Workation France: Squeezing In

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 first in a series about temporarily living and working in a premiere trekking and climbing destination–and another country.

Settling in to our apartment in Chamonix has brought on flashbacks of moving into our college dorm rooms. We don’t have enough closet space. Our “desk” is a multi-purpose surface: dinner table, dump for change and keys, home to two laptops and a French press every morning. The climbing gear is stashed under the bed. The backpacks are shoved into a corner of the living room. And there’s nowhere to put the luggage once we finish emptying it, because our ski locker in the basement is literally only wide enough for skis.

At least this time I know I’ll like my roommate.

But one glance out the window of our top-floor apartment at the peaks just a walk away makes the squeeze inside irrelevant. And sure, we can’t quite manage to unpack in a week’s time, but we’ve already done the three things we came here to do: climb, hike and work.

Downtown, looking toward Mont Blanc, on a quiet Monday

Downtown Chamonix, looking toward Mont Blanc, on a quiet Monday

The work part has been the toughest, so far. It’s better now that the jet lag has worn off, but working in the evenings so we can be available to people back home (and hike and climb during the day) requires a mental switch. My brain is accustomed to working in the mornings and being lazy at night. No more.

Climbing was the easiest of our three objectives, for this week. The local crag at Les Gaillands is on the edge of a little lakeside park, and it’s just a 15 or 20 minute walk down the road from our apartment. Once there, turn away from the rock and you have an unobstructed jaw-dropper of Mont Blanc, the Chamonix Aiguilles, and the Bossons and Taconnaz glaciers spilling down from the heights.

The crag is covered in well-bolted moderate routes, and even on a gorgeous Saturday when it was swarming with people, we had no trouble getting on climbs. Before we left Colorado, a friend–who loaned us a stack of Chamonix guide books, thanks Michelle!–said to make sure we learn to know when someone is about to butt in on your route in other languages. That might be true on some of the popular alpine routes we’re scoping out for the near future, but at Les Gaillands, people were friendly in many languages.

View up the Mer de Glace from Montenvers

View up the Mer de Glace from Montenvers

Between climbing days, we hiked from town. Our first hike was somewhat unnatural by Chamonix standards, because we hiked up to Montenvers, and most folks arrive at this destination overlooking the Mer de Glace by the cog train from Chamonix. If you happen to hike the old mule trail between Montenvers and Cham, it’s probably only downhill, after ascending via the train. Accessibility to the high trails by train or cable car is one of the benefits of trekking around here–rather than spending hours hiking up the steep trails out of town to treeline, you arrive there in 10 or 20 minutes (and 20 or so Euros poorer).

The biggest advantage of hiking from town? Getting fit for longer days high up in the Alps. More of that to come.

Long Haul

Traveling for a few weeks is pretty easy. Working away from home for a few months requires a little more planning (and apparently a little more anxiety, eesh!).

On Saturday, we’ll move our home office to Chamonix Mont-Blanc, France, for the next few months. The eight-hour shift east will be more than a change of time zone that requires us to work in the evenings rather than the mornings. I suspect it will be a shift in our perception of freelancing that will make the word “telecommute” take on a more global meaning.

But enough of the high-falutin’ ideological stuff. If you don’t take care of some mundane details before you leave home, you won’t be working from another country–you’ll be wasting time making expensive phone calls or shopping for an extra power converter.

Mail: The post office will only hold your mail for a month. If you don’t have family or friends around who can pick up and sort your mail, Earth Class Mail might be your best bet for collecting your mail and sending you anything you need. Otherwise, leave behind pre-stamped, pre-addressed flat-rate envelopes for your mail jockey so it’s easy for him/her to send you anything.

Phones: This isn’t news, but I have to reiterate that Skype is the thing that really makes it possible to work from anywhere. We’re going to buy a U.S. number through Skype so anyone can call us–in fact, they won’t even know they’re calling Skype, or calling us in France. Unless I get that crazy echo through my headset.

Your car: Your car can sit at the airport for two weeks. But it can’t sit there, or anywhere, for months on end. Someone has to take it for a spin once in a while, so hand over your keys to a friend who doesn’t text while driving.

