May 31, 2009

Beaching, Hiking and Climbing in Cassis and Provence, France

En Vau, Calanques

Picking up where we left off from Peillon… four of us crammed into the VW Gulf with minimal air conditioning headed to Cassis, France for some beach/hike/climbing time in the Calanques. En route we did a little reading in our guide book Esclade Les Calangues and learned the region is in fact ancient river mouths forming huge canyons of limestone exiting into the Mediterranean extending about twenty kilometers or so between Marseilles and Cassis. We set up camp at the Hotel Les Roches Blanches and headed into town for a nice dinner of grilled fish, as it was Saturday night town was rockin’.

Our plan was to start with a hike/climb combo the next morning. We would start with an hour and a half hike along the coastline to an area with a hidden beach called En Vau. The area used to be accessible by boat but now forbidden in attempts to protect and preserve the area from the huge amount of daily traffic. Boats can enter and view the beach, but then must turn around and continue on their tour, still a great way to view the massive cliffs.

The trail to the hidden beach

We arrived at the beach around ten am, it was fairly deserted. Danny, our trusty guide headed off to look at a few routes and suss it out. We had heard that as it is a famous and beautiful climbing area many of the easier routes were polished, meaning they had been climbed so frequently that the rock had worn smooth. Les Calanques boasts over 1500 routes and is heralded as one of the birthplaces of modern climbing. Famous climbers such as Gaston Rebuffat started here before heading to tackle the massive routes of the Himalaya. Danny returned a few minutes later to report that he could actually see himself in some of the rock it was so polished.

Lyndsay and Michelle getting ready to roll

Michelle and I opted for a rest day on the beach (I am a HUGE proponent of the rest day bring on the BEACH). We suffered from slightly sore fingers due to climbing the day before (felt like my fingerprints went missing). Michelle on her way to being and expert climber already realized the importance of resting, it is important to build up callouses slowly or run the risk of blistering fingers ruining the rest of the trip. Costas and Danny and their already calloused fingers headed off to try a multi-pitch climb nearby.

Rugged rock in Calanques

We busted out some tunes and sat in the sun only to sit up a few minutes later to a packed beach. Not everyone had hiked the hour in, some had driven with small children. We had been warned numerous times against leaving a car anywhere, or leaving anything in a car at any time for that matter. One friend had come to this area a few years ago with gear in car only to return with everything inside cleaned out and the car up on blocks, even the wheels were gone. Most stolen goods to straight to Marseilles and onto to a boat to Africa. Cars with local plates are exempt from the constant attacks, but anywhere you go in the area signs warn you to leave nothing in the car and drive only if necessary.

Town of Cassis

Moving on from Cassis we headed up towards Apt about an hour North of Aix-En-Provence to climb at an area called Buoux and visit Nicky, a friend of Costas and Michelle’s. The drive up was beautiful winding through small villages and fields of poppies. Nicky greeted us in Apt and took us to his beautiful Provincial home complete with a teeny tiny Fiat Cinquecento used for sight seeing on the country roads. Rumor has it Fiat will bust out the modern verson of this car in the US and expect to take America by storm.

We settled into our new home first enjoying some lunch on the sunny terrace befrore heading to the PGF sector in Buoux for some late afternoon climbing. In the 80’s this was the craig for the strong and mighty with over 200 routes.

Massive rock wall of Buoux

The rock is limestone with two-fingered pockets and very technical climbing, lots of balance and strength required. We stayed in the 5-6 grade range and focused on much needed footwork due to very small handholds. Kudos to Michelle who led her first climb outdoors a five called, “Confiture pour le Cochon” (Jelly for the Pig), making the experience even more unforgettable. Lead climbing takes a strong mental focus and Michelle walked her first route easily.

Sightseeing in Provence

We returned back to Apt for a great dinner and a morning of sightseeing through the villages in the region. Nicky was an amazing tour guide explaining the history of the area and finding the perfect terrace and rose-covered cafe for pizza just in time for the lunch feast and siesta. Next up, Finale and Albenga, Italy for more world class climbing on drip-formed limestone hopefully with some Italian coffee and gelato in the mix.

Michelle Riding in style, 1960’s Fiat Cinquecento

May 27, 2009

…And We’re Live - Climbing in Peillon, France

Peillon from the Auberge de Madone

April in Chamonix is the time to head South to the beach and get back on the rock and into the climbing mindset. A mini exodus from the alps occurs each May as snow lovers seek the warm temperatures and the blue waters of the Mediterranean. Four of us planned a ten day climbing trip along the Cote d’Azure and the Italian Riviera with a brief stop to visit a friend in Apt, France near Aix-en-Provence.

