Tania Cotton: MovementWise Milestones – Mairi’s Adventure to the Nid D’Aigle
Mairi wanted to walk the Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB) and I wanted her to be ready physically, mentally, and emotionally for this next MovementWise Milestone! Where could I take her that would give her the opportunity to explore her strengths and also to highlight abilities that still needed to be worked on and developed so that she could prepare to embrace this new challenge with conviction and confidence? The Nid D’Aigle means ‘The Eagle’s Nest’ and as it the name suggests it is a place high up in the mountains where the eagles fly and where you can touch the glacier. This stunningly beautiful walk of over 1000 metres ascent, involves varied terrain, ladders, exposed uneven rock and flowing rivers and snow banks to cross. Preparation was key, and this involved not only choosing the right kit – shoes, rucksack, walking poles and layers of clothing; but also the right sustenance in terms of food for energy, and also sustenance in terms of the energy that comes from maintaining your morale when you may feel cold, tired and emotionally stretched to the edge of your comfort zone!
Walking up metal ladders and over exposed areas of uneven rock were physical skills well within Mairi’s ability within a ‘gym environment’ yet when confronted with the exposure of a drop to one side, Mairi’s primal instinct was to crouch and crawl instead of standing tall. This experience of being ‘on the edge’ of her comfort zone, caused her to make a deliberate decision to go back via a longer but less steep path, adding on a couple of hours to the walk. It highlighted how the unfamiliar and unknown can cause us to move differently and how a diversity of movement challenges enable us to become both more durable and adaptable – key to our survival. The TMB was going to be a big challenge and Mairi needed to feel that she could thrive and really enjoy the experience, not just survive it!
After this huge achievement, I put together some questions aimed at helping Mairi learn from her experiences and to build her competence and self-confidence in the run-up to the TMB (see her answers below):
Mairi’s Self-Assessment Questions:
Mairi Watson: Rising to the Challenge
Over the past 18 months I have set myself Movementwise Milestones. These are challenges, some big and some small, for me to aim for along my recovery road. One huge milestone that I wanted to do was to walk the Tour du Mont Blanc – a 10 day, 170 kilometre walk around the Mont Blanc massif passing through parts of Switzerland, Italy and France, carrying my backpack and staying in refuges along the way. If the weather permitted and the refuges were open, I wanted to do it when the snow had melted and the alpine flowers were in full bloom. To prepare me for the TMB, and to show me what was in store, Tania suggested we walk up to the Bionassay Glacier and the Refuge Nid D’Aigle over 2,412m, on the Mont Blanc Massif.
It was a couple of days after my 55th birthday at the end of May, 14 months after my second knee operation, when Tania and I set off early from her chalet nestled in the mountains at 1250m. It was a lovely day and I felt, despite the restrictions the coronavirus lockdown had imposed on us, fit and strong. I had complete faith in Tania and knew that she would not ‘break’ me or allow me to be ‘broken’ in anyway. I was carrying in my backpack my waterproof jacket and trousers, my lightweight crampons (metal spikes for my shoes), a woolen hat, a puffa jacket, water, and half of Tania’s and my picnic. I was probably carrying about 4kg in total but the majority of the weight of the pack was sitting squarely on my hips. As it was relatively cool when I left home, I was wearing leggings, (Tania was wearing shorts), a vest t-shirt and a fleece and on my feet my old walking boots.
