Little C to Big C part 1

Little Chamonix to Big Chamonix

By Joe Beaumont

Little Chamonix to Big Chamonix, where each step brings you closer to the heart of the Alps.

Little Chamonix at Shepherd's Crag, Keswick, was the last time I climbed rock. I did it with my leg in an external fixator, after a series of operations to work on the damage done by a rock climbing fall. I didn’t think at the time it was going to be my last climb: climbing with my leg in the frame was just one more challenge to keep me motivated during my recovery. But since we made the Little Chamonix film in 2013 I've had to endure more surgery, more of the mind-numbing tedium of recovery, and I’ve done a few more challenges too.

Since that climb, I've changed so much. After the most recent surgery at the start of 2015, a week after my mother of Adventure trip, my ankle is now locked in position with metal bolts holding it firm. When I saw the consultant last summer about my elbow, he told me that it has a limited lifespan before I need more surgical intervention: that's either joint replacement, fusion or the other which I can't bring myself to write.

The journey begins...

Day 1: Little Chamonix, Keswick to Skipton

On Thursday 25th September I was about to set off from Shepherd's Crag near Keswick, under the gaze of Little Chamonix. It was a beautiful morning. Heading for Skipton 85 miles away, I was planning to ride the reverse of my In The Frame, a journey from the lowest to highest.

I had the idea last year to do this trip. It was met with the usual disbelief, perhaps because I wanted to do this alone, perhaps because I wanted to do something so far beyond my scope of possibility AGAIN! I got so stressed this year, a year that started with a spell in a wheelchair once more. During the year I suffered more loss, a pain I couldn't deal cope with well. Throughout all that I hung on to the idea of this epic thousand mile journey. It was as if the Little/ Big Chamonix thing was a thread I just couldn't help but pull. Try as I might to ignore it, it was there tantalising me every time the matter of 'what's next' come up in a conversation. I'd find myself halfway through talking about before I'd realise and retract it, dismissing it as ridiculous. So much time on my own. So much time on a bike. So many miles and for what?

And now, I was there, at the Shepherd's Cafe overshadowed by the imposing rock in which Little Chamonix stands. In the days before I had packed up my things and put them in storage. This was to be a trip that coincided with many changes. I was homeless for one thing. A cold frosty morning seemed to mark the beginning of Autumn, and for this trip there was no big send off even though I felt like I was bidding farewell to the climber I was, a farewell to many things but the start of new things too. Who knows what would happen when you allow the randomness of life to take over? I'd been trapped for so long bound by the cycle of surgery, recovery, challenge, surgery, recovery ... I felt that if i could complete the thousand miles from Little Chamonix to Chamonix in France it would be the first time that I'd have completed something so spectacular with no threat of surgery afterwards, not for a long time anyway, the first challenge without seeping wounds too!

So I set off on that cold Thursday morning, saying goodbye to my friend, and saying goodbye to the life I once knew so well. I’d done this part of the route before but this time I wasn't headed home. I would pass home and ride more miles back to back than I'd ever done.

I couldn’t pass Ambleside without popping by to bid farewell to the boys at Push Cartel who were instrumental in getting me the beautiful Italian De Rosa Idol bike for my adventure. I nipped across the road to see my friends Alec and Claire at the Rattle Gill cafe. Alec remarked that putting all that bikepacking luggage on such a beautiful road bike was like putting a roof rack on a Ferrari. A good point and if I owned a Ferrari I would certainly put one on it!

Fuelled by an espresso I headed via Kendal, soon to be joined by my friend Mark, manager of Kendal Climbing wall and chief bike-related motivator. It wasn't long until the heavens opened. Mark wasn’t with me for long, and I continued to ride with my head down shielding the rain, solemn thoughts haunting me, the sheer magnitude of what I had started hitting home. ‘What if it rains the entire way?’ I wondered. I hadn’t looked at weather reports. But I reassured myself that I didn’t need to know what was coming: I can't change the weather so I wouldn't moan about it, I'd just deal with whatever nature threw at me.

The miles slipped by. I'd been riding on the same route as I did during In The Frame since I left Ambleside. In reverse. The memories that I thought I'd forgotten would appear with each new road. I suffer from an incredibly short memory, but this visual aide memoire meant everything came flooding back was so powerful. I'd stop occasionally and bask in the warmth of memory. I'd shed a tear when I think to how painful my life was back then. I'm lucky to be alive. I'm lucky to be mostly happy. I'm lucky to be surrounded by inspirational and motivated folk.

