Isn’t it funny how you can go away for ages, come back and only five minutes later feel as if you’ve never been away?
Tarifa and our beach-based life seemed a world away by day two of being tucked back up in my little Cowes cottage. Tiggy immediately found her way back to her favourite snoozing sunny spots and I swam a number of times off Cowes beach. There had been a heat wave in the UK and the water felt ten degrees warmer than the goose-bump inducing briny shallows of Tarifa harbour.
Water temperature aside, I certainly preferred swimming in the ‘Reefa as, even though the Solent is super clean, the water visibility was really poor. I couldn’t even see my hands in front of me and I kept swimming into giant clumps of seaweed, bringing me to a sudden, shuddering stop. It was an inefficient way to swim as each encounter meant I trod water and spluttered madly whilst trying to work out the optimal way to navigate past my free-floating obstacle.
Either that or the seaweed would brush past my body, making me jump with its tickly fronds and getting loosely tangled in my legs, like an octopus lazily wrapping its long tentacles around me. This resulted in mild panic and for my legs to involuntarily kick, rather violently, in my attempt to free myself from my aqua captor. It was all a bit stress inducing. The tide was strong in Cowes too, I could swim vigorously for ten minutes and only cover about ten metres in distance – of course the upside was, after such an energetic exertion to go nowhere slowly, I could float back, suspended by saline and carried by the current, to return to my starting point whilst making zero effort at all.
Two weeks quickly passed by and we were on the road again. This time driving down through France, via a Portsmouth – Le Havre overnight ferry, with my friend Sammy and her son Joey. I’m not sure whether it was Joey or Tiggy who was more excited about sleeping on the ferry – but Tiggy certainly was thrilled to have been upgraded to a pet friendly cabin rather than be locked up in a chilly, stainless steel gaol. It was a late night crossing and we plonked her basket on the cabin floor before flopping into our bunks (Joey on top, Sammy and I below). Less than ten minutes after lights out, the temptation of a cosy bottom bunk with me in it clearly proved too much, and as the ferry gently eased out of the harbour, I felt a little warm ball of fur bounce onto the end of the bunk and wriggly around to make a toasty nest where Tiggy stayed, pleasantly warming my toes and snuffling contentedly, until we all fell sound asleep.
Disembarking the following morning at 8.30am we then drove 500 long, hot and noisy miles to Chamonix, where we arrived, absolutely shattered and almost too tired to speak, precisely twelve hours later. I slept the sleep of the dead that night – to be fair, I always sleep well in the Alps, although I may have been aided and abetted by copious glasses of chilled white wine and fine food from our lovely hosts.
Chamonix (or Cham to those that know) was our first destination because I have decided that’s where Tiggy, The Beast and I will spend the ski season component of our gap year, and I was keen to secure my accommodation for the winter. I haven’t actually been to Chamonix for about twenty years, but I’ve chosen to spend a winter there because it’s a “proper” town, in fact it’s the Alps’ largest, and (so my theory goes) will be less claustrophobic than a smaller, or more remote resort. It’s also driving distance to resorts frequented by my friends – so I would hopefully be in easy reach of company should I feel the need for it. And finally, Chamonix boasts a good reputation for ski touring and cross country skiing – both of which I’m a complete novice at, but keen to conquer, particularly if Tiggy can come along too.
I would have loved to be in Verbier where I both love the skiing and have some lovely friends – however I decided that I’d probably end up both an alcoholic and bankrupt if I even began to attempt an entire season there. Epic fun though it might be, becoming a Farinet and Farm Club regular with my name emblazoned on a bottle behind the bar is not one of the strategic objectives for my gap year, although I think I may have been guilty of that during one particularly prolific winter in my twenties. Some things are certainly best left in the past, and I’m far more of a late, long, luxurious lunch and early to bed vintage now.
In Chamonix a teeny-weeny, picture-perfect mazot was located, on the sunny side of the valley, with views of Mont Blanc and in the gardens of a far grander chalet. I concluded that, although small, it was perfectly formed and would be a snug little sanctuary for Tiggy and I. A wincingly huge deposit secured it for us for the season.
