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Mountain Magic

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We’re sitting in a restaurant high above the ground, gazing down at cars that look the size of toys, and a wide sweep of river curving through the landscape below. Our waiter speaks impeccable English with a strong French accent. The food, cooked by a Michelin-starred female chef (who is also French), is quite possibly the best I’ve ever eaten. The kids declare that their meals – predictably, burgers and chips – are amazing (the meat cooked to a melt-in- the-mouth perfection).

Our holiday in the French Alps, however, has yet to materialise. Instead of a vista of mountain peaks and Sound of Music meadows, we’re looking across grey forests of tower blocks and a murky River Thames. In any other circumstances, this meal, on the 38th floor of the brand-new Novotel Canary Wharf, would have been a very special treat. However, we are only here due to our (admittedly First World) refugee status. The day before was spent at Heathrow Airport, mostly standing in queues, as British Airways bumbled its way through a global IT system failure. After manually checking in the bags of thousands of passengers, processing them through passport control and security, the departure screens showed that all flights were cancelled. No announcements. Queues of hundreds formed to ask the same handful of customer services people the same question. To which the answer seemed to be: you can’t leave the airport. Mutterings about cyber attacks abounded, as we joined first one line and then another to try to get out of the airport. Our bags were effectively impounded.

A night camping out at a friend’s house was followed by a night at the exceptional Novotel – accommodating  staff organised inter-connecting rooms with a private lobby. The kids and the hubby played in the pool, while I got a sweat on in the gym. The breakfast almost matched up to the evening meal, and Swissair saved the day, getting us out of City Airport to Geneva a mere two days later than expected. Still without luggage.

Starting a holiday with high stress levels is never a good thing; this was meant to be a great-value trip to the Alps, taking advantage of off-season rates, and experimenting with Airbnb. As we fiddled with the satnav in our hire car and headed up towards Chamonix, the tension was still high, but as we approached the wide glacial-cut valley leading into the mountains, the gritted teeth gave way to sighs. In summer, the peaks are tipped with snow, edged with dark acres of rock, and wrapped in velvety green forests and meadows. For our children, the landscape is nothing short of thrilling.

Saint-Gervais-les-Bains is a small spa town about 20 minutes’ drive west of Chamonix, and about an hour from Geneva. Famed for its thermal pools, it’s pretty without being twee. Off-season, it is quiet, but there’s still a smattering of tourists – mostly walkers, mountaineers and climbers. Almost everyone going about their French business of buying baguettes and pastries looks outdoorsy, tanned and fit. The facilities are excellent: the swimming pool, a three-minute walk from our chalet, comprises an indoor and outdoor pool. The usual amenities of small (overpriced) supermarkets, boulangeries, pharmacies, a handful of souvenir shops and a (newly opened) art gallery are clearly there to serve the winter and summer tourist market. In the summer months, nearby Chamonix throws off its ski-resort mantle and draws in a different sort of tourist: from sightseers and walkers to wingsuit pilots and hardcore mountaineers. It’s a large town, with high-end shops and a pedestrianized main street, littered with outdoor café tables and people dressed in bright mountain wear.

Our apartment, on the third floor of a large wooden chalet, was homely and comfortable. OK, the dishwasher didn’t work, the showers were tiny, the kettle was erratic and there was no washing machine – but perhaps that’s par for the course with Airbnb. The weather did its mountain thing, going from hot sun to foreboding cloud and intense monsoon-like thunderstorms in a matter of hours...

On a couple of days, we hired a rock-climbing guide. Dougal Tavener, a Welsh instructor with Mountain Spirit Guides, managed the tough task of setting up rope lines for our two children, my husband and myself – a wide range of abilities. With Dougal’s low-key encouragement, six-year-old Obi and nine- year-old Freya scampered confidently up huge 45m rock faces. The atmosphere at the unthreatening road-side crags was more like an indoor climbing wall than the scary mountain routes that beckon more intrepid types. Off-season, the routes are popular with school groups, mountain guides-in-training and even the local gendarmes. There are cafés and toilets nearby, and a convenient car park a minute’s walk away. One of the crags, Gaillands, has an inviting lake surrounded by a wooded path nearby – a great place to cool off if the sun is beating down, and if the kids have lost their lust for height.

