by Renee King
The chatter of tourists surrounded me and invaded my ears. I tried to block it out, but, truth be told, even my own travel companions were taking up space in my head. I closed my eyes, took slow deliberate breaths, and cleared my mind. When I opened my eyes, a vast white valley spread itself out before me – inviting me to take in its pristine beauty. Towering majestic mountains on either side bookended the sea of ice before me. Awestruck and breathless, I tried to comprehend that I was seeing was nature – raw, unforgiving, awesome for all my senses. As I heard questions from either side of me, I was able to deflect that unwanted noise. I breathed deeply and found something just for me on the Mer de Glace in Chamonix, France.
This was my fourth year going on a ski vacation. We live in western Germany, and my husband, a proficient skier, loves taking advantage of our proximity to the Alps. His six-month work project had turned into a permanent residence, and although I had never taken to the sport myself, I enjoyed a week away from the mundane, day-to-day drudge. Each time, the fresh air and mountain views seemed to revitalize me.
I had not connected with skiing and, honestly, I had to admit that I was a little afraid. In my mid-thirties, skiing was a sport I was not willing to jump into. I was more comfortable running the dirt paths that followed the churning, muddy water of the Rhine River.
I watched every morning as my husband loaded up his backpack with protein bars, bananas, and sports drinks. The buzz of adrenaline seemed to consume the hotel room. He was ready for another day attacking the slopes, and I had a coffee in hand, ready to sit on the balcony staring at the mountains.
I would often hear "Oh, come on, Renee – if I can ski, you can ski," or "are you going to ski this year" or "are you going to sit around all week?" My reply was often a little too quick and sharp, "I have my own routine, and I like it!" There was nothing I needed to prove. I didn’t have to wear uncomfortable ski boots or be terrified that I would slide over a cliff and down the mountain to my certain death. I convinced myself I was right, as I sighed deeply.
This year our destination was Chamonix, France. The familiar twinge of excitement washed over me as our car ascended the mountain, hitting all the switchbacks on narrow roads. We came down as carefully as we had come up, and descended to our mountain sanctuary for the week. Stunning views of Mount Blanc and Aiguille du Midi grabbed me as soon as I made my way to the balcony of our mountain apartment where I could begin my familiar routine of mountain gazing, coffee, and a good book. As the morning faded into late afternoon, my husband came back from day one. He disposed of his ski gear and jumped into a hot shower before we met our travel companions - fellow skiers and adrenaline junkies. Soon I was sitting at a little café, with Mont Blanc behind my shoulder, listening to their exciting tales. I listened in silence as they talked about near wipeouts and mistaking a black run for a red – but hey, they survived! In that moment, it hit me. I was envious. Envious of the conjured images in my brain of flying down the mountains, taking hairpin turns, and feeling the sharp wind bite at my cheeks.
On our one day devoted to non-skiing, we decided to take a trip up to the Mer de Glace. The small funicular train we caught at Gare du Montenvers took us up the mountain. I knew we were going to see a glacier. I assumed it would be beautiful, but little more.
The little train jerked and ratcheted up the steep terrain. I glanced out smudged and dingy windows and saw Chamonix below me. It grew smaller and farther away. The farther away it became, the more I sensed something different was awaiting me. We shuddered to a stop and disembarked. Tourists and the rest of my group rushed out of the train and ran to the guardrails.
I wandered to the viewing platform and inhaled a deep breath of pure, fresh, mountain air. We were at 1,914 meters. The sun was warm in contrast to the surrounding snow. I heard the trickle of water as it dribbled off the roof of the souvenir shop and into awaiting puddles of growing slush.
People began shoving their way to the front of the rails to take the requisite selfless. Sightseers oohed and ahhhed around me, asking each other question after question. I couldn’t focus, so I closed my eyes.
My eyes opened to the hypnotic glare of bright light reflected off of glacier snow. The valley of ice lay before me and I was mesmerized. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. I quickly scrambled down a few flights of stairs to get closer. Closer, I needed to be closer.
The moving black dots I had barely noticed before were actually skiers who were making their way down a glacier with crevasses on either side. The glacier had formed a slow winding, dangerous path of ice. The craggy mountains jutted up on either side of the valley towards the serene blue sky. The vastness was surreal.
I felt small – inconsequentially small. I felt I was one tiny life that could be gobbled up in a mere moment. But now it was my moment - my moment to connect with the mountains. I wasn’t creating adrenaline-fueled daydreams from my balcony. I was there, in it, with it, experiencing it for myself. I had my own tale of indescribable beauty.
There something for me, just for me, on a sea of ice.
Renee King is an American expat living in western Germany. She teaches Business English to local companies. She enjoys taking advantage of European travel and sharing those adventures.