Alpine Summer – Chalet des Anglais

To break up the 3 year old nostalgia for a bit I thought I’d lay out my plans for this summer in the Alps. It’ll be the third year running that my summer has looked like this, and while that mightn’t seem very adventurous with the rest of Europe on my doorstep, I just bloody love it. The plan starts off at the Chalet des Anglais in Les Houches – undoubtedly one of the best things University College has to offer. From there I’ll be meeting up with a friend, Mikey, to tackle some summer mountaineering on the Monte Rosa Massif. I’ve somehow managed to stretch this over a full month… My supervisor is a very keen mountaineer and encourages this if anything. Jot that down as a win.

The Chalet sits about 1800 m above sea level on Le Prarion with Mont Blanc looming across the valley. It was originally owned by a Balliol College Fellow back in the late 19th century and reading trips have been going there basically ever since. Since the second World War, it has been used by Balliol, New and University (Univ) Colleges. Its age implies basic facilities and that is pretty much the case – no showers or central heating and only the one tap with hot running water. Traditionally showers are in a running stream in the yard. The stream is beyond cold so some people opt for a make shift shower basically consisting of a tank and a hose which can be filled with warm water. The format of the trips vary a little between the 3 colleges. Univ do alternating days of reading and walking. The idea of a ‘reading day’ (and in fact the whole trips are often referred to as reading parties) sounds typically Oxford, but when it means sitting in the sun, in the Alps with a book, it’s embraced unanimously. The walks depend a bit on how adventurous and fit the group is. Things usually start off with something local and not-too-strenuous to weed out the weak and the feeble. From there things like walking up to the Tete Rousse Hut on Mont Blanc – about 1400 m vertical gain and a full day outing – are on the cards. Lac Blanc is another classic, culminating with a swim in an almost freezing glacial lake. Good old character building peer pressure sees most people get in.

Being cut off from the civilised world means that fresh bread is a luxury afforded only once every few days. To combat this, there exists a Chalet institution know as the Croissant Run. The idea is to make the 12 km, 800 m elevation change trip down to Saint Gervais on foot and return with baked goods in time for breakfast. The trip back up the hill is timed and recorded for prosperity (and these go back a long way now). It preys on the competitive and the true winners are the people who sleep in and get pan au chocolat delivered to them. There’s some bitterness from me here… Grey (probably pictured above) and I jumped at the chance to test our physical fitness and become breakfast heroes. The trouble was that the parameters weren’t set out to us in advance – we thought it was a timed round trip and the times we saw were as little as 30-45 minutes. We set off in the pouring rain, belted down the sodden jeep track and made it to the bottom in about 30 minutes. That’s the fastest I’ve ever run 12 km, gravity obviously lending a hand provided you don’t fall on your face (narrowly avoided). At this point alarm bells were ringing and quadriceps were burning like I’ve never experienced (before or since). The times we had heard about seemed impossible but we’re competitive people so we pushed on, judgement clouded by our own egos. Well, if the steepness made coming down treacherous, it made any kind of a ‘run’ impossible with already burnt out legs on the way back up. I should concede that Grey soldiered on further and faster than me, but would give me a chance to catch up. Completely soaked through with rain and feeling utterly defeated we started to wonder whether we had been lured in to some kind of hazing. We convinced ourselves that this was a gag played at the expense of the competitive few who would first leap at the opportunity to demonstrate physical superiority. We agreed to enter the Chalet straight faced and nonchalant. If that outcome would have been embarrassing, simply mistaking the challenge for a round trip rather than one way time wasn’t that much better. On paper that’s a half marathon on the side of a mountain… we should have asked more questions. The challenge is out there to beat our round-trip time but I don’t really recommend trying.

The Chamonix-Mont Blanc area is very photogenic and while I often go months in Oxford without shooting anything at all, I usually come back having snapped a swag of satisfying landscapes. There’s a few in the gallery above that capture some classic chalet experiences – walking up the hill from the chalet with Mont Blanc coming in to view across the valley as you ascend; and the Massif and adjacent range painted by sunset (actually this happens at dinner time so most people miss out).

Some more of that for 2014 is in order and while it promises to be much like previous years, check out the gallery above to realise that that is only a good thing. The next part is where the adventure really begins. Getting away from the comfort of marked trails in the Mont Blanc foot hills, Mikey and I will head across the Italian border to Gressoney and up the Monte Rosa Massif to summit a bunch of 4000+ m peaks. More on that later…

Alpine Summer - Chalet des AnglaisBenjamin Hall