My intention at the end of this day was to stay with my good friend Ellie and her newborn baby Seth and partner Sam in their canal boat, but when I arrived I found that the boat had moved. I had to carry on through to Skipton. I was cold, I was tired, and emotionally exhausted from from the first day, so I found a Travelodge. I welcomed a shower and a warm bed,

I slept.

Day 2: Skipton to Alpkit Big Shakeout - 85 miles.

I woke after a full 12 hours of sleep. A night in a hotel was not the adventure I had planned. I felt like fraud, barely had I started the adventure and I had a doley blackout - my term used to describe sleeping till mid afternoon. I thought about this, but rationalised, this is my adventure and I only have my conscience to contend with.

The first day was hilly but nothing compared to what lay before me on day two. From Skipton I travelled south skirting around Manchester and Sheffield. The hills just seemed relentless and I felt sure I could touch the moon with the amount of effort I put into cycling that day. It would take me many hours to get to Bakewell and the Alpkit Shakeout, for a day’s rest and partying.

It may sound perverted but I have to admit I like hills. I like being able to keep pushing myself, but this bike was heavy once I’d packed it with the luggage that I needed to be self-sufficient on this journey. And even with that extra effort, I found that the hills make me think more. Riding uphill intensifies the silent dialogue that shouts 'you're stronger than you think, shut up legs shut up brain,dig deep, the top will come if you continue, remember the elation’.

As I neared Bakewell and the festival, I eased up on myself and I think I forgot to enjoy myself. I was enduring myself instead. Hours had slipped by but I don't remember enjoying them: I reminded myself not to let that part of the ride slip. As I rode down the last little hill, I knew I was nearly there. A beer and friends were waiting for me. A smile crossed my face, I remember this road! This is where Sophie and Matt live! I had only been there once before, but Sophie, or Dr Payne as I liked to call her, had appeared In The Frame as our a voice of professional reason. Perhaps I should pop in unannounced? I hadn't seen them since the recording. Sophie's coffee was the best I'd tasted for days and I was so please I remembered enjoy myself and spend time with spontaneity.

It was getting dark now, I had renewed energy from my whistle stop and I raced towards Thornbridge outdoors and the Alpkit Big Shakeout, one of my favourite dates in the calendar. I love this little festival. Tonight I could kick back, drink beer, talk shit and bask in the satisfaction that I got here the best way possible. Keen to find a place to sleep later, I spoke to Col. Perhaps there is somewhere inside, I asked? He directed me to the stables.

After reaching Big Shakeout and enjoying the festivities, I move onwards and make it across to mainland Europe.

Day 3 -Alpkit Big Shakeout to Lincoln (60 miles)

My conversations with fellow adventurers at the festival followed the line of, 'Where are you heading to?' ‘Why?' 'Do you need a place to stay locally?’ and 'What route are you taking?' I only really fully committed to the next destination as I waited patiently on Sunday morning for the hangover to die down enough for to me to get on the bike. Leaving the festival was tough. I enjoyed my social visit and felt this impending gloom that I was about to be on my own. My mate Dom saw this. “You don't want to go, do you?” he asked. One thing I was sure of was that travelling further south of the country where traffic and people intensified didn’t thrill me. As soon as someone suggested the Hull to Rotterdam ferry crossing the lurking anxiety subsided, and I set off.

Ahh the flat lands, spinning the legs in the sunshine. It still seem to take longer than I imagined it would, or was I just being caught out by the encroaching nights of Autumn? As kids we used to play a car game, four of us crammed in the back, all trying to be the first to spot Lincoln cathedral!

Riding I couldn't help but play. Memories flooded back of being 8 years old and mischievous. Lincoln was my playground. I spent the night in night in a Premier Inn

Strava.

Day 4 -Lincoln to Hull (48 miles)

It was something of a nostalgic afternoon in Hull, after a stunning day riding through the flatlands. I booked my ferry ticket. A short day lay ahead of me and with the ferry leaving in the evening I knew how much distance I could cover and how long I would need. I called Dave from Extreme Adventure Foods. Who not only gave me a destination other than the ferry just outside of Hull, but loaded me up with all manner of electrolyte and protein drinks and tablets. These turned out to be an absolute godsend.

I allowed myself one beer to bid farewell to the island. I walked about the ferry, which brought back memories of the times I had taken this trip as a way to commute when I worked as an industrial Abseiler. My Facebook update for the day was, “Excited and equally anxious about what may lay tomorrow but at least it's not work!” Not interested in the ship's entertainment, I headed to bunk. I cooked my food on my little gas stove, refuelled, showered and slept.

Strava.

Day 5 -Rotterdam to the Grave (Henri Chapelle, Belgium) (163 miles)

Packing my bike to leave from the car deck, I was blinded by the morning light. I headed towards Rotterdam, stopping a few time to check on Google Maps as I headed towards Belgium. I followed a tow path for miles, with not one hill in hours of riding. I felt good. My adventure felt like it had started.

The freedom of not having a route or of any kind of bed waiting for me meant I could just carry on peddling. So I did. What would I do if I stopped? It wasn’t as if I could turn the tv on or read a book (I hadn't brought one). I decided it was better to ride until I wanted to eat and sleep. The roads were perfect for riding on: the Europeans do cycling so well. Autumn was well and truly reaching the Netherlands. I stopped for lunch on a bench overlooking the canal. I thought I would be sheltered from by the trees but the trees had ammunition! Every time the slightest breath of wind came by, the oak trees unleashed their armoury of acorns. It was beautiful really and held so much significance for me. A dragonfly joined me for my lunch of ration pack biscuits and a squeezy tube of chocolate spread (thanks Dave) and a banana. And after refueling I set off again.

I kept riding, and kept riding. I wasn't in Holland anymore, I’d reached Belgium and I was beginning to feel dizzy and exhausted. I checked the time: 2:30am.Chocolate wasn't tasting good nor making any difference to my energy levels. I needed sleep now to recharge me.

On top of the hill beside the road was a small hedge about hip height. There was no sign of life, no artificial lights, and all I could see was a tall stone column. I picked up the bike, forgetting how much heavier it had become, heaved it over the hedge and swiftly followed it, clumsily rolling over and on to the ground. I dug out my mat and sleeping bag. Once I filled the sleeping mat with my breath I had none left. I crawled fully clothed into the bag and lay on top of the mat, not bothering with a hot brew or even the bivvy bag. I was done and I was out cold.

I had cycled from 8:30am all the way through to the next day. I barely stopped only to shove food in my face and I had ridden the furthest I had ever ridden before. A whopping 163 miles.

Strava.

I had reached Belgium with a 163 mile day that left me dizzy and exhausted, but it didn't mean a lie in. From here on in I started to really become aware of what my body was still capable of, and perhaps what my mind wasn't.

Day 6 -Henri Chapelle to Bitburg (73 miles)

By 7am the increasing traffic noise meant the end to that night's slumber. I'm such a good sleeper too, and not good with less than 8 hours let alone 4. I gradually opened my eyes. There above my head, perched above that marble column was a giant gold eagle, shimmering in the early morning sun. I turned my head to the side. I had been so wiped out and so oblivious to anything thing else but closing my eyes that night I hadn't noticed what was spread out before me: thousands of neatly regimented white crosses, the like I've only ever seen in films. I had spent those few hours tucked up in an American War Cemetery.

Blurry eyed and baffled at how deliriously tired I must've been, I packed up camp as stealthily as I could because even at this hour there were a troop of groundsmen going about their work. With the bike loaded up, I walked a little around the white crosses to pay my respects.

Rolling down the hill into the village of Henri Chapelle, my stomach ached. I found a bakery. Allowing the young shopkeeper to assume that the two others must be outside. I sat on a bench to the side of the shop: hidden from view I drank all 3 coffees and pretty much inhaled 3 freshly baked, doughy and warm saucer sized Waffles. How I miss Belgium!

I started my day in Flemish-speaking Belgium, then crossed an ambiguous hidden border to French-speaking Belgium. Looking at my Garmin, a massive forest lay in wait for me. The smooth tarmac roads turned to loose gravelly forest trail. It proved too much for the skinny road bike tyres, and I got a puncture just 10 minutes in; not a problem, I thought. I took out the tube, cleaned inside the tyre, put in the spare, broke out my new CO2 canister inflator... And POP! Right at that moment I wished I'd practice using this pump before I set off. I think I let it fill too fast; the gas froze the tube, and it tore. That was my only spare. I was miles from a town or anyone. If a douche screams in a forest and no one can hear it, is he still a douche? Yes, absolutely!

I should've carried my standard pump. I should've carried more than one spare. I was on my own, with no one else to blame and, more importantly, no one to vent off to. So I promised myself to keep my cool. I wanted my trip to be as eventful as it could despite the avoidable dramas. As peacefully and serenely as I could I checked Google Maps. I was 20km from a town, right on the edge of the forest. Ever since the accident, even with the latest surgery, I can’t walk that distance. I can’t walk down a big street without pain. So I got on the bike, said my apologies to the wheel for what I was about to do and gingerly rode on. Haribo helped lift my spirits in what was hours of gritted teeth as I road on the uneven tracks, apologising to the front wheel with each stone it hit.

The forest gave way to fields and then homes; I saw a woman arguing with her son in one of the gardens; I recognised some of what she was saying: it was French. So, in my finest French, I asked if there was a place nearby to repair my bike. ‘Oh sure, just up the road, turn left and it's right now.’

Really I thought?

Et voila! Of course, it was! A big bike store too! They let me use their workshop. Loaded up with new tubes and new canisters, but with 5 hours of good riding lost, this was a tough day. Despite that I knew already I had grown and learnt. My lessons: be calm, allow spontaneity to happen, keep smiling and carry more inner tubes.

>I left Belgium for Germany with very little sign that I had left one for the other. My hope that morning was to get to Bitburg, but I stopped a little short of that goal. It grew dark well before I was ready for it. I didn't want to sleep wild anywhere near a town. I'd ridden 73 miles over a very long day. The Garmin frustratingly sent me through fields as supposed tracks. I got frustrated and tired trying to pick my way through rough terrain in the limited light.

Day 7-Bitburg to Trier (25 miles)

Eyes still firmly shut, I became aware of someone whistling. All night, I had been aware of the sound of the road above and the drone of the wind turbines not far away, a strange comforting link to civilisation, but the whistling was too close for comfort. I became intensely aware of how vulnerable I was tucked in my bag. I opened my eyes, and looked toward my feet, and there was a guy walking his Husky. He didn't seem at all perplexed to see me it was only the Husky who came to sniff. I said hello and good morning in my roughest German.

I brewed up the finest packet cappuccino that Aldi had to offer, had some breakfast cake and packed my stuff with ease and pleasure. I got my bearing with Google Maps on my phone, which usually spent its days in aeroplane mode so I wouldn't get transported back to the life I had temporarily left behind. I triple-checked with my Garmin. I didn't want to repeat the last few hours of the night before.

Sarrbrücken, 80 miles away looked an achievable destination for today. I now had an insight of what I could achieve in a day in terms of mileage. The sun was shining and getting higher in the sky. Once again I had this overwhelming feeling of being blessed. I was excited to get moving again.

Lightweight gas camping stove

Not long after I made a little navigation error, daydreaming was coming easier to me and I missed a road that I was meant to take. I span the bike around completely oblivious to the weight it was now. I was on a farm track, loose gravel, off balance, tight turn; the front wheel slipped away from under me, and I fell heavily on my right side, impacting my hip and my arm. I lay there in the gravel, searing pain, looking up at the sky. Shame coursed through me and I was quick to check that no one saw my error. What a stupid mistake to make. After a few minutes, I picked up the bike and tried to ride on, but it became quickly apparent that I could not. My elbow and my hand had completely ceased to move and were totally numb. I had to get off the bike. I sat on the road now hugely aware of where I was in the world and where I wasn't.

After a pause I climbed back on the bike. I rode on slowly for another hour or so and got to Trier, a picture-postcard German town. I rode along the river and found the first cheap-looking hotel. It was a whooping €70 for the room. The dent in my pride only matched the dent in my wallet.

I stood in the shower for so long that the little complimentary bar soap vanished. I went to bed whilst the sun was still shining. Closing the curtains I lay there motionless until the next morning

I was so right about spending a night in the hotel. Physically, I felt good; my hand and arm were back to their normal level of function, but the fall and knock to pride was still playing on my mind. Whilst in the comfort of civilization and fluffy pillows, I was back to worrying about troubles at home when I woke. Keen to rid myself of this and get some perspective I couldn't get back on the bike quick enough.Turning the pedals turns the mind in the direction you should.

For the first few hours I was alone with my thoughts without paying much regard to the scenery.

Deep rumination over, I started to enjoy the road I was on, where I was in that moment.

Just then, I met a fellow bike packer: the telltale huge saddle bag told me this; that little nod to each other, to one fellow adventurer to another, broke the ice. Edric was a Frenchman who had travelled from Rotterdam, too, but via Luxembourg. We quickly got the measure of each other. Smiles are a good gauge of character and we decided to ride together throughout the day.

The pair of us seemed relieved to break the internal dialogues. We chatted nonstop.

Edric had booked into an Airbnb just outside of Sarreguemines contacted his hosts and invited me to come along. I had no other plans. I spent a wonderful evening dining and drinking with our hosts in a stunning and obviously very expensive house, all this set me back just €10. I set my bed on the floor of their spare room. I was done by 9 PM, a little drunk and sated.

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