Climb the mountains and get their good tidings.
A few weeks ago, I went on a day hike with some of the other Anglophone assistants. Our goal was to hike from the train station in the town of Saint-Pierre d’Albigny (295 meters) to the top of the Dent d’Arclusaz (2041 meters) and return before dark. Spoiler alert: we failed. I still consider the trip a success.
Our party consisted of the Brits (Dawn, Julia, and Rose) and the Yankees (Adam, Hannah, Neal, and myself). Our motley crew assembled at the train station in Chambéry in different stages of preparedness—from hangover to headlamp. Except for Dawn and me, the group didn’t have much out-of-doors experience.
We arrived to find Saint-Pierre shrouded in mist. As we walked up through the town, the gang became concerned: if visibility stayed so poor, would it be worth continuing? As we ascended the sun did the same, and the clouds melted away to reveal the landscape surrounding us. The Dent d’Arclusaz was directly in front of us, massive but distant. To our right, we saw the high peaks of the Belledonne range, already covered in snow. The party reacted with awe, followed by uncertainty. The space separating us from the peak was difficult to comprehend.
Still we pushed on past the outskirts of the town, finally reaching the trailhead. The first section was muddy and steep, which only cultivated more doubt. The word impossible bounced around. It seemed silly to me, however, to undermine our chances so early, so I encouraged everyone to keep hiking as if we were aiming for the summit. If our goal turned out to be unattainable, it wouldn’t be because of our own pessimism.
The forest was a consolation. Autumn was in its fullness, and the myriad of trees enclosed us in living color. When I think back on the fall of 2014, I will remember the fiery blanket spread over the mountains.
It’s a good thing that the woods were pleasing, because we didn’t see much else for the next several hours. The trail leveled out as it meandered up switchbacks, which made the hike easy but time-consuming. Not everyone in the group thought it was easy, however. This was Julia and Hannah’s first time ever hiking up a mountain, and a few of the others were running on inadequate sleep. Much of the challenge was mental. The trail was narrow and even though we were concealed in a forest, the steep drop directly beside us was enough to give some people vertigo. To be fair: the slender path, combined with the wet leaves and mud, gave us reason to be cautious.
As we hiked higher and higher, the party approached physical and mental breaking points. Hannah, as always, was endearingly vocal. She frequently asked for the elevation in an attempt to judge progress, but she really meant are we there yet? It was clear that we wouldn’t reach the top, but still we pushed on towards the tree line. Although the strugglers were periodically revived by little glimpses through the forest, it was clear that we couldn’t keep going much longer.
Just when surrender was palpable, we reached a clearing below the summit. The cliffs of the Dent d’Arclusaz, which had been concealed for the past several hours, suddenly shone right above us. Gasps, then cheers. We had a clear view north into the folding range of the Bauges. The group shouted in disbelief: it was difficult to wrap our minds around the fact that the cliffs that were once so far away now lay right before us. The gravity of the scene filled us all with a sense of immense accomplishment.
At our highest point we reached 1440 meters, but it was apparent that we couldn’t reach the top before dark. After a late lunch and an extended break, we started our descent. It wasn’t long, however, before we reached another opening in the woods. It was even more stunning than the last. The town and the valley opened up below us, and we could trace the Isère River for miles as it snaked towards the mountainous horizon. The earth and the sky were draped in wispy clouds, and the afternoon sun illuminated the entire landscape. This is literally the most beautiful thing I have ever seen, Hannah said. The sentiment echoed in our group, albeit with more profanity.
We didn’t reach the summit, but that day I witnessed something far more rewarding than the view that would have met us there: I saw other people discover the mountains. What other place offers such rich grandeur? What other place confronts man with such an abundance of challenge? Only the mountains can pummel you into submission one moment and overwhelm you with beauty the next. The fact that this beauty is well earned makes it all the more sublime. It invigorates and enriches the spirit. This is real wealth; this is living.