Trail running in the Swiss, Italian and French Alps (UTMB/CCC) and learning French in the process
All photos are here.
The only “CCC” I had heard of before was “Credit Card Company”. My hardcore trail running friends redefined that acronym for me. Unfortunately, I can only remember the expansion of the first ‘C’ now — “Courmayeur” which happens to be in Italy. And, that took me ages to memorize.
They say learning Chinese is difficult. I have a good counter argument to that. “Try French!” I don’t know why Benoit needs to be pronounced “Ben Wah” and Francois… how in the name of Zeus does that become “Fun Swa”? I will never know.
Anyway, before I digress too much, this travel story begins on a hike I did on Lantau Island. My friends were all going to go to Chamonix (btw, for several years, my crude self didn’t know that ‘x’ in Chamonix was silent. I thought it was pronounced “Sha-mo-nix”). Anyway, I decided to join them. They were going there either to run the UTMB race (one of the most famous 100 miler trail running races in Europe) or its less strenuous sissy version called “CCC” (after all, only a 101km). I was going to join them to simply hike, support and explore the French, Italian and Swiss Alps.
My hidden secret mission though was to stand on the Italian side of the Alps and pee into the Swiss side to please my highly Swiss friend Hannes. I decided to keep that part of my mission private in case Hannes was going to tip off the Swiss military. (He will go to any extreme to glorify the name of Switzerland).
In this report of my hiking adventure in the Alps, in addition to providing the reader ample photos of the Alps, I also aim to teach the average unsophisticated reader the subtleties of the French language. My hope is that after reading this report, one will begin to command more self-respect by using the power of the French language in day-to-day communication.
I took the last seat on an Air China flight from Hong Kong to Beijing and Beijing to Geneva on 16th August 2014. My friend Adrian pointed out to me that, “despite not being all that great at navigation”, he had a strong feeling that this Air China flight would fly directly above Ukraine. (He was insinuating that my plane might get shot down similar to the ill-fated Malaysian Airlines plane). He suggested that I carry a parachute with me “just in case”, but, “before jumping out of the plane”, he caringly warned, that I make sure “I would not get sucked into the massive blades of the engine”. As always, his advice was gold. Anyway, the all inclusive HKD 6,500 price tag I paid for the round trip ticket made it worth the punt.
Then I had to go get a visa from the French consulate. A “Schengen” visa is what it was called. All the while, I thought it was called the “Shenzhen” visa and wondered what Europe had to do with China. The lady at the consulate wanted all my details. Where I was going to go on each of the days, why and when. I thought to myself that she should have been working for the CIA instead. After much effort, I finally got my visa. A friend of mine told me that I should have applied for the visa via the Greek consulate. Apparently, those guys in Greece are prety desperate for tourists.
Anyway, all prepared and excited, I set off for Geneva on the 16th of August. Oh, before I forget, the lady at the check in counter in Hong Kong asked me whether “Geneva” was “domestic” or “international” from Beijing. In other words, she wanted to know if Geneva was in China or not. I gave her a mini geography lesson and asked for a free upgrade to business class. She dismissed my request with a smirk, refusing to see the value I just added to her geographical knowledge.
16th August 2014
On the long 11-hour flight from Beijing to Geneva, between naps, I glanced at the Flight Information screen a few times and remembered what Adrian had said. Several impossible-to-pronounce places ending with a “rsk” showed on the screen. Then it hit me — I did not even know where Ukraine was on the map. Ignorance is bliss.
Anyway, the plane landed safely in Geneva and I walked out of the Swiss exit (you can actually exit to two different countries -France or Switzerland- from the Geneva airport). Then I caught Alpybus to Chamonix. The ride from Geneva to Chamonix instantly put a relaxed smile on my face. Plenty of vast meadows and greenery filled both sides of the bus window, and looking out further into the distance, I saw snowcapped mountains rising spectacularly at the far end. The jagged summits looked both mighty and majestic. As if to complete the picturesque scenery, a beautiful rainbow arched across the sky demanding to be photographed.