Power adapters: We usually travel with one adapter for a computer, one for everything else. Since we’ll both be working, though, we’ve picked up an extra so we don’t have to fight over a single adapter.

Prescriptions: Take care of these at least a week before you leave. It might take your pharmacist a few days to extend refills from your doctor or wrestle with your insurance company for a vacation supply of your medication.

Gardening: We’ve done everything we can think of to make our home lives as low maintenance as possible. We don’t have kids, pets or even plants. We don’t have grass or a yard. We have a 30-by-15 foot rectangle of a few bushes and a lot of rock. And we still have to weed the rocks every few weeks. If you don’t figure out a plan for your yard, or in our case, “yard,” your neighbors or HOA or both will hate you when you return.

Smugness: Obviously it’s best not to be smug at all, but if you’re a little smug, keep it to yourself before you leave. Your friends at home won’t appreciate statements like, “Sucker! You’ll be working in your dismal cube next week while I’ll be working on the beach/in a European cafe/from a sailboat.” Plus, you don’t want that smug karma to bite you in the ass–you could find yourself working from an eight-Euro-an hour cyber cafe with medievally-slow Internet on a keyboard you can’t comprehend.

Haiku writers

Copywriter Ken Grindall found me here and discovered that like him, I am a big fan of haiku. Yay interwebz connections, right? But this new connection served as a reminder that I haven’t haikued in some time. So here’s one to all of you writers like us who occasionally take a break from your usual writing style to bust out new words, strange punctuation, or a total lack of grammatical consideration via haiku:

paid by the word or

for the word, just want to use

‘kerfuffle’ somewhere

Stuck, Climbing Cheese Graters

The sun was low on the horizon, blackening the Joshua Trees into silhouette, and long after our brief climb was over, we still hadn’t found our way off of this bloody rock.

But I didn’t feel that knot of danger in my stomach that comes with the realization that you might have to spend the night out in the wilderness. No–we were in sight of our campground, for chrissakes. Below us, other climbers were starting their campfires and popping open cold beers. We felt stupid for getting stuck on top of this rock and just wanted to get down and start our own campfire. And we wanted to do it without having to yell to a camper, “Where’s the downclimb?!?”

We’d been warned. If you utter the word “Josh” to a climber, you’ll hear tales of challenging downclimbs and cheese-grater rock. Joshua Tree’s granite is notoriously rough and ragged, and taping your hands is de rigueur. So is learning to downclimb 5.6 to get off of the big granite boulders.

We were not good at either.

Despite the warnings, on our first Josh climb–a few days before getting stuck on the rock above our campground–I wasn’t prepared to see blood on my hands before I’d even left the ground. I was huffing and sweating and stuck on the ground. Ignoring the fresh red blobs around my cuticles, I ground my fingers back into the monzogranite crack, pressed hard against the cheese-grater rock, and finally hauled myself off the ground with an unsatisfying grunt on the fourth try. We walked away from Day One slightly scarred and unsure whether we were having fun climbing here.

Now we were stuck atop a rock, stuck atop an “easy” climb, but not at all comfortable with the idea of downclimbing the exposed slabs that seemed to be the only way down. One slip would be a long fall against the cheese grater.

Call me crazy, or unadventurous, but I like to know how to get down off of a climb before we get to the top. So we’d checked our guidebook and even asked a soloist for descent beta. He’d soloed our route just before we climbed it.

“Which downclimb did you use?”

“The one on the northeast side. It’s pretty good, but it requires some skill.”

Soloists are notoriously understated.

Since we topped out on the southwest side of the rock, we searched for the downclimb there first–to no avail. We crossed to the northeast side–where the soloist descended–and again faced dubious downclimbs. But we had a glimpse of hope when we found an arch on the very top of the rock we could sling to rappel part of the way down. At the very least, we could get a better look, we thought.

Jeremy looped our rope around the arch and rappeled first. I watched our rope smash into the giant granite crystals as he weighted it. When he finished, the rope didn’t budge–it stuck to the rock like we’d superglued it there.

“I’m worried that we won’t be able to pull the rope after I rap down!” I yelled.

