Tuesday, September 26, 2006

August 27th, 2006 Cabane de Prafleuri to Cabane des Dix

My aplogies for the delay in this post. My excuse...Furious Theatre's Grace.

We woke up at 6:30am, this Sunday morning. We sleep a lot on this trip. Last night we went to bed at 9pm (although lights out are always at 10pm). We got ready-no showers-and enjoyed our no-croissant-again breakfast. Cereal, bread and rasberry jam, hot chocolate, coffee. We always eat as much as we can manage.

This morning we sat with the 3 Brits: Sara, Jo, and Chris. Sara and Jo were from London and they come out to the Alps every year. They had been around for a week already but invited Chris, Sara's brother, to join them for the weekend. Chris' knees were apparently bothering him pretty bad so Shawn offered him a leg wrap, Advil and knee brace (we have 2 of each). He happily accepted the leg/knee support but no Advil. He had never heard of Advil and probably thought it was morphine (we are such drug users, us Americans). We had a nice chat actually and ended up running into them throughout the walk to Cabane des Dix.

The weather was a little better. You could see forty feet in front of you although it was still snowing. We knew we had to be careful but it was --compared to other hikes--an easy walk today. One easy col (Col de Roux), walk 5 level kilometers along a lake and then up and around the Tete Noir (Black Head). Kev said it would only take 4 1/2 hours.

The family went home and the Brits had already left before Shawn and I stepped out into the snow. It was exciting actually. I mean geez, it's August! We were all bundled up in our rain gear. The German Swiss were right behind us on the trail with their cocker spaniel. The dog would race up to us during our ascent to the col and run back down to them (I was exhausted watching him). I'm no a fan of ascents but knowing these tall Swiss people were behind us I pushed it all the way up. Peer pressure. At the top we let them pass us (they WERE really fast). Then we descend. It wasn't as foggy on this side of the col and we could see the Lac de Dix - it's 5 kilometers long and probably a kilometer wide, Rosablanche (the other side from days ago), and a multitude of peaks. Even with the overcast sky and the snow it all looked brilliant.

We descended, crossed some glacier run-off streams and met up with the Brits at The Refuge La Barma. Shawn refilled his 'bladder' with potable water and we were off again (Brits left first). It wasn't long till we were stopped by this Swiss man and his son to show us a marmot nearby. He had sweet binocs and he let us borrow them to get a closer look. Marmots are actually a lot bigger then I thought. For days now we have seen glimpses of them and heard their whistle. This one was so close. It looked like a cross between a ferret and a groundhog. Very cool. Cool for us to see and cool to see a father sharing that with his son.

After that we walked a bit till we were hailed by Jo. He wanted us to see the Col de Reitmatten, the pass we might take the next day on our way to Arolla. Then we just walked with all of the Brits for the rest of the way along the lake. He's an architect and when I tell him I'm an actor he actually says the typical "I should have known since you're from LA." Even in London they think that! He doesn't see theatre in London -maybe Tom Stoppard- because you can always run into shit, so he avoids it. He's never heard of Martin McDonnaugh. A shame. I liked Jo. He was kind of a Hermione know-it-all but it was funny in a way I was familiar with. His girlfriend, Sara, was so genuinely nice-and teased him with grace. We had a good time in their company.

Shawn and I seperated from them on the trail head to Cabane des Dix. We wanted to see the suspension bridge (even though Jo said it '"isn't worth a photo" and Sara said that's because Jo is "an architect snob"). We walked down to where the trial was suppose to be but it was completely sealed off. Strange. Jo and Sara had walked across it the previous week! Maybe some Swiss guy saw the Americans coming and hurried to seal it off.

We turned back around and went up the trail we passed earlier. There was one spot where they were chains because the path was so eroded and you would probably FALL TO YOUR DEATH if you didn't use them. I'm always a little tense at these moments but Shawn goes up like he's just ascending stairs. No problem. Then we run into the Brits again and have lunch. Worst purchased picnic lunch yet. Two pieces of bread, slab of cheese, stick of meat (althought the meat was pretty great), and a MARS bar. A MARS bar? It's kind of annoying to get American products.

It started raining/snowing in earnest during lunch so we hurried and booked it outta there. Again the Brits had already left but we passed them and traveled up to the pass on the Tete Noir. Still snowing a lot and it really made the Tete Noir look cool. It really is a black mini mountain with two man made crosses on the top. When we got to the summit we could see a sweet view of Mont Blanc de Cheilon. Magnificent. Oh, and we could see the rustic Cabane des Dix. Also well situated with a great view of the mountain and the glacier coming from the mountain. It was extremely windy there too -and cold but we were in high spirits. Sights we had never seen and such a long time since we had been in snow like this. It felt epic.

Then down to the Cabane--or rather down, then up because the Cabane was on top of a rocky knoll. Strategic, I'm sure, because if an avalanche happened from Mont Blanc de Cheilon it would knock the Cabane over if it was simply on the base of the mountain. This way it had a fighting chance. The Cabane itself was nice--all polished wood inside and warm. The innkeeper knew French, German, and English and a completely friendly guy. He gave us free drinks because he had to run up the trail to give a traveler his forgotten wallet. So nice. And on a side note, the best whistler I have ever heard! We were shown to our dormitory and now being experts we staked our bed claim by the window. The innkeeper said that only 12 would be staying at the Cabane and he would only put 3 more in our room--turns out the Brits would be our bunk neighbors.