I rendezvoused with my friend Keith at “Valle Blanche” at about 8.30pm. The excitement of being in this part of the world for the first time kept me fueled and awake on adrenaline, making me forget about my jetlag.
French lesson learnt today:
“Blanche” rhymes with “avalanche” and is not pronounced “blankee” (thanks to my bus driver for the education)
17th August 2014
It was a cold morning and I woke up early, still jetlagged, after all the adrenaline from the excitement wore off. I went into the cold balcony to get my first morning glimpse of the 4808m Mont Blanc. Looking up, I saw many mighty looking snowcapped peaks and I didn’t know which one Mont Blanc was. This became a recurring theme (my less-than-strong navigation skills didn’t exactly help). I asked Keith, who woke up about ten minutes later, to point out Mont Blanc for me. He patiently pointed at one of the summits and gave me a mini-geography lesson, about a quarter of which I retained. As I sat in the balcony, freezing and admiring all those jagged mountain summits from a very safe and comfortable distance, I thought to myself how uninhabitable the summits must be. You can admire them from a safe distance but you don’t want to be at any one of the summits on a cold morning!
Later on, Keith, Charlotte, Jina and I took a cable car up from “Brevent station” to a place called “insert-complex-French-name here”. (Sorry, I forgot the name of the place but, rest assured, it’s some complex French name). We hiked around there and what can I say! It was stunning. All the money I spent on this trip became well worth it already!
Later on in the afternoon, we rendezvoused with my friend Dom who flew in from London. We had lunch in a nearby restaurant and after gulping down a big pizza, we returned to Vallee Blanche where Keith, Jina and Charlotte showed off their rope tying skills. (They were going to attempt a Mont Blanc climb in the next couple of days and needed to master the art of knots and ropes.)
Dom and I bid goodbye to them and left for Courmayeur in Itay on the 6pm bus from Chamonix. We had a pizza as one is supposed to in Italy and checked in to our hotel.
French lesson learnt:
“Brevent” does NOT rhyme with “prevent”. It is pronounced “Brevont”, i.e., “von”, in a nasal tone. For that matter, an authentic French accent is one where you learn to harness the power of the nasal tone of your voice. Even “Bonjour” can sound more authentic if you say the “n” using a nasal tone.
18th August 2014
From “Bonjour” to “Bonjourno”
The first thing I learnt in Italy was that you can get away pretending to know Italian by adding an “io” or a “no” to all the English/French words. For example, “Bonjour”, in Italian, is “Bonjourno”. “Refugee” is “Refugio”. And, much like the French nasal tone, if you can sing the words, even better. Eg., Boooonjoooourno. And, say it with a smile!
First impressions of Italy — very beautiful. Every house was decorated so as to please the eye. Colorful flowers rose from pots dangling out of the windows of pretty much every house I saw. The entire neighborhood looked scenic. In the backdrop, the needle-like sharp summits of the Italian alps towered above everything else. Our hotel which had this view was called “Aguille de Noire”. In fact, almost every hotel or shop in the town where we stayed in had a name beginning with “Aguille”. (Warning: the “Noire” in “Aguille de Noire” is not the French “Noire”, meaning, it’s not pronounced “No-ah” unlike, for instance, “Ter-wah” for Teroir. You can simply say “No-are”. That’s what I learnt in Italy. That and, you get great pizzas there.
After admiring the scenic beauty of Courmayeur, we started on the CCC route which began on a steep road flanked by tall coniferous trees on either side. Once we were on a valley at a higher altitude, the beauty of the Alps beckoned. It felt as though I was standing on the corridor of heaven. A range of snowcapped mountains appeared before us. It felt like I was watching a documentary on mighty mountains on a gigantic and extra-wide iMax screen. The mountains seemed so near yet so far — so mighty and majestic, yet so uninhabitable.
We soaked in the beauty for a while and then proceeded to climb a pretty tough 500m hill called “Tete De La Treonch” (meaning head of the snake or some other animal in French). After taming this snake, we ran along a contour trail and eventually reached a Refugee Hut called Refuge Bertone.