Peillon and the climbing areas

Danny and I picked up our friends, Michelle and Costa Alexakos at the Nice Airport and drove the thirty minutes to our first destination the beautiful village of Peillon. The windy road left no room for error and I wished I had brought my bike as well as my climbing gear. As we neared the top of the hill the twelfth century Medieval village came into view dramatically situated on the summit, one side boasting a sheer cliff face.

The term village perche literally means perched village and they were built in seemingly impossible places for protection reasons. We parked the car in the tiny parking lot and dragged our bags to our quaint hotel, the Auberge de Madone. Owner Christian Millo and his partner and sister Marie-José come from a traditional farming family which is evident in the fresh produce and olives served at the restaurant produced from its own grounds. The fresh scent of jasmine was in the air and I opened our balcony doors to take in the views secretly wanting to pick a lemon off the nearby tree.

Strolling in the old town

Peillon is a pedestrian only village and to stretch legs we wandered the narrow streets winding our way to the church plaza and could view the world class climbing on the cliffs behind the town. In spite of the church bells reminding us of the hour, time slowed down as we sat and enjoyed a late lunch. We decided no climbing today and let Costa and Michelle catch up from the long flight from New York.

Hanging in the chruch square checking out the rock

Rain greeted us the next morning forcing another rest day. Michelle and I used one of the empty rooms and set up a small yoga studio thanks to the internet and The staff of the hotel was perplexed, but supportive with the exception of one chamber made who frowned at us a few times. Later in the day the rain cleared and Danny and I hiked up to scope out a few routes. We had been to this area last fall and bought the guide book for the area called L’escalade dans les Alpes-Martimes V2. Danny being our trusty guide wanted to have it all dialed for the next day. Sometimes the adventure with climbing can be the actual route-finding to the craig. Guide books are written in three to four different languages and sometimes there is a LOT lost in translation.

Danny and Michelle

The next morning we woke to the church bells and bluebird skies. Breakfast was served by a friendly and busy waiter who explained he slept, “tres mal”, or very bad due to the changing moon. Donning comfy climbing wear we started the thirty minute hike to the base of our chosen site, the Baus Roux area. The hike started at a local fountain where we filled up water bottles and then continued on through olive tree orchards, behind small farming villages and passed numerous blooming flowers. The sun was already hot and we could see ropes hanging from some of the more challenging routes. Peillon has a bit of everything from easy to extremely difficult.

Michelle on Voyage Eclair

Moving along the base of the rock, we found little vegetated cave-like areas shaded by mini-hibiscus bushes and pine shrubs. We chose one at the base of our first climb and set up camp putting on harnesses and flip flops. Danny geared up and led “Besoin de Toi” a stiff 5c. The rock at Peillon is limestone and well bolted with glue anchors (or cemented rings). A stainless steel bolt is inserted into the rock and fixed with resin, arguably the best bolts out there. The finished product allows for bolt that can actually be used to rappel off if needed. My turn to lead and I was a huge fan of the spacing of the bolts. They were never more than two meters apart which minimized a huge fall factor and did my head good. Costa flew up the route next, an accomplished climber of ten years.

The star of the day was Michelle. She had never climbed outdoors and had been practicing twice a week at an indoor climbing wall for the last two months at Chelsea Piers in New York. Michelle’s hard work paid off and she climbed like a homesick angel with no fear. The route boasted a little overhang, some fire ants and a few pesky bushes which didn’t phase her in the slightest. “Climbing outdoors is awesome!” She said as Danny lowered her to the ground.

Michelle on Birdy

Next she sent a few 5+ routes, “Une Sourie Verte”, and Passage l’Acte which had a small crack style climb at the start. Next we moved on to some 6a’s and 6a+’s (5.10a-b) named “Birdy”, and “Les P’tits Chargonards, finishing with a 6b (5.10c-d) called “Voyage Eclair.”

Michelle and Costas

Michelle having great natural balance and flexibility enhanced by her yoga practice made it up each route, seven in all - pretty amazing for a first day! Women tend to be better climbers at the start, we know how to stand on our feet and not rely solely on arm strength. Our group called it quits around 2:30, the sun was hot and we headed back down to the natural spring to soak our feet and eat our packed lunches before piling in the car and heading down the Cote’d Azure. Next climbing stop? Cassis and Bioux in Provence, France. More adventures to come…..

