One of the bad things about starting a new job is that you don't get much vacation time. An old guy like me was used to six weeks plus of vacation a year before I left HP. Then when I retired I had as much vacation time as I wanted. So I am suffering from severe culture shock. But Sandy and I had been planning a trip to the Alps for a year and had already made some of our travel arrangements before I even interviewed for my new job. When they gave me the offer I made a condition of acceptance that I be allowed to take time off without pay for our Alps trip. Ten days off from work plus labor day gave us sixteen days for our trip (plus a day for recovery on our return). Sandy was excited as she hadn't taken two full weeks off for a while. I did get some funny looks from people at work when I told them I was going to be gone on vacation for two weeks. Six weeks on the job and I needed a two week vacation to recuperate?
We left Boise early in the morning on the Friday before Labor Day. We flew to Chicago, then to Frankfurt, and finally to Geneva. The trip was long but uneventful. When you are traveling, uneventful is a good thing. It is nice to travel with Sandy (besides her obvious charms) because she is United Global Services. Although we were in economy, the purser came by and introduced himself and said that he "would take care of us". We got both complimentary wine and desserts from business class. Traveling in style.
In the mid-eighties I lived in Bristol, England for three years. Back then I actually had ambitions as a serious mountaineer and spent as much time as I could in the Alps. Over the three years that I lived in Europe I spent eight weeks hiking and climing in the Alps. But I had not been back there since 1986 when I moved back to the US. So I was anxious to visit some of my old stomping grounds as a climber. Sandy had never been to the Alps and wanted to see them. In our two weeks we planned to hit the three most famous mountain areas of the Alps. Chamonix France, at the base of the Mt. Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps. Zermatt Switzerland, just below the Matterhorn, perhaps the most famous mountain in the world. And Grindelwald Switzerland, in the Bernese Oberland, with views of the famous trinity of the Eiger, Monch, and Jungfrau.
For this trip we decided not to rent a car. Since we would spend most of our time hiking in the mountains a car seemed like an unnecessary expense. It would just be sitting in a parking lot most of the time. We decided to use public transportation on this trip. Sandy found a bus transfer online that took us from the Geneva airport directly to our hotel in Chamonix. Very convenient. We landed in Geneva early Saturday morning and arrived at our hotel around noon. It was a sunny day and we had a view of Mt. Blanc as we drove up the valley toward Chammonix. But we didn't feel very ambitious. We were very tired after an overnight flight and ready to crash. It's usually a bad idea after an intercontinental flight because if you nap in the afternoon then you are completely out of sync for several days. But Sandy and I had decided on the last part of the drive in that we didn't care. Unfortunately the check in time for our hotel was 3:00 and our rooms weren't ready yet. So we went out and laid in the sun by the pool for half an hour. Sandy even took a nap though she won't admit it. Then we headed into town to get some lunch. If we couldn't sleep at least we could eat. The hotel said they would call us as soon as our rooms were ready.
It was a five minute walk from our hotel to the center of town. The main street is a long pedestrian walk closed to cars. Or most cars anyway. Although the street was filled with people it seemed that there was always some car inching along and forcing you to get out of the way. All along the street were shops and restaurants. As you would expect in a resort town there were souvenir shops but not really that many. In the four days that we spent there I only found one tshirt to buy! There were quite a few stores selling hiking and climing gear. Chamonix is a center for world-class climbing so there were lots of shops that carried serious gear. There were numerous restaurants to choose from and most of them had pizza and pasta so we were happy. We quickly found one and settled in on the patio for lunch. With nothing but airplane and airport food for the past twenty four hours we were both hungry. I ordered a pizza margherita and Sandy ordered a green salad with a side of french fries. My pizza was awesome and Sandy got a bowl of pomme frites that was so big it could have lasted her for a week. Even with lots of help from me she couldn't finish. Then the hotel called and said our room was ready. Good timing. We headed back to check in and get unpacked.
Although we had a sunny afternoon when we arrived, the forecast for the next few days wasn't that good. Sure enough, the next morning was overcast and the mountains were parially hidden. But we were determined to do some hiking. So in the spirit of "Could be worse. Could be raining." we loaded up our day packs and headed for the trails.
The mountains around Chamonix are big. There are good trails that start right in the valley, but to reach reasonable viewpoints in a single day and get back is difficult. Fortunately in the Alps cablecars and lifts (or telepheriques as they are known in French) are quite common. So we started with a short walk to the telepherique Le Brevent. There we caught a cable car that ascended from Chamonix at 1035 meters to the Plan Praz at 2000 meters. From there we switched to another cable car that went up nearly to the summit of Le Brevent at 2525 meters. In had taken us only fifteen minutes (and 25 Euros) to gain 4500 feet from the valley.
Our plan was to hike to Lac Brevent. Our starting point for the hike was the end terminal of the telepherique which was only about a hundred feet below the summit of Le Brevent, a significant summit in the Aiguilles Rouge range. As soon as we got off the cable car we immediatly saw that the lake was far below us. It turned out to be at an altitude of 2127 meters - about 1300 feet below our starting point. So we had an unusual hike that started with a steep descent to our destination followed be a long climb back to the beginning.
The lake wasn't very far so the trail was steep. Not much of a problem, we both still have good knees. About half way down though we started to feel sprinkles. I was prepared and pulled out my GoreTex shell. The problem with that was that although it kept the rain off of me, it was quite warm so I started to heat up. I had the standard hikers dilemma on a rainy day - get wet from the rain or get wet from sweat. I opted for the latter. Sandy outdid me on the gear front. In town on the way to the telepherique station she had bought an umbrella. Now she brought it out and was quite comfortable and quite dry hiking in the light drizzle. No wonder she's the boss.
She did have to give in and put her jacket on eventually. Descending the last few hundred feet to the lake the steep trail turned into an actual scramble. It was easy but did require the use of hands as well as feet. The umbrella was in the way. But as soon as we reached the lake her jacket was off and the umbrella came out again.
We noticed what looked like a trail ascending on the other side of the lake. We decided to circle the lake and use it to climb back to make it a loop trip. But when we got to the other side it turned out to be a very light track. In the wet conditions, with the grassy slopes very slippery, we decided that we didn't want to risk having the light track disappear and end up climbing up steep slippery slopes in the rain. We decided to give up and headed back to the lake to take our original descent path back to the cable car station. Not a big deal, maybe fifteen minutes lost. By the time we started up though it was definitely past light drizzle and up to steady light rain. It kept up pretty much for our entire climb back to our starting point.
It took us just over an hour to hike back to the telepherique. Then it was two quick rides back down to town. The hike was good exercise and we got a feel for the area. The rain was an annoyance but we had good gear and we both kept dry. More of a disappointment was that we were up high at a fantastic viewpoint but couldn't really see the big peaks of the Mt. Blanc range. The forecast for the next day was similar but the weather was supposed to improve after that. We had enjoyed a good workout so we felt justified having a nice meal complete with dessert and wine that night.