Sunday, 11 September 2016

25 years and counting!

I've not been a very regular blogger lately...well by lately I mean for the last year or so really. I could give all the usual excuses but why all know I've been busy and the blog just slipped off the To Do list.

But I'm back - I love writing, and I'm much more motivated now to tell you all my news on the blog regularly. And there's a lot to tell.

2016 has been a Big Year for Trekking in the Alps and Provence as it's 25 years since I got my French Accompagnateur diploma and was able to set up my business here in France. Before that I had a Blue Peter Badge

but then I got a really pretty badge...

and it opened the door to the rest of my career..... since then I have worked alone, building my business, seeing where it takes me.

At the start there was no real plan...I had come from being a Teacher of Outdoor Education in the UK, working in outdoor centres with kids and adults, teaching all that is outdoor...hiking, climbing, caving, even skiing on that one day a year when there was snow on the local golf course! But that was all in the context of education. Here in France it was a different deal...I was going to organise people's holidays!

And so I have done for a quarter of a century. And for 95% of the time that has been a total blast, a wonderful journey for me, learning how to help people to enjoy their time in the mountains, to push them just enough so that they achieve but also to be sympathetic during those hard and painful climbs (or descents).

I'm sure I haven't got it right all the time nor for every person...the rare "incident" reminds me of that! But the fact is a good 80% (maybe more, I haven't actually calculated) of my clients return...year after year and we become firm friends....that's really the BEST part of my job. Because I do everything myself I build up a strong relationship with my clients and even though people are bound to do other things, they all fully understand that (barring any serious misdemeanor) they have signed up for life and even if they have to take 20 years off to have kids and stuff, they can still come back after that.

One of these people, Flora, this year described my client list as the Trekking in the Alps Community and she is spot on. People meet on my trips they make friends and they decide to come back together. This year I have taken it a step further and asked all my regular snowshoe clients where they'd like to go next winter...I decided not to draw up a programme until they told me. To my great surprise and pleasure my winter trips are already 99% full, before the programme even hits the website!!

I know I've already mentioned it...but 25 years (yes 25!!!) is a very long time. I never ever thought I would get this far with my own business. I don't work for anyone else (no-one has asked me!!) but in those dark moments when I wonder if I will get enough people on trips my loyal friends have encouraged me not to sell out, to hold firm and stick with the ethos of Trekking in the Alps and Provence...a small one person business providing personal service, listening to clients and trying to get it right for each person that laces up her / his boots to hike with me.

So where do I go from here? During my trips this year my head has been full of nostalgia...each trip has brought memories flooding back, such as the first time I did the Tour of Mont Blanc (backwards with 13 adolescent French kids but that's another story), the Tour of Monte Rosa when we never saw the Monte Rosa, the tiny 2 person group comprised of an  anarchist and a South African Peanut farmer with me in the middle trying to keep the peace, the Chamonix Zermatt trek where two people met and fell in love (and later married)....the list is long and maybe I will tell some of these tales at some point on this blog.

People have been asking me for as long as I can remember, "How long are you going to continue doing this"....the question used to come as a surprise and I would wonder if they were thinking I was looking a bit knackered. But in this anniversary year it's an obvious question. And I have no idea!!

I do know it won't be another 25 years.....well, never say never, maybe I will be able to offer Softies Treks from one chairlift to another! But I know I'm not done yet. Over the years my trips have evolved and the last 5 years have seen a major change in location since we moved from the Alps to Provence. But the southern Alps are not far away and there is still a wealth of nearby mountain ranges that have not featured on my programme, as well as the regular trips that go each year.

So is it Trekking in the Alps More of the same? Or as suggested by my lovely friend and regular client Bel, Trekking in the Alps Onwards and Upwards? Or as I rather like to imagine, Trekking in the Alps The Twilight Years?

Whatever happens, this year has seen some fabulous trips and I am not about to give up my office just yet. So watch this space!!!

Monday, 25 May 2015

2015 - the news so far!

I can't believe it's been 6 months since I wrote anything here. And yet lots of great trips have happened so far this year, so here's a resumé of the action so far.
The winter was a good one in many ways, although it was made rather harder work because the snowpack was unstable in many areas due to a cold period early winter when there wasn't a very deep layer of snow. Once the snow fell in abundance there was plenty of it but deep down in the snowpack there were some nasty unconsolidated crystals which meant all slopes had to be treated with care. If you knew about this and were cautious then you could find plenty of safe walks and that's what I did.
Going out in the Alps in winter always requires care, and I have no problem turning around if I have the slightest doubt about a certain slope.

Beautiful calm day near les Diablerets

Hot conditions in the Queyras

Fortunately on snowshoes we are not looking for a special descent, not looking to get fresh tracks in the perfect powder, as skiers often are. We're just out for a walk, hoping to get lovely views and to enjoy a beautiful day in clear cold air, with maybe the odd bound down a small slope in nice deep snow if possible. Our aims are more modest, our objectives more flexible and so we can always find something fun to do even if we decide it's safest to stay the whole day in the forest.

