Chamonix-Mont Blanc, France • January 2019 • Length of Read: 8 Minutes
It was only going to be a matter of time before it happened, I could sense it, and as we pulled into our mid-way stop of the 90-minute bus journey from Geneva Airport to Chamonix that’s when he made his move.
“Do you know if I’ve got enough time to grab a bottle of water?” asked the larger-than-life, middle-aged American sat behind us; his question thankfully directed to the young Frenchman across the aisle as opposed to my girlfriend Eva and me.
“Probably not,” replied the well-spoken local; his perfect English only given away by the sustained accent on the ‘y’. “We’ll be leaving as soon as those people have taken their luggage off the coach,” he politely explained, reaching over and pointing out the window. Conversation over, or so you would have thought.
“Where are you travelling from?” asked the American, deciding that there was more information to be obtained out of the discussion. “I’m from Colorado myself,” he proudly beamed. “That’s in the United States. Have you heard of it?”
“I live in Barcelona, but am travelling home to Chamonix to see my parents,” he replied, deciding to ignore the second part of the question. “I was born up here in the mountains.”
“The mountains back in Colorado are much higher than here,” announced the American, his pompous drawl echoing around the bus and already getting on my nerves. “And our tunnels are longer. A daily ski pass in Aspen can set you back $200, however, so I prefer to fly over to Europe as it’s less expensive. What do you do in Barcelona?”
“I work for a start-up with a few of my close friends. We forage rare, gourmet mushrooms that we then package and sell to high-end restaurants and kitchens.”
“For drugs?” was the ignorant exclamation.
“No, to cook with,” laughed the Frenchman, miraculously managing to keep his composure.
“Well, the French do love their food,” chuckled the American, unfazed by his blunder, and the fact that Barcelona is in Spain. “You can get a train through the valley here, can’t you?” he then asked, changing his track. “I missed a flight once in Zurich because the train was too prompt. It left the airport station before I had time to get my things together and disembark onto the platform. So, is Chamonix-Sud far from Chamonix? I have a lot of stuff and am hoping that it’s not too far to go once the coach terminates.”
“Chamonix-Sud just means South Chamonix,” explained the Frenchman. “And the town is so small that you can get anywhere in less than ten minutes walking.”
“Perfect. I’m old and decrepit, you see, so can’t be doing too much lugging around of heavy cases. Well, that’s the joke I tell people. You know what this word ‘decrepit’ means?”
Unable to take any more of this barrage of ignorance, I plugged in my iPod, pressed play on a Ricky Gervais XFM podcast and, giving a teething glance towards Eva, closed my eyes and pretended to sleep for the rest of the journey.
As we pulled into Chamonix bus station, the windscreen wipers of the coach brushed away the fluttering snow that has started to fall. I changed into my hiking boots at the first opportunity and, leaving the American behind with a sign of relief, Eva and I trudged along the narrow pavement in the direction of our rented apartment; the snow crunching underfoot as a disjointed trail of suitcase wheels was left in our wake.
The town had a beautiful, antiquated feel, with the white rooftops of the high-end shops, hotels, and restaurants a pleasant contrast to the heated patio seating that sprawled out of entranceways into the babbling streets. Thirsty skiers huddled around the flames, wrapped in blankets and with glasses of beer clenched between their gloved hands. It was like looking back to the campfire communities of old. Fantastic, commissioned graffiti covered the bare sides of buildings, putting a modern twist on the history of the town, and the omnipresent backdrop of the Alps sent a shudder of excitement down my spine every time I glanced skywards.
We were starving after the journey, and I had a particular location in mind. Whilst reading the autobiography of Kenton Cool, a mountaineer who has summited Everest 14-times and counting, he recalls one summer when he guided the legendary Sir Ranulph Fiennes to the top of the Matterhorn, one of Europe’s most famous peak. The pair had met in Chamonix during one of their briefing sessions, and Cool raves about, ‘a great little place called Munchie, tucked away down a small cobbled street called Rue des Moulins. The staff are all beautiful Swedish girls, the atmosphere is nice, and they serve the best starter in Chamonix: a basket of Greenlandic grilled shrimp’.
