September 9, 2007

Dispatch from Argentière, France

Today started, of course, with breakfast. The three people with whom I shared my room (who entered sometime the night before without making a sound I heard) were there -- bikers from Germany -- as well as the two older couples from the UK I met yesterday, as they finished their Tour Mont Blanc, and four others from the UK, probably climbers from their outfits.

After that I packed up, checked out, stashed my gear, and headed over to the Téléphérique platform for a trip up to Aiguille du Midi. I paid and got in line. When the line moved, I was the last one for that trip -- they literally closed the door behind me. Each car holds 65 to 70 people. At this point in the day, around 9:30, there was an almost 50-50 split between climbers and tourists.

The trip was amazing. The first segment runs up the lower valley, first in woods and then above the treeline, all of it very steep. The next segment is stunning. It starts on a ridgetop and then runs across a glacier and then it starts to climb, steeper and steeper, up a slope of ice and, increasingly rock, as the ice can't accumulate on such steep rock. At the end, it is heading straight up into the station.

The station is on one point. A catwalk -- broad and planked -- takes you to another. From there, you can take a smaller gondola lift, across the huge expanse of glacier to Italy. This is where the climbers head onto the glacier, too. There are a series of terraces for viewing. All of this is accessed in tunnels cut into the granite of the peak. You can reach to very top of the aiguille by an elevator, which takes you to platform at 3842m (12,605'), where you have a 360 degree view.

It was breathtaking, literally and figuratively. Rising 2800m in 20 minutes makes those first several minutes an effort to get enough oxygen. But the views! The views! Mt Blanc, all those famous aiguilles -- some of the most famous granite in the world -- enormous glacier fields, the triangular Grand Combin. I kept turning in circles. I could even see the Matterhorn, or Cervin, as it's known here. It looked a long way away, small enough that it didn't draw my attention very strongly, with so much else to see.

I spent about an hour, trying every viewpoint, watching climbers all over the area, looking at today's and tomorrow's routes, and glorying in this vantage point, gained so easily and built with such stunning courage.

At the bottom, the line was twice as long as it had been when I got there two hours before.

I returned to the Vagabond, where I'd stashed my gear in the gear locker, and prepared for the first walk. I started by walking through town. That was a treat, as I bought an iced cream cone along the way for my lunch. I liked that no one gave me and my pack a second glance, not with so many other walking sticks and mountain bikes and ice axes and fleece clothing in site.

And, what a way to start a hike: walking through a charming little town, high in the Alps, where so much mountaineering and skiing history has been made, eating an ice cream cone (coffee and coconut, for the record).

The walk started along streets and then I came to a segment that followed the river through Bois du Bouchet, a nice flat, park-like trail among the trees. I joined the road again as it crossed the river and followed it into Les Praz and down a hotel service road to a path along another river, next to the golf course. Crossing that river, I followed the river, now climbing a little to a junction, where the trail turned away from the river and climbed up onto the slope for a while before leveling out and proceeding into Argentière after several kilometers.

As I arrived in town, near the rail station, I realized that I didn't have the address to the hotel (an oversight that I forgot to address), so I headed up toward the center, in the hopes of finding the tourist information center. At the point where I saw the sign to the TI, I looked across the street and saw the hotel. It is centrally located, for sure.

The hotel is quite nice, especially after the rustic and off-season routine in the Vagabond. It is old and substantial, well-kept, but not fancy. I have a single room with a bath. The best is that there are towels, so I can shower in the morning. My room has a view of Mont Blanc, which is beginning to light up with sunset.

I had a beer at the Bar Rusticana down the street (they're all waiting for the rugby match with Argentina tonight -- I can hear shouting through the window). I had dinner at the Sports Bar across the street. The bartender noticed me looking at their board out front and waved me in. Worked. There were a bunch of English-speakers of mixed heritage in there, as well as three or four dogs. It was an unexceptional meal, but a lively spot.

So far, I've spent quite a bit of time around English speakers, though no Americans (there were a few in the téléphérique this morning). Both of the workers at Le Vagabond were English, as were eight of the twelve guests at breakfast. That's not mentioning the handful of workers -- all UK -- who hung around the young women working there, appearing for happy hour and for morning coffee. Similar at dinner: both workers and at least the eight guests there when arrived, though they weren't all from the UK.

Sept. 7, from Hotel de La Couronne, Argentière, France: map, 1266m; accum. 9 km, 238m gain, 0m loss (4154'; accum. 5.6 mi, 781', 0')

Updated for spelling and links: 10/22.

Link to photo album

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