A few moments of quiet reflection in the Queyras
  This winter I discovered Dévoluy, which is on the edge of the French Hautes Alpes, not very far from where we now live. This is a beautiful region of relatively low summits, but with some impressive steep faces, giving dramatic vistas. Although Super Dévoluy is a popular family ski resort it attracts a relaxed clientele and has only a limited domaine. This means that there is plenty of space for those of us looking for quiet walks and undisturbed snow.
We did a fantastic week of walking, and I am certain that Dévoluy will be a permanent fixture on my snowshoe programme in the future.

Lots of fresh snow at Dévoluy
A magic viewpoint in Dévoluy
I also did several trips to the Queyras, my favourite winter "office", tucked up against the Italian border in the shadow of the famous Monte Viso. I now feel very much at home in this region, having run trips there for the last 3 years. There are so many different options for snowshoeing, the mountains are very well adapted to what we do and there is always a great walk to be done, whatever the weather and whatever the group. The Valle d'Aosta also gave us a fine trip, with really spectacular views as did the Swiss Diablerets - this latter is a super early winter option....just a shame that the outrageously strong CHF makes any visit to Switzerland so expensive now.

Checking out the view in the Queyras

After the winter I was happy to spend time here in Provence. Springtime is just FANTASTIC here! I am still discovering so many secret gems in the many valleys and peaks just around where we live, it is very exciting.

One of the "new" summit walks I did this month in Provence
It seems there are endless possibilities for walks, long and short, and the flora is ever changing - a whole new set of plants and trees for me, after 25 years getting to know those of the Alps. The more time I spend here the more I am convinced that this northern part of Provence, relatively unknown as a walking destination, is actually a walker's paradise.


A lacewing
I had a small group in early May and we had the perfect week - great weather, warm temps, and the group themselves were fit and keen.
A Provence Summits week is confirmed for October - the first time I have run a trip then - and it will be fabulous. Next spring I will do a gentle trip and another summits trip to cater for all tastes.
I will never tire of watching the vultures here in Provence
The summer is looming. Next up is my Corsica Spring Safari which is a new itinerary, although I have run many trips in Corsica. It's going to be a 3 base holiday and we'll discover the northern part of this stunning island. I am looking forward to going back there, having not been for a few years; My memories of Corsica are all good, from our early visits climbing the granite, to my first client trip there back in the early '90s when we did the whole of the GR20 trek. This was back in the days when there was very little food available on the route itself so we had to carrry everything. I seriously underestimated the calorific needs of my group and we exited at the end of the trek looking somewhat emaciated! After this adventure I researched the most efficient calorie to weight foods and loaded up for the next time around.
Corsica as it was last time I was there
The GR20 is now far too busy for my tastes and we'll be going off the beaten track, enjoying all the beautiful vistas that define Corsica, but not jostling for room on the trail.
I'm looking forward to a bit of swimming in Corsica
The summer Alps trips are looking good although a couple could take more folks. I have no idea why some trips immediately filled (and more) whilst others have only a few bookings. All the trips are equally fact the one with the fewest bookings is probably my favourite Alps trek, the Gran Paradiso trek.
Last year's Gran Paradiso trek ended with this superb lake walk
Next year will be the 25th anniversary of Trekking in the Alps. I am proud and amazed to have got this far. If, back in 1991, anyone had told me that I would manage to make it work and reach this landmark I would have been very sceptical. We're going to celebrate and I hope lots and lots of people will sign up. If not I will be wandering along the trails alone, but I'll still take balloons and cake and have a party because 25 years is a VERY long time.
We're not there yet though. There's still lots of 2015 to enjoy. In our down time we're climbing the local cliffs, trying to get the old bodies up the steepest climbs we can and at the same time keeping a beady eye on our house project which is finally starting to take shape.
Holiday climbing - there won't be much of that now until the house is done. 
I'll try not to leave it another 6 months before I post again! 
Don't make me celebrate the 25th anniversary alone, be sure to come and join one of my trips!!

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Autumn has arrived

In my last post I remarked on how wet it had been in the Alps all July. Well that didn't really change until the end of August, it was a wet summer throughout Europe. However, September and October have really made up for that and it's been really warm and sunny for weeks now, breaking all records for high temps.
But today it's raining, autumn has finally arrived, it's snowing in the higher mountains, so I figured it's time to look back on the summer and forward to what's to come.
The Alpine summer was not all damp gloom and doom, we had some fabulous treks and trips, some superb mountain days. But the raingear certainly made its appearance on a regular basis.

I did the Tour of Monte Rosa trek which I hadn't done for a few years, and we were very lucky to have a week of almost perfect weather which meant we got some great photos for the forthcoming guidebook revision which I am doing (new guide due out next spring). This circuit is truly one of the greats and is so much quieter than the more well-known alpine tours (so clearly my guidebook hasn't made any difference to the crowding of these trails!)

