Workation France: To Hamburg and the North Sea, Part 1

When your German friends invite you to take a walk on the beach, ask how many tens of kilometers they plan to march before you answer.

We took a break from our workation* in Chamonix to visit our dear friends Uwe and Frauke in Hamburg last weekend.

Lambs (and sheep!) on Hamburger Hallig

Lambs (and sheep!) on Hamburger Hallig

Uwe decided that after spending so much time in the Alps, we were due for a trip to the beach, and I agreed. He planned a weekend at the North Sea that included a stroll on the beach, a hike across tidal flats to an island, and dining on a local specialty that’s only available at this time of the year.

Friday evening we left Hamburg’s luxe riverside homes behind for the area near Sylt, which Uwe said was one of the most beautiful (and popular) islands in Germany. But before we headed to the island, we had a mandatory stop at Hamburger Hallig–but not for hamburgers. For lamb.

Uwe had been talking about the “nice, juicy little lambs” since I asked if we could visit. They’re special, he said, because they feast on grasses watered by the high tide and therefore take on the sea’s salty flavor.

As we approached the restaurant–and unassuming farmhouse perched hopefully atop the highest part of a hallig, a German word for the miniscule islands just off the coast–Frauke and Uwe had a quick debate in German and told us we were going to pay to drive right up to the farmhouse, even though they usually walk or rent bikes. Was Uwe too anxious for his juicy lamb to hike or bike? The wind was howling off the sea, so I was happy not to pedal a bike into it and said so. “Oh, the wind is not a problem,” Frauke said. “But if it rains, we don’t want to have to walk all the way back here in it.”

This should have been my first clue about the hearty constitution of my German friends and the activities and weather they think are “not a problem.”

Jeremy in the wind on the North Sea

Jeremy in the wind on the North Sea

So as not to miss the juiciest part of the lamb, the leg, we rushed in just as the buffet began, quickly ordered beers and apfelschorles, and snuck around the hostess who told us to wait, a large group would get to go before us. The lamb was juicy, and it was available in every cut and cooked in every conceivable way. I woffed down most of two plates before calling it quits–Uwe ate three and cleaned his plate each time.

Uwe and Frauke swore us to secrecy about their juicy little lambs and made me promise not to publish the name of the restaurant. It is little known, out of the way, and only hosts the lamb buffet on Friday nights for a few weeks in June and July. If you absolutely must know, drop me a line.

The next day, we headed to Sylt for a “nice walk along the beach.” The wind was still howling, but the sun was out.

Uwe and Frauke shooting pictures of the Red Cliffs on Sylt

Uwe and Frauke shooting pictures of the Red Cliffs on Sylt

Still, when we arrived at Sylt’s main city, Westerland, to take a bus to the northern elbow of the strip of island, Jeremy and I ducked into a shop with a big The North Face logo to buy more clothes. I regretted leaving my fleece pullover and gloves in Chamonix; Jeremy regretted not bringing a hat. We both wondered at the drones of German tourists in capri pants shrugging off the cold gale at their favorite beach resort.

Properly equipped with warmer clothes and a lunch of fish sandwhiches (local specialities include tiny shrimp and a type of pickled herring–both delicious!), we headed onto the beach where Jeremy and I shoved our gloveless hands into our pockets against the wind and Uwe and Frauke promptly removed their shoes.

“It’s not cold–it’s quite warm in the sand, Jenn!”

“It’s good for your feet to walk in the sand!”

“Yes, the sand massages your feet!”

Now, let’s just pause here. I’m not as tough as most of my friends, but that speaks to the company I keep more than my own wimpiness. I’m not afraid of cold–I ski and ice climb all winter, and before those sports were available to me, I always rode my bikes through the winter. But I survive my cold-weather activities because I dress appropriately and don’t do crazy things like take my shoes and socks off.

So what did I do? I took my shoes and socks off. And that’s when the march began.

We marched at least 14 kilometers (8.7 miles) down the beach, in the sand, back to Westerland.

The homes in Kampen have roofes made of reed, which is traditional in northern Germany.

The homes in Kampen have roofs made of reed, which is traditional in northern Germany.

That doesn’t include the side trip to see some of Germany’s most expensive homes, in Kampen; we ended up on the mainland side of Sylt before heading back to the sea side, thus crossing the island’s width twice. We ate our yummy fish sandwiches, stopped for coffee and creamy cakes once. Walking so far on the rough sea was an incredible experience, but by 8 or 9 p.m., dragging my exfoliated feet and licking salt off my lips, I declared that I would walk no further unless someone put dinner in my belly.