We walked relatively quickly out of Tania’s hamlet and up towards the first of many breathtaking waterfalls. We climbed up rocky paths, over fallen trees, crossed over a notoriously long and high swing bridge with the spring river roaring beneath us and out into a clearing. There, above us, hung the Bionnassay Glacier, like a roughly torn piece of dirty white bread. The refuge, perched on a rock alongside, was glinting in the morning sunshine. Both looked miles away and very high up. The path wove along the side of the hill, climbing as it went. Wild flowers bloomed wherever they could get purchase in the rocky terrain. Up past the moraine of the glacier we went, down below we could see the glacier’s milky blue water flowing into a lake. We crossed a snow field over a river, stepping quickly so we didn’t sink in and began climbing steeply. The path turned into steps with a metal wire clipped along the rockface for balance. As I climbed I looked down between my feet and froze. There was absolutely nothing to stop me if I fell. I would fall literally 100s of feet before hitting the bottom of the valley. I could feel myself panicking and my breath becoming shallow. I felt sick and faint. I had stopped moving and Tania, mid-sentence, turned to look back to see where I was. She climbed back down to me and talked to me telling me to trust myself, trust my feet, to breathe slow, deep breaths and to walk one foot in front of the other not looking down but looking straight ahead instead. In my fear I had started literally to crawl up the mountainside. We got to a less steep part of the path and stopped to recalibrate. Tania reminded me to create a solid base with my two feet apart and my knees over my feet so that should I slip, I would be able to balance on the foot that was still on the ground. I shook myself down, gave myself a talking to and we continued. The rest of the path was less steep and we zig zagged up the towards the glacier. Up close, the tears and slips in the ice as the glacier moves slowly down the mountain do indeed resemble stretch marks. The raw beauty of it was breathtaking.
We crossed over a small snow field, tinged with pink from algae, to the refuge. It wasn’t yet open, either because it was too early in the season or because of Covid-19, we weren’t sure which. Still, its decking made a good picnic spot. The minute we stopped moving and sat out of the sun, a chill set in. I was glad I had brought my puffa jacket and hat. Tania had brought some trousers too which she put on over her shorts. It was cold. The view however was spectacular. We really could see for miles. As we warmed up, we ate our magnificent picnic. I had BBQed some marinated pork a couple of evenings before so I sliced it up and had brought it for us to share plus a couple of buttered slices of fresh, nutty brown bread. Tania had made a delicious roast cherry tomato and fresh garlic salad with sweat balsamic dressing. For pudding we had homemade banana bread with walnuts. Sticky and fresh. The combination of the view, the exertion and the healthy, tasty food and hot tea made our picnic taste incredible.
Although I had survived the way up, I was not sure I could go down the same way, so we decided to take a longer but more gentle route down, walking part of the way down the TMB railway track to where it met the path up from Les Houches and the Chamonix Valley. The first part of the track was covered in thick snow so we strapped on our crampons until we could walk freely along the edge without fear of slipping. As we came out of the shadow of Mont Blanc, the sun once again warmed us up and we shed our layers. We walked down to Bellevue and on down to Bionnassay. By then we had been walking for 8 hrs, it was baking hot and I was beginning to tire.
Tania had planned for us to cross the little swing bridge between Bionnassay and Champel but when we got there, we realised it hadn’t yet been rehung following the winter, so we had to walk twenty minutes back up the road and detour round through the woods for an hour. The walk was in fact beautiful and on the relative flat, but I was running out of steam. By the time we reached Tania’s house, I had just enough energy to say goodbye and drive home.
I felt like I had climbed Everest. I was exhausted yet elated at what I had just achieved.
After dinner and a good night’s sleep I was ready to relive our adventures. The photos we took along the way were incredible and showed just how steep and tricky the path was. I recounted the day to anyone who would listen with the path getting steeper and trickier at every telling. But in truth I did feel a huge sense of achievement. This walk was something that would have challenged me hugely thirty years ago even before I had one hip and two knee surgeries and here I was pushing my body and myself out of my comfort zone and loving it. But more importantly, a day like this made me realise that we need to set challenges all the time to keep us moving forward. I am looking forward to my next challenge. I think I am ready for the Tour du Mont Blanc.
What questions do you ask yourself when you take on new challenges? Do you use new movement experiences as opportunities to learn and to grow? Would you also like to benefit from ‘guided mastery’ to have the opportunity to get out into nature and try things that perhaps you would not have the confidence to do alone.
At MovementWise we want to help you connect with your body, with yourself and to nature and to discover how wonderful this feeling can be.