Tuesday, September 7, 2010


After my work obligations in Barcelona concluded on Thursday, it was high time for some more holiday making, so on Friday morning I hopped in a cab outside my hotel and headed to the Barcelona airport to catch a flight to Geneva where I would meet Roanne who had been spending the week hanging out with her relatives in the UK. The Spanish taxi driver that I had was pretty funny, he spent the entire drive telling me about how much he loved motorcycles, and how even though now he is too fat for it, he once did a 8 hour endurance motorcycle race. Funny! My flight to Geneva was uneventful, and upon arriving I had lunch in a restaurant called "Swiss Chalet" though not the one that we are used to in Canada. This lunch was also a good opportunity to be reminded how stinkin' expensive everything is in Switzerland.

Roanne strolled through the arrival gate around 2:30pm or so, and we went to find the shuttle that we had booked to whisk us off to Chamonix in the heart of the alps. The shuttle was run by a firm called "Alpybus" so I had been a little suspicious of booking with a company that had such a foofy name, and these suspicions were confirmed when the only evidence of our shuttle driver who was supposed to be meeting us was a note on a board saying that the Alpybus would be leaving at 5:00pm instead of 3:45pm. We asked another shuttle driver standing nearby if we could get an earlier ride instead, but she said no, as apparently the shuttle drivers have a standing agreement not to poach each others business. Luckily there happened to be a third shuttle driver standing nearby, and he was an unscrupulous Brit who had no problem pilfering business from the Alpybus, so we paid our fare in cash and hopped in.

The ride to Chamonix took about an hour, during which Roanne fell asleep as she always does in cars, and I stared out the window with my heartrate continuing to speed up as the mountains bordering the valley we were driving through got bigger and bigger. Finally we rolled into Chamonix, where we disembarked and checked in at hotel, "Le Prieure" which apparently means "The Priest" in french as the building had a huge depiction of a priest on it which bore more than a passing resemblance to the grim reaper. Scary!

Our room was on the top floor of the hotel, and after flopping down on the bed we stepped out onto the balcony and threw open the shutters to an amazing view of Mount Blanc:

Okay, I guess it is a little obstructed by cloud, but the fact is that we were right in the middle of the alps and could see the highest peak in the alps from our bedroom window. Holy smokes! So awesome. It was almost evening by this point, but I managed to convince Roanne that we should comemmorate our arrival in Chamonix with a celebratory trail run. We headed out and up the hill to the edge of the town where we joined a trail that ascended to "Le Petit Balcon Sud", the trail that traversed the valley on the south side. Roanne doesn't like running uphill as much as I do, and despite my assurances that the trail would soon level out, she made numerous threats that she would turn back until finally the trail actually did level out a bit (lucky!) and we ran through the forest along the hillside looking out at the alpenglow from the setting sun on the facing mountains at the breaks in the trees. Unfortunately I didn't bring a camera so we have no proof, but it was spectacular.

We made it back to the hotel just as it was getting dark, and after a quick shower and change we headed out to find some dinner. Chamonix is in an area of France called "Savoy", and all of their food seems to involve large quantities of cheese, meat, or both. This was fine by us, and we had a delicious dinner of something with a name I can't remember before strolling through the town and heading back to our hotel for bed time.

The next morning dawned bright and early, and after some delicious pastries for breakfast we headed to the Information Kiosk to figure out what we would do for the day. We had 2.5 days to spend in Chamonix and no particular agenda other than having fun in the mountains, so we wanted to find out what our options were. We had brought minimal rock climbing gear, cycling gear, and hiking stuff, so we had most of our bases covered. I had tried to convince Roanne that we should bring our alpine equipment and launch an all-out assault on Mt. Blanc, but she kiboshed this idea so anything involving glacier travel was out.

