The unexpectedly long journey back to the U.S. – Air Canada is the worst

This post serves the dual purpose of reminding me of my journey to the States and shaming Air Canada for their stunning display of incompetence and poor customer service.

My original plan had been to return to the U.S., and leave a few days later for more skiing in Colorado and New Mexico. After the skiing shit-show in Chamonix and the continued pain in my right (good) leg, I knew I would not be able to manage any more skiing. I talked about this with Yves, who suddenly floated the idea of me joining him and his friend climbing in Les Calanques, near Marseilles. Yves’ idea was for me to go back to Paris with him, stay there are a couple of days, before taking the train to Marseilles. Awesome as the idea of going from ice and snow, to warm weather limestone climbing in the south of France was, I just could not swing the logistics. All my rock-climbing gear and necessary travel supplies were in Cambridge; I was humping  around two huge bags filled with skiing and ice-climbing gear; I was not sure whether the leg would hold up; and I also did not want to intrude on the party of two (I know I much prefer climbing as a pair). Thus, we proceeded with my original itinerary: drive from Chamonix to Lausanne, Switzerland, spend the evening there, and then drive to Geneva nearby to catch my departing flight. Simple, eh?

Driving to Lausanne was simple enough, although we drove the slower roads to avoid the exorbitant Swiss highway tolls. It was quite interesting to made aware of the different shape of the Swiss Alps. The French Alps are much more jagged and pointy, whereas the Swiss peaks are less so and more symmetric. This is a sign of more recent tectonic activity on the French side.

The view alongside Lac Lèman (Lake Geneva) was a bit hazy, but it was cool to see the French side from the Swiss side. The towns along the lake grow increasingly upscale as your approach Lausanne. I was surprised by the number of vineyards we passed by, as Switzerland is not exactly known for its wine. Not surprisingly, most of this wine is for domestic consumption. We stayed in a hotel right in the city centre, not far from the lake. As we wandered around to find a place to eat we stumbled across a surprisingly good Greek restaurant near the hotel. I am uncertain about the demographics of Lausanne, but I am sure it is quite international like its neighbour, Geneva. I am not sure what other parts of Switzerland are like, but I was pleasantly surprised by the ethnic diversity of some of the towns around the lake. I am sure this is because of my pre-conceived notions of the Swiss being rather xenophobic with strict immigration laws. I also live in a place which I do not consider diverse at all, so this probably heightens my awareness of ethnic diversity (or lack thereof).

After a hearty Swiss breakfast (those guys know how to do it right), we set aside plenty of time for my flight. Upon arrival at the airport, my attempts to check-in for my Swiss Air flight failed. Since I had used United award miles for the ticket, I was instructed that only they could correct the issue. In the space of 3 hours on the phone, almost entirely on hold, and missing my flight in the process, it became clear what the problem was. When my original Air Canada Boston to Montreal flight had been cancelled, Air Canada “re-protected” me (yes, this is an actual term I only just learned), and re-routed me through Toronto and London Heathrow to get me to Geneva. In the process, they revoked all the coupons/tokens associated with a ticket, instead of just the ones for the outgoing leg. As a result, my ticket could not be validated, which is why I could not check in. The United Airlines representative I spoke to was trying his best, but he, an employee of Air Canada’s partner airline, was put on hold for hours like every one else, while I was on hold with him. I think it is appalling that even partner airlines cannot communicate with each other. The Air Canada folks blamed United, but the ticket number is in fact an Air Canada one; the blame and responsibility lies entirely with Air Canada.

After an additional hour+ of waiting, I finally spoke with an Air Canada representative to find a solution and get me back to Boston. The best option they could offer was to put me on a flight the next day. But despite explaining the cause for all this, the representative did not acknowledge and accept Air Canada’s responsibility in all this, and said they could not compensate me upfront for all the additional expenses I (and Yves, who very kindly stayed with me) had to incur to spend an extra night in Geneva. WTF. So now a lot of wasted time is going to have to go to writing all this up and filing a complaint with Air Canada. Believe me, I’ve already filed my consumer complaint with the U.S. Department of Transportation. To add injury to insult, one of my bags did not make the connecting flight (it was a 2 hour connection time, so plenty of time for bags to be transferred) and I only received it 3 days after my arrival in Boston. Thanks Aer Lingus.

By the way, it is also bullshit that Air Canada’s customer service issue form has a 30-minute time-limit imposed on it, while they can put you on hold for, literally, hours. 

This is the first time I have ever aired my grievances with a service/company publicly, but the way this was handled was so abominably poor, that I had to write this. I can say quite confidently I will endeavor never to take Air Canada again.

The extra day in Geneva did allow us to see parts of the Old Town and also drive past various United Nations buildings, including the Palais des Nations. Again, I really dig how international Geneva is. Not sure I’d be too psyched on living there and the weather though.

Now for some GOOD news! What do you do when peroneal tendonitis cancels your original ski plans, and your friend’s partner can no longer climb with him? You do your best to manage the pain, solve this humanitarian crisis on both sides, scramble to find tickets to Paris and do a last travel hurrah for the near future. I decided that I could not turn down the opportunity to join Yves in Les Calanques; so I am going to be crossing the Atlantic yet again, less than a week after returning, for some warm weather limestone climbing near Marseilles. I have never been to Marseilles and it looks like a pretty awesome city.

Aiguille du Midi and sense of history

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Aiguille du Midi on the far right

The weather on my last morning in Chamonix was clear, so we decided to take the cable car (Téléphérique de l’Aiguille du Midi) from Chamonix up to the top of the Aiguille du Midi. Since the cable car ride is expensive (around €60!), there is no point in paying this sum of money for a day with poor visibility.