We went downstairs to plan our next days (not before I stuck my head out of the window to comically greet the Brits) journey. The main dining room/hall/rec room was cozy. The Cabane had a heater in the room that looked like a jet thruster--smelled like propane. We spent the next three or four hours chatting with the Brits. Last year Jo and Sara had taken a mountain expedition - a guide had taken them up to Cabane Vignettes and had them climb peaks with full gear. You could tell they were proud of their accomplishment--as well as I would be had I done it--but Jo said hiking in snow is actually quite dull. The guide made them get up at 4am, leave at 5am and climb a peak before 7am. Then their real day of mountaineering began. Chris had gone to Africa for four weeks for a walk-about (my term, not his...probably only a term used in movies). He said he went to see one friend and that friend introduced him to another and he just went from house to house around Africa. I remember he went to the Congo but I can't remember the other countries--there were several. Shawn and I told them about Hawaii and Yosemite. By the time the evening was over we prety much covered every topic of conversation; politics, music, difference between the two countries. I do remember them telling us that last year more people in England were killed by cows then by guns. Jo's point was that they don't have gun problems but I was more interested in how one can get killed by a cow.

Dinner was veg soup, salad, beef, some Swiss polenta-ish patty, and chocolate ice cream. For cabanes it's pretty good food but for Switzerland in general? Good enough, I guess. After dinner we were all counting the minutes until we could go to bed. Everything is a goal. When is dinner? When is bed time? When is breakfast? Those are the daily questions and each an event in its own right. We went to bed around 9pm that night. No showers in Cabane des Dix but this time we would have paid for them. I wasn't feeling good about my state of smell. We slept well except for in the middle of the night I had to go to the bathroom. Normally not a big deal but in this cabane you have to go down the creeky hallway, a flight of stone cold stairs, across the dark main room, down more cold stairs and into the even colder bathrooms. And I didn't know where my glasses were. So of course I woke up Shawn.

August 27th, 2006 Shawn and I. Taken by Joe, the Brit.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

August 26th, 2006 The barren wasteland of Mount Doom, oops, I mean The Grand Desert

August 26th, 2006 Cabanne de Louvie to Cabanne Prafleuri
6am came most thankfully. What an uncomfortable bed/slab with weak mattress. Shawn and I fell asleep with our ipods to block out the noise of the party crew of the cabanne. Both our batteries are nearly shot. In the morning the Nether men made so much noise it's a good thing we were getting up too (we were waiting for them to use the bathroom first-we're so polite). Breakfast was essentially cereal, bread and jam. We ordered our picnic lunch for the day and got ready. I felt like we got up so early but still didn't manage to leave until 8:30am. We helped the Swiss take pictures (they took one of us) and Jean-Marie gave me his card. Chef de Service? He said he was like a vice-president. Au revoir, kiss kiss. and we were on our way. Don't hate me when I tell you it was another beautiful day.

Today our mission was to go to the Cabanne Prafleuri but we weren't sure if was 4 hours or 6 hours. Kev's book doesn't actually stop at Cabanne de Louvie and his times are usually accurate. Jean -Marie said it would take us 5 hours. Two cols today. Col de Louvie and Col de Prafleuri. Col de Prafleuri is suppose to be the highest point of the entire walk at 2965 meters (on the trek, before the col, Shawn read 3030 on his altimeter).

The walk to Col de Louvie took three hours. Why? Because we kept running into ibex (see picture above). At one point I rounded a bend and startled myself and an ibex. He was probably five feet away from me and he was mammoth. Many times we were close to them today (hence the deleted pictures). There was also two guys from the Cabanne -German speaking we think-who were on their way to Cabanne Mont Fort. We kept passing each other--mainly because of ibex sightings. One of the walked down the hill to get a closer look (not necessary since later we would run into them ON the trail). The ibex watched him but didn't seem too bothered (unlike the one I startled who ran from me). We said goodbye and some crossroad and got serious about hiking again. Enough with the beautiful ibex! Who cares how fast they can walk on rock?

We are getting better at planning our day, I think. We rarely referred to Kev's book (we were back in his chapters at the crossroads) and more map reading. Still reaching the Col de Louvie seemed epic. We ate lunch there - there in the windy barren wasteland where rocks go to die. It was so cold but we downed an excellent lunch and the chocolate bars we bought in Verbier (now I'm out).

And now for the adventure. The weather was chasing us. In the distance we could see grey clouds and circles of rain patches coming from those clouds. We knew that the cross of the Grand Desert doesn't have a trail (thanks, Kev) but just a series of waymarks. We couldn't imagine no visibility. Yikes. But we stayed ahead (were you worried?). The descent of Col de Louvie was fun actually. Rock hopping. In general I didn't use my sticks but mostly off-trailed it. Not on purpose-I couldn't see the waymarks most of the time until I actually passed them. The Grand Desert is a rock wasteland. We could see Rosablanche, all snowy and deceptively easy to climb (we didn't) and then the valley below. The rock cemetery with your occasional glacier lake. We had a good time going waymark to waymark (or cairn to cairn) like it was a game.

All the way up we looked at the top-but it wasn't the col - just 2800 meters. We then walked sort of level for a while, scrambled down the side on this rock - and on a tangent here, I have to say, I love the Swiss and their obvious confidence in people, 'you can do this, no problem' - when at the bottom we saw what looked like 3 bomb shell casings - or bombs. Who knows. Shawn took a picture. Weird. Why were they there? It's Switzerland! Land of peace?

Afterward we climbed the rest of the Col de Prafleuri. Essentially a lot more rock scrambling but this time UP. We didn't have lunch as a reward but the views were interesting. On the other side was a big bowl of raped earth (I'm so melodramatic). Essentially where Cabanne de Prafleuri resides is an old mining center. Looks like they minded the life out of it. We descended and then circled the drain, as it were, before we climbed an almost vertical mini trail to the Cabanne.