Brava Michelle!

May 10, 2009

Biking in the Bernese Oberland

Last Saturday I threw my road bike in the car and headed to Lungern in the Bernese Oberland located in Central Switzerland. My boyfriend had a guiding continuing professional development course where some guides would meet, climb and talk about guide-type stuff. Having never been there, I thought I would tag along and bring my trusty Trek pal.

The small village of Lungern is situated in the Swiss Canton of Obwalden about an hour from Grindlewald, home of the famous Eiger and the Jungfrau and the heart of the Bernese Oberland. Stunningly beautiful, it is the Switzerland pictured on the post cards and all the fine chocolate wrappers. The region also boasts lakes as well as mountains making a popular destination year round. Also has parking places reserved just for women. Not bad.

Being an incredibly mountainous country, Switzerland has some serious rail and auto tunnels, including the third largest in the world, the Gotthard Tunnel linking the Swiss Cantons of Uri and Ticino. The drive to the Bernese Oberland from Chamonix was about three hours and had one major roadblock, the Bernese Alps. Rather than circumnavigate the massive range, we took the high speed train through the Loetschberg Tunnel. Cars load onto the freight train for the twenty-one mile trip deep below the peaks above. Lights dot the train so passengers are not in complete darkness but the opposing train caused a change in pressure causing my ears to pop.

Nearing the end of the drive, we descended the Bruenig Pass into Lungern, a small village with a crystal blue lake. The lakes in the region get their intense blue color from the glacial flour or rock flour, clay sized particles (typically quartz and feldspar) of rock that are created by glacial erosion. The rock flour washes into the lakes via rivers or in this case waterfalls creating the brillant turquoise. The narrow Lungern valley is bordered by high cliffs and the rain and the current snow melt creating numerous waterfalls in full cascade.

After dropping Danny at his course, I grabbed my bike and picked one of the many roads leading up above the village to the houses scattered about the hillsides. The first road soon became incredibly steep for my tired legs and my large double chain ring. I needed a more gradual climb and turned around to choose a different adventure.

Bench with web address, the perfect advertisement

The second road was more promising. Following the contour of the hill I only had to abort mission quickly once into the ditch to avoid getting hit by a hay truck. The roads barely fit one car. Continuing on I noticed the town council had placed many benches along the way for walkers to sit and take in the view. I love this about Switzerland, everyone is out walking somewhere at some time of the day at almost every age.

Easing into my ride I hit another roadblock, the pavement turned to dirt. I started wishing I had a mountain bike and followed the line of the road wistfully up and up. Descending I took in the view and took at seat on one of the benches to better research my next plan.

Back down in town I stopped to grab a snack at the Volg grocery store. Not really understanding the sales clerk I accepted a free bar of Caillier chocolate. Wow, I thought to myself, not only does it look like all the towns on the chocolate wrappers, they give it away for free too. Looking closer I saw a heart shaped sticker that said in German, “Alles Gute zum Muttertag”, or Happy Mother’s Day. I am not a mom, but it was great chocolate.

I spied my third route and gave it a try. A local road winding through the neighborhoods, beautiful homes with cows in the front yard (and one remote control car that almost took me out). I biked to the base of a large waterfall and followed a steep road to its summit. I sat and enjoyed the view while watching an elderly couple ascend the trail poles in hand. It was not the ideal early season spin but most definitley worth the trip.

The region is riddled with rides galore, mountain passes and just small roads leading to nowhere up high. For more ideas on rides in the Alps (but not flat ones) check out the Cycling Challenge website. This guy has some good ideas, lots of good stuff for road and mountain bike lovers alike.

May 08, 2009

Chamonix Freeride Daze

Chillin' on the tub
Chillin’ on the tub

End of season parties chocked with costume clad enthusiasts abounded last month in ski areas across the Northern Hemisphere. Revelers gathered for a final ski and to thank the snow gods for an amazing winter with offerings of dancing and crazy stunts to entice them into sending more snow next year. Chamonix paid its respects last Sunday, but due to high elevations and later snowfall it will hang on to it’s season a bit longer. In fact, the season officially ends May 10th, but skiing up high is probably possible until June.

Laura Croft with an authentic ski suit from the 70’s

This last Sunday snow-sliders galore headed up to Lognan at the Grand Montets to partake in a few last runs before the sun brought the year to a close. The Compagnie du Mont Blanc’s Freeride Days had a pretty good size pool set up complete with two hot tubs to assuage the pride of those who didn’t quite make it across the pond. Also on tap was a costume party, a rail slide and a DJ to set the beat.

