The winter is well and truly upon us here in the Alps, finally! It’s hovering around -5 celsius during the day, and at long last there’s tons of snow! As much as this means great skiing, for the foodies amongst us it also means an excellent excuse to get stuck in to some proper winter food, by renaming it ‘Winter Warmers’…! Living in the French Alps the obvious choices are tartiflette, fondue and raclette; basically if you don’t like cheese, there’s not much for you!
So recently I’ve indulged in all these cheesy delights, and I’m loving it! The recent raclette was the clear highlight, featuring 3 types of meat, peppers, mushrooms, courgettes and of course the staple raclette cheese! There’s something so special about a meal where you have to cook your own food at the table; in sole charge of what you eat and how it’s cooked. It’s so sociable, so satisfying and so delicious!
Such a simple concept, yet such a winner with friends. Every household should have a raclette set!
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.
Winter is coming to the mountains!! It’s getting darker, much much colder and the snow is imminent. It keeps falling high up and we’ve had some teaser flakes on the ground down here, but we’re still waiting with baited breath to see when REAL winter is going to hit. A few resorts have tentatively opened across Switzerland, France and Italy and getting back on the skis was as exciting as ever, but as always happens at this time of year, it’s hard to let go of summer! We’re still clinging on to the beautiful sunny and autumnal walks and the wonderful feelings that come with with hiking up a stunning mountain trail and breathlessly reaching the top, knowing you’ve just done something brilliant.
But this last week I’ve discovered that it doesn’t have to end quite yet! Snowy walks under blue skies are still possible, just! Once the skiing kicks in properly I’ll be all over it and love every second, but I think when skiing people often forget their surroundings and just don’t have the time to stop and appreciate the mountains in the way you can when travelling uphill, and a lot slower! That’s why ski touring is so special. You drink it all in on the way up, appreciating every second and every peak, then when you finally reach that summit, strap on your skis and get your reward, you know you’ve earned every turn.
We’ve done some wonderful early season ski tours already this year and fingers crossed for a good winter so that there will be many more to come, but this week a friend suggested a snowy winter walk, and we managed to sneak one in, maybe the last of the year, and if so it was a good one! Forest trails are so beautiful in winter, and this is the perfect time of the year to enjoy them. In a few weeks they’ll be buried until spring so make the most of them while you still can!
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 across Europe would be hard pushed to disagree that this has been one of the worst summers in living memory, weather-wise. Despite an early heat surge in late May/early June, lulling us all in to a false sense of security, July was abysmal and August not much better, well certainly throughout Western Europe anyway. In the final weeks of August here in the Alps we were experiencing midday highs of lower than 20C, and an afternoon thunderstorm that you could almost set your watch to; hardly what you’d expect from summer in France. However, it’s not all doom and gloom, there have been some lovely sunny days and if you are feeling enterprising you can always make the most whatever the weather, even if that means charging uphill in the rain for several hours simply to get some exercise!
I will generally spend a large part of my summer holidays rock climbing and mountaineering, but with rain forecast almost every day it was difficult to ever get a firm plan in place and in the high mountains, heavy rain means snow; not ideal for climbing on rocks. The last few weeks have seen the return to work and to more of a routine, and of course coinciding perfectly with this, the sun has come out and stayed out for the past week or so! Despite having a wonderfully extended summer holiday, I often find that once I return to work I end up doing more, as time seems more precious when you have less of it. When you have every day free it’s not so pressing to get out and make the most of every minute! So I have thoroughly enjoyed this unexpected week of warm weather and have used it to explore the hidden corners of this valley, places that are sitting literally on my doorstep, but which I have never set foot in.
I have lived here for almost 8 years now and feel like by now I should have seen every view. Of course no-one even in a whole lifetime will walk every trail or slide across every skiable patch of snow, but despite having spent so much time in these mountains, I am constantly amazed at how much there is still to discover. A simple run up in to the mountains behind my house last week revealed a completely new area I didn’t even know existed; full of charming chalets and beautiful meadows, and a day hike suggested by a friend took us across an area I had never considered walking to before. We were absolutely astonished that the view across the valley to Mont Blanc that we had looked at so many hundreds of times before could look so different and unveil smaller peaks and features that you simply can’t see from anywhere else. Looking down from a small peak to discover a series of hidden mountain lakes that can only be found by your own exertions is a wonderful feeling, especially when you are the only people there!