Once there we got the tour and immediately staked out our beds. (me the only top bunk and Shawn below). We had learned our lesson and were now cabanne pros. We drank our customary beer and hot chocolate before we took a ten minute nap - then the Swiss German couple arrived (not the same as the ibex watching guys). They didn't encourage conversation. Then we just went over our trip to come (maps and Kev on a table in the main room) while other groups showed up. Some just in the nick of time. Three Brits and a British family that lived in Switzerland, both just coming in after an utter white-out. Fog climbed into the bowl and you couldn't even see outside the window. We were happy we missed it for the waymark puzzle.

Dinner was good, better at least then Cabanne de Louvie. First the soup, then a bowl of beet salad. Beet salad? I tasted it but I couldn't eat more. We watched the German Swiss couple take two large helpings. Insane. Then the main course was noodles and beef. Quite good, I thought. Again, Shawn and I were mostly quiet during dinner (even though we were in general surrounded by English speakers). Dessert was a pineapple slice with real whipped cream and chocolate sauce. Shawn said it was 'weak'.

After dinner we hung out in the main area looking at picture books of the Alps the hosts had on a book shelf until we thought it wasn't too early to go to bed. This would be our second night without taking a shower. In fact, I literally hadn't taken my socks off in 36 hours. I knew I smelled horrible but so did everyone else. And something else embarrassing I will confess. Shawn says although I don't snore at home it's something awful out here. In the door room he kicked my bunk (remember, I'm conveniently located above him) so I would shut up. It worked, he said (I have no memory of it).

At Cabanne Prafleuri you have to pay for showers and electricity in the dorm rooms. We didn't opt for either amenities (although we jealously looked at the German Swiss woman's ipod charger...). The 'tap water' is glacial runoff. Although, of course, pretty clean it is also completely freezing. Washing my face at these Cabannes is a bracing experience. I learned a new French word. Potable. As in Eau Non Potable. Water not drinkable. We couldn't fill our bottles with the glacial run-off tap water so we had to buy bottled water for the trip the next day (along with our pack lunches).

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Early morning view of the Lac du Louvie. Picture by Shawn Martin

August 25th, 2006 Verbier to Cabanne de Louvie
Verbier is actually quite empty for a tourist town but unfortunately in the same building as our hotel is a discoteque. We hear people all thru the night laughing it up below our window. So I guess we can excuse ourselves for getting up at the late hour of 8am. Oops. But no matter. The clothes we washed the night before are dry and it's another beautiful day.

We dress and go down to breakfast (apparently we are the only ones in the hotel). No croissants. I almost cried. Good cereal and hot chocolate but geez! I know it isn't France but NO CROISSANTS? Anyway, after petit dejeuner (breakfast) we requested a picnic lunch for the road. She looked at us like we were speaking another language (Groan laugh). So even better we went to the patisserie (haven't we learned?) and bought sandwiches and treats. I did buy some brioche sucre but I have come to terms with the fact that only the French can do it right.

The gondola ride was lovely. Over trees and a great view of Sembrancher, La Chable, and Verbier. A the top we were happy to see many signs to Cabane de Louvie. Good gamble. Bless the Swiss! Our first stop is the Col Termin. Col means pass so we knew this was a mountain top saddle-ish pass to another view. We were told by Kev AND Olivier that we would most likely see ibex today. Ibex are deer/ram like animals that roam free in the mountains. In fact, they are protected by the government. We were excited.

The trail started out casually. We walked under two gondola cable ways; one to Le Chaux and one to Col de Mont Fort. Then we left the ski path areas and found ourselves crossing boulder fields. Essentially the boulder field is a cascade of boulders with a sometimes you see it, sometimes you don't path. The waymarks are consistent even if you can't see an actual trail. A waymark, if I haven't explained before, is a slash of paint on a rock or tree, usually red and white but sometimes other colors depending on the dominant trail (i.e Mont Blanc circuit). After the boulders the path climbs up on the edge of the mountains. These trails are the kind of lean a little to the right and you will roll to your death trails of which I have seen pictures. Exhilarating mostly but every now and again I would have to go really really slow. I wanted to take a picture every five minutes because I couldn't believe I was accomplishing such dangerous feats. How can this be normal for people? I count the times Shawn would say 'be careful' (I would usually reply 'seriously'). It was absolutely beautiful though. The valleys and the Grand Combin (another intimidating peak). When we walked a dozen grasshoppers would jump out of our path or INTO our path (some casualties). At least ten butterflies were always around (maybe the same stalker butterflies). The higher we got the colder it got but it felt great.

We saw two ibex above us at one point and Shawn tried to get some good pictures but they were just too far away (he would delete these attempts later). Then we reached the Col Termin (2648 meters) and have our lunch -the best ham and cheese sandwiches yet. Awesome. We could see the tip of the Lac du Louvie, green as an emerald (cliche metaphor, sorry---green as my eyes in 7th grade when I wore colored contacts--better?). There were two routes from the Col to the Cabanne. We took the shorter one of course. A familiar pasture switchback descent with our friends the grasshoppers and the butterflies. The descent was steep (see picture above). Then, oh my goodness, ibex! Closer, much closer then before and definitely watching us. I think one ibex even did a proud pose for Shawn's pictures (on a side note--and I'm sorry to be semi graphic here--their poop is everywhere on the trail. It looks like pine cones. Yes, pine cones of poop.).