Dumping our bags at the apartment, we wrapped up and got to the restaurant bang on time for our 8pm dinner reservation. Munchie did indeed have an inviting and quaint vibe, providing a relaxing setting for Eva and myself to cheers our holiday with a glass of white wine and pinch our chopsticks around a selection of Asian-infused tapas dishes, including salmon sushi rolls, steamed pork dumplings and grilled aubergine. The next day was my girlfriend’s 24th birthday and Chamonix was proving to be a joyous place to spend it.
“Happy birthday,” I cheered as Eva rubbed her bleary, big, brown eyes. “Look out the window.”
From our apartment bed, we could see the towering presence of Mont Blanc, Western Europe’s highest mountain. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and the snowy peak that rises to 4,808m stood proudly in all its glory. Having visited Everest Base Camp last year, I’ve gained a newfound understanding as to why our distant ancestors worshipped mountains as gods. There is something omniscient and omnipotent about them that makes you put faith in their grandiosity. As Eva opened her gifts, I prepared some avocado and eggs on toast for breakfast, and we sat on the balcony inhaling the food almost as quickly as the crisp, morning air. It was the perfect altitude adjustment.
We had a morning of health and wellbeing ahead of us, so after breakfast we layered up and shuffled our way through the snow in the direction of the QC Terme Spa. With Google Maps as our trusted navigator we started off in the right direction, but soon the tech became a bit dizzy and dysfunctional as the mountains disoriented the satellite signal. Having crossed an active ski route, we were then instructed to ‘turn left’ into a builders’ yard before ‘continuing straight for 400m’ past signs warning us to wear hard hats and take cation of the heavy machinery. Hopping a chain-linked fence, we then proceeded off-piste through a small forest, guided only by animal tracks, before eventually finding ourselves in the rear of the spa’s car park. It could have been a children’s pool from a local leisure centre waiting for us and I would have been happy enough to pay the €52 entrance fee just sit down and chill for a moment. Perhaps that was their business plan after all?
As it turned out, the Italian-owned thermal baths were pure tranquillity, and Eva and I spend the entire morning floating in the outdoor heated springs, clearing our pores in the tartan-themed sauna, meditating under waterfalls, and relaxing next to the fireplace as the sun poured through the slits in the wooden blinds. We then freshened up with a selection of creams and salts before slipping on bathrobes and enjoying some salad and champagne in the restaurant. It was complete bliss.
I could have stayed there all day, but we had a second activity to fit in, so getting changed we exited out through the main gate and followed the well-ploughed path back into town, giving Google Maps the afternoon off. After a quick pit-stop for a hot chocolate and a cake, we then joined the queue for the Aiguille du Midi cable car.
From an altitude of 1,035m in Chamonix, the cable car swung its way securely up over the white forest and rocky outcrops of the needle-shaped spire until we reached the 3,842m peak. Eva, still dressed for a fashionable pampering session as opposed to a mountaineering expedition, almost froze her ankles off as the -21°C wind-chill swirled around the viewing gallery at the top. Some serious skiers and harnessed climbers chatted nervously as they prepared themselves for their respective doses of adrenaline, and despite having hiked up to 5,600m during my Everest Base Camp trek I began to feel light-headed.
In addition to staring in awe at the panoramic vista, the cable car station also boasted an exhibit dedicated to altitude sickness, a restaurant, and a tube that had been burrowed through the rock in a remarkable feat of engineering. This grants access for tourist to Step Into the Void®, a glass box that hangs off the side of Aiguille du Midi and gives you the opportunity to overcome vertigo by sky-walking with over 1,000m of emptiness beneath your feet. Mont Blanc looked perilously close for my adventurous mind, and the thought of coming back to attempt a summit played on my brain for the remainder of the time we spent up there.
Back on terra firma, however, and the safety of our cosy apartment, this thought dissipated as I cuddled down with Eva to watch a movie. Lighting some birthday candles, I surprised her with a chocolate cake and, making a wish, she blew out the lights on what had been a lovely couple of days.
One Man’s Everest: The Autobiography of Kenton Cool (Arrow; Reprint edition, 2016)