Women's speed ride demonstration
Women’s speed ride demonstration

The weather was a bit iffy, bright sunshine punctuated by black clouds throwing down graupel (hail) on spectators. Despite the weather, the women speed riders of Les Ailes du Mont Blanc attempted a demonstration across the pool. Speed riding rolls the adrenaline charged sports of skiing, parachuting, and paragliding all into one to allow skiers to ski otherwise unthinkable lines.

Rianna mid waterski

As the afternoon progressed and partiers graduated to the pool for the its now or never waterski experience with some BB women showing everyone how its done. The black cloud hovering down valley finally moved in and the rain arrived in force. A few of us decided to ski down the home run to the bottom despite the lack of snow as the line down for the telecabine was at least an hour long. It would prove to be an interesting ski with fresh tracks on rain drenched snow, rocks and mud. A few fellow skiers opted out on snow altogether and the sound of fat skis on rocks (a do it yourself stone grind if you will), was everywhere. Surprise would be an understatement when they looked at their skis the next morning.

Sarah busting out the flip flops for the hike

We chose to hike the last ten minutes out to the Marmotton with Sarah adopting the French idea of carrying flip flops everywhere at all times and ended the afternoon listening to live music reminiscing over a great season. Some were determined to continue and keep skiing, but for me the ski to the bottom was my last for the year. A la porchaine….until next year…

May 05, 2009

En Fin, the Trofeo Mezzalama 2009

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After an agonizing two week delay at approximately 5:30am on May the second, the 17th Trofeo Mezzalama took place. The start was lined with torches, the forecast clear and the snow a bit icier underfoot compared to the last time we stood ready to depart to Gressoney. It had snowed over two meters on course the past week and the guides had heroically cleared the track in two days in preparation. It was worth the wait, the weather was perfect, sunny with a bit of wind up high. The sky was clear over night allowing for the snow to freeze further improving stability. The course was in excellent condition.

Lyndsay, Cecile and Chantal at the start

Cecile Pasche, Chantal Daucort and myself roped up at 5:00am and placed our skis at the start. We formed a daisy chain to decrease the length of rope between us for ease of movement and proceeded to hike for about twenty five minutes to warm up. Nina Silitch, our original third teammate had contracted step throat and sadly was unable to race. Chantal was part of another team whose teammates also could not compete due to work obligations. We joined together last minute to create Swiss Team Yosemite 2/USA.

Chantal, a former professional mountain biker and Olympian was by far the strongest of us three. She would lead the way on the rope, setting the pace and giving us a pull if needed to help make the time cut (she was like our own engine out front). Having never raced together and experiencing ups and downs with the decision whether to race or not, we decided to just enjoy the tour and the day while getting to know one another. No pressure.


The whistle blew and we were off through the torches to an emotional farewell, cries of, “Vive Trofeo Mezzalama,” (check out the video for the enthusiastic emcee) and a promise to be reunited a few hours later in Gressoney. The maratona bianca (white marathon) followed some forty-six kilometers climbing roughly 2900 meters, the difficulty being that the majority of the course was above 3500 meters (11,500ft) going as high as 4200 meters (13,800ft). With the delay in race, we had lost our acclimatization so we would do our best -it is one thing to summit a peak and descend, it is a little more challenging to remain at the higher elevation for a longer period of time while attempting to push yourself to the limit.

Chantal wondering am I really going to drag this huge camera along? Nope.
Chantal wondering am I really going to drag this huge camera along? No way!

The first part of the course was on the piste in Cervinia, Italy, leading to the Col de Breithorn covering 1800 meters of elevation gain over about 7-8 kilometers. The time cut for female teams was 2:45 minutes, but we were given an extra five minute cushion this year (2:30 + 5 for the men). Together we eased into a nice rhythm communicating to one another to make sure everyone felt comfortable with the pace. The last part of the climb was steep and we leaned forward using the rope to keep one another from slipping back and losing time. We reached the col in two hours, twenty-nine minutes, a good start.

Countdown to the start

Grabbing hot tea from numerous volunteers we continued through the checkpoint and took off skins, lengthened the rope and traversed the glacier across to the base of the Castor. The weather was perfect. Clear, sunny and no wind. This area can be know for being extremely cold and most teams roped up at the start to prevent freezing fingers. Chantal was in the lead passing as many teams as possible while yelling an encouraging “Avanti Poppolo!” or “Charge!” to the teams in front of us to get them to hurry up or move out of the way. We passed through another aid station serving only beverages as the majority of the supplies had been buried in an avalanche the day before.

