My Alps excursions to this point have largely been concentrated in Switzerland, but a colleague from Lausanne recommended that to “see” Mont Blanc (the tallest mountain in Europe), it’d be necessary to visit the climbing town at its foot: Chamonix.
I could have visited Italy’s Courmayeur for similar results, but it’d be quicker to get to Chamonix — and I also speak the language. This said, I hadn’t heard of the place before doing some research for the trip. It seemed, though, like it’d be a candidate for decent hiking and more sunrise shots even with the entirety of the cable car and ski lift network shut down due to it being low-season.
This lack of transportation would mean hiking to get to the trailhead — not unlike what I had to do in Zermatt four weeks earlier, but this time I’d be going about it in an unfamiliar area. After some online motivation (here, here, and here) to and email exchanges to get a little more acquainted with the region, I finally pulled the trigger and decided to drive the six hours there. I arrived in Chamonix without knowing exactly what I’d do: I thought I could repeat what I did in Zermatt and try to go to the Col de Forclaz at sunrise and then take things from there. As was the case with Norway, I didn’t want to wake up when my alarm rang… fortunately, Col de Forclaz isn’t as photogenic as Col de Furka, so I didn’t miss much. After I finally woke up at 7AM, I grabbed breakfast and asked the front desk receptionist (a hiker herself) what she recommended, and then I went to go buy a topographic map to start the hike.
… which was terrible. It wasn’t that it was overly strenuous — it wasn’t — but that I kept trying the wrong trail. The trails indicated on the map weren’t the ones I wanted to be on (or at least had deviations due to route maintenance), and with trail signs that weren’t hugely helpful like they tend to be in Switzerland, it took me an hour and a half before I finally found the one that led up to La Flégère, my interim destination for the day. It was 2 PM by the time I got there, and my secondary goal of continuing to Lac Blanc was at this point not a safe consideration. The lighting was also pretty unpleasant; it was a combination of back- and sidelighting, which combined with the strong afternoon sun really didn’t make for flattering pictures. I was happy to get two “interesting” (i.e. to me at the time; nothing to say the photos themselves are that interesting) scenes along the way: curiously-lit leaves and the contrast between a tree that had shed its leaves, and one directly next to it that still had its needles.
I actually didn’t take a picture of the Mont Blanc massif until I started the descent back toward Chamonix (the first picture in this post, but note that the summit of Mont Blanc isn’t always visible: from the Chamonix valley, it’s hidden behind what is actually Le Dôme de Goûter), but at La Flégère I took some pictures of myself using a rock, instead of the three-legged variety that I intentionally left at the hotel, as a tripod and of what is now a severely retreated Mer de Glace and the valley it has carved. I also took a picture of the ski lifts map — all were marked by red LEDs signifying their being shut down — for my own laughs later on. ;-)
I arrived back to Chamonix after choosing the wrong trail down again and, after backtracking and finding the right path, having a pleasant conversation with a retired guide also on her way down to the city. Once there, I played the role of the tourist for a couple hours, wandering around the center shopping area. I thought Zermatt and Lauterbrunnen were bad, but incredibly — and in low season at that — the shops in Chamonix stay open on Sundays. I can’t imagine how overrun Chamonix must be in the summer or during ski season, and even though that’s when the ski lifts are running, I’m not wholly sure I want to find out! Nevertheless, as I always write after going to a French-speaking area, it was good fun to be able to speak French the whole time. The hiking guide remarked at one point that “Vous parlez drôlement bien français,” to which I responded that it was only in conversational French that I could convince people of this, but as touristy as Chamonix is never once did anyone try to switch to English when they [most certainly] detected that I wasn’t actually French. Maybe they were just happy that a foreign tourist actually spoke their language. Either way, it was great practice and a welcome change from German, in which I am typically capable of asking a question or giving a statement to whose response I don’t understand.
This post has perhaps (unintentionally) ended up sounding a bit bitter; I suppose that’s a unconscious reaction to not being able to take the type of sunrise over a lake in the pictures that served as motivation for this trip. This, however, is not at all my takeaway from the weekend; quite the contrary, in fact. Something I couldn’t quite finger had started to sit on my conscience of late, and though I noticed it again during the drive into Chamonix and periodically throughout my hike, it wasn’t until I was driving back to Stuttgart that it hit me. Never mind my fascination with the Alps and that this is my fifth blog post about them, never mind my love of speaking French and feeling at home in France, and ignore the fact that I apparently have a worse case of wanderlust than the people who coined the term.
No, this realization has nothing to do with the Alps themselves or travel itself or French. After twenty weeks here, in the midst of the frustrating hike I’ve ever done and while staying in a city practically conceived to be a tourist attraction, it dawned on me that I might have fallen in love with Europe.