Briançon – we discovered – is a beautiful city nestled in the French Alps, very close to the border with Italy. The mountains surround you there like a fortress and the people who live there tend to embody the fearless outdoorsiness of wild mountain goats.
We had sent out a request a few days earlier on our cycling app, Warm Showers, to stay with a fellow cyclist and adventurer called Romain Auclair. He responded with the surprising news that he would also be leaving to cycle to New Zealand on that coming Sunday. We were gob-smacked. He said we could come and stay with him at his parents house as he had left his own place to save money before the trip.
We had a whirlwind – wonderful time from the moment we arrived. As soon as Romain heard that we were struggling with the derailleur on my bike (as it had been bent), he invited his friend Jean-Michelle over. Jean-Michelle, a small and very sprightly man, immediately began doing a thorough once over of my entire bike. I was overwhelmed. We had just arrived at a strangers house and someone was tinkering and fixing and rectifying my whole bike. Incredible.
We all sat down to dinner later, after I had to awkwardly explain to Romain that I was vegetarian and could only eat the sauce and couscous of his all day slow-cook lamb tagine. Painful. I sometimes wonder if it’s best to just announce my vegetarianism straight after my name. ‘Hi, I’m Molly, nice to meet you and I’m vegetarian.’ Might seem a bit odd perhaps … or a bit preachy … I need to come up with a plan as the world is only going to get more meaty the further East we get.
Anyway, Romain was very understanding and his parents were gorgeous people and made us feel very at home. That evening, after dinner, Romain drove us over to introduce us to the Hickey family and their guests. They were a hugely generous, vivacious English/French family and we thought the world of all of them from the get go. We all shared stories late into the night while drinking delicious wine and eating ice cream. I felt like we had accidentally stumbled into a parallel universe where we could experience all the things in life that we hadn’t been getting any of while on the bikes.
On the second day, Romain asked us if we wanted to go climbing. Haydn and I had mentioned that we loved bouldering in London. Which for those of you who don’t know, means climbing without a harness or ropes, using moulded holds on artificial walls that are never really high enough for you to fall and seriously hurt yourself. Oh, and the whole flooring of those climbing gyms is made of giant crash mats. Even when I had gotten quite good at monkeying around, I would sometimes get butterflies in my belly at the top of the not-so-tall climbing walls. But I never told anyone that I thought perhaps I was scared of heights and that somehow made it seem less important.
Romain drove us for about 30 minutes out of Briançon and when we parked and he said – So this is Via Ferrata. I assumed that was the name of the place, not of a type of harnessed, white knuckled, eyeball popping, cliff scaling. He pulled three harnesses out of the boot.
We walked very uphill for another 30 minutes, on a narrow rough path zigzagging up a steep hillside between dry, exotic looking trees. I was out of breath in seconds and could feel my poor over-used hamstrings and calves screaming at me – What the hell are you doing! Lie down right now!
Anxiety began brewing as we walked higher and higher. Knots where being tied in my intestines. What were we going to be climbing up here?
Dom, a lovely member of the Hickey clan and his two pilot friends, Tom and Tom, had come for this outing too. Tom, Tom and Dom all laughed about having drunk too much the night before and seemed very relaxed about the whole situation, so I tried to absorb some of their nonchalance.
We came to a flatter area where the path stopped and I looked directly at what we were about to climb. My heart pounded and my head span as I looked upwards at a completely vertical rock face. I couldn’t even see the top. Just flat, straight rock that disappeared into sky.
I felt like bottling it. I quickly thought through all my escape options. I could say – Sorry I don’t feel well – I’m going to wait in the car at the bottom … for a few hours … until you guys are done. Oh god. Very boring. Maybe just run screaming down the hill. Before I could think of any other options everyone else was pretty much ready to start. I fumbled around with my harness.
Romain quickly realised I had no idea what I was doing and showed me through how to attach the harness to the safety wires drilled into the rock. He said to use my previous climbing knowledge and know that if I use the harness right it will keep me safe if I fall. I asked him if there were hand-holds the whole way up and he shook his head. No, there are just these metal rings coming out of the rock where the rock is flat and where there is climbable rock there are no holds. Don’t undo both clips at the same time – undo one – clip it onto the next section of safety wire and then move the other clip across. And try not to fall. Just use the clips right and you won’t die.
His words were ringing in my ears as we began to climb, one after the other, up the cliff. Attaching our harnesses with the carabiners onto the safety wire and using the metal hand-holds to pull ourselves up. Oh god, oh god. I tried to pretend I was really relaxed about it, most of all to try to convince myself not to freak out.
We got very high, very quickly. I don’t know if this much adrenaline had ever been flowing through my system. I felt a razor-sharp awareness take over me, the kind that electrifies you with extreme focus when you think you might die any second.
I tried not to look down. But it was like telling a child not to ‘press the red button’. I glimpsed down between my feet. About 50 meters of vertical rock slid away beneath me and then jagged rocks and trees sat far beneath. Another adrenaline shot was injected into my bloodstream. I was really high up. And the higher up we climbed the windier it got. My arms started to tremble slightly. I didn’t look down after that. Two hours and a few near death experiences later, we reached the top.
I felt elated. On top of the world – literally. I had conquered my fear and managed to focus my mind and body enough to get to the top of the climb. I couldn’t really believe it.
Later we were invited to a barbecue at the Hickey’s place. Some friends of Romain’s drove us there and we arrived at an incredible house that looked out at the mountains and over the valley.
We had a wonderful, giddy night of conversations, sumptuous alcohols and endless-divine food. We did feel slightly like imposters as Romain was having his own leaving do at his house so he wasn’t there with us, as our vital social bridge, but hey ho we were getting used to feeling like lemons. The Hickey’s were very generous people and all brilliant company so they made us feel very welcome.
Late that night, I looked out at the spectacular view from the elegant sweeping balcony of their palatial house. It suddenly occurred to me that I felt slightly out-of-place amongst all the abundant luxury of the evening. I felt guilty and over indulgent and almost ashamed that I was allowed to enjoy these extravagances and other people were living such a tough existence. The rawness of how unfair the world is hit me. It was like a doorway had now been opened in my mind that couldn’t be pushed shut again whenever it was convenient.
Working in Calais had made me so sharply aware of my extreme fortune due to my place of birth and comfortable upbringing in a peaceful and safe place. I had done nothing to deserve any of these things, when I was not yet an idea, but they have shaped me and will continue to shape my life. I have come to realise that it is hugely thanks to this random hand of chance, that I can choose to cycle around the world and that the thought of it even entered my mind as a possibility.
That night was the first time I realised I had become an outsider to the life I was accustomed to. A life of enormous luxury compared to so many. I have realised that it is so valuable to step outside of our ‘normality’ as it is only from there that we can gain some kind of perspective. I feel the swell of gratitude growing in me everyday spent on the road. How very lucky I was and am.
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