When I finally drag Shawn away we arrive at the Lac du Louvie. Probably the size of Silver Lake and all green. At the south end is our cabanne (we arrive from the east) so we walk along the lake to get to it. We arrive early. 3pm. The caretaker, a girl in her 20's (we interrupted her on a date apparently), showed us around. Dormitories, one bathroom, and dinner was at 7pm (long wait, we think). We made a mistake by not claiming out beds straightaway. We had left our packs on the porch when four guys from the Netherlands arrived and snagged the best beds. C'est la vie. We talked to them a bit. They were climbing the peaks in the area. Climb not hike. Actually they were done and returning to their normal lives the next day. Crampons, ice aces, the whole thrill deal. They showed us on our map where they had been and we showed them where we came from. I want to say they were impressed but maybe I'm just projecting. I'm impressed.

We hung out outside but when you aren't doing strenuous things it's cold. We are still in a high elevation. It's 45 degrees or so (just guessing). Then five Swiss people arrive. Their leader (and I say this because he really seemed to be) asks me in French if I'm cold. I say 'very', etc., brief chat in French but somehow I knew HE knew English and he was testing my French. I just started speaking English. Who needs a test? I'm on vacation. He was probably in his late 50's and a Swiss man but I felt like I had met him before or someone like him. Sounds weird, doesn't it? Later, before dinner, he introduces himself officially to Shawn and I and invites us to have some of his REGIONAL white wine. How nice. We end up sitting at the same table with him and his four companions (also all in their 50's). His friends don't speak English as well as he does and therefore I think shy to try. He does most of the talking and when I understand some of the French I translate for Shawn. Jean-Marie is his name. It turns out that the five of them take a walking tour the last weekend of every August since they were kids together (15 years old, I think). So cool.

Sinner is soup, veggie medley (peas and I ate them too! Shocked, Mom?), cooked ham, and potatoes au gratin. I wasn't very good but both Shawn and I were so hungry we totally ate it all - actually Shawn had third helpings. We chatted with the Swiss but after dinner I wanted to leave them alone. I felt that they needed time to enjoy one another and Jean-Marie was paying us a lot of attention.

We went up to the rec room but it was no use. 9pm and we couldn't stay up any longer. The lovely Netherland guys were getting up at 6am so we arranged to have our breakfast at the same time. We put our ipods on and went to sleep.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

August 24th, 2006 Champex to Verbier...my Mom's birthday
We had the drapes open facing east so we saw the rays of the sun come over the mountain before the actual sun. Breath taking. Shawn, my favorite husband, went downstairs and got hot chocolate and coffee so we could sit on the balcony and enjoy it. Genius. The countryside from Hotel Belvedere was weepingly beautiful and I contemplated moving to Switzerland, specifically Champex!

Today was suppose to be an easy day, "a stiff morning walk" says Kev, so we left the hotel at our leisure. Completely stuffed ourselves at breakfast. Croissants and cereal. So far we have always had the option of a granola type cereal which I love and cocoa krispies. Hotel Belvedere had what looked like cocoa fritos, they were so big. We said goodbye to our favorite hotel and headed out.

There was a steep decline through woods - the trail was very close to our hotel. All the way to La Garde (a village on our way) was blissful walking. We were walking alongside a valley and we could see the other side with all its small clusters of houses. The air was moist. Eventually we knew it would rain out right but it was such a green, healthful feeling, we didn't think we would mind when it did. We walked through the tiny village of Sous La Le (perfect name, by the way) and it was so quiet we picked up our hiking poles so we wouldn't make any unnecessary sound. We still said bonjour to the man working his garden, of course. The Swiss are a very 'bonjour' kind of people we've learned. Every town has a trough fountain in their town square (Sous La Le's is pictured above). I imagine they used it back a couple of centuries.

After Sous La Le we had a short walk to La Garde. There we saw the smallest cutest chapel. (Every town apparently has a chapel as well.) In Kev's directions he uncharacteristically gets vague. 'All roads lead to Sembrancher' - a town we hoped to get lunch in. But, he continues, the most direct route is via St. Jean's chapel. Hmmm. Again I mention that Swiss signs are numerous and extremely helpful. But as soon as we stepped out of La Garde both Kev and the Swiss had failed us. Where is St. Jean? We went down the path of the general direction of St. Jean on our map but wouldn't you know it, dead end. So we trudged it up the hillside in our first off-trail adventure to get to the next trail. We took this one up where it separated. There used to be signs here but they were broken off. Only part of one remained and all it said was "re". We deduced (and I'm so proud of us) that it wasn't our direction that way because Sembrancher ends with an "er". We went the opposite way. Ok, it's no CSI but I thought we were brilliant because we did find the chapel of St. Jean.

St Jean chapel is all by its lonesome on the top of a high hill. The window was open so I said a little thanks to God. Nice echo (or was that God talking back?). Shawn took pictures, of course, and we headed downhill. At this point we were a little hungry so we were looking forward to getting to Sembrancher for lunch. Surely they have a bakery, right? Sigh. Funny thing about the Swiss, or maybe Europeans - they shut down for lunch. I guess I knew this and I really respect the practice but it certainly isn't convenient for the hiker. When we got to Sembrancher it was 12:35pm. The grocery store and bakery were closed from 12:30pm to 3:30pm! Zut alors! We wandered around Sembrancher to find anything, ANYTHING, but alas. It was a quaint town and Shawn took a lot of lovely pictures but I don't include them on this blog because I can only think of how hungry I was (mostly realizing how I had to wait until 3:30pm).

We got off our Kev town directions with the wandering. Our next stop was Le Chable. Shawn's map reading skills were right on though so it didn't take us long to get back on the main hiking track. I was a little confused, I have to admit, but thankfully I didn't hinder his instincts with my "are you sure, because aren't we here by the river?" silly questions.

LOST MEMORY: Yesterday on the trail on the way to the Fenetre d'Arpette Shawn picked a daisy and gave it to me. It was really sweet but what made it also funny was coincidentally at the same time two older Swiss guys appeared on the trail and witnessed the action. "Awww" they said--with a French accent, mind you. Shawn grinned.