We then passed Refuge Bonatti (probably named after some confectionary), then we passed a valley called “Val Ferret”. We ran about 10km more and finished at a Refugee Hut called “Elena”. I’ve got to say — Italy has redefined the meaning of the word “hut”. Hut, according the definition I was taught back in the day, is a small, basic place of accommodation with a thatched roof. This “hut” which was 2000m above sea-level offered hot showers, a bar/lounge area, a clean dormitory and a 3-course meal! The only thing it did not offer was a Western Style toilet. It only featured a squat toilet. So, allow me to summarize the Italian surprises for you.
1. Add an “O” to everything and sing it, you will sound Italian (thanks, Dom, for the tip)
2. Every meal is filling, you get a minimum of two courses wherever you go. Even Refugee Elena offered us a two-course meal and a dessert. Italian food is awesome
3. In Italy, squat toilets are the norm, not Western toilets. So, prepare to exercise after you empty your bowels
French lesson for the day
When you want a longer and cooler sounding name, feel free to generously add syllables like “De” or “La”, Eg., “De La Treonch”.
19th August 2014
No adventure hiking trip can be complete without experiencing a bit of rain. As we looked out of Hut Elena at 8am in the morning, we saw what we did not want to see — rain pouring down from the sky. Luckily, though, it was not all that cold.
After another sumptuous breakfast in the “hut”, we left at around 8.30am and climbed 500m to the highest point for the day, a place at 2500m called “Grand Col Ferret”, pronounced “Gr-ond Col Fer-rey” to make it sound more grand). The weather, although slightly raining, was perfect. The freshness of Swiss Alps air seemed even more fresh. I probably gained a few more years in my life just breathing that air. Once on top of that one, I decided to execute my secret mission for my friend Hannes, who, I’m sure will be proud of me. I stood on the Italian side of the Alps and peed into the Swiss side.
We preserved the golden moment for future generations in the form of a photograph and after that, we carried on heading downhill all the way to “La Puele”. What a fulfilling experience that was! The trail was almost carpet-like and it felt like a gift to be running down on it. The air was so pure and pristine that it almost demanded to be bottled up and taken back to Hong Kong!
We then ran to our next destination called “La Fuele” (pronounced “La Foo-le”). We reached this place around 12.30pm and took a couple of wrong turns which added another 150m climb to our hiking route. Then we passed a place called “Praz De Fort” (no idea how to pronounce that) and then we ended up at our destination for the day which was called “Chompex”. For some mysterious reason, Chompex is pronounced “Shom-pex” and not “Shom Pe”. Why? Like, I said, don’t ask. It could be a French thing, or a Swiss thing. What I can tell you though is that Chompex is an attractive little town which has a beautiful lake by the town centre. Hence, the name “Chompex Lac” (“Lac” meaning “lake” in French).
For lunch, I had an authentic Swiss dish called “Rosti”. Essentially, mashed potato as far as I can tell. We then checked into our little hotel called “En Plain Air” (pronounced “On Pen Air” — I know, complicated) and I was happy to find Western toilets again instead of squat toilets!
After hot showers and a delicious Swiss dinner, we hit the sack at about 10pm.
French lesson learnt:
When in doubt, simply say only the first two letters of a word and mumble something in a nasal tone after that. Oh, that and, all “en”s become “on”s. Hence, “En Plain Air” is pronounced “On Pl ooo Ai”. Same applies to words like “Grand”. Grand will change to “Gr-on-d” in French.
20th August 2014
Today was our “rest” day. We took a “Chair Lift” to a 2200m peak called La Breya. It was the first time I took a Chair Lift. Felt very weird. You stand in position on a pavement with a red footmark painted on it. Then you look forward, remove your backpack and wait to be rammed in your rear end by what looks like a cheap sofa dangling from a moving cable. Once your rear end is firmly planted on the sofa, you pull down the safety handle and enjoy the ride. Getting off is fun too. There’s a net just before the pavement which looks like it is in place for passengers who decide to jump off the Chair Lift. While that may be one option, the more safe option is to wait for the red line by the pavement and then attempt to disembark from the lift. Dom tried to get me to jump into the net by preying on my ignorance but, fortunately, I was too scared to jump into the net!