We had originally floated the idea of taking the cable car up to ice-climb a route, Chèré, and then take the last cable car back down. However, the time of year was not ideal for this; the refuge where we could have stayed overnight was closed meaning we would have to carry a lot more stuff like sleeping bags, stove etc.; so it was not certain whether I would be able to climb fast enough to make the last cable car down. Hopefully we can get on this route a little later in a future season. The concept of huts is foreign to me, as I am  used to packing everything in/out and camping when skiing/hiking in the backcountry.

The Aig. du Midi is a striking feature certainly, but like a lot of the geography of Chamonix, I was most excited about just getting to be so close to the history of it and its surrounding peaks. This sense of history was a dominant feeling I felt while in these mountains. The closest thing I have felt to this is climbing classic, hard routes that Yosemite greats first put up. Except here, I was not climbing these routes, so it was not quite the same emotion. I have never seen peaks/routes as things to be conquered; but, rather, the process being a personal test; and, hopefully, a fun and rewarding time with a partner. I used to be much more of a loner in the mountains, happy to take off into the backcountry skiing/climbing/hiking by myself. That has changed given my disability, but also as I have gotten older and soon after my accident, I realized one of the most fulfilling aspects of climbing/skiing is sharing the experience with a good friend/partner.

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Base station of the Téléphérique de l’Aiguille du Midi

The cable car ascends from the base (1,035m) to the Plan de l’Aiguille (2,317m); then a second span up to the upper station (3,777m) vertical distance of over 2,700m! The second span is particularly cool, as the opposite side of the triangle you can imagine, is larger than the adjacent side of the triangle (remember your geometry lessons? 23+ years later, I still remember my SOH CAH TOA :))) Passengers wanting to get to the top need to disembark from the cable car at the mid-station and get on another cable car.

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View from the platform of the mid-station

While the Aig. du Midi is not one of the six great north faces of the Alps, the imposing north face always elicits a slight shudder in me.

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The imposing north face

Unlike the rest of my time in Chamonix, the temperatures at the top were quite low, and the wind high, meaning not much time was spent outside taking pictures. I was able to see many storied peaks, like the Grandes Jorasses, and the Grand Capucin.

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Panoramic view from the upper station. The Grandes Jorasses are in the distance; Pyramide du Tacul, and the Grand Capucin sit behind the Glacier du Géant in the foreground. We had just been on the other side of the Grandes Jorasses ice-climbing

I hope to ski down from the Aig. du Midi in the not too distant future.

Skiers making their way down the Aig. du Midi ridge

Skiers making their way down the Aig. du Midi ridge

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Grand Capucin on the far left. Mont Maudit and Mont Blanc in distance.

While we were standing comfortably warm inside the enclosed upper station walkway, we saw a helicopter rescue taking place on the Glacier du Géant.

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Helicopter rescue on the glacier

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View of Chamonix-Mont Blanc on the cable car ride down

Given this sense of history I experienced, I really enjoyed visiting the Maison de la Montagne, which also houses the Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix (founded in 1821), and the small Espace Tairraz museum in Chamonix.

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Climbers/skiers can get information on the latest conditions on route through messages left by other climbers/skiers in these message books in the office.

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A to-scale 3-D model of the Mont Blanc massif inside the Maison de Montagne

While the Espace Tairraz is small, I really enjoyed our visit, specifically because of the interactive displays of the five great peaks of the Alps: Les Drus, Grandes Jorasses, Eiger, Mont Blanc, and the Matterhorn.

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The exhibition hall with the interactive displays

At each of these displays, you can use your fingers to rotate the displays in every direction, and reveal various routes up these peaks.

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The Directe Americaine route put up by Gary Hemming and Royal Robbins

The interactive display for the Grandes Jorasses

The interactive display for the Grandes Jorasses

I am not sure if a non-climber would have been as interested as I was in this space, but I thought it was well worth the less than €5 as a rest-day diversion.

Ice, Ice baby: Cogne, Italy (round 2)

Based on weather, and because ice-climbing aggravates my leg much less than skiing, we returned to Cogne a few days later to do a route in the adjacent valley to Valnontey, Lillaz. The short approach was very welcome. As usual, Yves carried all the heavy stuff. I always feel kind of lame about my partners shouldering most of the load, but it is for the good of everyone involved.

The familiar drive through the Mont Blanc tunnel to Courmeyer

The familiar drive through the Mont Blanc tunnel to Courmeyeur and Aosta

It was pretty cool for the initial “approach” to the climb go through the small village. I have not experienced this in North America.

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Yves’ route choice was  spectacular.

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The starting pitches of Cascade del Lillaz

The adjacent single pitch Chandelle de Lillaz

The adjacent single pitch Chandelle de Lillaz

Unfortunately, the short approach and spectacular nature of the climb meant that there were a ton of other parties (Brits, Italians, Germans…Yves and I were the only French/Asian dynamic duo :)) arriving at around the same time as us, or right after. I have never been surrounded by so many other ice-climbers on a route; we could have been in sport-climbing area. It detracted from the peace and serenity that I seek when I climb, and having so many other climbers around me makes me feel a certain pressure. When I am rock climbing, my leg brace is apparent; however, I do not wear the brace when I ice-climb (and it would be under my pants anyway), so other climbers might be wondering why I move/climb the way I do. However, this did allow me to glean a little insight into other climbing cultures.

Perhaps because climbing is more popular in Europe, and population density is higher, such crowds are not uncommon. I am used to crowds on popular Yosemite Valley and other Sierra climbs; but nothing like I experienced here. Parties seemed to hurry and hop on climbs as fast as they could. In the States, if there are multiple parties at the base, the party that arrived first usually has priority to climb first, unless there are discussions about one party being much faster over the party that started ahead of it.

