What am I doing, finishing work in July 2019? I’m in my late 30’s, and meant to be doing the ‘traditional’ things, settling down, buying a house. The latter I’d taken care of the year prior, but seriously, what WAS I doing? A mid-life crisis? These are all the doubts that had crept in in early June before formally announcing my departure in early July. However, they were also familiar thoughts, ones that I’d experienced in my late 20’s, the previous time I’d made this same decision. That decision had led me to see numerous incredible locations, train how to become a teacher, give back to my sport through two methods, gather a range of skill sets that were incredibly valuable (if not always recognised by those who hadn’t been through the same experiences and had followed the more ‘traditional’ path), spread wings to see regular things with a set of fresh eyes (and realise what needed to change, as well as what was just fine) and meet my amazing wife (I had to leave that one to the end to stand out :).
In short, that time out had supercharged a variety of perspectives and viewpoints, and had been the ultimate refresher for fresh thinking and ideas. In many ways, I realise now that adventure in my 20’s inspired me in the same way as that period in my teens where I lived in Israel. Is this something I’m going to repeat once a decade? If so, it’s a pretty exciting thought :)
And so, in early July, after some mad dashing to complete some upgrades to the campervan (new fridge, electrical lighting upgrades, addition of a solar panel, addition of a bike rack, and failure at purchasing an extra storage box as they refused to ship it to Ireland!), I was jumping on the new Irish Ferries, the W.B. Yeats (an aside: it’s huge, and horribly designed with a mission to confuse where you are. A ship designed by engineers, not some who understands usability. The new rooms are a slight improvement though), to France. We had a plan to head to Chamonix, and to eventually end up in Spain but nothing more - not even an official end date. Considering how organised life for all of us usually is, this was quite the novelty to have… Think about it now, when was the last time your plans were completely up in the air ?
What has made this trip so unique, and likely because we’re traveling in Europe this time and not somewhere so exotic that is a significant distance from friends and family, started with a post on the social networks to say bye to those same friends and family.... and by the time, I’d arrived into France, we’d received numerous suggestions and inspiration alongside options to meet up. It all started with what is now my usual break-the-drive destination, at Fontainebleau, just south of Paris. As we pulled in, a quick check of messages and there’s one from friend, Greg, to mention if we were passing through Font, that he was there with his family.... how perfect! A lovely cycle that first evening to test out the bikes, and the next morning we were sitting in the forest sipping coffee with Sita and David (other friends we knew were there also) before driving over to meet Greg and family. Little did we know this would become a recurring theme….
Next stop was the outdoor sports Mecca of Chamonix. At some point it was probably just tiny village before the arrival of the first hikers and then skiing in the 19th century, however the valley was long subsumed by snowboarders, climbers, alpinists, mountain bikers, paragliding and what seems most recently, trail runners (you can tell what brings in the income also just by looking at the storefronts on the streets….). Last years trip here had been very kind (here is the three-day run we did, and here is another up the ‘ladies’ Mont Blanc’) with a lot of running adventures in and around the area. This year, as it looked like I could actually climb (I’d managed to get up some harder routes earlier in the year before a setback in April), the intention was to spend more time climbing cliffs.
It’s hard to express to those who don’t climb, just what is so fun about it however, if you’re into it, you don’t want to leave it. An excuse to spend time in the outdoors, surrounded by wild nature, truly in the elements is the simplistic description, no? Even after over 20 years, it still draws me back in and while it’s not as cheap a sport as running (trainers, shorts, t-shirt), it’s something that is a lot more accessible than people realise. With climbing in the Olympics next year, I’m excited to think about more people getting into this amazing sport (even if many are likely starting the equivalent of indoor swimming: at indoor climbing gyms).
Back to the trip!
Arriving on the back of the recent 2019 heatwave into Chamonix, it was.....toasty. That’s the only way to describe the baking heat! Luckily, there’s lakes and rivers to jump in ;) and following the theme we’d started on, more time was spent meeting friends: a crew of Irish arrived in and straight away we were scrambling up big easy cliffs sharing laughs.
In between, Naomi knocked out her first 1km swim in open water, I started to get some more trail running under my belt (I’m not as fit as last year it would seem!), and we had an aborted attempt at the 230-metre route, Poeme a Lou. What happened there? In short, we’re both rusty from a lack of recent climbing and were naive in how easily we’d also transfer our capabilities back into the mountains, not helped by mistakingly emptying out all our water before starting the route 😂🤦♂️ Time to bail after the first pitch and save ourselves for another day…..
Country number 42: Austria
The weather continued to be erratic so a decision was made. Why not go see that own place we’d mentioned prior to leaving? Austria. A Google Maps check and it’s seven hours of driving. Manageable in a day!