Once we reached the top, we walked down a valley called Val D’Arpette and climbed up a further 500m to “Col Des Escandies” (pronounced “Col Dee Candies”). We had lunch there and from the safety of our lunch spot, we heard and watched big boulders rolling off glaciers about 300m above us. One big rolling boulder created a dustbowl of snow in its path as it came crashing down with great vigor into the barren valley above us.
After munching on our Swiss bread, Swiss cheese and a pear, we headed back down into Chimpex via “Val D’Arpette” (pronounced Val Dee Apit) to call it a day.
French Lesson Learned:
If you want to give a French name a false sense of importance, simply throw in an apostrophe into it. Eg., D’Arpette instead of De Arpette. It makes the name sound more important than it really is. Think D’Aguillar street in Lan Kwai Fong. The same sort of false importance applies.
21st August 2014
Today was a big “Learn French Day”. You will know why in a minute. Feel free to take a break and read this report later if you fear OD-ing on French words.
We were again the last ones to get up and leave our “Dortoir” (pronounced “Dot-wah”), meaning dormitory. (Isn’t my French great?) It was a supposed to be a big day. We climbed up to 1900m to a valley called Bovine and were greeted by plenty of Swiss cows. Each cow had a massive Swiss bell around its neck to reveal its location to the herdsman. I tried greeting a few cows with my usual “Yo, wassup” but got no response. Later, I realized I should have instead been trying my newfound and quickly developing skill-set in Francais but it was too late for that. We already started going down a beautiful 700m downhill trail to “Col De Forclaz”. (I will leave this pronounciation to the reader as exercise).
Running a few more kilometers took us down a pretty steep path to a sleepy Swiss town called “Trient” (pronounced “Tri-ont”), not “Trent” [See why in footnote below]. We tried getting lunch in Trient but that was like extracting blood from a stone. The town was too sleepy and shut for anything.
From Trient, we climbed another steep 700m hill to a placed called “Les Tseppes” (pronounced “Les Seps”, according to my best French knowledge). The climb was steep but very doable thanks to the pure Alpine air and the tall, beautiful trees by the side of the trail. The border town between France and Switzerland was demarked at a small junction called “Catogne” (pronounced “Cat-on-ye” [again, you will know why in the footnote] ). We saw plenty of sheep in this place grazing on some fine French/Swiss grass. Btw, whether they were Swiss sheep or French sheep, I don’t know. That would probably depend on their exact location. Couple of meters left of Catogne and they’d be Swiss, otherwise French.
We then descended down a gravel path to a small but very beautiful French town called Vallorcine where we had lunch. And, after that much deserved lunch, we concluded our 32km run for the day by walking over to “Tres Le Champs” to our “dortoir” which was called “Auberge La Boerne” [see exercise below in footnote].
French lessons learned:
Couple of lessons today. Let me list them.
1. “oir” somehow becomes “wah” in French. So, if you want to say “Shamwat road” in French, you’d say “Shamoir road”
2. “ien” somehow becomes “on” in French. So, if you want to say “almond” in French, you’d say “Almiend”
3. “tse” somehow loses its “t” in French. So, if you want to say “moose” in French, you’d say “mootse”
4. “gne” somehow becomes “onye” in French. So, if you want to say “good on you” in French, try “goodogne”
5. Exercise for the reader: based on everything you have learnt on this report so far, how would you pronounce “Auberge La Boerne”, “Trelechamps” and “Col De Forclaz) in French? (Tip: French is not as easy as you think. There are some deceptive grammar rules)
22nd August 2014
We left Tres Le Champs at around 8.30am and walked over to Col De Montet to begin our 800m climb up to “Tete Aux Ventes” (meaning “Head of the Wind” in French and pronounced God-knows-how). It was a steep climb! After having done 90km of running during the CCC race, this last 900m must be “enjoyable” I’m sure. Once on top, we took a little detour to “Lac Blanc” (pronounced “Lak Blonk”). This lake was stunning! Turquoise waters in an oval shape, glimmering under the rays of the sun and surrounded by tall snowcapped mountains with jagged summits. There wasn’t any other place I would have rather been!
