Until this summer’s vacation, I had never been to Chamonix, a thin strip of a town in France’s Savoy region that straddles a narrow river valley between the highest peaks in the Alps. Chamonix is home to Europe’s highest point—Mont Blanc. Though for some reason I had expected a winterish sort of Cannes, Chamonix is in fact a French “rock jock” kind of place, where store after store sells sporting gear and high-tech clothes for skiing, hiking, mountain biking or rock climbing and one can enter a three star restaurant wearing hiking boots. That is not to say that you can’t still find the lowly wooden walking stick and hand-carved alpine souvenirs. You can. You also find the light green water of the river Arve colored by the particulates found in glacial waters. It is ice cold. The people are friendly, informal and active and the nearby hamlets are quaint and small.
A few of the ski lifts operate all summer when the number of tourists swells. At the top of the main lift, just across from Mont Blanc, you find a bustling café with a heart-stopping view. It was hot atop these heights in late June, even though we had to walk through patches of slush and snow to see the mountain ridge. The snow on Mont Blanc is riveting because of the glacier Bossons, which appears to be exactly as it is: frozen in motion while tumbling down a crack in the mountainside. If the boulder-filled glacier were grey, not white and didn’t glisten in the sun, revealing its icy composition, one might think it was a mass of lava spilling over a volcano caught in a still-frame.
Not every tourist is an athlete, of course. I found others of my limited athleticism at lunchtime and dinnertime when the cafes fill with a typical assortment of humanity. But the town caters to those who run, bike, swim, climb, walk and soar on the wind currents in what is called parapenting. Schools here teach the sport and enterprising instructors take fearless tourists tandem gliding over these unforgettable peaks.
My traveling companion, a hiker and athlete, went parapenting and enjoyed it, while I wimped out. She was amazed at the noise of the air whipping around her head, as loud as riding a motorcycle. Her instructor made a video of her glide, and you can hear the wind on it. Who would have guessed that parapenting isn’t as silent as it looks from down below?
There are a couple of hikes even beginners, or the less hardy, can enjoy on the mountains. One begins at the top of the main lift and proceeds along a ridge to another working lift that could convey one down the mountain. Instead, we simply turned around at that point and hiked back to our starting place.
Our interest was piqued because our visit and initial hike coincided with the annual Mont Blanc Marathon. We had noticed a few of the 1,400 or so participants having breakfast at our hotel. Men with greyhound-like bodies in sleek form-fitting clothes, with buldging calf and thigh muscles. Petite women who wouldn’t weigh enough to get on a carnival ride at Coney Island. They ate bowls of granola, yogurt and fruit, slices of meat and cheese. Later we saw that a few families had run up the mountain—parents and their children, each with a medal around their neck and a blue goody bags. I was inspired.
It happened that the foot race crossed once or twice the very path we were hiking. Then, both paths converged for the final, uphill leg to the finish line. Picture this scene: I, with my two hiking poles and swelling right knee, barely able to crack a smile as I hobbled to the finish, being passed right and left by runners, cheered on by spectators. Then a few of them noticed me. “Allez, allez, madame,” a few well-wishers said, clapping, actually cheering me on in. For a few moments, I really loved the limelight and picked up my stride. But my bubble burst when, right at the end, a race organizer asked me to move off to the sideline and out of the runners lane.
I cannot imagine running up the mountain. My own little ridge hike was enough for me. In honor of finishing our roundtrip, we ducked into the snack bar for an ice cream and the ski lift down.
Karen Sue Smith