The idea: To help Jake train for the KMV and spend a week exploring Chamonix on a restricted budget.
Location: Chamonix, France
Transport: Plane, Feet
Ascent: (KMV route) 1,000m (whole week) 4,200m
Essential kit: Passport. Plane tickets. Walking boots. Trail running shoes. Sturdy sticks.
Less-essential kit: Raincoats (thankfully).
Kit we wished we’d had: Walking poles. Mountaineering boots.
Cost per person: under £200
April is a strange time to visit a European ski resort. Most of the snow has melted, the ski lifts have stopped running, and the summer tourists have yet to descend. In fact, the only people left are those who’ve worked a season and can’t yet bring themselves to return home to the reality of parents who’ll demand they ‘find a real job’. By the time summer rolls around, the resort will be filled again with hikers, climbers and paragliders, but April is the quiet season. What Chamonix lacks in snow during this period, it makes up for in affordability, room to breathe and opportunities for spur-of-the-moment adventure.
Car hire, accommodation and flights to Chamonix cost just less than £200 each. While that cost means the trip can’t be classified as an everyday adventure in the truest sense, we still tried to squeeze every possible ounce of fun from every pound we spent. Much like our trip to Snowdonia in March, the main thing guiding this trip was that Jake is running the Vertical Kilometre race here in June and needed to get some more mountain miles in his legs. Unlike our trip to Snowdonia, however, we were under no illusions that we’d be able to keep up with him here. We recce’d the route with him on the first day, and tried to run a section of it on the last, but largely avoided the humiliation of trying to match Jake’s pace on an incline.
Not having a solid plan or even a vague list of things we’d like to do on the trip felt quite odd. I normally like to plan at least a few days’ worth of activities before leaving home for fear of missing something important. Not having a plan in Chamonix, however, wasn’t really a problem. As we woke up each morning, we would feel the presence of Mont Blanc, towering above us in its superiority, drawing our eyes and feet upwards. The feeling of inferiority was so immense, in fact, that the only thing to do was to prove ourselves worthy. We would scale mountains, push our limits and go places that not everyone is able to go. In Chamonix, it seemed, adventure was unavoidable.
“As we woke up each morning, we would feel the presence of Mont Blanc, towering above us in its superiority, drawing our eyes and feet upwards. The feeling of inferiority was so immense, in fact, that the only thing to do was to prove ourselves worthy.”
Also unavoidable, however, was passing the glaring eyes of the Chamonix stragglers sat nursing their early morning (or extremely late night) beers, clinging on to the partners they’d never see again and to the final days of rapidly melting snow. We would feel their mountain-tanned (and largely disinterested) gazes follow us through town each morning, as we bravely marched forth looking like a poorly coordinated Ray Mears tribute band. Once we were through the town however, our walking boots, technical trousers and monstrous backpacks came into their own. The kit we were wearing, plus a couple of trusty sticks, a full hydration bladder and a bit of trail mix would be all we’d need to walk for miles and miles taking in everything the mountains had to offer.
The first place we walked was the KMV route, a torturous zig-zag path that winds up to the top of the Plan Praz cable car, the top of which is a via ferrata section requiring scrambling across ropes and bars attached to the rocks. Walking this route at a moderate pace was hard enough, but the thought of running it while being chased by elite mountain runners was almost too much to bear. Not least because it would be impossible to stop and take in the breathtaking scenery as the route winds higher and higher above Chamonix. Fortunately, however, we were taking it at our own pace, scaling the mountain with purpose, but not in a rush, and running down at a decent pace, criss-crossing under canopies, around boulders and over low-lying logs. We took on the route up and down largely in silence, in single file, stopping only occasionally to admire the views and to push each other on.
That’s my favourite thing about adventuring with this group. When it would be easier to give up or have a lazy day, there’s always someone there to push the others on and remind us that the extra effort will be worth it. After a few days of hiking up mountains and running back down them, we thought we’d take it slightly easier and spend a day on the via ferrata, but found out it was the wrong season when trying to hire equipment. We had tired legs and had seen more than enough epic views to last a lifetime, let alone a week, so decided to take a small break to get a decent lunch and see some more of the town. By the afternoon, however, our feet had become itchy, so we decided to go and explore the Bossons glacier. We set off at 3pm in baking Spring sunshine, and by 4pm we’d found an incredible glacial waterfall to cool off in. Effort rewarded. After a short stop, we carried on up the mountain, hot on the heels of a trucker who’d parked up just before entering the Mt Blanc tunnel for a quick jog up the mountain (thus earning our complete respect). We walked until 6pm, by which time the glacier was still nowhere to be seen. We considered turning around to make our way down the mountain before nightfall, but put it to a group vote and decided to push on for just one more hour.
