France and Paris are practically synonymous with each other. Tell people you're going to France and the first thing they think of is Paris, "The city of Lights". This is where, in remembrance of Anthony Bourdain, it jumps to a clip of traffic, overweight sweaty businessmen, construction, dog poop on the sidewalk, honking horns, people begging in the streets, the random Parisian smoking a cigarette on the corner, then back to the monologue. Paris is the capital and just like any other major city. Sure, there are the museums and architecture, but this only represents a small portion of France. So when we booked the trip we only planned one night in Paris due its proximity to the airpot. For us, like all of our trips we want to see the real part, in this case the real France.
As our bags slowly whined down the conveyer belt we looked around, we were tourists in a sea of tourists, however we felt that we were headed to a different world that stood in contrast to the dress and demeanor of our fellow travelers. To put it in perspective, it would be similar to flying into Orlando and not venturing out to see the real Florida that doesn't involve mouse ears. This is not a story to knock Paris, but we want everyone to see past the city lights, generic cliche Eiffel Tower engagements, and ritzy wine country. Just like every Floridian wants to be known past the theme parks. Parisians are well known for their attitude towards outsiders but that stereotype stops as soon as you leave the city. Everywhere we went the people were great, interested in where we were from, and tried their best to communicate with us which was greatly appreciated because we struggled to differentiate where one word ended and the next one began.
We grabbed our bags, jumped in the rental car and right into the craziness of driving through Paris. Driving here, and in all of France, is like an Indy race. You drive as fast as you can until you reach a car slower than you and ride their bumper. Back home this is a great way to get "the finger", but here it was the norm. Not much complaints because white knuckle driving will keep you awake after a long flight and made the 8 hours drive to Chamonix fly by. The drive was similar to driving through the Midwest with farm after farm, however every 50 kilometers or so you would find yourself driving through cobblestone streets in towns that were over 100 years old. It felt like you were on the set of Saving Private Ryan and some of the towns still had visible scars from World War II.
As we rolled up to our Air BnB, we were happy to see our rented old-train-car-converted-mini-house was ideal for our stay. Located on the outskirts of a small town and on the edge of the Alps, it was the perfect basecamp for a week of exploration. It even had two Border Collies which made us feel at home because the hardest part of traveling is leaving our 5 dogs, one of which is a Border Collie with surprisingly similar mannerisms to his French relatives. The oldest dog even went on a several hour hike with us to the top of a mountain that the property backed up to.
We settled in, unpacked our gear, and after taking in our view of the tallest peak in the Alps, we needed very little motivation to get up and shake off the jet lag. Twelve kilometers away stood the base of where we would embark on our adventure. In the wintertime it is a ski resort but during the summertime it is a ghost town and we lucked out by unknowingly planning the trip between the slim gap of the busy ski and hiking seasons. There is something eerie but freeing about having the biggest National park in Europe to yourself (it is technically two; Vanoise National Park where we were on the French side and Gran Paridiso in Italy). We parked at the base of the ski resort and ascended up a grueling steep hike coming across waterfalls and even having to use climbing skills to maneuver boulders. As we broke free of the forest, the scenery took a drastic turn. We were in a valley, yet 2000 meters up, we were surrounded by one of the most impressive views we have ever seen. There was a 1000 ft waterfall that a picture could not give justice to. The waterfall fed a fast moving stream that cut through a field of flowers. Each side was different, with dry dessert looking shale cliffs to the West, dark green lush forests to the East, and deep snow banks to the North. If you enjoy hiking, this would be your Mecca.
We started in this valley practically every day. On the third day, we experienced the biggest dilemma of the trip, and honestly of any trip. We knew through our Garmin we were less than a mile from one of the most picturesque lakes in the Alps. We hiked up a few hours to get where we stood. Up to this point snow was scattered throughout the hike but as our altitude increased snow became more present. Then came the sight neither one of us could let out of our heads. A snow slide from a higher peak came down and washed out the path. It didn't just block the way, it was a straight drop, a solid 500 feet from where we stood, and came to violent rest as it joined up with the waterfall mentioned earlier. A fall was sure death or if you're lucky the most scenic helicopter ride of your life to the nearest hospital. Nature is cruel and common sense tells you it's not worth it. The things is the snow wash was only 30 meters wide, but started 300 meters above us and it ended at the rushing water equally as far below us, therefore putting us right in the middle. The frustration came from knowing that after the short 30 meter (roughly 90ft) snow tight rope trek, it's smooth sailing and back to rocky trails towards the lake. Walking in a straight line is super easy, really easy. One foot in front of the other, and 100 steps later we would be across. There were just a few things that made walking a littler hard, snow and a death fall. Just don't look down, it's easy. Here is where we would love to say, "we crossed over, made it to the lake, took great pictures, took it all in, and now onto the next hike". However, there we stood, and stood, time seemed to stand still, we talked it over, looked for other routes. Even called it a day and went back to plan a way out and around. That led to nothing and we found ourselves in the same snow footprints as the day before, and starred, still a no go. I could throw a rock across the pass, we were that close. This is where going into the unknown sucks, yet this is exactly why we go. Standing on the ledge you realize why we do it, the balance of reckless and calculated, a place where simple life issues and politics cease to exist, this is where you find your nature. Would getting to the top of that mountain be life changing? Maybe, however, is failing to make it to the peak life changing? Without a doubt. This is what pushes us, sometimes it's one stupid snow pass, sometimes it's what you don't do that makes a trip or defines who you are.
As the days and hikes ticked by, it was time to head back. We broke the 8 hour trip in half and stayed in a small old town in the middle of nowhere. We drank local wine, went on a several mile run through farm country and cut through a forrest enjoying the fresh air created by the lack of people. We then made our way back to Paris, and then home. Like other trips, pictures from this one will cover our walls, and we will start planning our next adventure. However, the decision to not cross the snow ledge will still sit in the back of our minds, yet drive us, and we will constantly find ways to become better adventurers, acquire better equipment, and always search for the next unobtainable trail...this is why we go.
Find Your Nature
RIP Anthony Bourdain