Now I am looking ahead to the winter and also to next year. Living in Provence means I can change my programmes a little and offer new areas aswell as remaining loyal to the Alpine roots of my business. I am really trying to promote Provence as a hiking area. Already very well known to the French, I think maybe the average British hillwalker doesn't know how great the hillwalking is over here. Many people associate Provence with the Côte d'Azur and think of crowded beaches, seaside, Monaco and fast Ferraris. But northen Provence is the exact opposite, there is no seaside, there are no crowds, Monaco is a world away...and although we do see the very rare Ferrari or similar, tractors are a far more common sight on our roads.

Along with my regular May Provence Hiking Holiday I am now offering a new trip to be based just further north on the border of Provence and the Vercors region, known for its fine limestone pleateaux. This trip, called Peaks and Passes of the Alpine Foothills, takes us to the famous Forêt de Saou region which is an amazing area for walking with a wealth of summits to go at.
For the Summer I have a new trip the Queyras Summits which I hardly need to bother promoting right now as it's booking up fast. But since this will most likely feature ever year on my programme it's worth telling you about it. The Queyras region of France is tucked away in the south-east corner, and is already a popular snowshoeing venue for my winter trips.
Although the spectacular peaks and valleys of the Queyras owe their beauty to the effects of glaciation, those glaciers are now long gone and this gives us total freedom to roam The terrain is made for hikers, with wooded valleys leading up to grassy meadows often encircled by rocky peaks which very often are accessible to walkers, at least those with a reasonably head for heights and a sure foot. Many of these summits flirt with the 3000m mark and provide belvederes of outstanding beauty, with vast endless vistas stretching in some cases way down to the plains of Italy or towards the northern French Alps. This will be a really good challenging mountain week, just what Trekking in the Alps does best.
The summer will also feature the classic Tour of Mont Blanc circuit and a foray into the Italian Gran Paradiso region. I went back there last summer after a few years away, and just loved it, despite mixed weather. So it's back on  my programme. It seems I am also going to do the Tour of the Matterhorn mid August if I can get a full group - this by request!
But before any of that happens there's a winter of snowshoeing ahead. I hope people are going to sign up fast, some trips are filling but others are waiting for bookings. Never mind, if there are no takers I will just go by myself!!!

Sunday, 27 July 2014

A wet July in the Alps

Back to the Alps for me and so far I have worked 3 groups. In 17 days I have worn full waterproofs for all or part of 15 days!!! Never before has this happened, my suntan has disappeared, I am pale as a Brit! Normally we expect maybe one bad day during a week-long trek, and even then I might get away with just putting on my rain jacket, not those horrid clinging sweaty and most unattractive rainpants. But not this year.
However, there have been some excellent sunny moments too, sometimes a whole half day and each trip has had sunshine where it was needed most, for the best views.

Everyone in my groups has taken the rain better than me, I am clearly just a wimp! And the flowers are truly fabulous this year. Wildlife has also been in abundance which is often the upside of bad weather.


My first group came for flower spotting and we spotted many. It was nice to start the summer season in such a relaxing manner with no big days, just strolling along taking it all in. Next up was the Tour of Mont Blanc with a group of 8 from the UK, USA and Australia. Everyone got along famously and despite the knee deep mud on one day, the moral remained pretty high as we made our way around this stunning and spectacular circuit. We were happy to be going backwards as it were - my preferred direction - as the trek was quite busy.

This last week saw me over in the Italian Gran Paradiso, a region I haven't been to for a few years. It was great to renew friendships with hut gardiens, and to remind myself how wild and remote this alpine area is. We often found ourselves alone on the trail for long periods of time which was wonderful even if it was pouring with rain. The finale of the trek was a clear sunny early morning hike up to a high lake where ibex were our only companions, with far reaching views not only of the surrounding peaks but also our previous day's high pass and route down.

This summer is a time of reflection in a way for me. No longer living in the Alps makes it a little more difficult for me to work there as my commute has just got a whole lot longer. That's not really a problem for me as I quite like driving, but these holiday weekends are really a nightmare on the roads. So logistically things are getting complicated. However, I have come up with a cunning plan for next year. My trips will no longer be Saturday to Saturday. I will begin trips either on the Sunday evening or even mid-week. In my recent experience it seems people no longer need to take a week from Saturday to Saturday - the TMB this year met on the Tuesday evening and filled easily. People often tag on a day or two either end of a trek anyway. This will make my commute easier and also allow people to take cheaper flights to and from the trip. A winner all round!

Next up is the Tour of Monte Rosa trek which will also be an opportunity to update my guidebook to that route which has sold out. Just hope everyone coming has bought their Trekking in the Alps and Provence T shirts to liven up my photos. Helen has as you can see here: