Under the merciless midday sun in the middle of a typically Swiss green meadow, I feel the sweat tickling down my spine just when I set my eyes firmly on a coveted shade. My two companions are chatting pleasantly while I am struggling to catch up with their rhythm. “Guys, I don’t feel very well,” I almost whisper to them. As I head under the tree, they look at me warily.
It was a surprisingly warm mid-June Saturday morning in Verbier, a well-maintained alpine village perched on a sunny plateau, right in the heart of the mountains. Although mostly known for its ski area and intense winter nightlife, we had been told that summer is equally, if not more, appealing. We had come to attest this statement.
We had just arrived in Verbier early this morning with my husband Thanos, to visit Stefane, our Swiss friend who has a holiday house up there. I hadn’t known Stefane for a long time but it’s one of these cases when you feel you know somebody since forever, even if in reality you hardly do.
The day started ideally with sumptuous breakfast and friendly chitchat on the terrace, spoiled by a panoramic view of the region. We decided we would continue our day with an easy, pleasant hike so as to discover the area on foot.
The time was 11:30 and the sun in full swing. Backpack, hiking shoes, cold water, sunglasses, hat, sunscreen and baton in hand: ready to go.
“I would suggest we follow a relatively easy route which ends up to this point you can see up there, it’s called “Pierre Avoi” and the view all around is simply spectacular,” our personal guide says.
Already outside Stefane’s house a light ascending begins, and pretty soon, I find the first excuse for a brief stop, as soon as I have set eyes on a green bench that appears in front of us. We need to have some sunscreen on, I advise them wisely.
Soon, they urge me to get going and I agree while rearranging my backpack hastily.
Minutes after we leave behind us the snake-like tarmac and continue ascending in a lush meadow with low vegetation, going smoothly uphill -but undoubtedly uphill. The heat is now unbearable, I feel.
Just when I start staggering and begin feeling dizzy, I see a tree in all its glory – as if a real oasis in the middle of the desert. I drag myself and sit on a very uncomfortable rock – yet at that very moment quite comfortable indeed – and enjoy the merciful shade while Thanos and Stefane look at me incredulously.
-“Are you alright?”
-“Not really. I am not sure I can go on, the heat is simply intolerable.
They look at each other in silence and an awkward feeling starts overwhelming me.
-“How much longer is it until Pierre Avoi?” Thanos asks.
-“About an hour, an hour and a half, not more” Stefane replies calculating quickly.
-“What if you two go on and I wait for you here?” I almost beg.
-“No, we couldn’t possibly continue without you. But we can slow down and follow your rhythm, what do you say?” Stefane suggests while Thanos nods.
I look on the way back, then at the guys waiting for me to decide and finally at the merciless sun and the bright, blue sky while trying to reach a decision. I knew I was not in the best physical condition, but I wouldn’t give up that easily.
-“All right, I will give it a shot. I am coming with you and God help me.”
-“Great,” they both say excitedly.
Warming up for the challenge
About half an hour later we continue climbing while I am trying to take advantage of the slightest opportunity given to rest just for a few minutes and regroup forces: get some more sunscreen on, drink water, even pretend that my shoelaces need tying.
“Would you prefer going on the left where the route is shorter but slightly steeper or on the right which is a bit longer but easier?” Stefane asks us at some point.
“I’d rather go via the easiest path” I utter in a rush even though in my eyes both options seem equally steep.
We continue to ascend doing zigzags (a common practice to normalize a steep hill), with Stefane creating a growing gap between us. Thanos, also in a better physical condition than me, follows me patiently always ready to encourage me when I hesitated and gave him my desperate look – just as a puppy deprived of his treat would do.
Stefane’s tireless pace motivates me and I somehow continue to place one foot in front of the other and keep going. I can now see him lying down on top of the slope and taking photos as we struggle to reach him. I keep thinking that according to the time, we must be reaching our destination any minute now.
I arrive gasping from the overexertion, smile for the photo and then fall back on a rock next to him, trying to recover my breath.
