Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Lazy Late Summer Days

It seems incredible that I’ve reached this point already, but my summer working season is finished! Instead of it being spread out with some holidays in between like last year, this year has been pretty much full-on since late May, and boy is my body telling me its ready for a rest.

Pushing up high in the Roya valley (photo: Ian Robertson)
Guiding for a full season is hard. Hard on your body, and mentally too…..being responsible for an excitable bunch of strangers let loose on steep, exposed, remote mountain terrain week after week is the most tiring part of the job. There are always a few who don’t know their limits, don’t respect the environment we’re in, or forget to leave their egos at home…those are the ones to whom accidents are waiting to happen, no matter how much you try and help them stay safe. Of course there’s always the unlucky few who aren’t like that at all, and are just unlucky….crashing is part of mountain biking, and most of us who’ve been doing it for long enough will at some point have had some big ones. My French skills have been tested pretty thoroughly this year, with quite a number of calls to the Pompiers (French mountain rescue/fire brigade/ambulance service all in one…).

Whenever someone has an accident, you question afterwards whether as a guide you could have done anything different….were the trails too difficult, was the speed too fast, were the right briefings at the trailhead given, did you do everything you could have done to make the ride as safe as possible? And then after the accident, did you stay calm, did you handle the situation well, did you do everything right, could you do anything better next time? I like to think I did OK, and the accidents that happened occurred despite me doing everything I could to avoid them…still, I’ve learnt things from all of the incidents to take away, and thankfully all those involved are OK.

My week of guiding in the central Alps on Ben Jones’ Morzine to Alpe d’Huez trip was fantastic. I was working with Chris, someone who I’d worked with on lots of TP weeks last year, and it’s always fun working with him.

Haute Savoie scenery!
Our group were a bunch of Norwegians and a couple from Britain, Fiona and John, who were all good riders, and up for an adventure….which was a good job given the weather on the first 2 days! Both Chris and I ended up doing a significant amount of blind guiding, having to change the planned itinerary because of storms and torrential rain. Both of us are pretty comfortable with this and have done a fair bit of it, but it can lead to some pretty stressful days, essentially taking guests into completely unknown terrain and hoping it’ll be fun and safe! We seemed to carry it off ok and found some great little tracks, although to be honest, when you are high up on an open slope, traversing under pylons and cables from ski lifts, and there is lightening jumping between clouds above you, and torrential hail bombarding you, any trail that gets you down and to shelter as quick as possible is a good one!

John ignoring the big drop to the left whilst shredding down another great trail.
Fortunately the weather improved the rest of the week, and we got to show the lucky guests the awesome trails we’d discovered whilst recce-ing. There were big smiles all round and comments of how some of the riding was the best they’d ever done from some of the group….I can’t wait to guide this trip again next summer!
Lars admiring the view to Les Deux Alpes before riding the beautiful singletrack balcony trail shown.
The following week I spent in Orpierrie, a pretty little village in Haute Provence, that is surrounded by huge crags, and is one of my favourite places to sport-climb in France. I spent many long summers climbing here with Gareth and friends when I was a student, and the place is full of happy memories of long summer days, climbing hard routes, but also sunbathing, swimming, chilling out on the campsite drinking coffee and playing on slacklines. It’s a sleepy little place, quiet, beautiful, and it automatically makes me feel calm and relaxed here.
Le Quiquillon, standing guard above Orpierre
I managed to persuade good friends Jo and Simon and their awesome kids Ellie and Jessie (aka Team Chaos) to spend a week of their summer holidays here this year, and together with another climbing friend Jonny, we rented a beautiful little gite on the edge of the village. The week was a perfect break from guiding…lots of climbing, swimming and sunbathing, a moonlit bbq and night time swim at the reservoir, sitting out at night after good meals, stargazing and drinking too much red wine, getting tunes from High School Musical stuck in our heads all day after listening to Ellie and Jessie singing them non-stop (don’t ask…I’m still singing them now!). A good time was had by all, and although like anywhere I go that has memories of time spent with Gareth, there were moments where I felt huge waves of sadness that he couldn’t be there with us, or I’d have flashbacks of him climbing certain routes, or particular memories that reminded me of incidents or moments from past trips, I know it’s somewhere I’ll always feel his presence really strongly because of all those happy memories. It was somewhere that was a special place to both of us, and I know he’d have been really pleased that I could share it with other friends, and that they loved it too. Despite not having climbed much at all this year, or last, I must somehow have channelled Gareth’s strength and skill too, as I managed to drag myself up some routes that I wouldn’t have thought I was climbing well-enough to get up!
Orpierre seen from near the top of the Quiquillon
It was straight back to Sospel after this trip, and another 2 fun weeks of guiding. Great guests, including friends Dan, Jim, Chloe and Andy, who helped me with some much needed bike maintenance that would have taken me weeks to try and do alone, more good trails, and plenty of laughter and good times meant the weeks flew by.
Jazz Hands! (Except Dan and Martin, who were obviously far too cool for that!)