“Really? Crap.” We were equally concerned and pissed off but didn’t have much choice. The light was fading fast; so was my stomach for this situation. I rappeled, stopped on a broad slab next to him, and tried to pull one end of the rope.

It was stuck. We whipped it around wildly to no avail. The worst part? We still didn’t see a way down from here, either.

“Okay, you go retrieve the rope, and I’ll look for the downclimb,” I said.

Cursing, Jeremy ascended the rope while I slinked down to the edge of the slab. It only got steeper. But a wide crack to the east looked like a possible chimney we could downclimb.

Jeremy, usually mild mannered, came back cursing even more. “I can’t believe we had to leave gear behind on this climb. And we still don’t know if we can get down over here.” But I was hopeful about the chimney. He came down and wedged himself in it to belay me through the possible downclimb I’d found.

The guidebook said the downclimb involved ducking under a chockstone. I didn’t duck under anything, so I doubt this was the “official” downclimb, but it worked–it was exposed, but with big hand holds. We were tired and frustrated (and ready to hurl gear at the guidebook author, had he been there), so in an attempt to be Capt. Saftey, I placed gear as I descended to a ledge (I’ve never placed gear for a downclimb, but oh well) so if Jeremy fell descending, he wouldn’t fall as far.

We were down.

Wait, we were not down. We weren’t more than 15 feet off the ground, but we were stuck in a maze of rocks and cacti. Are you effing kidding me?!?

Okay, after a brief wander through the rock labyrinth, we really were down. We walked back around to our packs in dusk. Above our packs, we spotted a pair of climbers–one using a headlamp since it was nearly dark now–near where we had turned away from the “downclimb” off the southwest corner of the rock.

“Hey, are you guys okay?” I called up.

“Oh hey! No, the last time I did this, there were rap bolts, but they’ve been chopped. Do you know where the downclimb is?”

Great things about blizzards

Yep, we’re having a blizzard here in Colorado today. But there are a few really great things about my situation:
– I’m a freelancer, so I’m already hunkered down at work. I didn’t have to debate whether to go in to the office this morning (when it was reasonable to consider leaving the house).
– We’re gear junkies, so we have plenty of gear for dealing with snow–warm clothes, crampons, snowshoes, goggles. I’m considering skiing over to my local pizza place for dinner, if they’re open. Considering the wind, I should probably wear my helmet.
– Yes, cornices are forming on my roof, and the wind is piling snow onto my front walk at an alarming rate. But we have a regular old snow shovel, plus the tiny ones you can carry on a backpack.
– The internet is alive and well, and so is the heat. If things go south with our modern comforts, we have a camp stove.
– Temps are supposed to be back in the 50s this weekend, so I’ll be able to leave the house and drive to the mountains to ski (beyond my pizza place).

– A snow day is a perfect day to stay home and write. If you’re not busy skiing for pizza.

People who push

Last year, my husband took up skiing again after a long absence, and after taking a class with the Colorado Mountain Club, he went out with our friends for a seemingly innocent day at a resort.

“I’m pretty sure Mark and Judy were trying to kill me,” he reported upon his return home, grinning broadly in the way outdoorsy types do upon surviving a challenging day.

This is why we like Mark and Judy.

Last week, we were all in Ouray to ice climb and took a day off from the ice to ski at Telluride. I’m learning how to telemark ski this year; I’ve been downhill skiing exactly eight times to date, and Telluride was number seven. Though I tried to dissuade them, Mark and Judy kindly took a warm-up run on greens with me. We rode a lift together above lodge-sized stone-and-wood ski homes (was one Oprah’s?!?), then we cruised down green runs. Mark gave me tips and I executed some sloppy-and-slow tele turns.

I tried to send our friends off to ski bowls and double-black chutes after this, but instead I was somehow talked into following them to the top of the mountain to take blue runs down to where we’d agreed to meet the rest of the group for lunch.

“But, I can take greens there if I go this way,” I said as pointed at the trail map.

“These blues really aren’t that bad from what I remember,” Judy said.

“Yeah, you can do them,” Mark said, nodding confidently.

They were a little too convincing, and I fell for it and followed them up the mountain.

It was the second time that Judy said, “Really Jenn, this is the worst part,” that I knew it was my turn at attempted homicide-by-sport.

