So it’s been a slow start to Winter in the European Alps by anyone’s standards, a meagre amount of snow in November to get us all excited about skiing, followed by weeks of mild, sunny weather causing what little snow there was to gradually disappear and meaning panic for anyone working in the tourist industry. Most of the Chamonix ski areas were set to open early December yet barely managed to scrape a few slopes open for the Christmas week. We left here before Christmas desperately hoping for some of the white stuff on our return… And thank goodness, we did arrive back to Winter, rather than an even more extended Autumn! The Valley is now thankfully covered in white, although snow cover on the pistes is still the worst I’ve ever seen it for this time of year. There’s an awful amount of grass poking out of the pistes and the artificial snow canons are in full flow, plus it’s well below freezing every day so it’s all about layering up appropriately before leaving the house! But the mountains look beautiful, the sunsets are stunning and it’s always good to be back on the snow, regardless of of how good (or poor!) the skiing is.
I wrote a few weeks ago heralding the coming of Winter, the colder days, the darkness creeping in earlier and earlier, the imminent arrival of the snow… But I feel the need now to perhaps delay that slightly and cling on to the beautiful, and highly underrated, season that is Autumn. I find myself thinking the same thing every year and once again reminding myself that Autumn is one of the most stunning times of the year. In the Alps it is all about winter and summer, the periods bridging the gaps are simply referred to as ‘Interseason’ and I believe are totally forgotten and glossed over.
I feel so strongly that we must embrace these ‘in between’ periods and not just see them as time to kill before the ‘proper’ seasons arrive. There is so much to do in the mountains right now, with the added benefit of it not being too hot, so you can often actually do far more than in the sumer. There is also no-one around. Summer peak season is so overrun with holiday-makers, yet no-one seems to come in the Autumn. It’s like a secret, our own personal paradise, deserted and beautiful. On a walk last week I found myself becoming quite the nature lover and flora photographer! Everywhere I looked I saw stunning colours in the trees, the leaves and the heather. I’ll include some of my amateur snaps, no photoshop, no colour enhancement, just the pure beauty of nature at its best.
It’s a sentence most people dread. September in England signalled the end of summer and back to school which inevitably brought with it short, dark days characterised by cold and rain. September meant Winter was coming which generally led to negative grumbling and griping about the weather and how hard done by everyone was! Winter and positivity were two words not often associated with each other! I think it’s safe to say that England doesn’t really get much of a seasonal weather pattern, it can get slightly warmer in the summer and marginally colder in the winter, but in general the weather pretty much stays the same, so although I was aware of ‘seasons’, I’d never really experienced them.
You grow up dreading winter and desperately waiting for summer, so how I ended up living in a mighty cold ski resort and itching for winter is anybody’s guess! Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love the summer, especially in the Alps. It’s by far the most convenient season and I am genuinely sad that it’s pretty much over for this year, but the wonderful thing about living in the mountains is that you get four distinct seasons and you know exactly when it changes. This year the summer here has been pretty dismal, as I believe it has been across most of Europe, but almost as a special treat to make up for it, September has been absolutely glorious. Up until last week the sun has been shining and it has been genuinely warm; shorts and flip-flops weather still. We’ve been climbing, hiking, running and even swimming in the lakes, not what you’d expect from an often ‘dreary’ month. But this week we have clearly felt it ‘turn’. It has suddenly gotten very cold in the mornings and evenings, the trees are all turning fiery red and golden and the darkness is rolling in earlier and earlier. It’s such a snap change, Summer becomes Autumn almost overnight, not Winter, Autumn.
This is why I love it here so much. Everyone enjoys the summer but as soon as it cools down and the trees start to change, the thoughts inevitably turn to winter and the chat turns to skis, lift passes and winter plans. But before all that excitement begins we get a grace period where we get to ease out of summer mode, eek out the sunshine as much as possible, but gradually start to get our warm clothes down from the loft and think about when the snow will come.
In the vein of enjoying every last drop of that sunshine, last week I went for a wonderful long run along the Chamonix valley, starting and finishing at 2 different points which resulted in a reasonably long wait for a bus at the other end. Again sitting and waiting for a bus is a prospect that conjures up images of miserable commuters huddled under a rainy bus stop. It’s a strange place to count your blessings, but I couldn’t help but smile as I sat on a bench in the sunshine facing a spectacular mountain range bisected by a stunning glacier, and to top it off, the trees in the foreground were at that perfect autumnal point where they can’t quite decide whether they want to be red or green.
It’s the little things that make the difference… I love autumn!
Anyone who has ever spent time in the European Alps will may have spotted the large, black, crow-like birds circling around high above the mountains. The Choucas, native to the French Alps, are an unremarkable bird, keeping to themselves, disturbing no-one, and preferring to prowl around the lesser visited areas, away from the tourists. If you stay still in a quiet place you may find them creeping closer, on the hunt for scraps of food, but on the whole you will only notice them if you turn your eyes skywards.
Yet despite not making much of an aesthetic impact, legend has it that the Choucas circle around the mountains searching for those who have lost their lives, and it is agreed amongst mountain locals that the souls of the dead live on in these birds, remaining in the place they loved, and keeping watch over those who live on.
Indeed there are too many who lose their lives each year in the high mountains, from ski accidents, to a rock climb that goes wrong, to a devastating avalanche. Whether there is any truth in it or not, it is a lovely thought that every time you spot one of these unassuming birds circling ominously above the snowy peaks, you are seeing the spirit of a fallen mountaineer living on.