Travel

The Mountains . . . and Me

Mountain title photo

From the moment I arrived in the small village of Le Bourg d’Oisans, I was in awe . . .

Not the kind of awe I’d felt, staring up at the mighty Pont du Gard. Or the inspiration that had overcome me, seeing thousands of cyclists embark on the Marmotte . . .

. . . it was the kind of awe that had me questioning my entire existence.

Sheer rock faces entombed the town, twisting and heaving as though defying some unseen force, the contorted cliffs, a testament to the fury from which they arose. And being a cyclist here was spine-tingling . . . and terrifying.

Le Bourg d’Oisans

Every summer, thousands of cyclists descend on Le Bourg d’Oisans with big ambitions of conquering the mighty Alpe d’Huez. The Tour de France’s most iconic climb, Alpe d’Huez snakes its way up an infamous 21 hairpins, climbing 1070 meters in 13.5 kilometres at an average grade of 8%. In 2001, it was on this legendary climb that Lance Armstrong powered away from the peloton, turning back to give rival, Jan Ullrich, what famously became known as “the look” before he went on to win the stage . . . and the Tour.

Le Bourg d’Oisans and the Legendary 21 hairpins of Alpe d’Huez Beyond

Yet far from the lycra-clad slopes and heroic hopes, the roads slip away to less crowded climbs. To narrow balconies, teetering over the valley. Crumbling pavements disappearing into forever. To where the mountains sing with a subtle warning. They will never be tamed. Never fought. And definitely never conquered. Persistence might drive you to the top, but Mother Nature will always be Queen.

Beyond Villard Notre Dame

Col du Tourmalet (Pyrenees)

Balcony Road overlooking Le Bourg d’Oisans

The beauty of riding up mountains is that everything slows. Like a meditation. There is no choice but to be present. Alone with the breath. The burn. The energy that drives you on.

Alone with your own mortality. A speck, against a backdrop of infinity.

Ornon

Knee high concrete stubs are all that separate the road from the abyss of nothing that falls away alongside. The Romanche River shrinks to a thin blue line, and endless folds of hills and valleys ebb and swell beyond. Weathered stone spreads like confetti across the pavement, and ribbons of water plunge from above. Unfurling like ticker tape, they tumble, crumble, and carve the contours of tomorrow.

The Romanche Valley from Villard Reculas

The Romanche Valley from Saint Christophe

Alpe d’Huez

The fitness I’ve worked to build moves me forward . . . and my co-ordination keeps me straight, yet my lame grasp on control is nothing against the supremacy of the alps.

Caverns of rock float overhead like cathedrals and roads narrow into trails even the locals fear to tread. Jagged stones litter the scarred pavement on the climb to Villard Notre Dame, an unnerving reminder of an unpredictable fate. The mountains open into darkness. Tunnels, menacing, beckoning, swallowing the road.

Climb to Villard Notre Dame

Col d’Aubisque (Pyrenees)

A dim headlight spills, feeble against the rutted floor. The jagged walls. The moisture, dripping from above. My breath echoes through the black and damp trickles down my neck. Vulnerable in my surrender, I am not afraid . . . for I am not in control.

I am insignificant in this vast unforgiving terrain.

Col de la Confession Looking Across to the Col d’Ornon Climb

Persistence might drive me to the top, but grit won’t see me through the unseasonal snow flooding the passes. Planning sees a jacket in my pocket, yet the thin fabric is futile against ferocious mountain storms. And no amount of determination will push me past the road, which unexpectedly crashes into the valley. Nothing will conquer the avalanche. There is no choice but to adapt.

The Battered Road to Saint Christophe at the End of Winter

Yet yellow-clad workers speckle the slopes. Drilling. Grouting. Mending. Diggers clear collapsed tunnels and choppers drop mesh over unstable cuts. Crews build new roads around epic landslides. A relentless quest to take the upper hand.

Still, nothing man-made ever lasts.

Col d’Ornon Climb

Two-thousand-year-old Roman remains push the limits of comprehension. Yet these rocks twisted and heaved millions of years before anyone was here to build on them . . . and they’ll still be stamping their authority on humanity for an eternity after I die.

As the early afternoon sun disappears behind the distant peaks, Le Bourg d’Oisans surrenders to an eerie peace. If I ever felt small, staring up at the stars, and vulnerable in the face of the unknown, I am a mere speck in the Alps. In this infinite corner of my own planet. At the mercy of the mountains, I am helpless in the face of change. Left to adapt to whatever will be.

. . . I am simply guest in Mother Nature’s domain