A cruise through Switzerland, 15 minutes in Liechtenstein (doesn’t count as ‘being there’), and we were in Innsbruck! No plan, no idea however we did know there was an incredible climbing gym. And it turned out good friend Heather and Stef who lived in Innsbruck! We didn’t know (yes, massive 🤦♂️ for not realising where our friends live) until the powers of the Internet meant she saw a post of mine :) We’re having an interesting discussion in this trip about the pros and cons of what the internet brings to society. In examples like this, it can only be seen as a good thing: how would we have ever met prior?
So, observations from Austria. Like Switzerland, you also need a toll sticker. Unlike Switzerland, you can buy a 9 day or two month pass. There seems to be a big motorway that runs through the middle of the country. Wild camping is nowhere as easy as France. Innsbruck in particular has an.....energy. A peaceful energy. Deserted streets on sundays and at nights. A bustle during the day. Shops all close at 7:30pm. Every direction you look is a reminder of nature. Soaring mountains rise in every direction.
In short, we really, really, liked it!
As before, the routine appeared to be a mix of all. Some time doing lovely trail runs and hikes, checking out the local climbing and catching up with friends to shares stories. Climbing in Zillertal is predominately granite so it was fun to stretch ourselves on this - it’s been a while since being on this rock type. What WAS interesting was to see that the locals had taken the decision to retro-bolt everything! I’m sure there were a few great trad routes we missed out on, however for accessibility purposes, you can’t beat bolted routes.
Climbing this time also involved indoor climbing and I’m not ashamed to say it: driving to Innsbruck from Ireland just to climb indoors is totally justifiable for the Kletterzentrum Innsbruck. If this is the future of climbing, I’m totally onboard.
Price wise it was interesting to see Innsbruck as cheaper than Dublin however not significantly when it came to food, etc. They’re also on a speciality brew fad here so it was also a good excuse to check out the local produce before departing….
Watching our dates, a decision was finally made to start heading west. Of course, you can’t just drive all the way through Switzerland without stopping at one location. I’ve parked under this famous mountain before, however Naomi had never been there, so a quick detour was made to sit in awe under the north face of the one and only, Eiger.
Eiger trail running
Grindelwald is surreal on a clear day. Looking south, there is an astounding face towering over the village to both inspire and intimidate in equal measure. We weren’t prepared for ‘proper’ mountaineering so instead we were left with some trail running. Not a bad choice! In Ireland, there is a large hesitancy to put detailed signposts on our hillsides: justified based on the argument they are serious hills, and ruin the independence. I can definitely say that’s backwards, and opening up great trails to all is the future. It’s seems a selfish decision or excuse to not mark everything up. Why do I say this? As we ran along a terrace at 1,600 metres in altitude directly below the Eiger north face, it was evident it was a much more serious environment and yet there was ultra-detailed signposts everywhere. I look forward to the time we have well-managed trails across all of Ireland!
After this, it was a return to Chamonix to make amends with our previous failure. With a few weeks of rock mileage under our belts, it was a time to return to ‘Poeme a Lou’ and this was a lesson in smart strategy. Instead of pushing on like we’d considered on the previous occasion, this time it was a nice, fun, day out in the mountains staring over our shoulders at the amazing views of Mont Blanc). Mega. It’s five pitches of 6a-6a+ and all are excellent.
In between, we’d caught up with old friend from college, Maurice, and as he was training for a marathon, I felt obliged to join his training runs. (A week later and I’m still feeling the effects 😂).
And that brings me to the final stop on this epic first month, Annecy. Many many moons ago, on that previous big trip mentioned all the way back at the beginning of this post, we’d met a french couple, Nicholas and Florence, while in India, then again in Thailand, before AGAIN in New Zealand, America and finally before bumping into each other again back in France at Ceuse a year later. Like before, Nic had seen the recent Facebook post, and before you know it, we were arranging a visit to their home near the beautiful lakeside town of Annecy. 10 years is a long time and as always, we had all followed different journeys with lots of great perspectives to share. Their young son, Arthur, put on a great smile as we mangled french in our attempt to speak to him (you can imagine how well that went… 😆) before some climbing at one of the local crags, jumping in the lake, a lovely walk around the French Venice and we hit the road to the next part of the adventure.
As I write this now, we’re in Saint Leger and it feels like we’re staring a different phase. If the first 4-5 weeks were a mix of running, hiking, swimming, climbing and meeting many incredible friends, here it’s more of the monk life, focused solely on hanging out in nature and swinging out of rocks. But that’s for another post, you’ll be glad to hear! 😃