Ok, back to Sembrancher. We got back on the trail and soon were passing a milk farm and a whole lota cows. There are cows in the mountains they we have passed but I actually felt sympathy for these poor folks. Flies everywhere. When I see the next moutain cow, I'm gonna tell 'em how good they have it.

And then we were on our way, putting our rain tarps on because it was starting to rain in earnest. Before it had just been really windy with the occasional thunder clap in the distance (always fun for the Californian, I think, because it's rare). Now we were concerned enough for our packs --but not for ourselves. No rain jackets yet.

At La Chable we searched for a grocery store or bakery. It was 3pm by then. Apparently those stores were open earlier. Not as leisure-loving as the citizens of Sembrancher apparently. We bought some chocolate and brioche sucre-not as good-for the Gondola ride to Verbier. In general we have decided if there is a gondola ride option to take it. Gondola's are awesome! At the gondola entrance we met up with David and Gisele again. They were going to Cabane de Mont Fort for the night. But I thought it was 6 hours to Cabane de Mont Fort (according to Kev)? We said goodbye and good luck on their mountain hiking.

Anyway, we ascended to Verbier and asked the gondola worker were Hotel Bristol was. Essentially he pointed us to the main street but admitted he didn't really know. I mention him only because he was so nice and seemed kind of excited to be talking English. I think it's off season for the ski-town of Verbier. Even so, Shawn spotted the hotel just as I was about to ask someone. When we walked into the lobby the gentleman at the desk says "Vonessa?" VIP service, I guess. Wow. Turns out Olivier is Bill Russel's contact in Switzerland. He also confirmed all of our reservations at the Cabannes for us. Lovely guy. He seemed flattered when he told me his name and I said, "like Lawrence Olivier?". I like a man who knows his great actors. He spoke English better then I did and was enthusiastic about our journey. Told us he and his wife even took a holiday in Gruben (a town we will visit later on our journey) since he discovered it making luggage trips for Bill Russel (FYI: some people, not Shawn and I, have their luggage transferred from place to play while they hike.)

We check in. Our room is nice but small. Hard to get around the beds (yes, two twins). The balcony has a nice view of the valley below and the main street of Verbier. We decide to find a grocery store. Instead of asking where one is like adults we wander down the rainy street and luck into one. COOP (chain grocery store apparently). It's strange, actually, at the sameness and the little differences. There is definitely an emphasis on cheese and bakery items but in general it could have been a smaller Albertson's (or Jewel for those Mid-westerners reading this). We bought four chocolate bars. Our joke is we actually are fatter after this trip then when we started. We bought laundry soap for babies-only because the bottle was the perfect size. And I convinced Shawn I would be happier with hair conditioner. All of the hotels have provided shampoo but no conditioner (and I didn't pack any because I thought I'd buy it in Switzerland). Shawn put his foot down at allowing me to buy a comb though. Please keep this in mind when you see some of the pictures.

We went back to the room and washed all of our dirty clothes. I went to dinner in Shawn's long underwear, shorts and a fleece. I looked pretty silly and I don't blame the waitress giving me the up-down. Dinner was steak and french fries. Seriously. It was good but kind of disappointing Swiss fare. The salad was great. Afterward we had more chocolate mousse for dessert. The waitress didn't speak English and I was amazed at my translation abilities. Is my French getting better? Shawn and I discussed our plan for the next day. Apparently Kev's whole La Chable to Cabanne de Mont Fort is strictly to avoid the tourist town of Verbier. But it's actually closer to leave from Verbier. But we are not going to just Cabanne de Mont Fort but farther to Cabanne de Louvie. We know there is a gondola (yeah, gondola!) going to Les Ruinettes and on our map it looks like there is a trail from there to Cabanne de Louvie but it isn't as clear as the normal trails we have taken. We decide to risk it (and of course, we don't ask anyone). Hopefully taking some time off of our hike and getting a sweet gondola ride as well. After dinner we walk up to see when the gondola place opens. We want to get an early start because it will be a long trek, gondola ride or no. Then we rush back to the hotel to use the internet in the lobby so I can email my mom on her birthday. The lobby desk woman is closing up but she tell us to lock up after we are done and leave. Wow, how trusting. I write an email to my mom and try to make her laugh but I realize I am past my haute trip bedtime and I might not be working with my whole funny. We stay up to watch The Simpsons in German (still funny) and then I fall asleep to Shawn watching a rerun of the BBC's OFFICE.

August 24th, 2006 Champex
One of our balcony views. Me in the morning, enjoying my hot chocolate and writing in my journal. Bliss.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

August 23rd, 2006 Col de la Forclaz to Champex
We woke up around 6:30am. Snug in our "Cocoons", our soft bed lining. Most of the beds don't have sheets, just a down comforter (which is warm enough). Breakfast was pretty weak (but there would be weaker). Coffee (hot chocolate for me) and a lone croissant. I think it was because of this breakfast that I found myself gorging myself at other breakfasts. (The fear of getting cranky from hunger?) Still, we bought a picnic lunch from the hotel and we were on our way. 8:45am.

Today's hike was to Champex via the Fenetre d'Arpette. The LEGENDARY Fenetre because it was suppose to be a very difficult climb and a spectacular view. The day before we saw the hike across the valley and it looked precarious and consequently made me nervous. Not because it was physically strenuous but because it looked easy to fall off the side of the mountain. The night before I even suggested we take the easier route because of Shawn's knee pain. No way, we are suppose to get extremely close to the Glacier du Trient (pictured above), this huge glacier that runs off into that glacier torrent I mentioned previously (I think this is the shrinking glacier referred to in An Inconvenient Truth). So Shawn downed some liquid gel caps of Advil.

