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Magic moments in the Chartreuse mountains

Setting off in discovery of the natural wonders around us

Riding into the sun, anyone can do it…

At the end of this year, the pandemic is compelling us all to look for our adventure in the close vicinity. As the russet shades gradually fall from the trees leaving us a leafy carpet as treacherous as it is sublime, the temperatures are dropping.

The mountaintops are whitening and the ground remains frozen until sunset, boding well for considering a trek along the winding sinuous pathways. Among friends, we discuss the subject of the little known Saint Même circuit, in the Chartreuse. Nine hundred metres high at the starting point, it rises to eighteen hundred metres, along one of the most majestic natural waterfalls in France. The programme is tempting and a few days later there I am, with Luc and Richard, my image producing colleagues. The puffer jacket is “de rigueur” in the mornings, even with the positive difference in altitude.

The invasive spray from the nearby waterfalls has covered the stones with a slippery surface that would make any seasoned ice-skater turn pale. But the place is so beautiful, the ambiance so mystical. The deafening roar of cubic metres of water crashing on the ground, just a few paces from our path, cannot fail but to remind you of the power of mother nature.

After an hour’s climbing enhanced by a few metres on a via ferrata secured by chains, we enter a splendid cave – gloomy, enclosing a lake at its heart. Wasting no time, Richard dons his diving suit and plunges in to explore the entrails of this wild terrain.

With my lamp fixed to my helmet, I’m off for some excitement on my mountain bike.

Magnetic, the place leaves us perched in our dreams of elsewhere, transported into a timeless universe. The cave exit is the ideal place for a balancing act between a dizzy drop and blinding green moss, all overhung by thousands of tons of rock of a cliff whose only sign of life is the resurgence of a wall as it warms up in the early afternoon.  The ride will be slippery and exposed but very enjoyable and technical. The cloth of clouds we look over is of unrivalled thickness. The descent will be sometimes stony, sometimes root-rutted and always steep. The pleasure of ending autumn in a paradise lost, yet it’s so much better.

The next day, it is just as cold. Climbing the left bank this time, which looked so much more bike-friendly on the map. The roots of the last section could be negotiable by pedal power if the wet weather would deign to hold off for a few hours, but no such luck.

Finally, we arrive at the foot of the second waterfall, the same one that draws its innards from within our cave of the day before. The spray, produced by the continuous cascade of millions of litres of water, deafens us. The path along the watercourse will be technical but of exceptional beauty. I climb back on to ride it a few more times.

Magic moments, in an El Dorado right on the doorstep

One arch bridge crossing later, against the immensity of the waterfalls, here we are in a field of roots. Its slippery, it’s bumpy and it’s shaky but we get through. The next section, however technical, will be child’s play in comparison.

The moss clinging to the huge rocks that surround us brings colour to the chilled décor, unforgiving of the slightest pilot error. The remainder of the descent will be in full flow and rapid.

Hands frozen, feet too, it’s time to return to the warm. One hour later, here I am at the side of the path: Jetboil lit, heating up a nice cup of coffee. We might be tired but we can’t stop smiling.

Setting off to discover majestic places, just outside your front door, is possibly one of the keys to happiness!

Words: Fred Horny

Images: Luc Gregoire

Location: Grenoble, France, 15 December 2020