The Frogmarch

"I've got to pull up my stakes and roll, man." --Jean-Jacques Libris de Kerouac

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Roughing It, French Style

For most of my youth, I spent about 1 weekend a month camping, even more in the summertime. This habit extended into adulthood on a much lesser scale, but I often while traveling enjoyed camping as a cheap alternative to an expensive hotel room: Simply find the state or national park nearest your destination, pitch a tent and toss out your bedroll, and you're set. But I most enjoy camping in its purest form--backpacking in a few miles from the nearest trailhead, setting up next to a rushing trout stream or waterfall, and propping up your boots next to a blazing campfire to sit up all night telling stories that may or may not be 100% true.

The French, it may not surprise you to learn, have a completely different idea of what camping is.

I suppose it makes sense: With all the land of France having been throughly settled and cultivated for some 25 centuries now, there really isn't any wilderness left. Wilderness, for the sake of argument, is defined here as everything between "Places where there aren't any restaurants" and "Places where something might eat you." Even in places called bois (woods), the trees are planted in straight lines; there have been no significant numbers of apex predators in the wild since before WWII (a controversial program to re-introduce single-digit numbers of Slovakian brown bears to the Pyrennes is not doing well, largely because the bears keep showing up dead).

Camping in France, then, is not so much about enjoying the wilderness. It's about getting some fresh air away from the city, for sure, but one is expected to maintain that French savoir-vivre while doing so--so French campgrounds are highly civilized places, with on-site white-napkin restaurants, hot showers, swimming pools, laundromats, water parks... even discos (I'm not making this up).

Big deal, you say, we've got those KOA monstrosities right here in the States. Just bypass 'em and find a backcountry campsite in the national park. Ah, but see, here in France, camping sauvage is strictly forbidden in the national parks. One can technically get away with it by setting up after nightfall and moving on early in the morning, but if the park rangers find an established camp during the day, they will likely confiscate all the gear and slap a big fine on the perps.

So with some resignation, Boog and I found a commercial campsite in Chamonix for our weekend trip there. The Lonely Planet Walking the Alps guidebook called it small and quiet, so it would have to do. As it turned out, the campground was pretty nice: there were indeed spectacular views [pic, that's Mont Blanc seen from the door of our tent] and the restrooms were among the cleanest I'd seen in France (seriously, nicer than some restaurants).

It should go without saying, to people who know V., that she and Tater stayed home for this trip; no amount of campground amenities could convince her to go camping. "My people left China so they wouldn't have to sleep on the ground and cook over a fire," she says. (She's so cute when she talks about "her people", like she's not 100% assimiliated.)

We were assigned a pitch next to a French family with a camper that had an attached tent extension ("pavilion" might be a better word for it) complete with four-burner stove, chaise lounges and electric fans. As night fell, they settled in to watch a little TV. It was unclear whether they had Canal+ via satellite.

Chamonix' stature as a world center for alpinism was readily apparent on taking a look around at our neighbors at the campsite: Among the palatial tents and patio furniture arrayed by French families on vacation were small knots of $600 Mountain HardWear tents occupied by British, American, and Spanish climbers, identifiable by their extensive GoreTex and frequent blond dreadlocks. Himalayan prayer flags fluttering from guyropes testified to the residents' hardcore credentials. We were certainly out of place with my 80's-vintage backpacking gear.

The purpose for the whole trip, by the way, was the ascent of the Aiguille du Midi by cable car, then a hike along the Grand Balcon Nord, a very well-known trail that is just above the timber line but generally below the summer snow line, and hangs above Chamonix valley like the balcony its name implies. Pictures here are from that hike.

We had a typical Alpine lunch of bread, cheese and sausages on the shore of Lac Bleu, a small glacier-fed lake at the bottom of a scree slope. The water was utterly clear and incredibly cold [pic].

Remember how I said France is lacking in wildlife? This right here [the photo that looks like it's of a rock] is the first example of wild fauna I've seen in over a year's worth of being in France, unless you count the rats at the Perrache bus station. It's a marmot, kind of a high-altitude Alpine groundhog, and unofficial symbol of the Haute-Savoie-- later we bought a plush marmot (clutching an eidelweiss) at a Chamonix gift shop to bring home to Tater.

The Grand Balcon Nord trail, after traversing the Aiguille massif, ends at one of Europe's most famous glaciers, the Mer de Glace [pic]. It doesn't look all that impressive at first-- rather than a massive sea of ice, it looks more like an eight-lane interstate of ice. But take a closer look--see all that dirt on the sides? That's rock ground up by the glacier's passage that falls on top of the ice, covering the 100-foot depth of ice with a thin dirty layer, kind of like one of those ice cream cakes with crumbled-up Oreos on top.

The depth of the glacier is more apparent from the bottom of the valley: There's a short cablecar going down, and then by a long metal stairway (300 steps) one can go all the way to the depths of the glacier, where there is an ice grotto carved into the side of the glacier. Since the glacier moves about 30 meters a year on the sides (faster in "midstream"), they carve a new ice grotto each year, and a glance "downstream" reveals the entrances to the 2006 cave, the 2005 cave further down, etc.

The grotto itself isn't all that impressive in terms of the cave itself or the ice sculptures within, each backlit with an array of lights of slowly-changing colors [pic]. The fact of being within the glacier itself was more interesting to me, with the remarkable pure blue of the ice walls [pic, Boog in the grotto] and the sensation, buried at the back of the mind, that this whole thing is moving, albeit very slowly, and the irrational fear that there would be a horrific kerrrraack! and the whole thing would collapse.

The glacier can be reached from Chamonix by a rack-and-pinion mountain railway line, which loads of tourists use to visit the glacier in summer. This being France, there is also a restaurant and hotel at the upper rail station, with views over the glacier. So after coming down off the mountain, one can shrug off one's backpack and ropes in the lobby, clack across the marble floor in crampons, and prendre reservation for dinner, eightish, before taking a kir royale in the bar for apertif. Anything less would be uncivilized.

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