely significant.

My first two weeks were spent in the Arolla Valley – so beautiful and so French, I felt so at home and relaxed – the trails are great, and so undisturbed by humans – as a result there is so much wildlife – I seen more marmots than I could shake a stick at, even baby ones, darting about the mountains and whistling to each other.

The last week of our Swiss trip was in the Saas Valley – it’s only a couple of valleys across from Arolla, but is completely different – the geography is much more rugged and Alpine, the colours are more varied, it’s German speaking so the culture and food is different, and it’s super busy – there is free uplift and transport around the resorts in the valley, so attracts many more tourists. I rarely had a moment to myself – there were always others on the trails, and I spotted very little wildlife as a result but Saas is everything that climbing and trail running dreams are made of, and it’s so pretty as well with amazing facilities.

After a non-stop month, I have to admit I’m glad to get a bit of a break from all the action! Not to mention a break from the Alpine food – I’ve eaten enough fancy cheeses and meats to last me a lifetime! A few days in the UK should be enough to recharge my batteries, before I head back out to the Alps for the final leg of my summer trip – I’m looking forward to the arrival of the other Team 14 Peaks girls and the opportunity to get some decent climbing and Alpinism under my belt before it’s back to the grindstone for the Autumn!


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