Climbers here seemed to have no problems climbing under/over ropes, without communicating with the other parties. The Brits were quite respectful; the Italians and Germans were atrocious, aggressive, and not particularly skilled. Of course, these few data points do not allow me to make generalizations about all the climbers from these countries. But I was surprised that Yves and I (the supposed loud, obnoxious “American” :)) were the ones that brought civility to the party :)

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I am looking kinda pissed in this picture because Yves and I had hurried up to escape the many other parties, some of whom were quite rude and aggressive. I’m parked here by a waterfall, seeking shelter from the ice raining down from the other parties above us. (Photo: Yves Durieux)

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I included this picture to show how many other people there were, and how at one point it was a rope shit-show (Photo: Yves Durieux)

Fortunately, the crowds cleared significantly after the first pitch or so.

It is too bad the website asianposes.com is now defunct

It is too bad the website asianposes.com is now defunct (Photo: Yves Durieux)

I was pretty psyched to place my first ice-screws in Europe!

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Getting ready to lead (Photo: Yves Durieux)

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(Photo: Yves Durieux)

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My happy place (Photo: Yves Durieux)

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(Photo: Yves Durieux)

One really cool aspect of this route was that instead of just going straight up, you need to skirt around picturesque pools of water, snowy ledges etc. to move between some pitches.

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Moving around little ponds

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Yves humping the ropes around

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Looking at the final pitch

I feel very lucky to have been able to experience such a place, with a great partner. The snow and clouds made the drive back through Gran Paradiso very atmospheric.

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Clearing clouds

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Beautiful Gran Paradiso

I hope it is not too long before I see you again, Cogne!

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Heading back to France

Cham area and Cogne, Italy (round 1) ice-climbing

I was fortunate enough to have a great tour guide in Yves for ice-climbing around Chamonix. This was actually my first European climbing experience, rock or ice, and what an introduction. Beautiful setting, great partner, fun leads. I am glad Chamonix is a multi-sport destination and we could ice-climb when I could not ski.

Since Yves and I had not climbed outside together before, we started off with a mellow trial run close by, at La Cremerie, Argentière. I often feel a bit bad about having to limit our routes to ones with not very long approaches.

I do not move well in deep snow, so the recent snowfall was a challenge for me. But it made for some beautiful scenery.

Looking up Mont Roc from the base of the climb

Looking up Mont Roc from the base of the climb

Snowy but warm temps (Photo: Yves Durieux)

A snowy day (Photo: Yves Durieux)

Through the trees...

Through the trees… (Photo: Yves Durieux)

This went quite well, so we next headed over the border to Italy and did climbs in the Valnontey valley, and Lillaz valley in Cogne, Italy. A place so nice we had to go there twice.

I guess it is pretty neat for my first visit/experience in Italy to be via ice-climbing! I know it doesn’t really count…not like when someone visits a city in Russia, and can then colour out half the world map.

Yves suggested ice-climbing in Cogne in Gran Paradiso National Park in the Aosta Valley, Italy for the setting, and the route because he knew it was in good condition. One thing I really enjoy about Chamonix, and many parts of Europe for that matter, is being able to cross national borders so easily and ski, ice-climb, rock-climb etc. in different places and countries.

The drive to Cogne involved passing through many tunnels, including the rather famous and long Mont Blanc tunnel. As one might imagine, accident/fire mitigation inside the tunnel is a big deal. Within the tunnel, cars are asked to leave 150m between them and the car ahead of them. This is so sensible for avoiding traffic jams due to accidents/breakdowns etc. I doubt that drivers in the US would adhere to such a rule.

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Cogne is about an hour away from Chamonix, just over the border in Italy

Mild temperatures made me realize ice-climbing could actually be Type-I fun and not entirely a freezing suffer-fest. While the approaches to these areas is mostly flat, the abundant new snow at La Cremerie and Valnontey made the final kick up to the climbs challenging for me.

The two climbing experiences in Cogne could not have been more different. We had Sentiero dei Troll entirely to ourselves on one day; and I have never been in more of a multiple parties shit show than Cascade del Lillaz another day. The setting for both were beautiful though; the latter was particularly striking. I have never climbed in a place quite like this before and am super psyched about returning to do more ice climbs here and around Chamonix. It has also gotten me more excited about doing more ice-climbing in my backyard of New England. Separate blog posts to come for each of these days…

The first route, Sentiero dei Troll, is located in the Valnontey valley. We drove through a number of small, mountain villages, which struck me as being quite run down. Perhaps it was just the age and state of some structures; I’m sure the quality of life of the residents is not bad at all.

A beautiful approach to the climb

A beautiful approach to the climb

It was a wonderful surprise to have the entire route/place to ourselves.

View of the valley from the base of the route

View of the valley from the base of the route

Avalanche danger can be an issue around here because of the south facing climb, accumulation of snow higher up and the steep valley walls.

Yves ready to blast off

Yves ready to blast off

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Cool clouds

We saw some Chamois, which you do not find in North America. The couple we saw seemed quite unperturbed by humans.

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What goes up…

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…must come down

...must come down

The climb itself was enjoyable. Convenient belays, comfortable temperatures with ice that was not bullet-proof. What really made the climb great was the setting and views. We made good time on the route, descended without incident, and made our way back to Chamonix.