This is why I love the mountains so much. You can look at the same view day in day out and it will never be the same, and if you take the time to step out of your door on a sunny day and explore these wonderful places, you are guaranteed to see something that will take your breath away, and you might even discover something completely new!
This is an age old question which I’m sure countless numbers of people have asked themselves at some point in their lives. I would be tempted to say that the majority of people would automatically say ‘beach’ simply because they have spent more time on beaches and very little or no time in mountains, but also because our society tells us that beach holidays are more exotic and the obvious choice for a summer break.
Growing up in the United Kingdom it’s safe to say that we don’t get much experience of impressive mountainous regions or golden sandy beaches, our highest peak being Ben Nevis at 1344m and the hottest average summer temperatures hovering around the mid-twenties. Holidays mean ‘getting away’ and we grow up believing that hot places and beaches are the only option worth considering. This is where the rise in low cost airline flights has come from to countries such as Spain, Greece and Italy; people want a cheap escape to somewhere in the sun, and understandably so. Why would you want a holiday to a freezing snowy place if you spend the other 50 weeks of the year grinding away in a rainy, cold city? Most Brits live in landlocked counties and only see a beach once a year on an annual summer holiday; sand and sea are exciting, different and best of all, cheap. To go on a beach holiday a family needs nothing more than themselves and swimming gear, no expensive hiring of equipment or paying elevated prices for lifts or accommodation. In my experience children couldn’t care less and often have no awareness of whether they are staying in a 5* hotel or in a tiny tent on a crowded campsite so it’s easy to see why beach holidays win for a family.
Skiing holidays are viewed as only for the wealthy and privileged, a pastime which is only ever viewed in magazines or on television for the majority of people. It’s too foreign, too difficult and too expensive, why not just get a cheap flight to Spain with your togs and towel and you’re all set for a holiday? But those who have never visited the Alps or indeed any high mountain range I find are often extremely naive. What people don’t seem to realise is that in the summer months the mountains serve a very different purpose. I remember heading out to the French Alps in July aged 18 to work my first ‘summer season’ and several people asking me if I was going to be a ski instructor. I found this hard to understand because firstly even at 18 and having never stood on a pair of skis, I was aware that you probably needed qualifications and experience to be an instructor, and secondly, it was the summer, didn’t people realise that snow is generally a winter phenomenon??
However I imagine this is a completely different story for those growing up in countries with a more temperate climate or surrounded by mountain scenery such as the States or a lot of mainland Europe. Much of these continents are covered in spectacular peaks which their inhabitants grow up admiring and using in every way, and perhaps these people would have little interest in a beach. You can’t climb it, conquer it, travel down it quickly. I think my opinion of how people view mountains and beaches is very much British as this is the main pool of experience that I can draw from. With the exception of a hardy handful, Brits generally don’t grow up roaming the hills and valleys, children will generally choose building a sandcastle over donning a pair of hiking boots and trailing after dad over the Yorkshire Moors. Most people’s earliest experiences of holidays are on the beach in the sun and this is therefore imprinted in to their brain as what holidays are all about.
But I feel people are missing out on what these places of natural beauty are all about and often it takes an inspirational teacher or a school trip to broaden a young mind as to what nature has to offer. How many of us have walked away from the crowds at a beach and simply sat down to admire the tranquility of the waves, or snuggled up on a rugged coastline to watch the ferocity of a storm? In a similar vein, on those annual skiing trips how many tourists avoid the over-crowded mountain restaurants, take a packed lunch and find a peaceful spot to eat where they can really take in the beauty of a mountain landscape? I worry that ‘holidays’ have become such a desperation for over-worked and fed up people that most don’t even consider where they are going anymore. Wherever is cheap and hot, nothing else matters.
