Monday, June 11, 2012

Alpinism course in Chamonix.

The crew - Eric (our guide) standing tall, and the rest of the Frenchies. :)
It is a no brainer that ignoring alpinism when living in the midst of the alps would be sinful.  I have signed up to one of the many local mountain clubs as recommended by my friend, and almost thought that I would not make any use of my membership -- until I got an email about the alpinism course for beginners in Chamonix.  It couldn't get more perfect than this, I thought.  So I signed up with great enthusiasm and then the search for all the equipment began... I borrowed most of the basics (crampons, shoes and ice axe) from friends and purchased a few other little things that were on my list.  Since this was all in French, it took me a while to decode some of the items.  Using google translate is not always the way to go.  For example "sac a viande" is literally a meat bag, but in reality it means a sleeping bag liner.  I guess it does contain meat once you crawl in it at night, but it's not very obvious to a foreigner :).  And then all the French emails began.  I was the only english-speaking person on this trip, so it was a bit worrying that I will misunderstand something important and show up unprepared.  Luckily, Aurelie was kind enough to help me out and she became my little buddy for the rest of the trip.

The trip was to be three days long and our departure was on Saturday at 5AM roughly 25 min by bike from our place.  Since Jakub left the night before with the kids to go camping, I was left with my beaten up neon orange mountain bike to support me all the way to our meeting point.  The morning didn't start that well.  I woke up not feeling very refreshed and so I began with putting on my 60L + 20L backpacks on my back.  The next step was to get into my borrowed mountaineering shoes  (about 3 sizes larger than my feet), but then I realized that it was pouring rain and I could not imagine myself biking with these huge clunky boots on, with 80L heavy pack on and slippery road in the dark ahead of I tied the shoes to my bag....I got on the bike... the chain fell off...there was some cursing....frustration.....chain back on, and finally heading to the right place while getting just a wee bit drenched.   Then came the introductions and French greetings with kisses on cheeks  - I never know who to kiss and how many times, and on which side to start :))  I understood bits and pieces of conversation and then I hopped in a car with the girls and dozed off for the ride there.  Oh yes, and I forgot my camera, so the trip photos are all a collection from the others.

Doin' it with the crampons and the ax baby!  Mer de Glace, Chamonix.
When we got to Chamonix it was practically raining cats and dogs so we went to check out the train schedule to Montevers, which was close to the glacier where we wanted to do our training.  However, the trains were not running for the next three days due to gale winds that knocked over many trees, which needed to be cleaned up.   Perfect! So the great start to the day continued... As we were in no rush, we decided to get some pastries at the local boulangerie, checked into our cottage in Chamonix, and then puzzled over the map while sipping on hot tea.  Plan B was to just hike up to the glacier "mer de glace".  And surprisingly, it all turned out just awesome.  It stopped raining, and by the time we were hiking for 30 mins, it was hot enough that we were all drenched in sweat.   When we reached the valley and finally saw the glacier, we heard a loud rumble, sort-of like a thunderstorm.  This was a rock avalanche/slide on the opposite side of the valley which had very steep slopes full of unstable rubble.  For the rest of the hike to the glacier, we saw at least 15 more such rock falls. A little reminder that nature is unpredictable and more powerful than us puny humans.  When we approached the glacier, Eric told us how it is always in motion and then I noticed all the boulders above us almost teetering off the edge and thought to myself what the probability was that they will start sliding down.  Of course we got some good pointers - "watch the boulder until the last minute, and then jump to the side" - sounds great in theory, but in practice, I wasn't too sure about that...But we somehow made our way up the glacier safely and then found the perfect spot to practice our crampon and ice axe use on a slightly sloped surface.  We also learned how to insert ice screws, make the Abalakov anchor and ice bollard.

Aurelie, my alpine buddy.

Wearing Eric's sunglasses - a fashion statement!

Maybe this is a good time to introduce Eric, our guide.  He is 55+ years old and mountains are second nature to him.  He hikes up mountains without breaking a sweat or being out of breath.  He is super nice, friendly and chatty.  He likes his old fashioned ways (including techniques that I'd think were probably used about 20 years ago) and he dresses that way too.  All his clothes are old school and he has a backpack that has seen many winters go by - I think it is holding together by one thread :).  Eric is not keen on modern day gadgets like a belay device or goretex - instead he happily uses his backpack for belaying (if you can call it that anymore) and carries around a nice large umbrella for the rain (also works like a walking stick).  For the past few years he has been devoting his time to leading all types of courses for groups of all ages ranging from climbing to alpinism.  Overall, I was very happy to have him as a guide but at some moments I was wondering if some of the stuff he taught us will be sufficient - but if they worked 20 yrs ago, why would they work now...right? ;D

Day two consisted of stopping while sliding in the snow, pretending it was the glacier, using an ice axe.  Also, we learned how to make different types of snow anchors.  The most scary one was the "piolet ejectable" or the ejectable axe, which consists of making the typical T-slot ice axe anchor, except that you don't bury the axe with snow, and you attach an extra piece of string to the axe so you can later pull it out of the snow and make it fly in the air...I guess lots of the stuff we learned involves just pure physics, I had no idea that you could just pack a jacket sleeve with snow and use it as an anchor once buried under the snow - pretty cool stuff.  Finally, at the end of the day, we walked around in pairs on rope and practiced securing our partner who would fall down intentionally.  I managed to burn a hole through my black diamond back pack with the rope while securing someone...

Our last day was in part applying some of the previously learnt techniques in practice.  We essentially hiked up a "couloir" (steep gully) that was covered in snow.  We did this roped up in pairs wearing crampons and using axes.  The slope was steep enough that one could have a decent fall/slide before stopping, so caution was definitely in place, and we also got to try out the ejectable axe T-slot anchor on our descent -- you can imagine the excitement among the group when we were subjected to this.  Everyone was thinking the same thing - this is not going to work! But it did.  And we all made it safely back down even though it was pretty challenging for all of us.

On our way up...looking pretty darn serious here..

Securing Aurelie.
Picnique of course.
Finished and tired.
Happy to be alive :))

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Corsica Easter Vacation

What comes to mind when you think of Corsica?  Perhaps bandits and vendettas, Napoleon Bonaparte or Christopher Columbus, superb kayaking and climbing or maybe citrus plantations and sunshine....The French island shaped like a pointing hand, a jewl of the mediterranean,  offers a wealth of diverse natural landscapes ranging from perfect white sandy beaches, rugged red rocky coastlines, crystal clear waters, to high alpine snow capped peaks.  A common feature of the Corsican countryside is the macchia/maquis shrubland, or dense thicket of vegetation, where the bandits and guerrillas used to hide out.  It seems that the true nationalistic blood keeps flowing through the Corsican's veins as the French translations on road signs are still being mutilated by bullet holes and spray paint by these franco-italian locals...

Clearly, Corsica has plenty to offer for a family trip, and so we embarked on our first camping adventure of the year.

Tommy overlooking Bastia.

Traveling to and around Corsica 

We first drove down to the port of Toulon where we boarded our ship and slept in a cabin the whole night.  The next morning, Tommy seemed sea sick and he eventually threw up on the ship.  The roads in Corsica are as windy and narrow as you can get, so I thought he was keeping up his nausea by car sickness.  However, after we stopped for a while, Tommy kept throwing up for the rest of the day, and I became suspicious that it might just be something else.  It turns out he had the stomach flu, so the following evening me and Jakub had some serious stomach upset (I won't go into details :) and after two days or so, we finally recovered.  Not to mention that Anna gets car sick on winding roads, surprisingly, she did well.  Finally, on the ferry ride back, we had some decent wind and waves so Tommy once again couldn't hold his stomach contents in....Note to self, Corsica is not ideal for people/children with a weak stomach.


