Scaling New Heights

Mont Blanc, ChamonixFollowing the initial few days in Switzerland and skydiving just over the border, with the Alps on the immediate horizon, my recent trip took me into the heart of the Alps and Chamonix, my base for the next week.

Chamonix is regarded as the alpine capital of the Alps, and it is easy to appreciate why, with the town nestled snugly in the valley that is dominated by the breathtaking Mont Blanc, and the various peaks that collectively make up the Mont Blanc massif, including the famous Aguille du Midi, which is worth taking a cable car up to even if just for the briefest of glimpes out over the valley thousands of feet below. Chamonix is somewhat unique in that it is pretty busy and active throughout the year, whereas a lot of alpine resorts go into more of a summer hibernation outside of the manic ski season. In addition to being charmingly pretty, with the requisite array of cosy coffee shops, pubs, alpine supply stores, restaurants and chalets, the town just buzzes with an energy that comes from being full of people with a common goal: to experience the best that the surrounding natural resources have to offer, whether that be miles and miles of trails to run or hike up and down, alpine slopes and the valley spread out below over which to paraglide, or the wealth of climbing on offer, both rock and alpine, with an ascent of Mont Blanc itself being the focus of many visitors’ attentions. Even if you did not describe yourself as an active, outdoorsey type, after even just a couple of hours in Chamonix I could see you reaching for the hiking boots and standing in line for a lift pass, such is the lure of the surrounding terrain.

My accommodation for the week was a beautiful chalet a few kilometres outside of Chamonix, Chalet Tissieres, situated in the shadow of the Boisson glacier, one of the many huge glaciers that extend down into the valley from the snowy heights above. Run by a lovely lady by the name of Renske and her husband, and staffed by a young English couple, the chalet was a welcoming sanctuary, with the other guests all climbers and outdoor enthusiasts themselves, making for inspiring dinnertime conversation. With a warm, comfortable bed, great company and hearty food available, the chalet was the perfect launch pad for the week’s various adventures. The fact that it was situated a few kilometres down valley of Chamonix itself was not an issue thanks to my trusty little rental car, which did a famous job of ferrying me along the alpine roads and offering the freedom to explore at my leisure.

Paragliding in ChamonixOne of the first activities to tackle on my list of ‘absolute must dos’ was paragliding, or parapenting as they say in France. I had been very tempted to sign up to a course to gain my license to paraglide but figured that a) it would significantly limit the time available in which to engage in other mountain-based activities, and b) who knows, I might even hate it, in which case committing to a full course would be a bind. Of course I didn’t really imagine for a second that I wouldn’t enjoy it, and that is exactly what the case was as I found myself soaring like an eagle over the valley and town, skirting along the sides of the surrounding peaks, with my pilot Simon in control and my place being seated in front, taking in the incredible views from the armchair-like comfort of my harness. Surreal was the word I used to describe the experience at the time and it really was, from literally running off the side of the Brevant to gliding noiselessly through the crisp alpine air, with fellow flyers above, below and around us as would birds. I am used to flying under canopy as a skydiver, but paragliding is so much slower, gentler, smoother and relaxing, in large part down to the fact that you spend significantly more time in the air compared to a skydiving canopy flight, during which you only ever fly down, whereas paragliders can ‘catch a thermal’ and rise higher, a bizarre sensation indeed. In the right conditions, and with the appropriate level of skill, paragliding pilots can literally spend hours flying. I find that amazing!

Danny Uhlmann, First Light Mountain GuidesSoon after landing I arranged to meet up with my mountain guide for the latter part of the week, in addition to organising a mountain bike rental for the following day’s fun. Danny, my friendly American guide whom I had been put in touch with by a mutual friend and fellow alpine guide, was simply brimming with enthusiasm and ideas for what we could achieve during our four days together. The first thing we did following our initial coffee was to go on a kit run, identifying the various bits of essential clothing and equipment that I would need for my time in and on the mountains, pointing out that which I would be best purchasing and those bits of kit that should be hired. Purchasing such items as alpine climbing trousers and an expensive ‘puffy’ jacket when I live in a part of the world where the temperature rarely exceeds about 25 degrees celcius seemed odd but its amazing how swept up in the mountain climbing fever one can become, coming precariously close to further credit card bashing when I nearly justified to myself the idea of buying my own pair of mountaineering boots. I did relent, reminding myself of the fact that a) I lived in the desert, and b) had no idea when I would next be on a mountain, meaning that on a scale of ‘unessential to absolutely must-have’ mountain boots fell quite low down. Still, by the end of the day I was suitably attired and equipped to tackle the surrounding peaks with Danny like a true alpine climber. First, however, was a day of downhill mountain biking fun!