Even after dinner (more of the tasty tiny shrimp with a huge organic salad) we had an hour-long walk/run to make the midnight train out of Westerland. When we arrived back at our flat after 1 a.m., I wasn’t sure how I’d manage to get up at 7:30 to make it to our walking tour to the hallig of Oland. But if I wanted to walk to an island–and I did–I had no choice.

*This summer, I’m conducting a work/play experiment in the Alps. I’ve moved my home office from Colorado to Chamonix, a lovely but sometimes insanely touristy town at the foot of Mont Blanc. This post is the fourth in a series about temporarily living and working in a premiere trekking and climbing destination–and another country.

Workation France: What to Bring

Five things you should bring from home, four of which I’ve spent way too much money on since we’ve arrived in France but are essential for a workation*:

Sunscreen: You can’t skate out of a pharmacy or even a grocery store with sunscreen for under 10 euro, about $13.85 at the current exchange rate. Even tiny travel-size bottles are pricey, and in the haute montagne, you need it. (Actually, I picked up my toastiest sunburn at the crag at Les Gaillands, in the valley! It’s a south-facing cliff.)

Envelopes: For a vacation, you don’t need envelopes, but for a workation, you probably will need to send something back home via snailmail. It would have been easy to bring along a handful of envelopes from home. Instead, I bought a pack of 50 here for what I could have bought 500 for at Office Depot.

Saline Solution: We ran out of saline solution today, and I discovered why the big bottles of the stuff are behind the counter at the pharmacy here: You could get a nice bottle of wine for less. It’s possible that I was gouged for buying on one of the main streets in touristy Chamonix, but fact is, it’s so pricey I’d get laser surgery to save money if I lived here.

Trail Mix: I like to eat trail mix when I hike and climb; it’s part of my real-food trail energy regime. If you shop at Whole Foods, it’s easy to become a trail-mix junkie and sample many varieties in the bulk section for a fair sum. In France, though, you’ll either pay a lot for a tiny bit of pitiful mix, or you’ll pay a lot to put the raw materials together yourself. A big bag of my favorite mix would be more useful at this point than an extra shirt or socks.

Energy Bars: These don’t exist here. If you can’t hike or climb without your favorite Clif Bar or Lara Bar or whatever, you’d be wise to bring a box or three, depending on your voracity.

And now one thing you don’t need to bring to France: your health insurance card. Well, if you end up in the hospital you might need it…anyway, if you go to a doctor here, like I did last week, you’ll have to pay cash up front and submit to insurance later. In my case, a visit to the doctor put me out 60 euro, which is less than it costs me to see a doctor back home since I have the crappy insurance that the self-employed are forced to buy in the U.S. Last year, my little brother went to a doctor in Zermatt, which was 35 Swiss francs (pretty close to the same amount in dollars). Perhaps here, the health-care industry is making bank on saline solution and sunscreen rather than sick people.

*This summer, I’m conducting a work/play experiment in the Alps. I’ve moved my home office from Colorado to Chamonix, a lovely but sometimes insanely touristy town at the foot of Mont Blanc. This post is the third in a series about temporarily living and working in a premiere trekking and climbing destination–and another country.

The Alps, the laissez-faire way

The Brévent, from Chamonix

The Brévent, from Chamonix

If you live away from the mountains, the only time you hear about a climbing accident is if something big goes down on Mt. Everest, or if the Today Show picks up an amazing tale of survival from a fourteener hike gone wrong. But when you live in the mountains, climbing and skiing accidents appear in your local news on a regular basis.

We can’t easily read the local news here, but we heard helicopters all day on Friday. We woke to the rat-tat-tat in the morning, saw them when we hiked on the northwest side of the valley in the afternoon, and by evening, when they were still going, we wondered whether they were having an epic training day or if something bad went down.

There was an accident. Jeremy spotted a blurb about it Saturday on ESPN:

“Karine Ruby, a former Olympic snowboarding champion who had been training to become a mountain guide, died Friday in a climbing accident on Mont Blanc. She was 31. Ruby was roped to other climbers when she and some members of the group fell into a deep crack in the glacier on the way down the mountain…”

But we didn’t have time to ponder it, because–timely–that evening we were sorting gear and loading our packs to spend the next day out with guide Michael Silitch learning how to travel safely on the glaciers above Chamonix.

Last year we climbed the Cosmiques Arete with Michael (the photos he snapped along the way are here–by the way, how do guides take such great photos and give clients safe belays at the same time?!?). Neither of us have experience with glacier travel, so this year we wanted to learn safety basics so we can start doing easy alpine climbs on our own.

