tread softly

Yesterday morning, I did my usual ski tour up Aillouds, before enjoying a couple of runs down. Perhaps the last two runs of the season. Although it was only 11am, the piste was soft and slushy, that heavy consistency that usually marks the end of a hot day or Easter time skiing.

And it was so quiet. The chairlifts were empty, rotating slowly and pointlessly above me. The seats filling the restaurants’ terraces were vacant. No joyful children’s screams, no adults joking around, just the occasional solitary skier flying past, and one couple trying to master snowplough turns on the flat area beside a chairlift.

For once, I could hear the birds in the forests chirping, and I saw a handful of bright yellow flowers that had sprung up in the grass beside the piste.

I can never feel truly melancholy about the turn of winter to spring, about the promise of blossom and longer days, but it is sad to think that we will soon be putting our skis away until December. It has been such a treat to be able to ski as often as we wish, and more than that, to be able to share skiing with so many of our friends and loved ones.

These days, the evening sun drops behind the hills opposite at half past five. I will miss the snow, but I am excited about being able to eat dinner outdoors, watching the cats luxuriate in the sunny grass.

A trail in the final throes of winter

And as the snow retreats, the hundreds of trails that criss-cross the mountains around our home begin to reveal themselves, urging me to trade my ski boots for a slightly softer pair.

Ben is not a fan of hiking – why walk when you could climb? – so I was excited to head out for the first time this season with Sophie, who came to stay last weekend. I had planned a route that climbs a series of switchbacks behind the Chamonix cemetery, then traverses around to the Montenvers train station. I hoped to show Sophie the Mer de Glace, and to watch the skiers finishing up their routes down the Vallee Blanche.

Unfortunately, about 50 metres up, we were confronted by a group of vicious looking dogs who ended up chasing us all the way back down to the trailhead. It was more than a little unnerving, not least because of rabies concerns. We assumed that the dogs had taken over the trail over the course of the winter, when very few people use it, though one of Ben’s friends suggested that these dogs are a regular feature! I hope not, or I might have to start carrying my ice axes…

Anyway, we changed plans and walked along the river towards Argentiere, where we followed a trail past the Grands Montets lift to the local ice climbing spot. Amazingly, it was still in reasonable condition, and we were able to watch a couple of climbers while we enjoyed a picnic on a very sunny rock.

Sophie "at her most intrepid"

We retraced our steps along the river back to Cham, and it was just wonderful by this point in the afternoon – dappled sunlight on the water and on the path, the heady scent of pine all around, tiny flies darting in the sultry air above the river. We saw young people jogging, elderly people shuffling, one or two people just lying in the patches of sunlight they could find underneath the foliage.

This morning, I walked from Les Houches to the Col de La Forclaz at 1533m. The trail wound its way across what appeared to be disused farmland, around a tiny cluster of ancient chalets. The only clues at habitation were the log piles outside the houses – I certainly didn’t see any people or 4×4 tracks – though there are also wooden signs dotted around asking walkers to respect the peace of the community. Perhaps it is only inhabited during the summer months.

After that, the path followed switchbacks through the forest until it reached the Col. Snow still covered the trail in places, and it was necessary to look ahead to see where it resumed, but on the whole route finding was easy so I was able to simply relax into my thoughts and take pleasure from my surroundings.

This is why I love hiking so much; it may not be as thrilling as mountaineering, or as fast as running, but once your body is in the motion of that methodical plod, your mind becomes utterly free. I always think of NOLS when I am hiking, and the way it taught its students to tread softly on the land.

And I didn’t see a single mad dog, though I was very lucky to catch a glimpse of two chamois bounding away from me, their tiny white tails bobbing up and down through the trees.

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