We actually retraced our steps to the Chalet du Glacier and then, drum roll, we went up 1100 meters (3600 feet, remember?). It took us 4 hours and 15 minutes to get to the top. It is a lot of ledge trails, where you're walking and one good slip and you'd be flying. A couple of times I was nervous but not as nervous as I thought I'd be looking at it from across the way. It was hard but I think because we knew it was going to be such a challenge it was easier to accomplish. My theory anyway.

We ate our picnic at the top and talked to the Americans (David and Gisele) from the hotel. They were going to Verbier like us but eventually were hooking up with a guide to do some mountain climbing (geez). They were from San Francisco and looked so normal--as opposed to looking like athletes or hippies, I guess. We had a couple o f laughs about our various aches and pains and they left. The way down was a knee nightmare and the boulder field was just an ankle twist waiting to happen but we managed. Oh, and it was a good time.

Five hours later we arrived in Champex. We just kept going down and when we reached the valley floor we saw ANOTHER valley floor lower we had to get to. How does God make these things? There are emotional ups and downs for me during each days hike...based on scenery, food consumption, and weather. So far we have been blessed with clear skies and great temperatures. My favorite part of this day was the walk from Arpette to Champex (a valley to valley walk). Most of it was along a rushing stream that turned into an amazing waterfall.

Champex is a spectacular village with a clear pretty lake in the middle. We had to walk across the town to get to our hotel but it was a huge payoff. Hotel Belevedere was -ugh, I need another word for beautiful. It was classy, Swiss, beautiful, quaint, perfect. Everything a Swiss hotel should be. Our balcony faced both east and south - we had a corner room. Dinner was fantastic. Lamb shank. Genius Chocolate Mousse dessert. The owner, Gabrielle (sign on wall) spoke a little English but his daughter was fluent (I liked talking to him though). After dinner I intended to sit on the balcony and write in my journal but I never made it. Bed for both of us at 9pm.

Monday, September 11, 2006

August 22nd, 2006 An example of one of the more precarious trails. On the way to Col de la Forclaz.

August 22nd, 2006 Chamonix to Col de la Forclaz
Chamonix to Col de la Forclaz in Kev Reynold's guide book (which we have no idea how we'd survive without) is broken into two stages. The first day is usually to Argentierre (2 hours) and the second day of hiking is from Argentierre to Trient or Col de la Forclaz (7-8 hours). Because we had Bill Russell book all of our hotels/cabannes we essentially had to figure out how to get to each one every day. Since our hotel was in Col de la Forclaz we knew it would be a long day. At least 10 hours. "10 hours" you exclaim? Exactly. We knew it would be brutal, especially since our work out regime prior to this trip wasn't exactly consistent. We're no couch potatoes but being 'always on the go" isn't the same as always going.

The hike to Argentierre we did in 2 and a 1/2 hours from our hotel in Chamonix. We stopped for more euros and to take some last minute pictures. We were in good spirits. Kev's directions were genius. I can't imagine getting through bigger towns without his 'pass the buss station, turn left at the second trail (no not the one with the wooden cross)" kind of directions. Very specific and in general really saving time.

During this valley walk we got our first look at Les Drus. A snowy white cap of 3754 meters. The hike itself was mostly beautiful - in hindsight. I remember the up-hills kicking my butt. Then we arrive in the little village of Argentierre and stop by a patisserie/boulangerie for lunch and treats. I got a brioche sucre and it was superb. I"m still craving it. Then we crossed the street to a little cafe called 'the office' (yes, in English, sadly). I think the owner was British. When I started talking to her in my high school French she looked at me like I was crazy. Then we just spoke English to one another and all was well.

From there we hiked up to La Tour (ascending 200 meters), an even smaller village then Argentierre. Then, like naughty children, we took the gondola and chair lift to Col de Balme. This turned out to be a genius move. It's a 700 meter height gain of in-the-sun switchbacks under the gondola. We had a lovely ride above the other hikers. What would have taken us 2 hours took us 15 minutes. Which is good because I can't imagine us doing a 12 hour day of hiking (this is suppose to be fun, right?). In my journal I wrote at this point "ugh, I hope I don't eat those words." But I didn't. 10 hours turned out to be our longest day.

The Col de Balme is magnificent. It's a pass into another valley--another world really. And, incidentally the border between France and Switzerland (celebrated by one stone and no border patrol to stamp our passports). We look back at Mont Blanc and the Aiguilles and say goodbye (for now, we'll see them later from farther out). Shawn had a beer at the Cabanne there (picture above).

Shawn's knees were still hurting him so we took a leisurely pace down the mountain. There were a lot of paths that we went down that we looked back up and thought 'wow, that looks dangerous." At one point we stopped at a barricade blocking our way straight. A fence all tied shut but there was a path on the right so we went right. We walked all the way down to the glacial torrent (yes, you read that right...it looked like a river to me) and crossed the bridge when Shawn was like 'this isn't right.' Kev's book says cross a bridge after a fork in the road and turn right but Shawn was looking at our map and saw that we didn't cross until two glacier torrents joined (I'm serious). So after some team Martin discussion -and this may seem obvious to you reading this -we figured out that the barricaded path IS the path so we went back, untied the rope and opened the fence. On the other side, of course, there was a sign that could only be seen coming from the opposite direction of where we were coming from confirming our deductions. Hooray--off again.