Dan shralping round a switchback above Tende
Having managed to convince Jonny he wanted a return trip to Orpierre, once the guiding finished it was back to climbing for 2 weeks there. It was great to spend a bit more time climbing again, feeling more confident and comfortable on the rock, enjoying the sensation of moving freely and pushing yourself to climb steeper or more technical routes. Although nowhere near the level I used to climb when I was doing it regularly, I still love it, no matter what level of routes I’m climbing. It’s hard to describe, but it just feels natural to look at a rock face, pick out features and want to climb up. The engaging nature of climbing, where you are totally absorbed in what you are doing, the problem-solving needed to figure out a way to move your body smoothly and efficiently using the holds available, the sensation you get when you accomplish that and perform a move well, as well as the being outside, in a beautiful, quiet place, watching swifts diving round the top of the crag, hearing the church clock in the village chime each hour, with the temperature of the sun, the daylight hours available, and the fatigue in your arms being the only limits to how long you climb for. You can’t beat it.
The striking line of Le Traversee des Ammonites
We spent time at other crags too, Sisteron, where I climbed a brilliant route with no holds, just a thin seam of fossils to tiptoe along a rising diagonal traverse, and Ceuse, one of the most impressive looking bits of rock in a country full of impressive rocks!

Ceuse seen in the evening light from the bottom of the walk-in.
Ceuse sits high at over 1500m, an imposing crag of immaculate rock, with some of the most famous, and intimidating looking climbs in the world. Famous for hard routes, spaced bolting meaning scary run-outs, and routes that are hard for their grade, and one of the longest walk-ins for a sport crag anywhere! It’s a seriously impressive and beautiful place though, with incredible views, and great climbing, and if you treat the walk in as you would for a big day out on a mountain or alpine crag, it’s really not too bad (though I wouldn’t want to do it every day for longer trips.)

Jonny looks up at the impressive line of 'Realization' 9a+
So now I’m back in Sospel, with less than a week to the start of the TP race…eek! After hearing from Ash’s partner Melissa that everyone will HATE Ash by midway through day 2, I am even more nervous than I was before! However, I’ve done lots of tough things before, and know that I’m fit enough for the challenge, and also pretty good mentally at just putting my head down and getting on with it when the going gets tough…often what is required on events like this! To be honest, it’s not the overall physicality of the event that frightens me, it’s the racing down trails that although I know I can ride perfectly well, racing down them and getting to the bottom in one piece is a completely different matter!

Looking forward to discovering new trails in beautiful places during the TP race...

And hopefully still smiling as much as this at the bottom of each trail!
I’m also really excited though, about riding with a fun group of people, meeting more friends, pushing myself, seeing old friends from last year…. My bike has been rejuvenated with new forks, shock and bearings, and wheels….thanks to much help from Dan, Andy, Jim and Chloe, without whom I would still be trying to sort all of the above! So now it’s just a matter of waiting for the race to start!

Rejuvenated bike ready to race!
It’s a really pretty time of year in the south of France…with the feel of summer, as the sun beats down each day and you have to seek shade in the middle of the day, or an afternoon swim in the river to cool off, yet the leaves changing colour and falling from the trees like its autumn. Blackberries and figs ripe in the hedgerows, the grass scorched with an end of summer look to it, and the crunch of dry leaves under your tyres on the trails. It’s still light until 8 in the evening too and the nights are not yet cold. I like this late summer time, which we often seem to miss in Britain, where summer turns quickly to autumn and cooler, wetter temperatures and shorter days. I’m soaking up as much sunshine as possible, ready for a return to the UK in a couple of weeks!
Late summer evening sunshine
I was starting to get nervous a few weeks ago, about not having winter plans sorted….but then I reminded myself that sometimes it’s best not to have a plan….and since then some exciting opportunities have arisen! More on those in time, but it’s safe to say I’ll be collecting a few more airmiles this winter as I journey to new places and new adventures!

Right, time to do some more relaxing and resting up ready for the race, wish me luck!!

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