Hiking in the mountains is not just for the experienced, either. The Tourist Office in Saint-Gervais offered maps with marked pathways (cross-country skiing routes in the winter), which can be accessed by switchback roads or cable car. Some cable cars do not run in the early and late part of the summer – it’s worth checking online or at the Tourist Office. We took a meandering walk on the opposite side of the valley from the Mont Blanc range. The meadows were littered with colour-saturated flora, lush grass, muscly mountain horses and fat, velvety cows with clonging bells. Our chosen route was classed as ‘easy’: a gentle stroll with the occasional hilly bit. The kids, however, needed a bit more focus and a challenge. Pretty Heidi scenery and the occasional cuckoo calling didn’t sustain their interest for long... “When are we going to climb a mountain?” asked Obi.

We answered his question with a trip to the Aiguille du Midi. A great, jagged 3,800m-high pinnacle towering above Chamonix, it is topped with snow in the summer, and skirted by masses of vertical rock. A cable car rocks its way precipitously up the mountainside, giving the children (and some of the tourists) the requisite thrill factor. The peak is famed among climbers and tourists alike, and you can see why. The clouds hovered around the surrounding peaks, but cleared enough for us to gaze deep into the surrounding melée of snowfields, couloirs, peaks and places where only the very brave will venture.

“The mountains are falling down,” Dougal had told us. Looking around, it seemed a bit of a stretch to think that these giant monoliths could collapse. But it’s true. While the ice and snow on the surface of the mountains ebbs and flows with the seasons, the permafrost that lies a few inches inside the rock has been there for thousands of years. Rising temperatures are causing the permafrost to melt, making the rock unstable and leading to an increase in avalanches and rockfalls. Not only does it mean that the peaks themselves are shrinking, but it threatens the communities throughout the Alps and every other mountain range in the world. Up at the Aiguille du Midi, the temperature is markedly colder than down in the valley, and it’s hard work taking a breath. This is an inhospitable place, despite the many viewing platforms, tunnels, walkways, cafés – not to mention the clear glass box in which you can step out over 2,000m of emptiness. I wonder if the great Aiguille (‘Needle’) itself will still be here for future generations to see...

Several miles away is the Mer de Glace, a huge snake of grey rock-strewn glacier, with a small band of gleaming blue ice at its centre. The walk from the Aiguille du Midi chairlift gave our children (and us) the adrenalin rush that they hoped for. The path hugs the rocky slopes of an intimidating ridge above, large sections of which are snowfields. Snowball fights ensued, the kids delighting in chucking granular, icy snow down our backs as we picked our way along the path. It was at times treacherous, with big scree slopes falling away to sheer cliffs, areas of deep snow where you sink up to your knees, and crevasses in the rock beneath that scared the hell out of us. There were times when we had to use hands and feet, and had to shove the children along to stop them sliding down the mountain.

Clouds began to gather around the peaks above us, making us rush our picnic to get to the Mer de Glace before a storm rolled in. The glacier can be reached from the Montenvers railway station via cable car (built in 1988 to cope with the shrinking level of the glacier), and a seemingly endless zig-zag of metal steps to reach the ‘Ice Grotto’: a tunnel and series of caves that has been carved out of the ice. At various stages along the descent are markers showing the ‘tide-marks’ of the glacier as it has melted. Back in 2000, it only took 118 steps to reach the ice; now there are 370. It loses 4-5m in depth every year. It is chilling in every way.

On our final evening, we ate out at Brasserie du Mont-Blanc in Saint-Gervais. It was a great bookend to our trip – the service was almost shockingly quick, the food delivered at top speed. The children enjoyed their filet mignons and frites in a slight departure from the burger concept, and our meals were succulent. All top- quality pub grub – French style. The pièce de résistance, of course, were the crêpes with gooey Nutella sauce – cue photos of our children’s faces smeared with chocolate and bits of crêpe hanging from their jaws.

It’s a sign of a good holiday (or perhaps of a truncated one) that we left wanting more – so much so that we’ve even considered moving to Chamonix in the future... The mountains, crumbling though they are, had worked their magic.

Mountain Spirit Guides: mountain-spirit-guides.com