Our host’s house also offered stunning views of Mont Blanc (or Monte Bianco if you’re looking at it from Italy). Towering above Chamonix at 4,808m, it’s the highest mountain in the Alps, and the highest in Europe if you exclude Russia’s Caucasus peaks. It was strange, and slightly scary, to think that the second part of my upcoming trip to Nepal would average walking at about that height for nineteen days.
A little below the peak at 4,260 metres, Mont Blanc is also home to Europe’s two highest toilets – they were delivered there by helicopter in 2007 as excrement from the 30,000 annual skiers and mountaineers was turning Mont Blanc into Mont Marron during the annual spring thaws. Apparently, during busy times, they are also serviced daily by chopper – I bet those pilots have great dinner party chat.
Every day of our stay there, the sounds of helicopters could be heard, flying to rescue mountaineers and climbers who had got into difficulties. Over 100 people die on Mont Blanc every year and Wikipedia tells me that Mont Blanc’s summit is ascended by an annual average of 20,000 mountaineers. This means a very sobering one in every two hundred people who set off to conquer the summit won’t make it off the mountain alive. Better odds than Everest, but just demonstrates how technically difficult a climb it must be (the summit is 800m lower than both Everest Base Camp and Kilimanjaro).
We didn’t climb anything, our contribution as Chamonix tourists was to stay safe, shop (a skateboard for Joey, some Arcteryx shoes for me – I avoided Chanel as that’s definitely not on my eternity leave budget), eat pizza and burgers and drink beer. After a fun filled couple of days being spoilt by our hosts, whose little sausage dog, Herbie, became utterly besotted with Tiggy, it was time to move on to Morzine.
Morzine was the location for the wedding of one of my best girlfriends. It was a whole weekend affair with guests flying in from all over the world to celebrate the occasion and this entire trip had been planned around it. Sammy and I were both somewhat cheekily titled “Maids of Dishonour”, Tiggy was invited too and even The Beast had an official role as back up wedding car. Adorned with flowers and ribbons, he looked magnificent, although unfortunately he blotted his copybook by getting oil on Sammy’s dress, about which I was terribly upset and she was marvellously decent, as only a truly kind and generous friend would be. This was the only dark cloud to an otherwise wonderful weekend, full of love, joy, vats of wine, yards of trays of tartiflette, hours of energetic dancing and heaps of chatting and catching up with friends old and new – many a happy memory was made.
Morzine was very busy – full of mountain bikers who take advantage of the vast ski lift infrastructure and use it to transport them and their bikes skyward and then hurtle back down the mountain via paths of varying technical complexity at an alarming speed. Just the kit alone was enough to put me off – anything that requires full body armour, an ice-hockey style caged helmet to protect your face along with knee and elbow pads is definitely not for me.
Purposefully choosing to ignore the many tantalising offers of paragliding and mountain biking, I took advantage instead of Morzine’s amazing outdoor Olympic sized swimming pool. Nestling in the valley floor there’s something breathtakingly special about swimming along and seeing a jagged sea-saw of mountain ridges every time you lift your head out of the water to take a breath.
This was my first fresh water swim for a long time, in fact, since before I’d been to Tarifa. I had clearly become very accustomed to salt water swimming as I very nearly sank when I took my first few strokes. I was really surprised by the marked difference in buoyancy from the sea – not only did it require significantly more effort to stay afloat, let alone actually propel myself along, but the water felt really different too; the pool water had a far more slippery sensation in my hands, like liquid silk caressing my fingers as they glided and slid with each stroke; when I exhaled, the bubbles of breath resembled silvery, shimmering beads of mercury, rising to the surface before escaping to freedom into the mountain air.
I’ve read before that, because the skin is our largest organ, some people regard swimming as a sensuous sport. This was the first time I’d ever really appreciated that; I really did feel caressed by the water. Open air swimming – whether sea, lake or pool – is quite simply one of my favourite pleasures in life. And as I floated on my back, gazing up at the mountains, I made a vow to myself to still swim regularly when I’m eighty – compete with a Barbara Cartland-esque pink flowery swimming cap and a robust, ruched swimming costume
It didn’t take too long to get accustomed to the less buoyant water and lap after lap, turn after turn, I soon fell back into my familiar cadence and enjoyed the peaceful tranquillity of a rhythmic, restorative, hangover curing dip in the mountain air. I swam two kilometres, a pretty standard swim for me in the ‘Reefa, but I was certainly more weary after completing that in the fresh water pool.