Finally we got to the real bridge over the joined massive torrent and we booked it to Col de la Forclaz (by this time we had been hiking for over 9 hours). We wondered previously why Bill didn't have us staying in Trient which is the more common village stay. Now we know why and thank you, Bill. Trient is technically closer but DOWN in the valley where Col de la Forclaz is a little bit farther but level with the trail. Trient looks like a cute pretend village, like a train set village or in Beetlejuice.

As soon as we spotted the town, we spotted our hotel (creatively named Hotel Forclaz). Shawn stopped to get batteries (for the camera of course) and I checked us in. The girl at the front desk knew as much English as I knew French but we got along just great. I forgot to leave my boots at the door (hikers etiquette). Oops. She was nice about it. Then she showed us to our room. It looked more like a dorm room then a hotel room. Still it had a shower so we were elated. Later I found out there IS actually a dorm room. We were separated from these bunk bedders during dinner. What does that mean?

During dinner we saw another couple reading the Kev Reynolds book at dinner. We laughed - in our long day of hiking exhausted way. In Chamonix I had seen a commercial for French Survivor (I don't remember the actual title but it wasn't 'Survivor') - it was the same concept but French castaways. Hilarious. It was to air tonight but we unfortunately we didn't have a TV. But since I almost fell asleep in my soup, it didn't matter. Maybe next week!

Shawn was still finishing his beer (his 2nd) when I went back to the room. I was in bed asleep by the time he knocked on the door - 10 minutes later. 9pm. We slept hard.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

August 21st, 2006 Chamonix, France
The Aiguille du Midi (w/ tourist station on top)
Waiting for the gondola to take us up to the Aiguille du Midi.

August 21st, 2006 - Chamonix, France
Shawn and I woke up around 8pm. Got up, actually because I WOKE up at 4am. Jet lag, obviously. I took a bath and read. When I couldn't stand it anymore I woke Shawn up (this is a rare occurrence in our marriage) and we went downstairs for our breakfast. Ah, French croissants! They had eggs, meat (bacon), and granola cereal (my favorite) but the croissants were awesome. Even if Hotel Morgane IS a Best Western the breakfast was superb (and it turns out, my vote for the best breakfast on the trip).

We hadn't decided on what we were going to do today. Tomorrow, Tuesday, was our fist official hiking day so today was somehow suppose to be a warm up. We wandered down the street to see how much it was to take the gondola up to the Aiguille du Midi. 36 Euros per person (essentially $54.00). Pricey but we look up and it looks so high and so intense and so close to Mont Blanc we figure it's worth it. We buy tickets.

The gondola is a box that ascends on two cables (and descends, of course). Amazing technology. They stuff 30 people into this thing. It actually rides to the Plan de Aiguille first, half way up and then you get into another identical gondola for the Aiguille du Midi (Needle of the Afternoon?).

Let me pause a moment to talk about Mont Blanc. It is a majestic snow covered half-dome shaped mountain. It's beautiful, and I mean that word in a complete awe-struck, breathy kinda way. The picture above is the glacier coming down from Mont Blanc (I had a hard time choosing which picture). It's strange though. Being the tallest mountain in the Alps (at 15,772 feet), it doesn't appear to be the largest when we are on top of the Aiguille. It looks close. They are next to one another - in a sort of epic way-separated by a large mass of glacier. Riding up in the gondola I was amazed and thrilled at how high we were going (but I was also scared, really scared). I felt like the camera of an IMAX film. I couldn't believe the gondola could go where it went. The Aiguille du Midi is 3842 meters high. (3.28 feet in a meter so 12,602 feet?) They have a building/station up there for tourists. The views will blow your head off. Yes, Mont Blanc looked close...until you saw tiny tiny figures on the face of it and you realized they were people summiting. We knew we lacked perspective. All the views were intense. We were above the clouds. Everything had snow or ice. It was more then words.

I don't know how long we were up there. Long enough for Shawn to get a Mont Blanc beer (I had une chocolate chaud, my mocha blended replacement for the trip). We descended on the gondola to Plan de l'Aiguille (2317 meters high). Here we hiked for 10 minutes to the Blue Lake (although it looked more green to me) and then were so inspired we thought we would just hike down to Chamonix. It's just a 1500 meter height difference and we didn't have our walking sticks with us. Crazy kids. By the end of it (took us 3 hours) Shawn's knees were killing him. Some warm up hike. It was pretty-streams and forests, etc.-but it was a brutal switchbacky downward trail. Poor Shawn. After we finally got back we went to dinner and then to bed.

Monday, September 04, 2006

August 20th, 2006 Geneva, Switzerland
Last night we got in an hour and a half late. No problem. Except they didn't stamp our passports! Grrr. I know two French phrases really well. "Bon soir." (Good Evening.) and "Parlez vous Anglais?" (Do you speak English?) I ask Information how to get to Hotel Cornavin. It's easy, take the train to the main station. Easy? Ok. We got to the ticket kiosk and try to buy a ticket for two people. Credit cards don't work and the machine doesn't except cash (we exchanged some money at LAX, great rates). The ATM does work...6 francs on my ATM? I think that's the same amount as my ATM fee...c'est la vie. Turns out no one even looked at our tickets (honor system like LA). The train ride is 5 minutes and the train station is huge. We get a little lost --10 seconds worth--before we get outside. Wrong side of the station but Shawn has magical sense of direction and he shows me the way to our hotel. Vous parlez Anglais? Oui? Great. Our hotel is old and little. It's four stars but Shawn says it should be three. I like it. It has the biggest mechanical clock in all of Switzerland (so the plaque says---by the way, go Orbitz. We got it for $172 but later when I ask for a room for the weekend we return, the clerk tells me 403 francs.)

Shawn and I bought an extra bag to pack our travel clothes and some extra things we hope to store it in a locker or hotel before we leave. We dump our stuff and then take a walk around Geneva.