Sunday morning broke sunny atop the Aiguille du Midi cable car station, and from the observation decks we could see that the Vallée Blanche was crawling with people.

The view from the Aiguille du Midi

The view from the Aiguille du Midi

Across the valley, another swarm was either switchbacking up to or skiing down from a bowl on Mont Blanc du Tacul–which Michael pointed out was an avalanche terrain trap, and then directed our attention to the rows of tipping seracs most of the way up the mountain above. As if on cue, we heard a roar from another direction and spotted an avalanche below us on the Midi, and as it thundered on, Michael explained that seracs can fall at any time, day or night.

Great. Or as they like to say here, super.

We spiked up and tied in for the daunting trip down a ridge from the station to the Vallée Blanche. The soft snow started balling up under my crampons, and Michael pointed out that they’re really only good for ice climbing, not alpine climbing. And by the way, our ice axes aren’t quite right either. Gah. I need to make friends with someone at Grivel or Petzl.

Michael whipped out a snow probe and staked out a safe area on a flat spot between the ridge and the bergschrund (the Vallée Blanche is a glacier). Below, the climbers and skiers became the subjects of our class. A few people were doing everything right (“See that team of two? They’re far apart, and there’s no slack in the rope.”) but it seemed like a lot of people were doing everything wrong (“These people have way too much slack in the rope; those people are standing around too close together; that guy is alone without skis.”).

“Some of the French are kind of laissez-faire about this stuff,” Michael said. Eh, oui: It seemed like there was a lot of scary stuff going on.

Michael pointed out the area where Friday’s accident happened and said there wasn’t much information about it–everyone in the party died–so it was tough to analyze what went wrong. There are huge crevasses up there, though, so he wondered if they had gathered too close together on a snow bridge over a crevasse, and when it broke, it took all of them.

As people passed around us on their way to and from the cable car station, we offered bonjours, and Michael sometimes offered a more brotherly salut to other guides. Karine was a friend of his, he said, and a beloved member of the community. She was trying to become the second woman in the exclusive (and quite traditional) Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix.

Ridge to the Vallée Blanche from the Aiguille du Midi

Ridge to the Vallée Blanche from the Aiguille du Midi

Not to be presumptive, but I suspect it’s best not to dwell on death, even the death of a friend, when your profession is to guide people through deadly terrain on a regular basis, and he didn’t–he moved on to the text topic. But it’s staring you in the face in a place like this. In fact, as Michael was talking us through how to set up rope teams, a party that was heading back up to the station took a long break behind us because one of its members seemed to be having mountain sickness of some sort. He was on his back, rolling around and moaning. One of his buddies put his crampons on for him.

As we transitioned the rope to the appropriate length to walk down onto the glacier, Michael said the man probably had cerebral edema.

“Really?” we said.

“Yeah, people come up from Paris and go right to 12,000 feet,” he said. Ah. Just like back home in Colorado, where people fly in from Chicago to ski at 11,000 feet and end up with Acute Mountain Sickness.

Clouds had been building from the Italian side of the range all day, but by mid afternoon, gray clouds rose from the Chamonix side, too.

How to haul someone out of a crevasse: Learn to build pulleys

How to haul someone out of a crevasse: Learn to build pulleys

A few snowflakes blew in as I puzzled over the pulley system Michael had built to rescue his pack–our faux fallen climber. I’m extra paranoid about lightning after an experience we had last summer in the Indian Peaks, and we all thought it would be good to avoid yet another mountain hazard.

Back at the Aiguille du Midi station, we packed up or covered our sharp objects for the journey back down to Chamonix. The tourists are aggressive when queueing up for the cable cars (even to people carrying ice axes), and at 125 lbs., I’m often jostled about by the crowd once we’re squeezed into the car. On one leg of this journey, I was backed up to a large man wearing a tiny pack, which you’re supposed to remove before you get in the cable car. He removed his pack while I was pressed against it. The French couple next to me giggled in shock and gestured for me to jab him with my elbows. I wished my glacier-inappropriate ice axe was accessible. The tourists, it turns out, are the final hazard you have to deal with when climbing in the Alps.

This summer, I’m conducting a work/play experiment in the Alps. I’ve moved my home office from Colorado to Chamonix, a lovely but sometimes insanely touristy town at the foot of Mont Blanc. This post is the second in a series about temporarily living and working in a premiere trekking and climbing destination–and another country.