Originally published on 18/08/20----------------------------------
Rise and shine. Who’s knocking? The sun. You knew this would happen. Shouldn’t have gone to bed so late. But you did. And now you only have yourself to blame as you slide into your socks and slip on your dew soaked boots, watching people far more qualified than you pack the tents, sleeping bags, foam matts and far too many beers. Every available pocket has been surrendered to the booze. The only bottle not filled with alcohol is sunscreen.
Before you know it you’re in a car tearing round the winding French mountain roads. On your left, the rock face. On your right, the chasm of death. The other road users don’t seem to mind the blind corners; everyone assumes they will make it around first, anyone coming the other way be damned. The windows are down, the driver is young and tanned. So is Kayley, with her legs carelessly laying up on the dashboard and out the window. You feel the urge to say something about that story you heard of the girl who lost her forehead when her knees went straight through her face during a car crash under similar conditions. But you don’t. 
The car is full. Denzel, a twenty-three year old heavyweight boxer from Dominica, pokes around in his fluffy Pikachu backpack; the one he claims to have stolen from a teenager. Kirsty, fresh home from her studies in Amsterdam, bops along to the music and enjoys life through her sunglasses. Fela is shirtless at the wheel, cool as a cucumber. He knows these roads. These are his roads. Sometimes on the sketchier ones, he honks; just to be safe. 
Somewhere behind is a white van with three men inside it. Tom, Flo and Mathias, three semi-muscular white men, all with long hair, all smoking cigarettes. Mathias’ van is currently serving as a transport vessel for a massive payload of soft drinks, rice and cheese. 
Upon reaching the summit, the convoy of two pulls up and starts unloading. Various bags are mounted onto carrying harnesses, and the tents and beers are distributed among the weaker trekkers, including you. The march begins. You walk somewhere at the back, next to your two-hundred-pound Dominican buddy, who looks like he’s headed to a Comic-Con afternoon tour rather than a two-day trip into the French Alps. 
France this time of year, this far south, is exposed to tremendous heat. The sun blazes over the mountains, mere miles from the Italian border. ‘La Valée des Merveilles’, or The Valley of Wonders, is lush with greenery and a titanic landscape. The peaks of the hills stab like daggers into the blue of the cloudless sky, and make anyone feel small. 
You pass some workmen fixing the path for rainfall, reducing the risk of landslides. In this part of the world, everyone knows each other. Or even if they don’t, they act like they do. There is a shared understanding that they are ‘cool’. Cooler than anyone else, certainly. So, when you walk past tradesmen building a gully on the side of a mountain, you fist bump each one of them. It is a warm and intimate moment, and sacred among mountain dwellers. There is no such thing as a lone wolf in these hills. If you are among those brave enough to work or adventure in the Alps, you are part of a community. 
Halfway up you meet a young baby-faced man from the Refuge, sporting cool-guy sunglasses. He has descended the mountain to intercept your party and help with the carry the food. He says he makes this journey up and down at least twice a day. At this point you realise these ridiculous quantities of Fanta and Babybel aren’t just for you! They are for the people up the mountain, in desperate need of a care package. You are refuelling a hiker’s hideaway, and the reward for your efforts will be a warm meal upon arrival.
You fall behind during the ascent because you are unfit and stayed up until 4am last night smoking things and drinking tequila-flavoured beer. The other reason is that your Dominican friend has never climbed a mountain before, and the Alpine trail is not forgiving to first timers. ‘Don’t worry’, says Fela, with a knowing smile, ‘We are about to take the shortcut.’ ‘Hurray!’ you say, prematurely. In front of you lies an enormous quasi 90-degree mountainside, and you are about to go straight up! Everyone saddles their bags and tightens their straps, and sets off following behind the baby-man from the Refuge, who glides effortlessly up the hill. Those with the heavy packs are now properly sweating, and even their sun kissed skin is glistening with condensation. 
Upon reaching the top you exclaim ‘that wasn’t so bad!’ in French, but instantly regret it as Tom and the other guys carrying the food throw you a dark look. After everyone has made it up, you carry on. ‘We’re nearly there’, says Mathias lazily, as he bounds past you, unfazed by the enormous weight on his back. The mountain is gorgeous, and you can’t help but feel safe, even at such heights, wrapped within the stern cocoon of the valley. Ahead of you, Flo shouts, ‘Le voila!’, ‘There it is!' And sure enough, as you make it over the final rocky crest in front of you, there it is: The Refuge.
The Refuge de la Valmasque is a small cabin of wood and stone, poised on a flat piece of rock perched on top of a much rounder rock nestled in the corner of a giant mountain bowl filled with a lake of crystal clear blue water sparkling like a blanket of diamonds in the Alpine sun. The air is chilly and it blows gently and forcefully in intervals over you. The lake is held by a stone wall dam with a walkway over it and a sign saying ‘ne marchez pas’, ‘do not walk’. You immediately walk over it and head straight for the cabin. 
You sit down at a table to roll yourself a cigarette and accidentally drop your lighter which falls through a hole in the wooden table and through another hole in the wooden floor and straight down onto the rocks below. ‘Thank god it wasn’t your phone’ says Kirsty, opposite you. Thank god indeed. 
After some handshakes, you are provided a pot full of spaghetti and a small bowl of pesto and a narrow slice of the Parmesan you carried up the mountain. Your prize for making the trip up here.
Everybody leaves to go pitch their tent. You choose a suitable location in front of the sweeping valley view and watch as Tom works himself into a mild frenzy trying to work out how your tent is set up. You offer no help whatsoever.
The Refuge is a place for hikers to stop, catch their breath, and have a delicious ‘tarte aux myrtilles’ before either heading further up the mountain or back down. The Refuge runs on a skeleton crew of three youngsters and one veteran.
When Kayley told you to pack light because ‘you will only be there one night’, what she failed to mention was that the Alpine location would get extremely chilly after dusk, even at the height of summer. You walk around in your daytime shorts and single thin long sleeve sweater seriously wishing you had taken a hoodie. After your brief swim in the freezing lake, you realise you also did not bring a towel. What did you bring? Alcohol. That will have to do.
You spend the evening waiting to be served your dinner, which unfortunately will only be served once all the real customers have finished their meals. Luckily your friends banded together to pay for 10 litres of box wine and by God they will drink it all before the night is through. 
Everyone is drunk and making lots of noise, irritating and obstructing the sleep of every single person who pitched their tent within a 500 ft radius. You ask yourself how it is that nobody has complained about those ‘unruly youths’ and their partying (you later find out that many people complained, but since it’s a free camp spot, no one has any more entitlement than anyone else). 
No one warns you of the darkness that prevails on the top of the mountain. You are so far from any possible human light source that you can gaze upwards and see shooting stars at will. You can even see the milky way. 
The silence is incredible, both within you and without. The peace of the wild, broken only by the idiotic laughter of your friends and the grumbling of Norwegian hikers, carries with it a mysterious sense of fulfilment. A sense that perhaps all you ever really wanted was this silence. You know there are people around you but you embrace the solitude, and allow yourself to be comfortable with the knowledge that in this moment, you are right where you want to be.
Next morning, you wake up slowly. No one is banging on your door. No one is rushing you out of bed. You wriggle free of your sleeping bag and unzip your tent. In front of you is a gentle sunrise. The valley around you seems to bloom into being, and you are happy that you got to witness this peaceful and meditative start to the day. You only hope you can take a piece of this place when you go back down to the world below. 
It’s all downhill from here. 
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