How to describe Geneva. Modern European? It was clean. A lot of scooters, motorbikes, bikes, etc. A lot. Small streets. Clean streets and clean cars. No writing 'wash me' in the dirt on these cars. And no homeless people. It was 10pm at night but a lot of people were walking around. Most everyone was speaking French and we felt it was a distinct possibility we were the only Americans. McDonald's and Burger King, crowded and right next to one another but no Starbucks (I won that bet). We walked down to Lake Geneva (Lac Geneve) to see the Jet d'Eau. On our way we saw this monument that looked like someone sleeping on a bed (see picture above)--turned out to be a tomb recreation. There's a nice description in French and English below it but I have since forgotten what it says (I'll blame jet lag).

We walked around until all the cafes closed and THEN decided to get something to eat. So we went to a convenient store (Apres Heures) and got your traditional bread, cheese, and chocolate and picnicked in our room. We watched American TV shows dubbed in French and German (and even though I know a little French Shawn thinks I can understand everything). Brilliant. We slept fitfully. Go jet lag and Shawn wasn't a fan of the beds (plural because it was two singles pushed together) but I thought it might be the most comfortable of our trip. We woke up--wide awake--around 6am. Had our continental breakfast on the panoramic 8th floor. Lovely croissants and great coffee. Then we casually strolled to the train station across the street to get our train tickets to Chamonix. Previously I had emailed myswissalps.com about what trains there were to take from Geneva and the nice man gave me three choices. One leaving at 9am, 12pm, and 4pm. BUT when we went to buy tickets that guy told us we HAD to take the 9am. MAIRD! We rushed back to the hotel. We packed quickly-totally stressing about forgetting something. What about our extra bag? We go to the station to see about them holding on to it for 2 weeks. 7 francs a day! And we had five minutes to decide. Things were tense and rushed and then we were like, "no, this is our vacation and we refused to be stressed. We refuse to believe the guy that we have to take this train. We will find a hotel that will hold onto our bag for free and book our last night there." And that's, oh-positive-thinkers everywhere, is exactly what we did. Walked into a couple of hotels until we found the right price. Found a nice dive -now this is a 3 star (or maybe 2) and left our bag after we paid for the room for our last night (Sept 2nd). Bonne chance!

Then we walked to La Gare dex Eeux Vivres. There are two ways to get to Chamonix, France from Geneva, Switzerland. Going South through France or going north, then east, then south, then west through Switzerland (around the lake). Obviously going through France is quicker (something train station teller one failed to mention but train station teller two was a complete genius about). We just had to walk over to a different station to take the French trains. Easy. Lovely walk through business Geneva. Had some coffee and then asked a trolley driver AND store owner if we were in the right place (just to have it universally confirmed...insecure Americans). Neither or them spoke English and Shawn chastised me for not knowing enough French (it's true, I didn't study up enough). Still we felt confidant enough from those brief conversations to have coffee but it wasn't until this Scottish guy told us to walk around the back of the train station that we found our actual train. The station and it's surroundings were essentially ghetto Geneva (as ghetto as a really clean city can be). Graffiti everywhere and some guy sleeping in the station (our first bum?).

We enjoyed a virtually empty train to St. Gervais, our switch trains' stop. The informative Scottish guys were in our car. Turns out they're mountain climbing Mont Blanc. They asked us if we knew the forecast for the week. Umm, nope. Oops. Is it because we are from California-the same weather every day state- we didn't check on these things? They said four years ago in August they couldn't do the mountain pass to Zermatt because of all the avalanches. Nice.

At this point Mont Blanc was magnificently in view. I about swallowed my tongue. Giddy with excitement and fear.

We changed trains. This train to Chamonix was hot and crowded but outside the window was just one amazing view after the next. We kept going higher and higher. By the time we got to Chamonix (at the foot of Mont Blanc) I was a basket of nerves. Shawn turns to me and says, "two words: Holy Shit." I look back at him and say, "One word: Yikes." Ok, I didn't say Yikes but it was one word. Now we are both wondering if we can physically do this.

We get to Chamonix and the search for our hotel begins. I realize I should probably have gotten addresses instead of just phone numbers. First I try to get water. Funny enough I don't know how to say water in French. I am stupid. Everytime I try the person looks at me and says in English, "water?" As if I said cow instead of water (it's 'l'eau by the way). Then I manage to find all the people who don't know English to give me directions. Third try is a charm and this grocery store owner shows me on the Chamonix map we picked up at the station. Chamonix is very touristy. Like a Colorado ski town, Breckenridge or Vale. But what do you expect with such a magnificent view of Mont Blanc!

Our hotel is the Hotel Morgane but both of us were disappointed to see BEST WESTERN underneath the name. Alas, America is everywhere. It's nice though and has a great view of the Aiguille du Midi from our balcony. Same twin beds moved together and I'm starting to think this is the European way. We are to stay in Chamonix for two nights while we get over our jetlag and our nerves. Tonight we eat lunch at a sidewalk deli (ham and cheese sandwiches) and dinner at a creperie. Then bed by 10:30pm.

August 19th, 2006 Heathrow Airport, London

Although it's probably as technically London as O'Hare is Chicago, we're here at Heathrow. We have scrounged up 7 pounds from a previous trip and bought a sandwich and water. There's a smoker's corner in every end of the terminal. What's the point, asks Shawn, when the smoke permeates the whole terminal? Security is present but not as tight as I expected. There was a guard holding a machine gun. That must be a culture shock to the Brits, considering their policeman don't carry guns. Oh jet lag, my new companion. Shawn let me lay my head on his lap and sleep in the terminal.