Ice-climbing in the adjacent valley, Lillaz, in a future post…

 

Cham skiing and injury woes

We skied a lot less than anticipated due to what I now know is a bad case peroneal tendonitis, which had first cropped up in January on my skiing road trip, but I thought was just muscle inflammation. Tendonitis sucks because tendons are avascular and take forever to heal. I have dealt with elbow tendonitis from climbing, and also in my knees when I was running a lot in my late teens/early 20’s; so I know the deal. It is going to be 3 months at best, probably longer, for recovery. There are a number of contributing factors in my case: standing on one leg when I ski and asking these tendons/muscles to do so much work stabilizing my full body weight, very high arches that put more pressure on the peroneal muscles AND my foot’s tendency to supinate (roll outwards), not stretching at all on my road trip leading to just solid and tight leg (especially calf and hamstring) muscles. This issue may have been instigated on my early December trip to Hong Kong, where I was walking for a couple of hours a day on many days. A diet that was not particularly nutritious and had a lot of foods associated with inflammation did not help matters either. I hate being so high maintenance (not in the tai-tai way, at least).

The pain was bad enough to cut short the skiing, and walking is painful. But we did get some turns in, in gorgeous weather. It was perhaps the first time this winter I was able to ski with my face exposed.

Aiguilles Rouges

Aiguilles Rouges

I had first learned to ski as an adolescent in Verbier, Switzerland, which borders the Haute-Savoie department Chamonix is in. So this trip to Cham felt a bit like coming full circle (in a very contrived kind of way :)), even though I had never skied in Chamonix before. I am definitely a North America skier by trade, and noticed a number of differences between skiing in Chamonix versus areas in Canada and the U.S.

There are four “altitude ski areas” around Chamonix: Brévent-Flégère, Balme-Vallorcine, Les Grands Montets, and Les Houches. We spent most of our time at Grands Montets because of the more interesting terrain and location and views of the Glacier d’Argentière, les Drus, Aiguille Verte, les Droites, amongst many many peaks. I did not bring any touring gear with me on this trip, so we stayed at the resort the “whole” time.

Les Grands Montets sits right above Glacier d'Argentiere

Les Grands Montets sits right above Glacier d’Argentiere

There had been no new snow for a while before my first ski day ever as a “proper” skier in Europe (!); conditions were pretty icy, and the lower part of the mountain was in bad shape. I was not super impressed with conditions, but was happy to be in very warm, sunny conditions, after all the time spent in really frigid, often low-visibility conditions in Canada and the U.S. on my road-trip. The warm weather did keep the snow that had not been skied off in decent, soft, shape though. But conditions were not good enough to warrant paying the extra to take the tram to the top of the Grands Montets.

One thing I noticed was that people here did not approach me or ask me questions like some do in the U.S., Canada. Maybe it is because of language differences, or maybe it is more cultural reticence to pry. One French skier yelled something to me which I did not understand, and when I apologized for not understanding he said “It is beautiful to ski on one leg like this!” That made my day. Another difference was that I was skiing and riding lift with Yves; whereas on my road trip I was a solo female skier with a curious setup, and that tends to invite conversation.

Yes, I attract a lot of stares with my setup

Yes, I attract a lot of stares with my setup (Photo: Yves Durieux)

A close-up showing how I clip my left leg up to a quickdraw attached to a belt on my waist. Like pin the tail on the donkey

A close-up showing how I clip my left leg up to a quickdraw attached to a belt on my waist. Like pin the tail on the donkey. Except no prizes. (Photo: Yves Durieux)

We were not expecting vastly different conditions the next day, so it was a very pleasant surprise to find great skiing conditions! There must have been some new snow overnight, and/or the direction of the wind had deposited the snow favourably. It was a total blast skiing the same runs we had done the previous day. Temperatures were still extremely mild, though a little colder (a good thing), and with such good visibility, we took the tram up to Grands Montets.

Looking up Grands Montets from the lunch deck

Looking up Grands Montets from the lunch deck

I don’t think I can recall a tram at a US ski area covering such a large vertical distance as the tram here. It was great! I had also never been so jammed in a ski lift as was on this tram. It’s a good thing I wear a helmet as my face is at most people’s chest height.

When you exit the tram, there is a little platform area with a great view of les Drus and the Aiguille Verte.

Aiguille du Grands Montets. It's a lot of steps down from where you exit the cable car down to where you put your ski(s) on.

Aiguille du Grands Montets. It’s a lot of steps down from where you exit the cable car down to where you put your ski(s) on.

Aig d'Verte Grand Montets ridge

Aig d’Verte Grand Montets ridge

It was particularly cool to see such a storied and iconic formation, Les Drus, so close up.

Les Drus and Mont Blanc from the top of the cable car

Les Drus and Mont Blanc from the top of the cable car (Photo: Yves Durieux)

My right leg is even huuuger (in Donald Trump voice) than my left leg these days

My right leg is even huuuger (in Donald Trump voice) than my left leg these days (Photo: Yves Durieux)

About to step in ski and ski down from Aig. des Grands Montets. Yeah, those outriggers are kind of beastly

About to step in ski and ski down from Aig. du Grands Montets. Yeah, those outriggers are kind of beastly (Photo: Yves Durieux)

Because the run gets a lot less traffic than the rest of the resort, the run down and snow was awesome. The views were pretty spectacular too, especially of the 9km long Glacier d’Argentière.

Skiing towards Glacier d'Argentière

Skiing towards Glacier d’Argentière

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Getting turns in from the top of Grands Montets

Getting turns in from the top of Grands Montets (Photo: Yves Durieux)

I love that there are so many people who tour/ski out of bounds in Chamonix. But there is also a sadness I feel when I see people with their touring bindings (mostly randonee), ice-axes, and avy packs, because I can’t ski like that any more.