Wet & Windy

I think I may have overdosed on adrenaline! A recent trip away from the heat and humidity of Dubai, and the Emirates, saw me head back to Europe, principally to attend the wedding of some good friends. The destination was Switzerland, or more specifically the small but fairy-tale looking lakeside town of Nyon, a short drive outside of Geneva. After the wedding itself I packed up and drove my nippy little hire car out of Switzerland and into France, directly towards the hypnotizing and impressively majestic Mont Blanc, which my now married friends have an unrivaled view of from their townhouse, across Lake Geneva (or Lac Leman, to give it it’s local name).

wakeboarding, Nyon, Lake Geneva
Perfect conditions for wakeboarding on Lake Geneva

The adrenaline rush started, however, in Switzerland, after I had stopped in at a small skate shop in Nyon whilst out for a morning run to enquire as to whether there were any options to wakeboard locally, something I was keen to repeat having indulged in the activity on the lake several years before with my friends, and also off the back of the fact that I had been practicing here in the Middle East at the lakes in Abu Dhabi. Fortunately the owner of the job had a friend with his own boat in the town and so gave me his number to see if he might be heading out during the weekend. As such, the following morning, after the fun, games and excesses of the wedding, I roused myself with an early morning breakfast Swiss style, grabbed my board shorts and Go Pro and met Stefan, his girlfriend, Charlotte, and their mutual friend and fellow watersport enthusiast, David, down at their boat before casting off on to the crystalline and tranquil waters of the lake.

Wake board, Lake Geneva
Refreshing & exhilirating!

There is no better way to blow away the cobwebs and be left feeling amazingly refreshed than to jump into the cool waters of an amazing lake, with blue skies, the sun shining, and a majestic panorama of snow-capped peaks in the distance, and to then rip it up on a wakeboard. It was awesome, and although I didn’t quite grab any major air, the very sensation of being out there was fantastic. The best part of the experience, however, was then getting to try my hand, or rather feet, at wake surfing, a totally new concept for me but the main reason for why Stefan and Charlotte had purchased their fancy wakeboard boat in the first place.

Wake surfing, Lake Geneva
Wake surfing

Wake surfing basically sees you start in the water, much as you do with traditional wake boarding, being pulled up onto your board, which in this case is a small, mini surfboard. The aim is to then find the sweet spot in the large wake created immediately behind the boat and to then literally surf it, meaning that you discard the help of the rope pulling you initially and rely on the fact that you essentially surf down the wake/ wave towards the boat. It really was surreal to be that close to the boat and yet moving without the pull of a rope. Although I wouldn’t say I was an instant natural, or even stayed standing on the board for very long at a time, it was an amazing experience and something that I can actually see the appeal of over wake boarding, which is pretty much what Stefan and co had moved away from. Those people who are well practiced, such as my fellow lake playmates that day, can start to pull off some funky trickery on the board, which was great fun to watch.

The fun very much continued as I headed off into France to continue my activity fueled vacation. The first stop was a small airstrip in Annemasse just over the Swiss-French border, and home to the local skydiving fraternity. With a runway that points directly towards Mont Blanc, the views of the highest peak in Europe are unrivaled and it was clear that jumping there was something that I had to make happen. Unfortunately by the time I arrived en-route to Chamonix it had become too windy or me to safely skydive. Not one to be deterred though I simply made the decision to return early the following morning, hoping that the winds would prove to be lighter – which they did – and spent an entire day jumping over one of the most incredible landscapes I have had the pleasure to freefall towards so far.

Skydive, in plane, Annemasse, Chris & instructorOne of the aspects of skydiving, or indeed most adrenaline sports, is the friendliness and general feeling of comararderie that you get with other participants. I jumped initially with one of the instructors, who took along his Go Pro to record the jump, and had a blast as we pretended to swim through the air and generally lark about as we took in the amazing views that are abundant from 12,000 feet in the air, especially when there isn’t a single cloud in the sky. A leisurely lunch at a traditional French cafe in town was the perfect intermission before donning the flight suit and chute again, this time jumping with Lucile, the attractive girl who I had first had the pleasure to speak with when I arrived the previous day. That jump saw me leave the plane first, with Lucile diving out afterwards before we ran through a fun ‘routine’ before breaking away and making our own way under canopy. High fives all round on the ground after successful jump number 2!

At that point I had made up my mind that the day’s freefall fun was over as I had every intention to head back to Chamonix, but the lure of a sunset jump with Mont Blanc glowing in an ethereal light, was just too much to resist. “Besides,” I thought, “I’m on holiday!” It was worth hanging around for, as I joined three other skydivers for the jump, which again was caught on film and awaits my editing attention. A top day and adrenaline sport number two of the trip already ticked off. On to the rest of the week then…