Of course my weariness had nothing to do with the fact that we had danced, non stop, for five hours at the wedding the previous night – pausing only at 10pm to quickly wolf down some tasty tartiflette and wedding cake before, re-energised by stodgy carbohydrates and on a sugar high from buttercream icing, we energetically threw ourselves back around the dance floor until the DJ ceased spinning his digital decks at 1am. As one of our friends wryly observed on Sunday it was rather like attending an international Zumba convention with a particularly smart dress code and a more even balance of male to female delegates.
After round three of the nuptials on the Sunday which consisted of a delicious barbecue and bottle after bottle of fine, chilled rose, the guests started to scatter and wove their way back to airports, transfers and trains to leave the magic of the weekend behind and resume their normal lives once more.
For Tiggy, The Beast and I, it was time to move onto yet another adventure. And early on Monday morning we waved goodbye to Morzine and drove slowly, in the pouring rain, along the valley floor and out of the resort before climbing up a series of aggressively steep switchbacks to Chatel (which we normally ski to from Morzine) over the Bec Du Corbeau (1,992m) and through an un-patrolled border into Switzerland, which would have nearly passed un-noticed had it not been for a flurry of Swiss flags adorning the chalets that lined the road immediately after.
The weather was truly awful, relentless rain and low hanging cloud, not only was it damp and miserable, it was pretty chilly too. All in all, it was a bit disappointing. It should have been a delightful drive – the sort that would have Jeremy Clarkson et al foaming at the mouth as we zig-zagged down the mountain – but it really was pretty dismal driving conditions. Although I’m proud, pleased and relieved to report that the windscreen wiper replaced by me, without any external assistance, coped admirably with being used in anger for the first time (it’s predecessor had flown off, unexpectedly, mid way through a particularly blustery drive in Tarifa).
The final stop of our trip was Verbier, where we stayed with Melody who lives in a beautiful chalet with huge picture windows, perched precariously half way up a very steep switchback between Le Chable below and Verbier above. Parking at Melody’s required nerves of steel, and great driver dexterity – including stopping and reversing up a near vertical incline combined with outstanding spacial awareness.
These are not skills I profess to have in abundance: I’m not a particularly competent driver; The Beast is really heavy and hard to manoeuvre, particularly in small spaces, and his hand break isn’t great, meaning that steep, hill starts (particularly in reverse) are far from easy. After a particularly stressful attempt on our third day where it smelt as if I’d burnt The Beast’s clutch to a cinder, I decided I would avoid parking at Melody’s again until I had an automatic car complete with parking sensors, a better turning circle and a boyfriend who would park it for me.
Melody, who originally hails from Scotland, is really a Verbier native having lived there for over eighteen years where she runs a very successful film and photography company. Her life is a bit like a North Face advert (one of her many clients in fact) and rather than living an adventurous, adrenaline filled life in the mountains vicariously through her Instagram feed, I was very keen to explore some of her pictures in person. Also, my upcoming Nepal trip is only two and a half months away, so I needed to knock out a few miles in the mountains and start to get my legs fit.
Tiggy and I bubbled up to Verbier for our first day’s hike. Compared to the hustle and mountain bike bustle of Morzine, it felt very quiet. Although I have to say, it felt incredibly luxurious to not have to queue for the bubble or share it with strangers. Mind you, I did miss my friend Damian, with whom I’ve shared many a glass of fizz whilst bubbling up from Le Chable to Verbier for a Big Night Out.
Tiggy was rocking her doggles and, as per usual, we had to stop for more than a few selfies with everyone from the lift operators to a gaggle of tourists from South Korea. If I ever run out of travel funds, I shall simply set up a pop-up photo-booth and pimp Tiggy out.
We took two bubbles and disembarked at Fontanet (2,485m) where the air temperature was noticeably a lot cooler than down in the valley at Melody’s where it remained unseasonably cool. I was glad I’d packed my down vest and immediately put it on along with my gore-tex jacket, a quiet, little voice in my head wondered if I should have packed gloves and a hat.
The mountains look so different when they’re not covered in snow and walking on the runs was a very interesting, unpredictably mixed experience. Some of the easy-peasy, smoothly groomed blue runs that I have hooned down so often were, as expected, lovely alpine meadows, carpeted in flowers and soft, mossy grass whilst other blue runs were covered in ankle-twisting, inhospitable scree and the jaunty little off-piste side runs that we love to take so much were far too steep and a definite no go on foot.
From Fontanet we started to climb the winding blue run up to the top of the Attelas chair lift (2,733 metres). Every now and again Tiggy stopped to stick her head into the entrance of an enticing hole, I wasn’t sure what they were home to as they were definitely too big for a rabbit, but, to a dog bred for ratting and hunting, they clearly smelt extraordinarily good. Tiggy does love to roll in fox poo, so I kept ushering her away, just in case they were a fox’s lair, as the last thing I wanted to do was return to Melody’s stinking of ‘eau de renard” – that would probably have ensured we would never have been invited back. We walked up past a flock of mountain sheep, whose bells we heard before they came into view, grazing away on the lush alpine grasses. As the life of a sheep goes, theirs must be pretty good, I bet they taste good too…
Sunny and hot, it was not, fog kept drifting in and out and at the top I was slightly perturbed to find we were in a total white out. I pulled the hood of my hoodie and jacket up, my hands were freezing so I tucked them inside my jacket arms, and the helpful little voice that wondered if I needed a hat and gloves became a little bit louder. Thankfully, having skied it often, I knew where to go and we walked down a surprisingly steep blue run, mercifully out of the clouds, to the two lakes of Lac Des Vaux (2,543m).
I’ve never seen these lakes before as they are always frozen and covered in snow in the winter, they were a very pretty and enticing tanzanite blue; a gap in the mountains enabled me to see far down into the valley, as stunning in summer as in winter – it was a quietly, contemplative moment. The little voice in my head, back in helpful mode, reminded me how lucky I am to have this gap year and to make sure I remember moments like this. I smiled and gave Tiggy a little tickle. Alluring though the colour of the water was, it was far too chilly to even contemplate dipping a toe in and my hands still hadn’t warmed up, so I didn’t even test the water with my fingers. However, the air felt cooler just standing by the water so I think it’s safe to assume that temperature of the lakes was on the “f**k me it’s freezing” side of cold.
Turning around, I scrambled and Tiggy bounced back up the steep blue run, back through the freezing fog and descended down the winding blue run. The plan was to head beyond Fontanet following a leisurely descent to La Chaux (2,260m) to enjoy a late lunch – and then potentially take the cable car to the summit of the glacier at Mont Fort (3,330 metres), the highest peak in the Verbier valleys.
It didn’t occur to me to keep Tiggy on a lead – no matter where we go, Tiggy is always within eyesight of me and, even though I don’t need to watch her every bounce, I always instinctively know where she is. In fact, she panics if she can’t see me, and if she ever pauses too long to linger over a particularly tempting scent, all I have to do is turn around and shout ‘left behind’ at which point she will always abruptly stop whatever she is doing and run towards me at full pelt. Being ‘left behind’ is no laughing matter for anyone, but particularly not to a little doggy who was often abandoned by her previous owners outside in a cage with no shelter for long stretches of time. Separation anxiety means Tiggy is nearly always in my shadow.
But not today. It turns out the tempting little hole that Tiggy found so enticing was actually a burrow belonging to a marmot. I now know this because I saw one, bushy tail and all, scampering through some long grass to the side of the walk on our way down. I also now know that the Alps are riddled with marmots and that they are related to squirrels, another irresistible animal if you’re a Jack Russell terrier. And they hibernate in winter, which is why you never see them when you’re skiing.
We were nearly at the bottom where of the piste where we were going to take the left fork towards La Chaux and lunch. I was beginning to get hungry (it was the cold, I’m sure). I heard Tiggy stop behind me, head down yet another hole. “Come on Tiggy, left behind” I called. She lifted her head up and started to trot obligingly towards me. At that moment a furry creature with a long tail shot out of the hole and, without a moments hesitation, Tiggy darted after it at top speed. The marmot scurried into the long grass and Tiggy hurtled after it, not far from its tail.
Tiggy, I hollered, and was met with silence. I couldn’t even hear her running in the grass. I kept calling her name along with ‘left behind’ – I scanned the grass for moving strands to give away her presence, there wasn’t a whisper of wind – the grass was motionless. I kept calling her name, in a cheerful voice, so she wouldn’t think she was in trouble. Nothing. The mountain was eerily quiet. I realised that since we left Fontanet about four hours earlier, we hadn’t encountered another soul.
All of a sudden I wasn’t cold anymore. In fact I was really rather hot and clammy. I ran down through the long grass calling her name. There was no sign of life anywhere. The helpful/unhelpful voice in my head was on full ‘imagination gone wild’ mode; I saw pictures of Tiggy with her head stuck down a hole, unable to get out; I saw pictures of Tiggy running round an unfamiliar mountain, frightened trying to find me and confused by strange smells; I saw pictures of Tiggy bleeding having been badly bitten.
A mind out of control will play interesting tricks on you; directed it’s your greatest friend.
I don’t know who said that, but it certainly couldn’t be truer.
Running back up to the spot where I last saw her, I told myself to calm down and get a grip. Should I call for help I wondered? If they send helicopters for lost climbers in Chamonix would they do the same for a dog? (The answer is no, of course, but I did seriously consider it as an option.)
Fifteen long and extremely anxious minutes went by. My tummy was gnawing, my hands were shaking, the only reason I wasn’t crying was because I knew I needed to keep my voice calm so she could hear me and not be scared to come back.
I kept calling and calling and calling and calling and calling. Not a murmur of noise, not the slightest of movements. The minutes crept by. I took long, deep breaths to keep myself calm(ish).
I don’t know precisely how long it was, I think thirty minutes, and then I lost it. No longer was my voice measured and friendly. I screamed and screamed and screamed her name until I couldn’t scream any more. And then I screamed again and again and again.
I saw the grass move first, out of the corner of my right eye, and then I saw a scared little face with frightened eyes, huffing and puffing with all her might and running at full pelt towards me. I attached her lead before I even hugged her. Sitting down with a thump, I pulled her closely and then gave her some water whilst I composed myself.
Who knows where she was or what happened. My guess is she chased after the marmot and didn’t realise how far she’d gone, and then when she stopped and couldn’t see or hear me, she got scared and started running, probably in the wrong direction. Women’s voices don’t carry well in the air (I know this from sailing) – so perhaps she didn’t even hear me until I started screaming.
With still slightly shaky knees, I stood up and we walked calmly down to La Chaux, Tiggy’s lead firmly attached to my wrist. I had a huge glass of wine with my 27CHF bowl of spaghetti. Tiggy nonchalantly gnawed on a chewy – it was as if the previous hour had never happened.
We were too late to do the Mont Fort cable car, which was shut anyway because of fog. Still a bundle of twitching, nervous energy I decided to walk down to Verbier to meet Melody. It’s quite a long walk. Longer than I realised in fact. I think it took us two hours. Lower down as we walked along the road it started to rain. By the time we got to the bottom – via two very steep red run short cuts – we were drenched, it was a good way to break in my new walking boots and a great test run for Nepal.
We arrived in Verbier (1,500m) and bubbled back down to Le Chable to collect The Beast and drove back up to Melody’s where I had a bath and Tiggy fell sound asleep. We had walked 9.7 miles and climbed the equivalent of 102 floors.
It’s easy to forget how small we are sometimes, but out here, the mountains sure find a way to remind you.
Would you believe the next day I did something unfathomably dim too?
Choose happy, keep your dog on a lead in the mountains and death to all marmots.
Love, Sophie, Tiggy and The Beast X