– “Well done, only half an hour to go and we are there!” I hear Stefane saying and I’m sure he is simply joking. That’s why I smile. It turns out he is not.
“The most difficult part is now finished, the rest is quite relaxed,” he adds reading my clouded face “At the end of this path there are a couple of stairs leading up to “Pierre Avoi” stone; it’s not steep at all, a very comfortable climb, trust me I am scared of heights” he assures me.
“Besides, I am not at all fit anymore either. When I was training for the Ironman races I had great endurance but now, unfortunately, I am not exercising at all. ”
-“You have participated in an Ironman race?” I ask astonished.
-“Oh yes, haven’t I told you? I have completed 8 of them, no…9 of them in total,” he explains.
Suddenly, it all becomes clear to me. An Ironman race is a series of long-distance races in various places around the world consisting of a 2.4 mile (3.86 km) swim, a 112 mile (180.25km) bicycle ride and a marathon run (26.2 mile/42.2km). The athletes race without a break (sorry, no time for coffee!) and there is a time limit of 17 hours, meaning that you begin the race at 7:00 am and you have to finish your marathon run by midnight the latest. As simple as that.
Personally, I have never run more than 20 minutes without a break. So, I decide to forget all about that detail and keep going no matter how tired I feel. Luckily, the view from atop the hill has already started to compensate for all our effort.
“Here we are, Pierre Avoi, voilà”, Stefane shouts cheerfully.
I raise my eyes and look our much-coveted destination, terrified.
The real «monster»
The “comfortable climb up a couple of stairs” leading to the top of Pierre Avoi are now in full swing in front of us: a vertical metal ladder affixed to a rough rock leads to a carved marble staircase. On both sides of the marble staircase, there is a chain anchored in several poles providing extra support and a place to hold on to in case you slip off the marble stairs. You don’t want to slip off from up there, I can assure you.
-“This must be some kind of a joke. Do you really want to persuade me that this is the easy part?” I ask rhetorically.
While I stare besotted the new “monster” in front of me, other hikers –young children included – pass me by, ascending and descending without any hesitation, making me feel coward, to say the least. I remain indifferent.
-“Should I wait for you here?” I repeat myself trying to convince me that the view cannot be really much more different 10 metres higher from where I now stand. They both stare at me silently making me realize that this is not an option.
-“All right then, let’s try”, I give in halfhearted.
Stefane loses no time and starts advising me:
-“Climb carefully and don’t look down. When you reach the marble stairs, grab the chain. It’s much easier than you think” he says while a 10-year old girl walks past me and begins to climb effortlessly, as I study my moves and regret all those things I have not had time to do in my life yet.
“If she can, then I can as well” I eavesdrop my ego complaining about the young, audacious girl. With my whole body tightened, my muscles and nerves stretched to their absolute limits, I try not to look at the cliff below and calculate every move of mine as carefully as a neurosurgeon in duty.
I climbed my “monster” in the end. For me, it was an over-exertion. But the view forced me to forget it instantly. At this point, Stefane’s description was precise. From atop Pierre Avoi, at 2473m. on the Swiss Pennine Alps, you have an eye bird’s view of Rhone valley, the Grand Combin, and the Mont Blanc mountains. As an extra bonus, you get this unimaginable feeling as if sitting on top of the world.
We chose our spot carefully, our very own rock and enjoyed our well-earned lunch: bread, cheese, dried meat, water, and juice. Nothing sophisticated, yet this simple lunch up here gets immediately upgraded to a multiple Michelin-star meal-experience without the slightest doubt. With no plates, no forks, no napkins in sight. There is no need for any kind of wrapping, only the substance. And it’s oh-so-easy to see the substance from up here.
We sat there for at least half an hour, maybe more. But soon, we had to descend all the way that we had just climbed. This was my least favorite part but I was heated up and ready to complete my Verbier “Ironman” challenge.
*Thank you Stefane for bearing with me and showing us your spectacular Swiss playground, I am so grateful!
*We did this hike in Verbier back in June 2012. I am happy to say that we are still hanging out with Stefane and have had many more adventures together –not hiking ones though!