Following 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.
One 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!
Soon 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!