Firsts, F***-ups and The Fissure

What’s up blog followers? Here’s an update from Remy and the gang.

After Scotland we had a few days to do some final tasks (some of which are still not done as I write this), say goodbye to the family, and pack up – for real this time. With the exception of some shoes left on the Wirral and some toiletries in Teddington, nothing was forgotten. A small heart-stopper occurred when I locked our keys inside the van, though with some borrowed lock-picking tools Remy was (worryingly easily) reopened. Crisis averted. Never to happen again….

Not much was on the agenda for day 1, except a whole lot of driving and a day of many “firsts” for Bethan – first time seeing the white cliffs of Dover, first time crossing the channel by ferry, first time driving on the right, and first time in Belgium. The day may have been rather boring in the grand scheme of Remy’s adventures but it was the first day officially on the road, and that meant the 8 hours or more of driving was wonderful. As the roads rolled by, anything and everything seemed possible.

View from the ferry (not our glass)

Eventually, we made it to a wee French town for the night, eerily quiet amidst the French August holiday period. Despite the emptiness of the town, it appeared that we had chosen the local car drifting and rave spot, popular at midnight with the few local youths who remained at home. Aled said relocating the van to a quieter spot rather than join the rave was a missed opportunity. The only fatality on the first day was the home-made rope mat which was left at some services. Both of us were very sad about this, not least because it was the most commented-on feature of the van.

Day two bought more driving, but the boring French flatness began to slowly roll up into hillocks, then larger and larger hills. The roads steadily became more twisty and narrow (we were too cheap to use any payages). A final stint over the Jura mountains bought lake Geneva into view. We stayed with my aunt and uncle in Divonne for a few days, with highlights including seeing Mt Blanc at sunset (another first for Bethan), a properly long hike up the Dôle in scorching weather (new highpoint for Bethan at 1677m) and some amazing cooking. Bethan enjoyed the twinkling of the cowbells ringing through the valleys and marking the hike as definitely Swiss (but, of course Highland cows are still the best cows around).

The crew at lake Geneva
Warmer than the Cam
On the descent of the Dole

With provisions stocked and water filled, we headed for the Alps proper. A stopover in Vallouire gave the best parking spot yet, and on the following day the Col du Galibier gave Remy a proper test. Another highpoint for Bethan, who spent most of the drive with white knuckles clenched and plenty of worried noises – no faith in my driving! (she objects to that last part – “it’s not your driving, just the roads Sam”).

A real test of the 20 year old van
Bethan’s new highpoint

Dropping down into Briançon (not to be confused with Brian-con, the convention for Brians the world over) gave the first mini-disaster of the trip. Full of revelry at having just visited the best climbing shop ever – Chullanka (used to be Approach), we pulled into Aldi for some shopping. Slamming the side door and turning to Bethan I saw a quizzical and concerned face. “Keys?” she said…… “Oh no, I’ve f***ed it” (again).

We were slightly consoled that there was a Renault garage just across the street, but a sign on the door indicated that it was shut until the next week. Moreover, it was a Saturday afternoon in a smallish French town in August, and although the industrial estate we were (now stuck) on was full of car garages, they were all closed until Monday. Shit. An exploratory stroll down the road after some lunch from Aldi presented our only hope – a car window-glass repair shop. Worth a try?

In my broken French, I explained the problem to the man in the shop – an energetic young guy who spoke less English than I do French (very rare). He very kindly let me into the back to have a root through their tools, even going as far as to bend some small allen keys for me. Half an hour of trying with the crudely fashioned tools rendered nothing besides lots of sweat and some increased panic from Bethan. We returned, and he explained that he may be able to remove a window to get the keys. However, he would have to shut the shop to walk down with us, being the only employee. He let us into the respite of the air conditioned waiting room, where we made good use of the water cooler.

An hour later and all the booked-in clients’ jobs completed, he followed us to Remy. 15 mins of prodding and prying produced a thin gap on the driver’s side, it seemed the window would be too difficult to remove entirely. I suggested we try to hook the keys out of the ignition and through the gap. A quick trip back to the workshop later, we had the keys hooked up against the glass with a bent coat-hanger. Working together we began trying to birth the keys, one by one, constantly scared of breaking the glass or dropping them. A lot of pushing, prying and panting et voila! A true sigh of relief. Back in the workshop he had the window edging refitted in no time, and was initially suggesting no payment, but we managed to get him to take €20. To the window mechanic whose name I never knew, thank you. Bethan is now in charge of keys.

Birthing the keys

That evening took us up to Ailefroide and I suggested Fissure d’Ailefroide as a nice climb to start the trip with, as rain was forecast to come in Sunday afternoon and I’d done it before. Given it’s a damp north-facing crack it would definitely stay wet for a while after a downpour, so nice to get it done. “There’s basically no off-widthing” I said… With rain and thunder forecast somewhere between midday and 3pm, we got up before 5am to make sure we were climbing by 6, loads of time! The climbing was enjoyed to varying degrees, with the squeeze chimneys not playing nice with the backpack – I didn’t learn from last time! (Indeed, Bethan cried “Why on earth would you suggest we take up a backpack having done this climb before!?!!). There was more off-widthing than the “none” I had promised, and the crack was full of spiders – Bethan’s kryptonite.

Bethan looking super happy about the spiders, pre-bail.

About half way up we heard some rumblings of thunder, and sped up, though it didn’t look like raining. Two hurried pitches later and the heavens opened, with lightning closing in to a few km away. Though we were sheltered en-route, the lightning freaked us out more than a little, and the climbing (including the hardest pitch above) was drenched. A down-bail ensued, and we returned to Remy soaked and defeated. Not the first alpine experience Bethan was hoping for! Despite, more mishaps (or lessons learnt) than desired and missing family and friends, our spirits remain high and we are excited for more adventures!

Off belay,

Sam and Bethan.

Bethan’s Reading Journal:

  • In the Distance, Hernan Diaz 5* – so enjoyable, Bethan finished it and immediately began to reread it (this time out loud to Sam in the rest time).
  • Currently reading – The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks.

Thanks for all the crossword help, Sam’s grandparents let us take The Times Jumbo Crossword, which we are even less successful at (perhaps, getting half of the clues).

Huge Herbivorous dinosaur (11).

Play by John Webster (3, 7, 2, 5).

Wild horse of the Western US (6).

Anglo-Saxon magistrate (5).

Corsican town, Napoleon’s Birthplace (7).

Instrument for inspecting the retina and other eye parts (14).

9 responses to “Firsts, F***-ups and The Fissure”

  1. Ophthalmoscope! (the eye instrument one – sadly I still failed my ophthalmology exam…… I think I should have passed for being able to spell the damn word). Any hoo, very much enjoying the blog though I’m sad the rope mat was the first casualty….you’d better be keeping a close eye on Henrietta and Niffy says she can take care of the keys as she likes shiny things xx

    • Rope casualty – very sad!!! Keys would never be lost if Niffy was around, H is doing well but didn’t enjoy when she was locked in the van (of course)

  2. Shame, I missed you guys in Divonne. I decided to dive into your blog a year late and am very entertained by your adventures… Hope to see you soon – in Zürich, or Manchester (or maybe we could go swimming in Genthod again)? Miss you loads xxxxxxx

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