My overall impression of the skiers I saw at the ski resort is that there is a very wide range of ability levels, more so than the US. I’m guessing this is due to all the tourist traffic this place gets. I would say the grading of ski run difficulty is also softer here than in the ski resorts in the US and Canada that I have spent time in; and the snow quality in North America is better. That being said, I loved the mild conditions here, the setting, enclosed cable cars (versus frigid long chair lifts).

Another difference is that people don’t really queue up in an orderly way for cable cars/lifts. You have to be slightly aggressive and just push your way to the front to get on a car. I prefer the pervading system in North America, where on busy days/lifts, you have an attendant calling people out and making sure chairs are filled in a fair and orderly manner.

Despite two rest days from skiing (ice-climbing and a complete rest day), I found my lower right leg issues to prohibit me from skiing on Monday. I found myself unable to control my ski because of the pain, and had to cut our day short. Again, I found myself very upset and frustrated that my injury had reared its ugly head and completely ruined a ski day in Chamonix, especially with a good friend. After another few days of rest, I could only ski a run or two on Friday before having to bail. I felt lousy.

While scrambling to rehabilitate my leg/treat the symptoms upon my return to Cambridge, I visited a PA who gave me his diagnosis, admonished the doctor in Jackson, WY for injecting cortisone into my muscle compartment, and did not want to give me another cortisone shot because it was a) too soon since the last one, and b) there is danger of rupturing the tendon if a cortisone shot is done there. All that can be done is to start physical therapy in March, strengthen, and hope I can be ready in time for a planned ski trip in the Southern Hemisphere in August. I also hope that I can return to Cham in the near future to take fuller advantage of the skiing than I did on this trip. Like with climbing and a lot of things in my life, I just need to put in a lot more work than the average person to keep things functioning and to compensate for my physical deficits. It still feels frustrating to feel so thwarted, and that this winter, which was supposed to be the ski season of a lifetime, hardly went according to plan. It does not always seem fair, but there is not much point in dwelling on that, when I need to get on with things, learn from these experiences, so that I can embark on future trips and adventures.

Despite being frustrated and upset with my injury, life isn't so bad

Despite being frustrated and upset with my injury, life isn’t so bad on the lunch deck (Photo: Yves Durieux)

 

Chamonix – Journey and arrival

Close to three weeks after departing for Chamonix, I am finally getting around to writing and posting about my experiences there and the surrounding areas. While I was on my big skiing road trip I felt compelled to blog about a place and/or experience quite quickly, so as not to forget details I wanted to document; and also so as not to let things build up so much that writing would feel overwhelming. I know that I have a tendency to be quite emotional/volatile when I am documenting my emotions and feelings soon after an event. While there is something to be said about letting time pass and processing thoughts, I am at that point where it feels like there is too much to write about.

This was my first visit to Chamonix, and came about by the kind invitation of my friend Yves who I stayed, skied, and ice-climbed with the entire time. I am surprised we were able to spend close to a fortnight with each other, in a small space and with each other all day, without killing each other. I could not have asked for a more accommodating, generous, and wonderful host.

My journey to Geneva got off to an inauspicious start. My original Boston to Montreal to Geneva route got completely wiped out after my original Boston to Montreal flight was cancelled due to weather (hard to believe since the snow was very light in Boston), and then my later Boston to Montreal flight was sure to be delayed thus ensuring I would miss my connecting flight. While I was pissed with Air Canada (there will be an Air Canada-shaming post later) for the original flight cancellation, I will say they did try hard to find an alternative and called me to ask me to come to the gate when I was outside security killing time for the later Boston to Montreal flight, when it was apparent I would miss my flight. After a bit of scrambling on their part, and even the gate attendant holding the departing plane for me while he made phone calls, I agreed to get on the Boston to Toronto, Toronto to London Heathrow (LHR), LHR to Geneva flights. Of course having to go through two connections instead of one did not make me happy, but the alternative was arriving in Geneva one day later versus 4 hours later. Connecting through Toronto and LHR did have me going through nice airports with plenty of amenities, and incidentally, places where I have family should I needed to spend a night/long time in each of these places.

It was a real treat to fly into Geneva on a sunny day; I could not believe it was wintertime. The views of the Alps in the distance (I think I was looking at Parc naturel regional du Haut-Jura) were spectacular. I was struck by how clear the water was in Lac Léman; it could have been an alpine lake, or even the clear waters on a Pacific Ocean beach. I was also struck by how much wealth there was, as I saw the châteaux and boat docks around the lake. We also know how the Swiss acquire(d) their wealth in a clandestine and dishonest manner, which leaves a rather bad taste in my mouth.

Yves picked me up in Geneva, and as we drove to the Chamonix-Mont Blanc valley, you could see the western part of the Mont Blanc massif. It was quite a sight to see the snowy peaks, including the Dômes de Miage and Mont Blanc behind it, but I knew more spectacular views awaited me in Chamonix.

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Mont Blanc massif East (Source: Wikipedia)

Mont Blanc Massif West (Source: Wikipedia)

Mont Blanc Massif West (Source: Wikipedia)

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Yves picked me up in Geneva, and as we drove to the Chamonix-Mont Blanc valley, you could see the western part of the Mont Blanc massif. It was quite a sight to see the snowy peaks, including the Dômes de Miage and Mont Blanc behind it, but I knew more spectacular views awaited me in Chamonix.

From left to right, you can see the peaks of the Aiguille du Grepon, Aiguille de Blâitiere, Aiguille du Peigne, Aiguille du Plan, and the Aiguille du Midi:

View of Aiguille des Charmoz to Aiguille du Midi from the town

View of Aiguille des Charmoz to Aiguille du Midi from the town

Chamonix church

Chamonix church

I also got my first taste of the hearty Savoie food of the region: ridiculous amounts of cheese smothering a baguette with big morel mushrooms on top, served with even more bread. This pretty much characterizes the cuisine of the region: simple, rich, hefty, mountain fare, developed and consumed by the farmers who occupied the region before it became a winter sports destination.

