A piece of paradise
‘Going to the mountains is going home’ – John Muir
Mountains – and I mean mountains. Everywhere. Finally.
Seating on the bus that would take us from Geneva (where we landed) to Annecy, I kept being abruptly interrupted in my day dreaming and mountain contemplating by John throwing his passport at me to grab my attention. I would throw it back with a revenge only to see him pointing at peaks and summits through the window with a giant smile on his face “LOOK!”. I reciprocated the same giant smile “I know!”.
We got to Annecy and then proceeded to jump on the most expensive taxi having ever travelled the surface of the earth to join Talloires, a little village 20 minutes away where we would be staying forever for the next four days.
Having barely slept the night before and after an entire day of travelling, we settled for an open water swim and reading by the pool for the end of that day. We quickly looked at maps we got from the hotel reception in order to have a vague idea as to where to explore the following day but nothing was detailed enough. We had a quick look on Strava and saw that there were multiple segments marked around our area. Maybe it was fatigue or laziness or the fact that we never truly ‘prepare’ any adventuring or maybe it was all of the above but the fact is that we came to the conclusion that “There’s plenty to run around here, we’ll find some trails and just go up”, shut down the computer and passed out.
DAY 1 – The path less travelled (if ever travelled at all)
The only reason we know that other human beings have been where we went that day is that we found a woman’s hat and Pete’s sunglasses (more on this later). But one could also argue that we found these items because both Peter and the woman to whom the hat belonged fell to their death and their bodies were never retrieved. Which, if you could see the terrain we ran on, would seem like a plausible explanation to you too.
After some quick preparation (e.g filling some water bottles and scrambling around to find a couple of gels), we were out the door, ready to go. We stopped by a lovely little café literally next door and after getting that other addiction out of the way, headed straight to the mountains. And I mean literally: we walked out and proceeded to run in a straight line towards the mountains expecting/hoping to find a trail head on our way up. The first couple kilometres were all up on concrete roads, running past little houses. At some point, John almost made a turn towards an off road path, following an old looking wood sign that read “St Germain” on it. A bend made it look like it was a dead end leading to someone’s house so I just kept running up the road, telling John to keep going, that this was surely leading to someone’s mansion. We kept on going up and could just not find a way to get to the mountains – so close but so far. We eventually ran into one road runner who told us that there was “not many trails here” and whom we immediately discarded him as ignorant and (obviously) blind. We kept running up the road and eventually spotted a camping site. We stopped by and asked about the trails to join the mountains. Again, we were told there were not much trail running around here. Now, this was literally impossible. It would be like being at sea, finding someone on a sail boat, asking them what type of fish they fish around here and them answering “there are not many fish around here”. We aborted the discussion and left confounded to see that some people could live there and not know the pile of gold that is their back garden. We kept running some, towards the mountains still and eventually ended under a tree line. There were no trails per se, no paths to be seen, but there were pine trees, rocks, steep hills and soft ground. And that was all we wanted. It was true alpine country, so wild it was barely runnable. It was also true adventuring. We kept making our way up, literally scrambling on all four at times, sliding down some rocks, grabbing some roots to help us with forward motion. I would not say it was the safest adventure we have put together so far. But it was not the worst either. And we were so happy. On our way up, John found some straw hat and a bit later some sunglasses. When he asked me who did I think the glasses may belong to I randomly told him “Peter”, just because it seems as good as a probability as any other. And then, I am not sure how, but we made an entire story line for Peter. Why he was there, how he lost the glasses. Between sliding on rocks and grabbing some roots, we kept having this surreal discussion. And when we reached a dead end to the story we replaced it with singing. Out loud and out of tune. Like no one was listening. Because no one was and it was so good.
It was raining the entire time but thinking of that day I only remember the rain because I can see it on the photos. For we could not have cared less about the rain. Being there, then, it overshadowed everything. It was pure, wild happiness.
After some intense effort, a mix of bouldering and some vague running motions over the next 1.5 hours, we hit a dead end. A rocky face 30m tall, magnificent and definitely vertical was standing right in front of us and there was not much we could do on behalf of forward motion. Forever optimistic, we decided to just follow it until it broke into a path somewhere. We stood on the rocks, turned around and our jaws dropped at the view. How good it was to be here. How perfect. I kept thinking of the lyrics of a song “And if you close your eyes, does it almost feel like nothing’s changed at all?”. So much had forever changed, my heart sinks when I think of it. But concealed in all the change some things have been left intact; the centre of rotation of my life, my world., forever sheltered from everything outside it. There are things that will forever be protected and offer protection. Things that are untouchable.
