Archive for October, 2012

The Party’s Over

October 18, 2012

Sunset on the Chamonix Aiguilles

I’ve rediscovered what Welsh-speakers call “hiraeth”. The word has no direct translation into English, but “homesickness tinged with grief or sadness over the lost or departed”, or “a mix of longing, yearning, nostalgia, wistfulness” are definitions I found on the web, and both convey it well.

I’d literally just returned home from six weeks in Chamonix, in the French Alps, when I penned my last blog. I’ve now been home a week. I need to write this piece to help me settle, because it ain’t happening of its own accord at the moment!

There was a time when I did this fairly often. At least twice a year. I had a routine, and a proper job to return to, which was sufficiently manic that it helped make my trips away become distant memories very quickly. Life is different now. Up to a point.

The idyll of several weeks galavanting around the mountains is great for getting you fit. Carrying a rucksack full of camera gear is great for getting you strong. But if you have my half-a-lifetime of back trouble, there’s often a payback. Mine came a few days ago. I got out of the car and suddenly realised my back had gone into serious spasm. No sudden thunderbolt; I just seized up completely. I was fortunate to get an early appointment with my good friends the chiropractors at Southcote Clinic (thanks, Ben) and functionality has been restored, though I am “fragile” and aware that my new-found fitness is ebbing away. This isn’t how it should be after six weeks of the very best kind of altitude training.

I grew to like the apartment in Chamonix a great deal. It was simple but adequate and unlike a room in a hotel, I could close the door at the end of a long day and really sink into my own thoughts. Routine was simple: up early (very early a few times!), eat etc, and out. I’d be home by late afternoon most days, which always gave time for a quick stroll through Chamonix. If the weather was up to it, and it usually was, I’d end up in the japanese garden above the town. This is a superb spot to watch the changing light on the Chamonix Aiguilles as the sun sets. Right now, I miss those peaceful twenty minute breaks on my wooden bench possibly more than anything else.

I’ve started work sorting and editing the 6,500 or so photos I took while I was away. Hmm, more than 1,000 a week doesn’t sound many when I reflect that I regularly shoot 1,000 a day and more at a big track and field meeting. I have the tough job coming up, which involves scanning more than 200 large negatives from my big old film camera. I saved that camera for some of the best stuff, on days with a guaranteed good weather forecast, and the negatives look great. I’ve not started, though, because we have the bathroom fitters in at home, and it’s amazing how much dust there is. I’ve put the film scanner under cover and will fire it up next week, I expect.

The digital shots I’m two-thirds of the way through sorting have been trial enough, though. I have an interim “100 best photos” from the trip here on my website. As I was working through the shots, every so often, memory would transport me right back to the moment the shutter was pressed. These feelings were vivid, believe me. Even if I was left with a heavy heart when the feeling passed, I hope the ability of these photographs to do that to me never fades.

Having the builders in has required me to be at home almost all week. That too is about as different from time in Chamonix as it’s possible to get, and I feel really rather imprisoned. It’s helped me focus on getting the photo jobs done, though. I’ve used the Pomodoro Technique to get me through. This has helped my concentration, but has also been vital in ensuring I don’t spend too long sitting down. Thus it helps prevent my back from locking up. I’ve become a very adept tea-boy, too.

In theory, I start training again next week. Or at least, I start that little, very useful phase of training for training. It’ll be the opportunity to see how/if my foot is recovering, and it’ll get some dust out of my lungs. Somewhere deep down inside them is the fresh air from Chamonix….


(And once more, the title’s a song track. This time from the Albion Band with John Tams)


The View From The Top

October 11, 2012

Well folks, I seem to be back and home from my 6 week sojourn in France. Time for some kind of reflective blog.

My regular blog reader and my handful of Twitter followers will know that I had an abrupt end to my racing this summer courtesy of persistent problems in my left foot. This didn’t really cause me grief, because I’d planned, in any event, to up sticks and go and live in Chamonix, in the French Alps, for a decent period of time. There was a time, before I returned to running seriously again, that I frequently did quite long stays in the Alps. However, this was always working for the holiday company who entrusted me with a regular supply of new clients to take out in the mountains each week. I’d been musing over that piece of my past a few months ago, and realised how long it was since I’d spent a really significant chunk of “me time” in the mountains.

I also felt I had unfinished business with Chamonix. I was there at what became the end of my big trip away to the European Masters Games, Venice and the Dolomites etc, last September and October. I arrived last year just as almost literally everything was closing for pre-ski season break. Having to eat in McDonalds in the evening because nowhere else was open didn’t seem the right way to enjoy the place. So I left.

To pick up again from there, after a fashion, turned out to be easy. At first go, a few months previously, I’d found a really good apartment that was available to me for the whole of my stay, at a very reasonable price indeed. Save for a bit of accommodation on the journey out, and the machinations of packing, the trip probably involved less pre-planning than any I have ever made. I had a good, quite leisurely journey out, arrived, moved in, sat down, and said to myself “What the hell do you do next?”

Those who know my habits will know I travelled out on my trusty BMW motorcycle, and that I took a whole bundle of camera gear with me. Add in mountain clothing, boots, at least one change of socks, maps, etc, and I was really rather heavily laden. I was glad not to be fitting in any running to this year’s trip like I had last year, so needed to carry none of that stuff.

Chamonix is quite a big place. When I arrived, the tourist season was in full swing. Within days, however, I could see the pace slowing down, the crowds (such as they were) visibly thinning out, the end of season sale signs going up in the shops, and the autumn colours beginning to appear on the trees.

I became a bit of a man on a mission. I really only had a fortnight from arriving until the major cable cars and other lift systems closed for autumn pre-skiing refurbishment. The lifts were key to many places I wanted to visit, and the first part of my stay was quite frenetic. My other half came out to join me for a fortnight over this period, and I guess we ticked most of the boxes in terms of seeing the best sights before getting out in the mountains generally came to require more effort and cunning.

However fit I’d got for the summer’s track season (in truth, not very, and eroded by time off with injury) was definitely not “mountain fit”. There was a time when the gaps between my trips to the Alps were small enough that I never really lost that ‘diesel engine” that would propel me up hill and down dale for weeks at a time. This time, I had to rediscover it after several years as a sprinter. That hurt. As did my poorly foot. However, both improved gradually, though I suspect I had some days that did the foot no favours.

By the time I left for home, I’d taken 6,500 frames on my digital camera, and shot 21 rolls of medium format film in my delicious (but deliciously heavy) Bronica GS camera – another 210 frames. I tried to stay on top of what I was shooting, too, by sorting and editing almost every evening, and on the few wet days that I had while there. A sample of the best of what I shot went straight on to my gallery at 500px. These plus a lot more will be going on a gallery on my web site before very long.

Being self-contained, I always had the option of doing very little when it rained. I think in the whole trip I had five separate but continuously wet days (as opposed to nights). I never once in the trip needed to put on wet weather gear out in the mountains, barring one day when the sudden onset of the Fohn wind necessitated wearing goretex jacket and over-trousers as a lifesaver against that violent and invisible foe! I imagine that’s not a bad record for a long stay in Chamonix in the autumn, either.

A panorama of the Chamonix Aiguilles and the Grades Jorasses from early one morning

I always find leaving places hard. Same this time. I ditched plans to have a week travelling home, and was glad in the end I did it with just two stops. Right now, my head is full of a swirl of recollections, images, sounds, tastes etc. These will fall into some kind of order when I sit down and start editing the photos, I’m sure….

Oh, and the Bear had a good time too, thanks for asking.

(and in case you wondered, the title is another song track. Cat Stevens circa 1968.)