I had a little bit of time to myself the next morning, and as I walked through the town to sort out some lift ticket inquiries, I saw why the location of the village is so spectacular.

View of Brévant from the front door of where I was staying

View of Brévant from the front door of where I was staying

Chamonix is really quite uniquely situated in a valley surrounded by a lifetime of climbing/skiing/mountaineering. The peaks in this part of the Alps are so striking. I can see why it would be difficult to leave if you are an ambitious mountain (wo)man.

How can one tire of these views

How can one tire of these views

Yves brought up the good point that being surrounded by all these peaks and terrain can make a person feel a certain pressure. I am sure being surrounded by lots of very skilled skiers/climbers does not help. While I am not totally old, I think I am at a point in my life where orienting my life around chasing hard lines is not really practical any more, especially given my disability. Nevertheless, there is still an internal tension around leading a comfortable, financially-stable life, and being a bit more of a dirt-bag. While Cham was a great place to visit, and I would love to go back there for more climbing and skiing, Cham, for me, is not a practical choice for year-round, permanent living; I don’t have EU citizenship/residency, I don’t speak French, and there is not enough culturally/intellectually outside of winter sports.

I love that Cham is at the intersection of three countries and that we were driving so casually between Italy/France, France/Switzerland. It gets a lot of tourist traffic, but mostly from Europe/Britain. Goodness, there were a lot of Brits there. It is not ethnically diverse at all, but what mountain town is, I guess (I know I do a lot of “white people sports”). The search for the “perfect” mountain town for me continues…

Martinique 2017 – warm weather (and political/social) interlude

Anse Dufour

Anse Dufour

The political insanity that is taking place in America right now has me experiencing a kind of fear, anxiety, and dread I have not experienced in my lifetime. Thus, writing a blog post on my recent trip to Martinique seems so frivolous. But I am not egotistical enough to think that such a post is going to have any effect either way.  It certainly was a warm weather break from the harsh winter weather I had been dealing with on the road trip I rushed back for this trip.

We had visited Martinique last year, after hearing about the cheap flights from Boston on Norwegian Air, via a friend of mine. Way back last August, before I knew I would be embarking on a big skiing road trip, I had purchased tickets to Martinique again, thinking a quick warm weather break from winter would be nice, and necessary.  I had wanted to go to Guadaloupe, but the flight schedule was not agreeable, so Martinique it was. Martinique is an overseas region of France, and one of the islands making up the Lesser Antilles. Probably because it is a part of France, airfares from France are likely cheap, and the result is a ton of French visitors.

Source: http://s725.photobucket.com/user/Gaetandu972/media/Forum/caribbean-map-1.jpg.html

Martinique is one of the windward islands in the Lesser Antilles. Source: http://s725.photobucket.com/user/Gaetandu972/media/Forum/caribbean-map-1.jpg.html

Norwegian Air has flights to/from Martinique from Boston every Wednesday and Sunday; the Wednesday to Sunday stay is a very suitable length of time to fully explore the small island (smaller than the US state of Rhode Island).

While small, Martinique is surprisingly diverse in its geography. The north part of the island is more mountainous and wetter, as it is more exposed to the northeasterlies (the trade winds from the Northeast). Being on the lee side, the western part of the island is quite dry; the south part of the island is dry too and has more beaches and amenities, making it more touristy.

In our previous visit, we stayed north of La Trinité, and did a lot of driving around the north part of the island and through the middle. This time, we wanted to do less driving and more swimming/eating :) Our hotel was just south of Le Francois, putting us in a very convenient location to access the south part of the island.

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The south part of Martinique. I could not find a better map online than the beat up driving map I kept.

When we were looking for hotels online, it seemed like many used a fishbowl lens to give the impression of a bigger room. Our hotel needed no such deception; the suite was enormous. A family of 6 could have easily slept there, with room to spare.

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Sunrise from our balcony (Photo: Scott McKay)

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Our room had this random safe in it. Check out how thick the safe/door walls are!

Our room had floor to ceiling bookshelves – a veritable library. The texts certainly followed a theme…

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One guess which way the owner of these books leans politically

The theme continues…

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While basic, the balcony area had a large fridge, a sink, hotplate for cooking, and all the cookware and serving ware one might need. We ate out the entire time though, consuming copious quantities of accras de morue (a ubiquitous appetizer), poulet (colombo, boucane), poisson (blaff, court bouillon, and grille), and coconut ice-cream, flan, and blanc mange. I never have 3 (or even 2) full meals a day, so I was surprised to be able to pack it all in me.

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The dining area and bar/kitchenette on our balcony

We thought we would do a “quick” drive around the perimeter of the southwest peninsula since we had missed doing that on our last visit.

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We stumbled across Anse Dufour only because it looked like a good view from the road, so we descended, and found this great swimming beach. We ended up coming here all three days.

Anse Dufour

Anse Dufour

We saw a lot of fishing boats and fisherman, and traps as I was swimming. The protected bay of Anse Dufour seems to make it amenable for fishing, and the port capital of the island, Fort-de-France is not a long boat ride away for fisherman to bring their catch to.

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Photo: Scott McKay

The water here is very popular amongst snorkelers, and we would see boats coming in with snorkelers, dropping them off to snorkel around and have lunch at one of the restaurants on the beach. While water visibility was good, I did not see anything of interest.

As we drove around the peninsula, we saw the Rocher du Diamant. I guess it catches people’s attention because it is sitting on its own out in the water. It was occupied at one point and had some significance in the Napoleonic Wars.