The weather this year has been a bit unusual and not very typical for Corsica.  We've had a lot of rain, colder temperatures and strong winds.  On the rainy days, we had a chance to do some sight seeing in the cities of Ajaccio, Sarte, Corte, Bonifacio, and Calvi.    Authentic Corsican architecture consists of granite or schist stone houses, built close to one another.  Many of the cities are dominated by a citadel and labyrinths of narrow streets where you can get lost in time.... 
Citadel of Corte

Port of Calvi

Calvi, the true birthplace of Chrstopher Columbus?
Cities can be fun!

Bonifacio - reaching the citadel.


Local markets offer some of the most delicious local foods including, citrus fruits, seafood, fresh cheeses, wine, pastries, sausage, olives, and more....  Essentially, a mix of French and Italian cuisine - you cannot go wrong here!  Other typical Corsican food includes wild boar, wild game and chestnuts.  The local wines and beer (eg. Pietra) are also very tasty.  Just writing this paragraph has nearly made me drool. ;D

I had no idea that so many types of citrus fruits existed.  There was even a creepy yellow looking one called Buddha's hand.

Spices; pepper mix..
What are these funky egg containing pastries?

Fresh made mini donuts...


What can I say - Corsica is the place to be if you want to get some good climbing done -- the island is subdivided in 6 main regions which consist of different types of rock ranging from granite, to sandstone, and limestone.  Due to weather conditions and this being a family trip, we did four shorter, easier climbing trips.  The first stop was in Bavella (center-south-ish), where you find granite crags, high up in the mountains.  And the grades seemed much harder than in our climbing guide!  Our second climbing was in the valley of Restonica (no photos).

Our third stop was in the Isula Rossa region (northeast) at a very neat little crag with really fun routes.  (We climbed here twice)

Tommy doing the double crack.


There is plenty of hiking in Corsica, but since it was still a wee bit cold up in the mountains - my first attempt to go hiking in the Restonica valley resulted in a failed attempt due to heavy snow storm at the hike starting point - so we really had to wait for decent weather and stay at lower elevations.  On our second attempt, we managed to do the hike to a lake, however, we still had to make our way through snow near the top. 

In the Restonica valley.

Almost near the top - Jakub, Anna, Tommy and Dave.


Granite says it all.  If there is granite, there is bound to be good kayaking.  Corsica is also a very popular kayaking destination and since Jakub has been there four times already and is still coming back, it must be good.  This year the water levels were quite low when we arrived, but the boys still managed to go down some rivers and have a good time.

Since there is easy access to beaches, surf kayaking is another option.  Tommy got a short surfing lesson from Jakub one day....

A flat river right by the beach allowed Tommy to improve on his paddling skills.

Flora and Fauna

I've come across lots of cool plants, flowers as well as some wild and domesticated animals while on this trip. One night when we were sleeping near Zonza, we heard this very bizarre loud and deep sound - possibly a braying donkey (or maybe just Dave :) but it was the funniest thing ever and wouldn't stop for a very long time...

Hermann's tortoise.

Lots of cacti everywhere.
Plenty of rosemary for cooking in the campsite.
Beaches, ocean, sunsets

Some of the views we had were breathtaking.  The beaches in Corsica are amazing and at this time of year, essentially empty.  The sand varies from pure white to reddish and there are many pretty shells to be found...Much of the coast is also rugged and really neat.

Tiny abalone shell

Beach near Bonifacio.

Cliffs of Bonifacio.

Approaching the ocean - bloody sunset.

This was one of the most dramatic sunsets I've ever seen.  As we came out of the storm clouds and approached the ocean, the sun was shining through onto the red cliffs, making it look like they are on fire.

Red cliff coast near Porto.

Where river meets the sea.... northwest coast.

The Crew...

We headed to Corsica with Tim Starr and Dave Prothero who went kayaking with Jakub and kept us company.  It's been a blast - thanks boys for joining us!!

Planning the trip.