Friday, October 26, 2012

Mountainous sentiments

Mer de Glace, holding the title of France's biggest glacier at 7 km long and 200 m thick is undoubtedly one of the major ready-made attractions of Chamonix. It's also the place where Alan and I took our second couchsurfer, Kyle. It's hard to believe, but almost two years have passed since I moved to the foothills of Europe's highest mountain. Now, at the end of October, I am back again to little mountain-surrounded Chamonix, where some of my most cherished memories dwell.

The glacier is accessible not only by hiking trail, but also by rack railway. Thanks to this custom-built facility the number of visitors to Mer de Glace has significantly increased since its launch in 1908. The last time I visited the site, despite the off-season, it was full to bursting with tourists. Even upon the finest views I can't feast my eyes, having such hordes around. However, this time luck was on my side. Due to train tracks maintenance the station located at 1913 m above sea level was totally deserted. During my ascent I saw only five hikers making their way down - a blatant proof how few people make the effort of stiff climb of over two hours through coniferous forest, at this time of the year wonderfully painted with autumn colors. Such a shame - the giant mass of ice is an incredible view to crown the hike, but what you see on your way up isn't even slightly inferior to the main course. It is, however, all the better for it - thanks to those lazy comfort seekers I could appreciate the solitude of the mountains to the fullest potential; lounging about on a wooden deck, surrounded by granite spires of some of the most prestigious peaks in Chamonix - Aiguille Verte, Aiguille des Grand Charmoz and Aiguille du Dru - one of six great north faces of the Alps, in my opinion the most beautiful mountain of Vallée Blanche. For over one hour the only sounds that existed for me were water gushing in the massive bulk of ice just below me and soft whistle of the wind.

The glacier has obviously been receding and has thinned 150 meters since 1820 at the Montenvers Station. If you look the the photos I took, you'll see a prominent line above which trees grow. That's how high the glacier reached in 1810. Once easily visible from below, now it only comes into view when you reach Gare du Montenvers. Most of its surface is marred with cracks, gritty and gray, but in some places sparkling blue comes into view. It's possible to reach the bottom of the glacier, where an ice grotto is carved out every year, by a twisting path and a series of steps. However, my shattered knees said no to getting so close to the glacier. I slowly started making my way down, this time by other trail than the one I took uphill. Around 30 minutes into my hike, an unexpected obstacle forced me to turn back - another trail closure due to the maintenance works. I was on my last legs when I reached the elevation of 1913 m once more, but happy to have one last chance to take in the incomparable view.

This short visit to my Alpine home was also marked by some reunions with old friends - I managed to find Sara in her "African" apartment just before her leaving for Toulouse, stayed with Tom in Passy, heard some news about his former housemates and our friends, Paola and Lucie, shared my couch with two frisky dogs, fell off the slackline a couple of times and witnessed the biggest water fight ever - participating Tom and his friend David, at the end of which the floor of Tom's apartment was absolutely messy with water and my clothes were glued to my skin with liquid plant fertilizer, even though I didn't even raise my hand against any of the guys.

Over the recent 2,5 years the words "return" and "visit" have somehow lost their meaning to me. Being always elsewhere, it's difficult to say which direction I take when I return and which when I just visit a place. If I were to think about Chamonix, probably neither of these would properly describe what I do when I come from the direction of Viaduc des Égratz or Col des Montets to my Alpine winter den. For me it became a lifestyle understood only by these who've ever been a part of this laid-back place. If I had two lives, I would probably travel in the first one and spend the second one in Chamonix. And every time somebody asks me "Are you going back to Chamonix?" I smile, remembering snow-covered trails beneath my feet, creating colorful mandalas with first spring flowers or the strains of "Society" by Eddie Veder sang with friends by a campfire in the forest of Argentiere, and give entirely truthful answer "I have never left."

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