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le-diamant

Photo: Scott McKay

As you drive into Le Diamant, you see a very long beach; it is hard not to pull over and check it out. The beach was Grande Anse du Diamant, a 2.5 mile stretch of beach. Strong winds make it good for windsurfing; not so much for swimming.

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The Rocher du Diamant from Grande Anse du Diamant

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Looking down Grande Anse du Diamant. The sand is a dark volcanic sand.

The weather was more variable on our third and final visit to Anse Dufour. The clouds were doing cool things.

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Photo: Scott McKay

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Photo: Scott McKay

Anse Noir is located around a very small peninsula from Anse Dufour. What makes it noteworthy is that it is a black sand beach located so close to a white sand one.

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Anse Noire

We swam out far enough at Anse Dufour to see Mont Pelee. It was cool to catch another perspective of it from the lookout to Anse Noire.

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Mont Pelée, the highest point on the island

A more secluded beach we frequented on our last visit is Anse Trabaud. A very rough road and fee keep the crowds away. We enjoyed returning there, but the nice swimming at Anse Dufour and shitty drive to Anse Trabaud made the former more appealing.

I have mixed feelings on Martinique as a destination suited for people of limited mobility. This is not a third world area by any stretch of the imagination, but sidewalks are very narrow and in some places quite uneven, making them tricky to negotiate if you were in a wheelchair, say. I was able to get around perfectly fine, plodding up/down steps and slopes where they were. The public restroom situation can give me some anxiety because of my SCI. While not the most well-lit or comfortable, most towns and larger beaches will have them.

I returned having overindulged. After a Chinese New Year Dinner this past Sunday, and a full day to sort things out, it is off to Chamonix tonight!

This loop closed

And thus brings an end to, as someone put it, the mother of all road trips. In total, I travelled 7,896.3 miles. That is more than I usually put on a car in a year! The drive back was fairly speedy, but felt very tiring. Maybe it is because driving East feels like stepping back (is it a coincidence that people tend to say “back East?”), versus the feeling of liberation heading to the wide open spaces of the West. Driving into fog, cold sleet, and rain did not help alleviate this feeling.

Miles travelled on this trip: 7,896.3 miles

I thought skiing at Snowbird in the morning would be a good way to jolt me awake for the first leg of the drive back to Cambridge, MA. Overnight and continuing snowfall cemented this decision. At least that was the plan. And as we see from this trip, plans inevitably get thwarted.

The Snowbird aerial tram has the beefiest arm I have ever seen

The Snowbird aerial tram has the beefiest arm I have ever seen

Conditions were a stark contrast to my warm, bluebird day at Snowbird, but the fresh snow was great.

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White-out conditions

White-out conditions make for excellent photos

Yet again, outrigger issues cut my day almost the moment it got started. Snow/water kept getting into the spring mechanism that allows me to flip the outrigger blade up and down. I went into the cafeteria to get hot water to temporarily fix the issue, but it came back as soon as I did a run. I was pissed because I had gone through the trouble of getting up very early to get first tram and spent the money on a lift ticket, only to have equipment failure ruin the day.

However, I had learned the previous day that my new job’s start date had been delayed till March 1st. This immediately made me want to use this opportunity to travel to Colorado to ski at the places I had intended to go to on this trip, but had to forgo because of the delays caused by all the mishaps. So it was easier to roll with the situation knowing that I had an opportunity to get more skiing in later in February.

I knew that I wanted/needed to get back to Cambridge by Sunday evening, but I was not entirely sure where I was aiming for this first day. Lincoln and Omaha, NE were certainly too far. I re-entered probably one of my favourite states, Wyoming, driving through and reminiscing fondly about all the times I have spent in this state. Interestingly, I crossed the Continental Divide on two occasions as I drove East on Interstate-80. I had never driven through Nebraska; there was a similar peace to it that I experienced when I was driving West through Saskatchewan. Seeing large drilling and mining equipment, and a wind-turbine blade transported is really cool, too. I made pretty good progress and decided to bed down for the evening in North Platte, NE, which was a fairly sizable town. Most importantly, the town had places to get coffee for the next morning. I’m normally not a big Starbucks fan, but I will be the first to admit that their in-store and packet Pike’s Place coffee has gotten me through many a cold morning and drive on this trip.

Day 1: Solitude Ski resort to North Platte, NE

Day 1: Solitude Ski resort to North Platte, NE

Like the drive westward, the second day is the toughest driving day by far for me. It was a combination of poor sleep, very boring terrain and scenery, the toll of the first day of driving, and accumulation of all the days of driving on this trip. I had to make numerous stops at gas stations/rest-stops to nap, and buy horrible snacks to eat to keep me away on the drive. I don’t think I can look at Chex-Mix or Muddy Buddies for quite awhile. Though both are very flat states, Nebraska felt wide open and peaceful, while Iowa just felt bleak. Illinois was a fairly brief interlude between Iowa and Ohio. The nice thing about driving on a weekend was avoiding traffic around metropolitan areas, like Chicago.

I became more alert at around 2.30pm and found myself going strong for the Toledo, OH area, which would put me in a good position for the third and last day of driving. It’s funny how the relative density of the East Coast becomes so apparent as you travel farther East.

Day 2: North Platte, NE to Perrysburg, OH

Day 2: North Platte, NE to Perrysburg, OH (just outside/next to Toledo, OH)

The final push. I woke up very early on this third day feeling very alert. Again, it could be knowing this would be my final day of driving and that it would not be a marathon driving day. It is somewhat amusing that a driving day of under 12 hours now feels on the shorter side! While it was dreary and wet, temperatures were far above freezing, which made for quick travel. Having such closely spaced rest areas across New York and Massachusetts is both weird (like, why the need?) and quite nice, knowing my next bathroom/soft drink/gasoline refuel opportunity is coming up soon.