We took a break, standing at the bottom of that rocky face, taking it all in, mesmerised by the colour of the lake we could see in the far distance, the smells of the pine trees and the ground after the fresh rain. We kept trying to circumvolute the face and eventually found a little bit of a trail that took us a little bit higher. It still was not going up per se but it was at least a trail. We followed it as far as we could before following it down the valley. This was gold. Now we had a trail, to follow and somewhere to begin tomorrow. We ran down as fast as we could to make up for our snail pace on the way up. We eventually reached the roads again, at the intersection intersected with the small trail we were on. And you will never guess what sign was pointing towards the direction we had just come from. “St Germain” – John looked at me and I could speak the words before he was about to say before they even left his mouth “Oh I am sure this leads to someone’s house…”. Yep. But hey, at least we got some sunglasses that day!
We headed back to the hotel and then straight to the Lake for some open water swimming. I wish I had had a camera then just to capture the view I got to grasp every time I would catch my breath. Mountains everywhere while swimming under the rain. Beat that.
DAY 2 – It’s a different story when you know where to go
Even though it was still raining, we woke up excited to see where the path more travelled would take us. We geared up, packed a couple of sandwiches and a few biscuits and after the necessary espresso stop, we were on our way. It was straight up for an hour. And I mean UP. The first part of the climb was mainly under the tree line. After half an hour or so, we reached a plateau where paragliders take off from and followed the signs to the summit we had our eyes on: “Col des Fretes”. We were at 957m of elevation at this stage and as the forest was getting more and more dense, so was the mist. It was magical. John and I called this section ‘the enchanted forest’, for it was essentially everything you could think of when imagining an enchanted forest. There were giant root trees, dense vegetation, rocks that would erect in the middle of the trail, round spider webs dangling from tree branches and from which small drops of water were gently falling as the rays of the sun broke through them. But there is not rest for the weary – even in the enchanted forest – this was a really steep section and I could hear my laboured breathing with every step. My heart was pounding against my chest as I tried (and mostly failed) to keep John the mountain goat in my field of vision. Whenever I had not seen him for a while and wanted to get a sense of how far apart we were, I would let out some random animal sounds (there is a pattern though, it is very much our call) or screamed from the top of my lungs that I loved the mountains or the enchanted forest and would wait for a response that was always there. As we got closer to the top, the enchanted forest abruptly stopped at some point to lead to a sea of rocks. It brought me back to a specific section of the trail in Corsica, for this was 1/100th of the actual sea of rocks that Max and I had to travel over back then. Imagine an avalanche that has just stopped. Picture all the giant blocks of snow and ice organised in an almost chaotique manner. Now replaced them by boulders. That was literally the Corsica sea of rocks. It broke us and that day I registered my slowest mile to date still: it took us 56 minutes to cover a single mile of terrain. But I digress completely. This was a mini sea of rocks that we quickly got over. As the tree line stopped, we could only imagine how remarkable the view would have been from there but as thicker and thicker fog surrounded us we did not get to see a thing. We kept on going and after the rocks came a proper single track. No dirt, no grass, just plain mud. It felt like ice skating – there was no grip at all. Each hair pin made you look like an animal, back to scrambling on all four, grabbing rocks, roots or essentially anything that would allow a grip.
And then we reached it, the top. Again, we could somewhat guess the shape of the Lake through the clouds and the mist but not much more. But still, it was outstanding. The raw rocky faces of the mountains that were surrounding us, the seldom rays of sunshine breaking through the fog and into the valley. Rain or no rain, view or no view, we still got what we needed that day. We inhaled our sandwiches and proceeded to go down, as we were getting rather cold out there.
If you have trouble going up something, you can almost always be certain that it would be worse going down it. That single muddy track was no exception and there were a couple sections where I was essentially down on my butt, as low to the ground as possible as I let myself slipped down some parts of the track. There was some good running to be had once we reached the enchanted forest and we sure took the most of it, the whole way down. It was 5 miles of pure downhill fell running. For a few miles, you are all out, putting all of your body energy and weight in each stride. I could feel that specific pain in my legs, the one that has become synonym of any ultra or fell running. And it made me happy somehow.
