I’ve been on countless trips that didn’t go as planned but very few were disastrous or even scary. However, this past June I had the toughest backpacking trip of my life so far, not physically, but mentally.
I was staying in the French Alps near Annecy and visiting a few friends in the area. Eager to get into the surrounding mountains, I grabbed one of my friend’s old flying maps and planned a route that would take me up around the backside of the Dents de Lanfon where I would cross the Col des Fretes and come down the other side of the mountain, spend the night in my tent, then proceed into the small town of Taillores to meet my friend Alex before heading back up and over the col for a night with him. The plan was meant to be simple and relatively easy, picked for the awesome views and steep elevation change to make a good warmup for the Tour du Mont Blanc which I would start a few days after.
The first day was absolutely incredible. I felt great, refreshed and pumped to be in the Alps. I charged up to the Col des Fretes and was overwhelmed with jagged rock formations, peaceful alpine pastures and simple herd paths. I sat down beneath the monolithic rock formations of the Dents de Lanfon to enjoy a long lunch and watched in amazement as paraglider’s flew right over my head.
As the afternoon sun began to set, I headed down towards Taillores and set up my tent in the trees about three miles from town. I laid back on my sleeping pad relaxed as the pitter patter of rain began to roll through. However, as darkness fell, my chain of misfortune began. At about 10:00PM I heard a rustle in the trees.
“Hello?” I asked. Then I heard the abrupt sound of an animal dashing away. It sounded something like a deer, and I can only assume that it was actually an ibex as I saw one run across the trail in a very nearby spot when I hiked out with Alex two days later. The creature definitely startled me, but I didn’t think too much of it so I dozed off again.
Two hours later, I jolted awake to the animal howling right outside my tent. It made a wretched sound somewhere between a growl and a moo. I was wide awake and began shouting back before the animal’s howls became more distant and I heard footsteps wandering away. At that point I sat up alert for the next hour, uncomfortable, fatigued and a little scared. I fell asleep once more and was disturbed again within an hour by the same creature, poking its head into the side of my tent curiously. I had enough of it. I started stomping on the ground and yelling but the animal wasn’t scared off. It just slowly made its way around my tent then off down the trail. Finally, as daybreak came, I packed up my tent tired and frustrated and hiked to Taillores to meet up with Alex. What I didn’t know was the the worst was yet to come.
As Alex and I began our trek back up to the col, I could feel the effects of a poor night’s sleep. The steep trail that I had come down the day before felt twice as steep going back up and my spirits weren’t as high as when I had first approached the bottom of the Dents the day before. As I reached the col, I dropped my pack on the ground and fell down on top of it exhausted. Resting my face on the mesh back panel, I could feel the cool water from my Platapus pressing against my cheek through the pack’s fabric. I sat up on my pack and enjoyed a few handfuls of trail mix before I felt something wet dripping down the back of my shorts. “Shit,” I thought. It quickly became apparent that my Platapus had popped and leaked out of my pack. Nevertheless, I wasn’t worried. Alex still had one and a half liters and I still had a half liter pouch of water in the side of my pack.
A few hours passed as Alex and I enjoyed the awesome view above Lake Annecy and we waited in excitement for golden hour to dawn on the rock walls of the Dents and an awesome sunset to fall behind the lake. The sky was relatively clear, the paraglider’s were still flying and Alex and I found what we thought was a perfect spot to pitch my tent, a clearing right on the col where people had obviously set up camp before.
Around 7:00PM that evening, a single dark cloud began to move in quickly from over the surrounding mountains. Alex and I kept our eyes on it, only a little concerned about potential weather moving in later that night. There were still a few paraglider’s in the air and the forecast called for clear skies after 9:00PM with a slight chance of a small storm earlier in the evening. We decided to watch the cloud and planned to run down into the trees if it began to rain to wait out the storm. What we didn’t expect was just how bad the storm would be.
Within minutes of pointing out the dark cloud, rain came in overhead and Alex and I made our way off of the open col, still rather relaxed about the situation. We had rain coats on but still wore shorts, Alex sported flip flops and had a bag of dried sausage in his pocket that we were both nibbling on. The two of us kept saying to each other, “Damn, if this storm is gone by nine, this will make the best sunset view of our lives.” But as the loudest thunder I had ever heard broke through the clouds, the sunset view seemed less likely.
The clouds rolled in fast and suddenly we couldn’t see more than 100 feet in front of us. Thunder exploded right above our heads and bright flashes of lightning came from every direction. The ground felt like it was shaking and the raindrops fell with such force that they stung my fingertips. Alex and I dropped down low into lightning position. On the balls of our feet, crouching like a baseball catcher, we waited for two hours rapidly shivering, feeling pain pulse through our cold, stiff knees and keeping simple conversation to hold up our spirits. There were lightning strikes that could have been right beside us they were so bright. It was these two hours in a squat that were probably the scariest two hours I’d ever experienced.
As the storm passed and we heard the thunder rumble off far into the distance, we made our way back up to my tent to see one of the most incredible sights I’ve ever witnessed. The clouds cleared and the sky lit up in fiery hues of reds and purples just as the last few minutes of sunset were fading over the lake. It was a beauty that a camera could hardly capture and a moment that held an emotion that Alex and I could not put into words. It was one of the toughest trips we had ever experienced, yet it ended in a moment that in my opinion was nothing less than spectacular, a moment I’ll always remember. I’ve never slept in so late into the next morning in a tent in my life, nor felt so good upon waking up.