Day 3: Perrysburg, OH to Cambridge, MA

Day 3: Perrysburg, OH to Cambridge, MA

It was hard not to let anxieties about unpacking and unloading the car, and washing and packing for my next trips (Martinique and Chamonix) creep in. It would have been nice to have trips spaced out a bit more, but I felt the need to jam in as much fun during this time I have of not working.

So would I do this again? I got to ski in some really awesome places with great conditions; I got to experience familiar places in new ways (e.g. Alberta, Idaho, and Wyoming in the winter); I got to see totally new places, like inner British Columbia, America’s Heartland (Nebraska, Iowa), Saskatchewan, North Dakota; drive across the continent and back; experience extended periods of deep cold like I had never done so before and travel/deal with it; learn how my body and equipment responds to extended skiing road trips (the good, the bad, and the ugly); and all this solo. My main complaint was the abysmal skiing/driving ratio. Driving was a great way to see Canada and the US, lug all my shit around, and have the freedom to drive wherever, whenever, depending on conditions and circumstances. But that time spent driving could have been spent skiing or climbing. Granted, I was operating under a very compressed timeline. If I had another month or two on the road, I might consider driving again. But, more likely, I would choose to take two trips and fly (one city in Canada for one trip e.g. Calgary, the other city being Salt Lake City or Denver) rent a car for a month or a few weeks each time, and do a loop. What I certainly will do next time is:

  • At the very least, carry plenty of spare outrigger parts. I had some spare parts with me on this trip, but they were the wrong parts; not the ones that kept failing. Now I am much more aware of the parts of the outriggers that are most likely to fail for me. Transporting a second spare pair of outriggers would not be possible with air travel.
  • Now I know what the causes are for my lower right leg pain that was bad enough to stop me from skiing for awhile, I can get on a foot, leg, and hip strengthening program months in advance of the start of ski season.
  • Perhaps be less ambitious in how many places I wanted to go to. Driving from place to place was very tiring and made things not as relaxing/restful as they could have been. But again, I was operating under a very compressed schedule and eager to “make the most” of my time.

Now it is time for some R&R in Martinique this week, a welcome change to the rain, sleet, and 50 mph winds in Boston last night/today.

 

US Winter Paralympic race training with National Abilities Center (NAC)

Today, I had the opportunity to ski with alpine skiers trying to make the 2018 US Winter Paralympic team at Park City, the site of the 2002 Winter Olympics. It was a very informative experience as I had never even swung myself around race gates before. Today, the team was working on GS (Giant Slalom), so were out in their skinny, long GS skis. I found out the minimum height for GS skis for women, regardless of height and weight, is 183cm. And of course, it gets longer for Super-G and downhill events. This is a disadvantage for the smaller and shorter girls like myself, but why should I stop pursuing sports that I am not genetically pre-dispositioned for? :p

The prestigious and luxurious NAC double-wide trailer that houses lockers and equipment and changing space

The prestigious and luxurious NAC double-wide trailer that houses lockers and equipment and changing space

Ski resorts can be a dangerous place, I guess

Ski resorts can be a dangerous place, I guess

Erik, the Head Alpine coach, had given me information on what to expect today, but I still was not sure what that would entail. The first part of the session from 9am to 11.15am or so was spent warming up and little drills. This was followed by a 15 min or so bathroom break before heading out to the race course. At the race course, Erik and Shannon, a visiting coach from Australia, had us go down one by one while they videoed us and gave us verbal feedback on the course.

Racing down icy black runs is not exactly my idea of fun

Racing down icy black runs is not exactly my idea of fun

I was very conservative because I really did not want to cause further injury to the right leg. The overwhelming feeling I had was, I really like ripping it when I’m just skiing for fun because no one is making me do it. If I were to race, it would feel a lot like a job (which it would be to some degree), and that would make it no fun at all.

Then there is the risk of another injury. The video below shows a sit-skier with the Mexican team who was in the recent Sochi Winter Olympics. It turns out he had a bad crash and sustained an even higher level of spinal cord injury (T10-ish) than his previous one (L-level). He is holding back a lot in the video below because he is hurting, and also basically learning how to ski again with his reduced function. Why would he want to ski again? I guess people ask me the same thing with respect to climbing: Aren’t you worried about getting hurt again? It’s about living and feeling alive; yet, climbing and its risks (which, to me, are much lower) are acceptable to me, whereas hurtling down and icy slope to beat a clock/other people is not.

The day ended with brief video analysis. I was surprised that the video analysis was as quick as it was. But I suppose these guys see each other most every week day.

Another source of hesitancy, besides my personality and motivation, is the financial side of things. Being poor to freeze my ass off in lycra to ski down ice is not terribly appealing. Sure, you could piece together an existence, with grants, scholarships, jobs, and a low cost of living. But any other disposable income or saving for retirement? Forget about it. I am not ruling the possibility of racing entirely out, but I know for a fact I have a lot more fun free-skiing.

Well, this round of skiing is coming to an end. I am hoping to squeeze in a morning ski tomorrow before having to start my drive back to Cambridge, MA tomorrow afternoon. I can’t say I am too excited about three days of sitting on my ass all day long driving. While equipment and physical setbacks made me have to skip out on Colorado and New Mexico this time round, there is a chance I can make a dedicated CO ski trip between when I return from Chamonix and the start of my new job. Of course this depends on a number of factors, including my body. Such a trip would make me very happy as I would get to return to a place I love very much (Telluride) and see friends there.