Back in town, we treated ourselves to a couple of beers and baguettes. A hot shower to warm up and we were swimming in the Lake in no time. The sun graced us with a shy appearance by the end of the afternoon so we got to enjoy some reading time by the pool. Life points all over the place.
DAY 3 – It was everything
Last full day and it was perfect weather. Not a single cloud to be seen in the horizon. We threw a couple of sandwiches in our packs and were out the door in no time for our daily espresso. At bAsecamp (the café), a man who saw us all geared up came to talk to us and ask us what we were up to. He was obviously quite familiar with the whole area. We told him where we had gone the day before and that we essentially were about to repeat that but in the sunlight and dry, which was bound to be a different experience. He told us that once at the top we could actually make a pretty decent loop if we decided to go back down through another trail (Col de l’Aulpe via le Pas de L’Ours). Happy we that, we thanked him and headed out.
In the mountains, just changing the weather can make you feel like you are in a complete different place. That is something I first realised when John and I ran up Snowdown for the first time and it was so foggy you could literally not see 10 metres a head. I went back up there by myself two weeks after that day and in glorious weather, Snowdon and its surrounding felt completely different. This was no different and even though we had been on that very same trail 24 hours prior, we were seeing things that we could not possibly have seen the day before. We reached the sea of rocks and where there had only been fog the previous day, what we could see now was a spectacular view of the Lake over the tree line. We could not wait to reach the top.
For some reason I am still struggling to understand, even though it was not raining, that single track was still very much muddy and even more slippery, which I did not deem possible. I went from 40% animal mode the day before to 80% scrambling on all four that day. I was almost expecting to see John sliding down past me at any point but it did not happen. I was heavily focused on trying to not fall to my death when I head rocks falling down on the side of the trails (another sea of rocks). I looked up to see a mountain goat run down that mountain at the speed of light. It was maybe 10 meters away from me and I felt incredibly fortunate to be able to witness its seemingly effortless motion.
I reached the top to find John there – we instantly smiled at each other, more specifically at how absolutely ridiculous that last section had been. The view from the top was nothing short of remarkable.
Again, we stayed there for a while, ate some and took about a million photos. Shortly after we had reached the top, a lonely hiker met us there. We said hi and when we saw him going to a direction opposite to where we had come from, we asked him where he was heading. He pretty much repeated to us what the man at bAsecamp at told us that same morning, but additionally pointing and showing us where to go. He told us we could head straight down or head to another top, 40 minutes further, where he was himself headed. Excited to see something different we headed into that direction. Regardless of our decision to go down or higher up, the next couple of kilometres were the same so we just started running again and decided that we would make our call once we had to.
After a mile or so, we reached a fork on the road and it was decision time. We were spent. I mean, we had put a really solid effort going up the Col des Fretes twice in two days and still had to think of heading down to the valley at some point. John looked at me ‘what do you think?’. It was an easy decision to be honest. The sun was out, we could see the summit, we were (almost) alone in the world in a place of outstanding beauty and still had plenty of day light ahead of us. We went up. It was steep as.
Now, just like a photo never does justice to a beautiful landscape, words can disappoint too. And to be honest, I am not really sure how I will ever be able to convey the beauty that awaited us at the top that day. What we saw, was the stuff of postcards and travel books. It was pure beauty. I got to the top and felt overwhelmed at the sight of our surroundings.
It was everything.
Everything I had been dreaming of, everything I had craved for months, everything I would see every time I would close my eyes and dream of this very moment. I just don’t have the words I am afraid. I rather not have the words.
Maybe just imagine what makes you the happiest in life, multiply that by a thousand and then multiply it to the power of infinity. And that would be where I was standing – both physically and in my mind – at that moment.
We headed down through uncharted territory. We made friends with some happy cows and stopped half way down in a little chalet for a can of Coke – like this day could get better…
Again, it was all pure downhill madness and pleasure. As we were descending, pounding down through the forest with nothing but the sound of our footsteps and our breaths, I remember telling John that in that moment, that week, I was living my dream life. The life you dream is yours every time you watch an episode of Salomon TV, see some happy fool in the mountains and think to yourself you need to be there. We were there right now. And again, it was everything.
You know the rest: some beers, open water swim, some reading by the pool, some wine and some baguettes. The good life.