Some people take to skiing easily. I have not. It’s because of my past. You see, I have childhood skiing trauma. It involves tears, Tahoe, and an expensive pink snowsuit. Others–perhaps those who don’t have memories of cold nylon mitts wiping away the snot of humiliation after repeated wipe-outs on the bunny slope–could easily ski blue slopes on the seventh time out. I did not.

The group waited for me at the bottom of each steep section and watched my feeble turns and nervous side-slipping. I grew more and more tired and finally crashed and didn’t get up simply because I needed a rest. My husband skied over to me and asked whether I was okay.

“I’m just completely wasted,” I panted. “Will you guys please just ski down to where we’re having lunch and I’ll meet you there? I’m going to sit here for a minute.”

Eventually, I made it down the hill and to lunch. Judy was smiling nervously as she ushered me to the table.

“Do you hate us?” She asked.

My legs wobbled underneath as I fell into a chair. “I hate you now, but I’ll love you later.”

And I meant it. The later, of course. One of the reasons that we hang out with Judy and Mark is that they push us. There are plenty of people out there who will sit on your couch with you and eat ice cream all evening. I love those friends, too, but when it comes to motivation, I can motivate myself to sit on the sofa. But finding someone who cares enough to try to kill you and your spouse via a sport you’re learning to love? Well, that’s rare.

People who push you should be embraced. People who push you have enough passion to risk your very friendship for the pursuit of something bigger than your ego and your doubt. They push you into empowerment.

I made it down the hill in one piece, and I learned some important survival-skiing skills. So I’m grateful for the push. Besides, it was karma–I’m one of them. I’d pushed one of the women in our Ouray group to try a mixed climb at the ice park the day before.

Bailout Contagion: Rescue Print Media

Print media should ride the fumes of the big three’s inevitable bailout and ask for its own.

The solution to the ongoing woes of writers, editors and photographers everywhere began to coalesce last week as I watched congressional hearings with the CEOs of America’s failing automobile giants. Simultaneously, news flew across Twitter that the Rocky Mountain News is up for sale. On a local media listserve I follow, freelancers for the Rocky and other failing publications sought out advice from veterans who’ve weathered recession before. Today, the Tribune Co. is “Flirting with Bankruptcy” says the NYT.

Are we print journalists any different than the auto workers, or even Wall Street? Like the auto industry, we stuck to an eco-unfriendly model far too long and were short-sighted and late in adopting new technology. Like the financial analysts, we rely on complex yet bullish financing to make ends meet. If any part of the shabby structure fails–like classified ads giving way to Craig’s List–the whole publication is in trouble.

We’re bleeding jobs, too. Journalists have faced job cuts for years as magazines and newspapers have culled their ranks and even outsourced jobs to India. Are we missing any of the bailout credentials? Wait–a free press is an essential component of any democracy. That gives us the ideological and cultural cred we were missing to join in bailout contagion.

Doesn’t that make us too big to fail?

Ice climbing is stupid

Ice climbing is pretty stupid.

Non-climbers, I know what you’re thinking: Duh, any idiot can see that it’s a ridiculous sport. Non-climbers lump ice climbing in with other relatively stupid activities, like deep-water scuba diving into a cave with sharks, or pretty much anything Bear Grylls does in your average episode of Man vs. Wild: Now, the last thing you want to do in this situation is get wet or hurt, but I’m going to jump into this raging river of freezing glacial meltwater and dodge sharp boulders to reach the other shore. Once there, I’ll catch a poisonous snake and eat it raw, and bend a tree over a cliff and slide down it to execute a sketchy descent that I don’t really need to risk.

Climbers: You think it’s perfectly normal to climb ice. But ice climbing is stupid, and you’re in denial if you think otherwise.

First off, it’s freaking cold out there. It has to be–no ice to climb without freezing temperatures. Much like skiers, when the thermostat dips below 32, ice climbers rejoice. They dream of climbing and conveniently forget about the crash of sitting motionless (except for chattering teeth) in 20-degree temps while belaying their climbing partners. They forget they’ll have the screaming barfies in their hands and feet when they climb again. No, selective memory dominates, and a good freeze-thaw cycle makes ice climbers itch all over and methodically sharpen ice tools and crampons in preparation for an infusion of their crack.

