A Mountain a Month Challenge - No 2 - Le Prarion - France
It’s a fresh February morning in Chamonix in France and I’m excited about hiking my 2nd mountain of the year as part of my “Mountain a Month” challenge. The decision to go was very last minute but as I walk down the snowy road in the sunshine with blue sky and mountains towering around me I’m pretty pleased I made it. What I’m not so pleased about was the decision to leave the planning of this hike up to Matt. He knows the area well (an advantage) but he’s also here as training for climbing the 4th highest mountain in the world (Lhotse in Nepal) later in the year and so my idea of a challenging hike and his aren’t exactly aligned!
He’s already been out since 6.30 am climbing and skiing (obviously) so I’ve been left clear instructions to get some snow shoes from the local shop when it opens and meet him at the bottom of a slope. As I stare at these squashed tennis racket looking things with spikes on, my apprehension builds. I clumsily make my way to the starting point where I can see Matt is waiting for me as my feet and brain try to come to terms with their new extra-large and silly shape.
Before I could ask him any questions like ‘are these really necessarily?’, ‘how long will it take?’ or ‘which peak are we heading for?’ he’s already almost out of sight and I guess the hike’s begun!
On the way up I start to spot small yellow signs nailed to trees by the path with a stick man drawing of exactly what you look like (hiker with stupid big feet and poles in hand) and then an arrow. Although Matt’s leading the way, these signs make it really easy to do by yourself and I’m already thinking about hiking again tomorrow, alone.
I’ve now got to grips with the Shrek-like snow shoes and have quite a good pace going. Although I’m slightly out of breath its incredibly peaceful. The sunlight on the snow underfoot makes the branches look like they’ve been dipped in pots of glitter and the only noise is the gentle crunch of the snow and ice under my feet. It’s a steady and consistent zig zag climb up through the sparkling woods.
Hiking like this gives you plenty of time to get into your head and quieten it a little. Something I find hard in day to day life, the simplicity of just one step in front of the other is really calming on my mind. I hadn’t realised how keen my brain was to switch off for a bit. The only thing interrupting my thoughts was the occasional distant sound of skiers swishing past down the slope running below the wooded trail we’re on.
It’s funny how it’s often not until we stop that we notice things like how noisy and unhelpful the chatter in our minds have become. As I’m learning my way in this new “freelancer” world I’m forced to pay a bit more attention to what’s going on in my head as I’m left alone with it for much longer than I’ve been used to (or would like).
When I was a teacher, I used to get annoyed how I’d get ill every school holiday once I finally relaxed. It’s almost impressive how much we keep pushing ourselves even when our body and/or mind is very clearly giving us the simple message to stop. It wasn’t the snotty children’s fault or the work load from my boss that made me sick, it was me…ignoring everything and just ploughing on at 100 miles an hour.
I think it’s (unfortunately) quite normal to not even pay attention or notice the signs (physically or mentally) let alone stop and do anything about it. That’s what I love about hiking, the simple reminder to just pay attention. That’s enough.
We pass a perfect little French chalet with a layer of snow as tall as me on the roof and I’m secretly hoping it’s a café for hot chocolate. Unfortunately not, but just around the corner I find 4 euro coins in the snow which seems like a good sign. A few minutes later there’s another chalet ontop of a slope… this time with a big chalk board out the front welcoming us in ‘OPEN’. YES! Not only can I now have the hot chocolate I’ve been craving for the last hour but it’s FREE thanks to my lucky find and this chalet is even cuter than the one before.
Another hour after that and we stop at the top of the ski lift to eat our cheese and tomato baguettes before the final push to the summit. We watch the skiers disappear over the lip of the mountain and I try and forget about how tired I feel. The last hour has felt like a bit of a slog but I can’t believe we’re nearly there after just 3 hours. Heading into the snowy peaks that stand above where the ski lifts end we trek into new territory where the path is less obvious and we are creating fresh tracks as we go.
I now learn my first lesson in ‘false summits’. This is where you think you are approaching the top but actually when you get there, there’s another little bit that looks like the summit, and then another and so on. Matt tells me this is very common at the summit of all kinds of mountains, even Mt Everest, but it doesn’t change my dislike of the term or reality!
This peaceful, gentle climb suddenly turns a lot harder and now more extreme as I’m faced with a very steep and unwelcoming section. To the summit? At this point who knows (or cares)! Out of the trees and on an exposed ledge I’m standing looking down onto Chamonix, the views are undeniably beautiful but the sense of how high we are (nearly 2000 m) feels very real and a bit unnerving. The final section is so steep I’m not sure I can do it and in true Bryony style I find my throat tightening and my eyes welling up. My mind floods with a fast pace of unhelpful questions like “what if I fall?”, “what if I get my foot twisted?”, “do I really need to do this last bit?”
I know a good hike isn’t complete with some kind of challenge so I try and breathe into the discomfort because this was definitely it! Digging my feet in as hard as I could and keeping my eye line in front and up I block out all the ‘what if’s’ and take another step. Fortunately, by this point the snowshoes and I had become friends and I was particularly grateful for their incredible grip on the snow. Matt is clearly doing his best to hide the fact he thinks (yet again) I’m completely over reacting and calls out some words of encouragement - “Hurry Up!”
3hours 40 mins from the village below at 1,008m, we reached the summit of Le Prarion at 1,969m. I was grinning ear to ear… this was a morning well spent.
In comparison to the top of Adams Peak which we shared with hundreds of people we have this spot to ourselves. Standing ontop of a mountain gives me a real sense of ‘I made it’ Just me and my little legs (and snow shoes) did that. Simple but really empowering.
Looking up at the impressively huge Mont Blanc , which is nearly 3,000m higher than where we are, I struggle to imagine what Everest at 8,848m must look like and get a burst of excitement for our trip there in just 2months time.
I know I should walk all the way back down but my legs ache, my hips feel tight and my knees are shaking. Ultimately the ski lift is just too tempting! This didn’t (unfortunately) skip going back down the scary steep part or the 45min walk back through the knee deep snow to the lifts. I realised only once I got there that I didn’t actually have a pass to get into a cable car, nor know enough French to ask if I could go down. I put on my best smile and prepared myself to cry as back up! I feel like the lift operator saw me a mile off and couldn’t be bothered with my terrible acting. He let me on the cable car shouting out “Just this once!” as the doors closed and I took a huge sigh of relief.
Sweaty, tired but with a huge sense of achievement I found myself back at the bottom unclipping my snowshoes wondering what all the fuss was about!
5 Top Tips for Le Prarion
*BYOB (Bring your own baguette). Pack your own snacks, lunch options can be limited and if you are hiking near to a ski area they can be expensive too.
* Remove your headphones and enjoy the piece and quiet of the mountains.
* Save some final energy for all the ‘false summits’ near the top
* Give snow shoes a try, they give you great grip in a variety of different snow and ice conditions and you get used to the feeling pretty quickly
* Even if hiking with others, keep an eye out for the yellow hiker signs to make sure you stay on track because in bad weather you can easily become separated.