After admiring Lake Blanc and her beauty, we “bonjoured” our way down to “Les Flegere” (pronounced “Less Flej”). There was a cable car station on top of Les Flegere which meant Lac Blanc got many visitors from day hikers. That in turn meant only one thing — plenty of “bonjours”. We wished we had carried tape recorders that could keep playing “bonjour” on continuous playback. There were so many “bonjours” that I started making distinctions between different kinds of “bonjours”. You’ve got the lively girlie kind which would go “bonjoooor” (in a high pitch tone) whereas an exhausted hiker would say “bonjur” (in a little shortened manner, possibly because of exhaustion from hiking).
A rubble path took us down a further 300m and then a beautiful mountain trail took us down the rest of the way to Chamonix.
This concluded our recci of the CCC course. We did 130km and 7,700m in total elevation over 5 days. And, what a beautiful course this was. The Alps are a real treat to the senses! And, as an added bonus, my Fracais is quite kick ass now, even if I say so myself.
French Lesson Learned:
As mentioned remember, remember how I said “en” becomes “on”? Well, “an” becomes “on” too. i.e. “Blanc” becomes “Blonk”. So, if you want to say “monkey” in French, try “Manckey”. Given all the education I have received in French during this trip, I have a strong gut feeling that “Tete Aux Ventes” is pronounced “Tet Ou Vints”.
23rd August 2014
Our running friends showed up the day before after close to a 22 hour flight from Hong Kong and the first thing they wanted to do was to go for a 45 minute run. (I know, crazy).
After checking into our 8-bedroom luxury “humble abode” for the week, we climbed “D’Aguille” (pronounced “Dagle”) which was a good 900m climb to 2200m above sea-level. Then we ran around a technical trail to a place known as “De Montenvers” (pronounced “Mountain Verse”). Apparently, Monsiuer Montenvers is the person who theorized that the environment could have something to do with the growth of microorganisms. This place was next to a restaurant that does authentic French blueberry pies, a place called “Mer De Glas” pronounced “Mer Di Glass”. Unfortunately, we could not stop for dessert as we were out of time.
French Lesson Learned:
1. Stop trying to learn French and just speak in English with an accent
24th August 2014
Running started early in the morning today! Rom and I went out for a bakery run in the morning at 6.30am. The morning alpine air probably added a few more years to my life expectancy. I’ve got to say — French bakery shops are probably the best in the world!
Later on, we went for a 20km, 1600m ascent, Chalet-> Ballachat (2400m) -> Brenvont (2200m) -> Chalet run. The trail was such a pleasure to run on. Tall pine trees gave the trail a natural and intoxicating scent. It left me wondering why no one had ever tried to make “Pine Tea”. My thoughts shifted from Pine trees to blueberries as we climbed above 1800m and saw many blueberry plants on the way up to “Ballachat Hut” (pronounced “Bal-a-shat). I was eating away to glory. It got quite cold when we reached the 2400m, but as if to compensate us for braving the cold, Mont Blanc and all the neighbouring summits peeked above the clouds majestically. About an hour later, we had a glorious view of the mountain ranges.
After admiring the views, we ran down the Brevont trail to conclude our 6-hour, 20km, 1500m run for the day.
French Lesson learnt:
“ch” somehow becomes “sha” in French for some reason. So, if you want to say “I shall not” in French, you write it as “I chall not”. This is why “Ballachat” is pronounced “Bal-asha” not “Bal-a-chat”
25th August 2014
Today was a day full of “wow”s and yet another productive learn-French day. We started at 8.20am to get to a place called “La Tour”. To do this we had to take a bus to a place called “Arjenteire” pronounced “Ah Jont Air”. For a while, I thought it had something to do with Argentina! But, it was just complex French pronunciation of an English name.