Skins back on we headed up the Peak Castor soon switching skis for crampons to ascend the last four hundred meters to the summit. Ropes were in place but with the recent snow the boot pack was well formed and the bergschrund at the top covered with snow so we did not need to clip into the fixed lines.

 Summit ridge, Castore. Photo courtesy of
Summit ridge, Castore. Photo courtesy of

The guides had shoveled the ridge and the traverse across the sky was almost a meter across in places. We followed one another single file - this was a no passing zone. Halfway we encountered an aid station. The mountain guides had set up a small bivouak stocked with medical supplies and had slept there the night before. Securing the passage of close to a thousand people up a 4000 meter peak is serious business. Some fourteen guides were employed (and more volunteers) dispersed across five aid stations in case of emergency. Helicopters were also reserved for course use and we could see them buzzing the racers out front.

Photo courtesy of
Photo courtesy of

Descending the Castor, we skied roped for about four hundred meters to the second and last time barrier in five hours, well ahead of our five hour and forty-five minute time cut (to ensure safe passage across the Castor this year we were given an extra thirty minutes extending the time to 6:15). We threw skins on again and headed across the Felik Glacier slowly gaining elevation back up to the Naso del Lyskamm at 4100m. This was the real start of the race, a long, flat track at high elevation ending with the final two switchbacks to the summit. It seemed to go on forever and looked a million miles away. My head felt like it was going to explode. I took Aspirin to alleviate the headache, it was in powdered form and rather tasty - a clever Swiss creation.

Cervinia guides preparing the Castor

Summitting the Naso, we skied down the other side, a steep forty-five degree section that had become a little icy covered with sugar snow. Continuing carefully as we were still roped, we did a high speed side slip gaining momentum for a short skate uphill to reach the final 2500 meter downhill. It was at this stage I lost my love affair for the rope while trying not to ski over it and skating as fast as possible.

After six hours we all were ready to be free of its restrictions, the constant pulling the front person back, the middle person either direction, and the back person endlessly forward - it can be an incredibly annoying tug of war as you try to move together with frayed and tired nerves. However, as the hours had passed we had grown comfortable with one another and fortunate that we functioned well as a team and truly enjoyed our tour. The views of the alps were stunning, not a cloud in the sky. Now almost at the end of our journey, it was literally all downhill.

View of the Castor from the Col du Breithorn
View of the Castor from the Col de Breithorn. Racers ascended on the far left line

A few turns into the descent I felt my heel come loose from the binding. The heel piece had broken. First we tried to use a zip-tie to attach my boot to my binding which worked for about four turns. A guide stopped to try to assist but short of duct-taping my boot to my ski, there was nothing to be done. We skied the last section roped very slowly to the final check-point. Cecile and I untied and threw the rope in Chantal’s suit and began the long descent (the suits look geeky but they sure are handy). I kept pressure applied to my heel and skied with most of my weight on that foot. Partway down we had one more road block, Chantal broke a pole.

One of the first Mezzalama teams.
One of the first Mezzalama teams. Photo courtesy of

As we exited the haute montange and onto the ski pistes of Gressoney the snow transformed and became corn snow, and then heavier slush. The final kilometer of the course took us through the village winding around chalets ending in the center of town. We smiled as we were welcomed to Gressoney and hugged one another proud of our achievement. Not only did we complete the white marathon, but became friends along the way while overcoming small difficulties to finish in good spirits. My love for racing was renewed. A quote by Gaston Rebuffat sums it up best,

“Together we have known apprehension, uncertainty, and fear; but of what importance is all of that?  For it was only up there that we discovered many things of which we had previously known nothing: joy that was new to us; happiness that was doubled because it was shared, a wordless friendship which was no mere superficial impulse. I am happy, for I have felt the rope between us.  We are linked for life.  We have approached the stars together and at such heights, the air has a special savor.”

Thanks to these two Swiss, this American became the first woman from the U.S. to officially finish the Trofeo Mezzalama. Something I will not soon forget. Brava Cecile and Chantal!

Smiling in Gressoney
Smiling in Gressoney

And Brava to the twelve female teams that completed the race, most notably the winners of Team Ski Trab Laticia Roux, Francesca Martinelli and Roberta Pedranzini who set a new female record of 4:43.31 finishing 15th place overall! Brava!