Just around the corner, we discovered an abandoned cable car station that still had one retro car in its dock. We spent a while up there, exploring the building and looking out at a view once commonly seen but now reserved for those with the endurance to walk the route once travelled by cable car. We hadn’t found the glacier and night was closing in, but, encouraged by what had happened the last time we decided to take just a few steps more, we thought we’d take a peek around the next corner. Sure enough, as we walked on the path began to widen and the tree line thinned out to reveal the epic Boissons glacier, surging forward towards us with unbridled power under the strictest control. The sun had set by the time we started our descent, but all concerns about being stranded on the mountain with no light to see us home had long gone. The cable car station and the glacier had taught us to follow our curiosity and push on when the temptation was to turn back.
“We engaged in (limited) French conversation for a few minutes while they shook their heads and repeated the word, ‘avalanche’.”
On one of our final days in Chamonix, we felt we’d earned a ride on the last of the ski lifts to be operating that season. We wanted to give snowshoeing a go, so hired the shoes from a sports shop in town and boarded the ski lift with the cool kids from town, who took the lift’s bumps and swings in their stride as we wobbled, stumbled and accidentally pushed the spikes of our snowshoes into their sides. When we reached the top, they set off down the mountain while we clipped on our shoes and made our way off the slope in search of a path less trodden. As we sidestepped the first plastic orange fence, we were descended upon by two Jean Claude Van Damme lookalikes who told us that we should stop what we were doing immediately. Apparently, attempting to walk on the side of a mountain in April with nothing but t-shirts and jeans on is ‘trés dangereux’. We engaged in (limited) French conversation for a few minutes while they shook their heads and repeated the word, ‘avalanche’.
Perhaps the obvious thing to do would have been to abandon the trip altogether (no one likes an avalanche, after all), but we weren’t ready to see the five hard-earned euros we’d spent on snowshoe hire go to waste. We told the Van Dammes we’d be careful and follow the tree line to minimise our risk of being caught out in the open if/when an avalanche struck. Quite surprisingly, they actually agreed to let us pass but told us it would be at our own risk. I checked myself for a moment to make sure I hadn’t let the Everyday Adventure mentality cloud my judgment, but then stomped on into the snow with the rest of the gang, trying to keep my voice to hushed tones, just incase.
After four hours of walking clumsily through the snow, lifting our feet higher than we needed to (like alpine clowns), and falling over way too many times, we stopped to take a break. We ate lunch, patted ourselves on the back for laughing in the face of danger and not listening to the Van Dammes, and took in views that we otherwise would never have seen. Snowshoeing was exhausting, but an amazing experience. It felt great to be sweating on the summit of a mountain, rather than while trying to reach it. Close to the ski lift but not ready to go down yet, we prolonged our stay by making snowmen and sliding down small snow dunes.
After a competition broke out to see who could slide the furthest, we decided to take things to the next level and set about building a luge run by carving out snow with our hands and feet. Joe, Callum and I took the bulk of the labour and engineering work while Nick and Jake acted as test pilots. After an hour spent perfecting the bends and working out how much descent to dig into the straights, we had made the perfect slide. While it may not have looked like much to onlookers, we felt like we’d engineered 100m of pure adventure genius. As largely deskbound workers, we take any opportunity we can get to build things with our hands and felt proud of our efforts. Like five year olds, we slid down the side of the mountain on our slide and ran back up through the snow until our legs could carry us no longer.
When we eventually headed back to the cable car, we tipped our imaginary hats to the Van Dames and took our place alongside the cool kids for the last ride of the day. Unlike them, we were sweaty, muddy and disheveled – distinctly uncool, but all the better for it. Once off the mountain, we headed back into town to fuel up. Thankfully, when it comes to sustaining active lifestyles, Chamonix is not short of choice. We lived almost exclusively on cheese, croissants and macarons for the entire trip, but still almost certainly lost weight.
Chamonix was the perfect place for our first extended, overseas adventure. It’s just as good for low-budget adventuring as it is for skiing, climbing and trail running and it’s almost too beautiful to comprehend. While real-life commitments and lack of funds will limit us to shorter adventures throughout the year, this trip has inspired us to seek small-scale adventures further afield in years to come. Before then, however, Jake will be returning to Chamonix to complete the KMV (you can expect a write-up from Jake once he’s conquered it!), and if it wasn’t for the painful reality that we simply aren’t fit enough to even consider it, we’d all wish we were joining him. ▲