Once we climbed up, we were in total “wows” as we saw glacier “Glacier Du Tour”. Yet again, it was one of those occasions where I just kept snapping away on my camera. No matter how many pictures I took of the glacier, it never ceased to mesmerize. There was one catch though — my hands became too cold trying to push the “click” button on the camera after about a minute! We were 2750m above sea level and it started to snow!
After a brief stop in a hut near glacier “Du Tour”, we took a beautiful contour trail to a place called “Col De Balme”. I remembered that name from a few backpackers who told us about it when we were in one of the huts on the CCC course. The name sounded weird to me then. I thought he was talking about some sort of a bomb! Or maybe Tiger Balm!
We were at the border of France and Switzerland again. I sensed an opportunity to take another photo for my friend Hannes — this is me dumping in the outdoors in Switzerland!
We then ran to a place called “Col De Possets” and finished our glacier run by descending back down to the 1300m La Tour.
Another fantastic day full of wow-ing scenery and impossible-to-pronounce French names!
French lesson learned
1. “La” or “Les” in French is probably just the title of something, like “Mr” or “Mrs”. Eg., today’s “La Tour”
2. “Jen” in French becomes “Jon”. I.e. Arjenteir turns into “Ar-jon-taire”
26th August 2014
Woke up to some fresh rain and decided to call it a proper rest day after having done close to 200km of running with some 10,000m of ascent in the past 8 days!
It rained nonstop and we saw some seriously high water levels at the river by the city centre.
Took a break from learning French today!
27th August 2014
It was a stark contrast compared to yesterday. We woke up to some glorious sunshine and saw the summits make themselves visible again towering above everything else under an azure sky.
In the afternoon, Adrian and I went up to Montenvers again for a quick 15km run.
Adrian and I struggled to order our ice cream in French despite all the French lessons I have already had.
French Lesson Learnt:
I have learned that I have not learned much yet!
28th August 2014
Finally paid 55 Euros for a cable car ride up to the 3800m “Aguille Du Midi”, pronounced “Agwile di midi”. It was worth every cent of the money. Another one of those days where armed with a camera in my cold hands, I clicked, clicked and clicked, yet wanted to click some more to capture the endless beauty of what I saw. The cable car ran every 15 minutes and carried 70 people in one go. This was from Chamonix valley which is at about 1000m. In 15 minutes, it climbed all the way to 3800m (with one brief stop en route where we had to change to a different cable car). The temperature change and the altitude change in those 15 minutes were remarkable. We went from hot to freezing cold in 15 minutes!
French Lesson Learned:
1. “Aguille Du Midi” is pronounced “Agwile di midi”, essentially, you have to sat it by accentuating the “u”s and the “i”s. The more you sustain the “wi”, the better. I.e., “Agwile di midi”
29th August 2014
Today was going to be a big day for almost all of friends who were going to participate in the actual 101km CCC race (Courmeyeur / Chompex / Chamonix). I joined forces with Rom, who was filming instead of running, to support my friends and take many photos of them in action. Anyone who asked me what race I was doing (TDS or CCC or UTMB or PTL) received the same response. I made up my own abbreviation. CAR. The CAR race — Chill and Relax race!
Supporting the crew at different points turned out to be difficult because of logistical reasons. We decided instead to go celebrate their achievement at the finish line.
We went to sleep at 3am and were supposed to be back up at 6.30am to take photos of some of our guys in the UTMB race.
30th August 2014
I got up at 6.30am after having had about three and a half hours of sleep.
We headed back to Chompex to catch Hong Kong ace runner Stone in action.
And, that brought this vacation to an end. At 5.20pm, it was time to head back to Hong Kong, back to the hustle and bustle of city life. I said “Au Revoir” to France and the fresh Alpine air. At least for now…
Tags: Aguille Du Midi, CCC, Chamonix, Europe, HIKIN' THE WORLD, Mont Blanc, The Alps, The Alps (Switzerland/Italy/France), UTMB