This sharpening of the already pointy tools of the trade is the next reason why ice climbing is stupid. Your chances of self-inflicted stabbing are high. Despite my best efforts and caution, I poked numerous crampon holes in my gaiters and pants in one short season. While mixed climbing a week or so ago, I dropped an ice tool while holding it directly over my head. Fearing serious bodily harm, I swung out of the way but for some reason instinctively reached out to catch it–and succeeded in grabbing it by the shaft, not the pick. Witnesses were impressed by my reflexes, but this incident could have ended in a puncture wound rather than in cheers. I was lucky.

Reason number three is the obvious problem with ice: ice breaks. Regularly. Ice climbing almost always results in some amount of ice breaking and falling. Dodging falling ice is a sport unto itself, and here in Colorado, where ice climbing is fairly popular and thin smears draw a crowd, there are some losers in the game.

Lastly, I have proof from the insurance industry that ice climbing is stupid. If you’re a rock climber, State Farm probably will insure you. Rock climbing can be relatively safe, and since most rock climbers are fit, educated, and extremely committed to safety, we can get life insurance. During my underwriting interview with the company’s climbing guru, I was passing his questions with flying colors.

“Do you take classes?” he asked.

“Yes,” I replied.

“Do you do any high-altitude mountaineering?”


“Climb big walls and sleep on a portaledge?”


“Wear a helmet?”


Then he said:

“Okay, here’s where I lose most people. Do you ice climb?”


The stupidity of ice climbing really hit home when we were out with a guide recently and he told us that when rock climbers ask him about ice he says, don’t do it. Later, stretching for a divot in the rock with my ice tool, I complained about being short and he said, “Well, I’d remind you that you’re taller than Lynn Hill, but she’s smart and doesn’t ice climb.” Then, this uber-experienced, safety-obsessed guide proceeded to juggle my ice tools and nearly stab himself when he dropped one.

I gazed at us standing in the snow, freezing, sharp objects everywhere, ice on the ground, all having a blast putting metal to rock and ice and laughing at the juggling antics. For the first time, I realized we all had a screw loose.

(That’s another thing–ice screws for protection? Crazy.)

So if you’re not already an ice climber, please, heed my guide’s warning, don’t do it. It’s stupid. It’s dangerous. The screaming barfies hurt, but not as much as falling ice or ice tools.

But if I’m too late to stop you, I’ll see you out there next weekend with my freshly sharpened tools, hot tea in my backpack, and helmet securely fastened to my stupid head.

New media v. old media back home at ol’ Mizzou

Back at my alma mater, the journalism school‘s faculty and the board of the Columbia Missourian are trying to figure out what the heck to do with a failing community newspaper.

There’s nothing unusual about the situation. Newspapers all over the country are in the same sinking boat and have been for years. Print sales are falling, and classified sales are virtually nonexistent. But there is something unusual about the Missourian: The paper serves as a learning lab for every student in a print or online media sequence in the journalism school. It’s not a student newspaper — it’s a community daily.

(However, one of MU’s student newspapers, the Maneater, covered the story here.)

The board is interested in being financially stable, but because of the Missourian’s place in the j-school curriculum, they also have to meet the needs of the students. So they’re throwing every option out there for consideration, including abandoning the 100-year-old press across the street (Missouri is the country’s oldest journalism school) and going putting all of their eggs in the online basket.

The story broke several weeks ago, but for some reason, just this week the j-school alumni have started discussing the plight of the Missourian on our Yahoo group. Since it’s so personal to all of us who suffered through the crash course in newspaper journalism that the Missourian provides, it’s been the most heated and nuanced discussion I’ve seen about new media.

The Missourian has been ahead of its time in going online, creating a citizen journalism project, offering a downloadable PDF version of the daily print version, mobile news and multimedia storytelling. Will it also be an early adopter of the next way to be a newspaper — to eliminate the paper? It’s hard to say just yet, beause this isn’t about the fate of a newspaper. It’s about where journalism education is right now and where it will go next.

Up next, the best of the alumni arguments.