So back to my original question, having spent many a happy summer working on the south and west coasts of France, and having had the fortune to experience the East Coast of Australia in all its glory, I love the beach and the sea. I fell in love with the ‘beach’ way of life in Australia, so simple, so chilled, so beautiful. Scuba diving, snorkelling, sea kayaking, it’s all hard to beat, but for me the mountains will always win. They are a geographical phenomenon and awe-inspiring doesn’t even come close. To me they are nature’s greatest achievement and will be there reigning supreme when everything else is long gone. Life in the mountains is constantly varied and I love that there are 4 very distinct seasons, all of which are magical in their own way. Rather than being a miserable, cold, dark period that everyone hates and wishes away, winter is highly anticipated and never long enough. Every year I think I like winter more and then when summer arrives I change my mind, until the following December when my love of snow is rekindled! Being in the mountains in winter, completely alone with not a soul in sight, having pushed your skis uphill for hours, you have truly earned your turns downhill, and in the summer, having got up at first light and climbed a steep, rocky and exposed ridge, standing on the top of that peak looking down at everything below is a feeling that cannot be beaten.
Beach or mountains? I think deep down, everyone is one or the other. It’s important to experience both. I’ll always spend time on the beach and in the sea, but the mountains will always take my breath away.
Even on a rainy, grey day such as today, I often think it’s important to try and make the most of it, and get outside. The beauty of a less than perfect day is that when you’re out there, you often have it all to yourself, so you can enjoy the peace and quiet that you will rarely find when the sun is shining. Despite the grey skies and drizzle, and keen for some exercise this afternoon, I went for a run in the mountains, and in the 2 and a half hours I was out, I saw 3 people. The view was less than spectacular, and underfoot occasionally slippery, but as clichéd as it sounds, it gave me a couple of hours out on my own, to think and enjoy the solitude and the beauty around me. Autumn is on its way out here, and it’s now dark by 5.30pm! The snow is coming, but I’m holding on to the remnants of the incredible colours that Autumn provides, before it all turns to white. However I will certainly not be complaining when this arrives, as winter in the mountains provides a whole new level of beauty, and brings with it so many enjoyable ways to fill a cold day!
How your life choices can have such a profound impact on your life and happiness.
I spend a lot of time thinking about lifestyle choices, career choices, and just choices in general. Why and how do people make the choices they do? What really rings true for me, is how many people I come across that quite openly admit that they either hate their job, hate where they live, or can’t stand the people they live with. So why continue on with a lifestyle that clearly makes you unhappy? Obviously there are countless answers to this question, and of course for some, there is no other choice, but this is not the case for so many. It is a true cliché that the grass is always greener, and I will hold my hand up and say that I, along with so many others, am a victim of this. Yet rather than view this as a negative, as something that you must try and avoid at all costs, I see this as a healthy way to live your life. It is perfectly natural to dream of different things, or to wonder what the next adventure or challenge might be. Of course you must be happy with what you have, but if you can’t look forward and dream of more, won’t you just stand still for the rest of your life?
From my personal experience, I have found that one of the main reasons people become stuck in a lifestyle that doesn’t fulfil them, is the fear of the unknown, and the sheer terror of stepping outside of their comfort zone. I have been living in France for several years, and even now when I return to England I am told by friends and acquaintances that I am ‘so lucky’ to be living the life I do. As gentle a sentiment as this flyaway comment is, I am often left resenting the inference that my lifestyle landed on my lap, as if I had recently stumbled across an unexpected inheritance, or a lottery win.
Of course not everyone can up sticks and follow their dreams, but what I am finding more and more are those who either have a dream and are too afraid to follow it because it would disrupt their safe life, or those who are spending their life doing a job or living in a place they hate, but can’t muster up either the energy or the drive to find something that inspires them. Statistics say that for people working 40 hours a week, over 30 percent of their lives are spent working. It is a large chunk of your life to throw away on a job that leaves you feeling unfulfilled, or at worst, unhappy.
I have found that the other important factor in quality of life and happiness, is where you live. Yes you may be in a job that perhaps wouldn’t be your first choice, and is a bit of a drag. But if you can spend every evening and every weekend doing the things you love, in a place you love, life suddenly doesn’t seem so bad. Sometimes it is necessary to stick out a rough few years in order to get where you want, but if you are aiming for a goal, or doing something uninspiring to pay for something you have had your heart set on, it makes a huge amount of difference to your motivation and work ethic. I spent a fairly unhappy few years in places I didn’t really enjoy, but I had my goal in sight and I was aiming for it. You can make the most of a less than perfect situation, if you have the courage to look further afield, and pursue something that will make you happy, even if at first it seems out of reach or too much hard work.