The Tourism office wasn't too helpful and since we were mostly interested in climbing-style activities, they directed us to the office of the French Alpine Guides which was just across the square. I entered the building first as Roanne looked at some postings outside, and as I crossed the threshold into the building I was caught off guard by a drop of about 4 inches. Luckily I caught myself, and after thinking "Stinkin' French people can't design anything right" I continued on to ask someone where I could get climbing information. I had just been told we needed to go upstairs and was walking back to towards the entrance when I saw Roanne come through the door and also get caught off guard by the drop, except that she wasn't as lucky as I was and rolled her ankle as she fell to the ground. Stupid French buildings! She got up and limped around for bit, her ankle was sore and a bit swollen but it could have been much worse. As we were trying to assess the extent of her injuries, another tourist entered the building and almost fell down, which made the situation a bit funny for how ridiculous it was. The French alpine guides must lose a lot of business since every other prospective client who enters their office sprains his/her ankle and is too injured for the climb they had hoped to be guided on.

We finally made our way upstairs to the climbing information room, where we asked about what the Via Ferrata and bouldering options were like nearby. There was one via ferrata but it looked pretty lame and was hard to get to, so we nixed that idea. I have come to the conclusion that via ferrata should only be done in Italy, since the ones there are the most legit as they were installed for training soldiers during the world wars. The ones in other countries are more like tourist amusement parks that have been built in recent years, and you don't get the thrill of climbing rusty ladders held in place by corroded 1/4" bolts way up in the mountains. There was a bouldering area that we could get to by bus, but any vaporous inclination that Roanne had to go bouldering had been thoroughly dissipated by her ankle situation so we nixed that also.

Feeling a bit dejected, we limped out of the Alpine guide office and though about what to do. We decided to have a chill day to allow Roanne's ankle to recover, and then hopefully do a bigger hike on the following day. Luckily for us, in Europe having a chill day doesn't stop you from going to the mountains as there are cable cars that can take you there, so we decided to take a cable car up the Aiguille do Midi. This is the highest cable car in Europe, and whisks you up from the valley floor (at about 3300 feet) to the top of a granite spire at over 12,000 feet. Awesome!

We each bought a round trip ticket for 41 euros, boarded the cable car, and up we went. The ride is divided into two segments, here is shot of Roanne at the midstation waiting for the next cable car to arrive:

It was pretty amazing how far the cables spanned without being supported, I can't even imagine the forces that are exerted on those. Here is a shot from the midstation up towards the Aiguille de Midi with the cables disappearing off into the distance:

Finally the cable car arrived, here is a nice shot of it as it approaches:

Pretty cool! We jumped on board, and headed up to the Aiguille de Midi. As we disembarked on top, the first thing we noticed was that it was stinkin' cold! I had for some reason decided that shorts were the appropriate apparel for visiting heavily glaciated terrain at 12,000 feet, and now I was having some doubts. Luckily we did have jackets and toques, so we put those on and headed out to explore the complex of rooms and viewing platforms that the French had tunneled into this granite spire. Here I am on the first viewing platform that we arrived at, pretty spectacular:

Here is a shot of Roanne looking back down towards the valley, with some of the buildings visible:

And an unobstructed view of Mount Blanc:

Pretty amazing! At this point I was struck by an intense desire to head out onto the glacier and go climb something, but somehow I managed to restrain myself (no doubt made easier by the fact that I was wearing shorts and running shoes) and we continued on through the the buildings toward our next viewing platform. On the way there we passed by the exit onto the glacier, seen in the photo below:

A narrow snow ridge descended from this exit, which was the start of the Vallee de Blanche ski route. The Vallee Blanche is usually done in the spring, and descends 9000 feet in 22 km, starting at the Aiguille de Mid and finishing in the Valley of Chamonix below. Awesome! That is high on my to-do list of backcountry ski adventures, but even higher is the Haute Route. The Haute Route is a 7 day ski tour that starts in Chamonix, France, and finishes in my favorite town of Zermatt, Switzerland. Speaking of finishing in other countries, as we walked to the next viewing platform we also passed the loading station for a cable car that traverses 5 km across the glacier to end in Courmayeur, Italy. We were sorely tempted to hop on the cable car, go have an espresso in Italy, and come back, but in the end we managed to resist the temptation and continued on to the viewing platform. Here is a view from the viewing platform of the cable cars setting off for the trip across the glacier to Italy:

From this platform we could also look up to the highest "populated" point on the Aiguille de Midi, which could be accessed by paying an additional fee to ride th elevator up:

We decided that the views at our current elevation were sufficient, so we forewent riding up to elevator and after the requisite tour through the gift shop we boarded the cable car and headed back down to the midstation. Roanne's ankle was still pretty sore at this point so any sort of longer hike was out for the day, but there was a short trail to an alpine lake near the midstation that seemed pretty reasonable so we walked about 15 minutes along a rocky path to reach the lake. The views from the lake were pretty impressive, here is a shot of Roanne basking in the sun on the "shore" of the lake, with a nice view across the valley to the mountains to the south of Chamonix:

Roanne napped in the sun for a while as I went on a short exploration mission through the talus field above the lake. After I returned we decided to circumnavigate the lake as close to the water's edge as possible before heading back to the midstation. Here is a shot of me during this rock hopping exercise:

We took the cable car back down to Chamonix, and as we left the train station we noted the good taste in automobiles exercised by the cable car lift attendants who had parked there for the day:

It was now the early afternoon, and since Roanne's sore ankle ruled out most of our normal activities we decided to go check out a sports center in Chamonix that I had seen a brochure for which advertised its outdoor 50m pool. Normally I wouldn't choose to go swimming in a place like Chamonix with so many other options, but an outdoor 50m pool in the sunshine with a view of the alps sounded like a pretty good option. We had a good swim workout, and afterwards we browsed in a few shops before having dinner which was a delicious Savoy specialty called raclette. Raclette involves taking a block of cheese and placing heating elements facing either side of it (but not quite touching) so that melted cheese periodically drips down, and then using a special knife to periodically scrape off the melted cheese and eat it with bits of other food like ham, potatoes, bread, etc. It was pretty good, although I think it was the most cheese that I have ever consumed in one sitting.

The next morning dawned as another beautiful, sunny day, so during a delicious outdoor breakfast at a cafe we discussed our plans:

Roanne's anke was feeling a little better, so we decided to try a longer hike in the mountains on the south side of the valley. We decided to hike the Grand Balcon Sud which traversed the upper part of the mountains on the south side. The trail could be accessed either by a long upill hike, or by taking a cable car up, and though it pained me greatly to do so, we opted for the latter since Roanne was still having some ankle problems. The cable car was again broken into two stages, here is a shot from the midstation looking up toward the high station:

After reaching the top we headed out along trail which traversed a rocky ridge line with great views:

We walked behind the main ridge line for a while, but eventually we came around a corner and Mont Blanc and the rest of the alps on the north side of Chamonix came into view:

We continued on our way, passing a lot of other hikers as we headed east on the Grand Balcon Sud. We passed through a few ski resorts along the way, one of which appeared to have down hill mountain bike runs in the summer though it didn't seem too busy. We stopped for lunch and then continued on, opting to finish in another town to the east of Chamonix and hopefully catch a bus or train back to our hotel. We passed a lot of nice scenery along the way, here is Roanne in nice surroundings on the latter part of our hike:

Eventually we began descending back down towards the valley, and along the way we had the pleasure of observing some European wildlife:

I always think of Europe as consisting only of cities and culture, but this is proof that they have animals too.We made our way down to the road and hiked along a trail to the nearest town, and as we neared the town we saw a train coming along the tracks headed in our direction, so we made a mad sprint for the train station (as "mad" as possible with Roanne's sore ankle) but didn't quite make it. Since the next train didn't come for 40 minutes, we headed out to the road instead where we caught a bus after waiting a few minutes.

After a few days of the traditional heavy Savoyan fare for dinner, we decided to go for a lighter dinner and opted for a sandwich spot where we had delicious baguette sandwiches laden with a number of toppings and ingredients, including ... french fries! What a gread idea, I am amazed that Americans didn't think of this before the French, especially since french fries are the #1 vegetable in the US and A. Here is proof of how delicious the sandwiches were:

The next day we had the morning to spend in Chamonix before catching the Alpybus back to Geneva for our flight out on Tuesday morning. We didn't have a real agenda and just browsed around some shops for the morning before boarding the Alpybus. The Alpybus whisked us back to Geneva where we spent the late afternoon and evening walking around the city before retiring to bed in advance of our early flight out the next morning. It was definitely a great trip, though next time I visit Chamonix I will be sure to bring either my skis or my alpine climbing gear, since those are the two pursuits that it seems to cater to.

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