I’m hanging on to a metal cable off the side of a mountain. There’s a metal rung below me to step down to but I can’t reach it. The sound of my heartbeat is deafening.
How the hell did I get here?
Just a week ago, as I was nailing the slowest descent on record on an e-bike down Alpe d’Huez, I made a deal with myself that it was ok to give my comfort zone a ‘nudge’, no need to blast through it.
As I take a peek over my shoulder, I can see my comfort zone. Its 800 metres below me.
So much for the deal.
The day started off innocently enough.
“It’s a beautiful hike. And it’s straight up from the beginning” says Lionel.
Andy replies “fantastic. I love a steep climb. Love getting straight into it.”
The conversation is taking place in the front of the car as we scoot around the hairpin corners on the way to la Bérarde, the start point of today’s hike in The French Alps.
I’m in the back seat. Getting a little twitchy, but not too concerned.
Whilst I don’t mind easing my way into a hike with a few gentle hills, I’m thinking, “I can do straight up. The first ten minutes I usually struggle, but then I settle into a rhythm. I’ll be fine”.
The road gets steeper and narrows down to one lane with an occasional space to pull over should we meet another car. As we wind our way through the stunning mountains and valleys I understand why the road closes for winter and residents move to lower villages.
“Oh, there’s a little cable to help you up the rocks, not too much” says Lionel.
Now I’m a little nervous. As I look out the window I’m getting that everything is very steep. No rolling hills here at all.
The track is quiet, we pass a few locals setting out for the day, coils of rope slung over their shoulders. Their wizened faces and ambling pace reveal they’re at one with the mountains. I’m quietly relieved when they take a fork in the path, clearly the real mountain climbing goes on in their direction, not on our track.
After an hour or so of the steep windy path we get to the first set of rocks with metal cable and steps.
I have a chat to myself… “anything can be done one step at a time”.
“The cable is only for security. It’s not so important. You can let go and use your hands to climb up the rocks” says Lionel.
Are you kidding! I was hanging on to that cable for dear life, hauling myself up step by step. No way was I letting go.
Despite my doubts, I made it to the top without putting myself or anyone else in danger.
With not a cloud in the big blue sky, the views over the mountains and valleys are jaw-dropping spectacular. There’s a quiet stillness that escapes words.
Time has no meaning as we snack on our baguettes and idly chat.
There’s a welcome chill in the air, I stretch out in the sun, soaking up the wonder of the world around me.
I refuse to allow thoughts of the descent to disturb my “I’m so lucky and so happy to be here” state, knowing full well that if I let my mind stray, it would go to…… “how do I get a helicopter?”
Reluctantly I ask how long it normally takes to get down. “No more than two hours”, it’s no big deal” is the reply from my “this is a nice little hike” companions.
We take bets on the time, loser has to buy the post-hike beers.
Anticipating my crawling pace, I bet on two and a half hours.
It turns out that the very first cable step section was the hardest. It was my only moment of “I don’t think I can do this”. It took a few attempts and lots of help to get me down those first few metres.
After that, everything seemed doable. I can’t say my descent style was pretty. I reverted to my tried and tested ‘squat walking’ in the tough bits. I can confidently bounce in and out of a deep squat on uneven ground with ease these days. (I say a little thanks to my chair-free Bali life for that one). Andy laughs, “your quads are in for a huge workout”.
As I clumsily make my way down Lionel drops in a helpful hint, “you need to cross your legs over like this” as he effortlessly moves down the mountain.
My short legs are a problem again. It’s pure maths. When I start crossing my legs over I’m making Minnie Mouse steps, all but going round in circles.
I let out a yelp as my hip locks up trying to extend my leg down a crevice to the next ‘step’. That’s it! That’s the maximum! We all crack up laughing as Lionel instructs me to use his booted foot as a temporary step. I’m fairly sure I was working harder than anyone else on the mountain that day.
The end result? I buy the beers. We made it down in a little over two hours. I was proud of myself for averting the need for a full scale mountain rescue. The beers were icy cold, and in my view, well deserved…. along with the afternoon nap.
Post nap, settled into my favourite garden chair, wherever I looked, I had a view of mountains. It was kind of surreal to think I’d been at those heights just a few hours earlier.
Every trip to these mountains teaches me a life lesson. This week they served up a step by step guide to minimizing meltdowns.
Ask for help. Show your vulnerability. Don’t be afraid to ask the ‘dumb questions’. No overthinking. My mind can make any situation worse than it really is if I don’t reign it in. Get rid of distractions. I had a ‘hell, don’t ask me to wave for a photo or stop to chat’ rule on the E-bike descent of Alp d’Huez. Break it down to ‘one step at a time’. Every step counts. Let it go. Punch the air, laugh at myself, be grateful for the experience. Take the lesson. Life gets messy sometimes. That’s ok. Say thank you to whomever helped me through it.
A few days later I set out on a hike by myself not far from the chalet. A steep path through the forest, it gets my heart rate up after five minutes. It’s my version of ‘straight up’. I did this hike last year so I knew there would be a couple of tricky rocky passes. In my mind they were a big deal. Once I hit the rocks I had an assessment…. no climbing, no cables. We’re talking 10 metres of careful walking. I can do this!
Ok, so I didn’t dance across the rocky bits with carefree abandon. I don’t think I’ll ever be that person.
My comfort zone had shifted.
But there’s a new line in the track. I’m a hiker. Not a climber. Cables, rocks and ropes. I’ll pass.
Nothing beats local knowledge. Lionel’s idea of a challenge is climbing straight up 400m of rope to get to a summit. Andy rides Tour de France routes for the love of cycling. They knew my capabilities and were there to help me through the sticky moments on the hike. Andy’s years of experience kept us safe on the Alp d’Huez e-bike ride and solved the novice questions ….. where are the gears?
I laughed when I did a quick Google fact/spell for this blog. It revealed advice such as ‘this hike can be dizzying, tricky, physical and exposed, not for people afraid of heights’. If I only took Google advice I would miss out on so much here in the Alps.
I’ve done years of hike research for every one of our trips/retreats. Always with local friends to get the best local knowledge. I’ve more than nudged my comfort zone in Bali and Timor-Leste so you don’t have to! From the more than 25 hikes I’ve done in The French Alps, I have 4-5 that are right for our experiences. So you can expect to nudge…. not blast your comfort zone!
You don’t need to be the fittest or fastest to join us and there will be no cables or ropes!… just bring your sense of curiousity and a love of life and we’ll take care of the rest. You’ll find us here. Andy runs Carpe Diem Retreats in The French Alps as part of his Work From Anywhere Mastermind & Mentoring Program for business owners.