Regional Spotlight: An Urban Denver Adventure & Jackson Hole Escape

The entire Colorado and Wyoming region has so much to offer – you could spend weeks just eating your way through Denver, or bounce to one of hundreds of mountain adventures within hours. If I do my job correctly, this guide will help you better understand what each has to offer and what spots to hit whether you have a few days or a few weeks in the Denver / Jackson Hole regions.

jackson hole

My initial draw to Denver for this trip was Outdoor Retailer, held at the city convention center. I make a point at least once every couple of years of getting out to Outdoor Retailer, especially now that it has moved from Salt Lake City to Denver, i.e. the mecca of weekend mountain adventures.  For this particular trip, I wanted to also use the opportunity to do some city hopping around Denver, checking out the hotel, art, and brewery scene, followed by a long weekend getaway in Jackson Hole, easily one of my favorite places in the world (having been to the Alps, Dolomites, Andes, etc, Jackson Hole still remains towards the top of the list!)

Importantly, this trip took place during winter Outdoor Retailer in early November, which to Denver urbanites and Jackson Hole skiiers is considered the “off-season,” i.e. the season of waiting patiently for that first big snowfall which officially signals winter sports season.  But to me, this shoulder season should very much be considered ‘on’ season for tourists for a number of reasons: 1) there are less crowds, 2) the weather hasn’t turned for the worse yet (& is actually quite nice given the region’s reputation for having way more sunny days than not!), 3) lower hotel prices given the lower volume of traffic, 4) the roads are not yet iced over, making road trips and outdoor adventures easy and safe.

DENVER:

PLACES TO STAY:

Hilton Denver City Center hosted me on this trip, and I would stay there again 10 times out of 10.  They were within walking distance of everything I wanted to see/do, super useful in terms of concierge/front desk services, had a kick-butt breakfast, and have an incredible and diverse dinner offering at Prospect’s Urban Kitchen & Bar located conveniently on the lower level of the hotel. Not to mention, the hotel itself is completely affordable for the average traveler! An ideal spot for really anyone: business travelers, individuals, or families.

Another often overlooked but important qualifier is that a hotel be a place where you feel comfortable leaving bags if needed, as I did.  I had no worries in my mind about leaving all of my luggage there for 3 days while on another leg of my trip, and that peace of mind was worth every penny of my stay!

denver hilton city center
denver city center hilton
denver hilton city center
hilton denver city center

Whatever you do, I would highly recommend finding a hotel in the city center or near union station.  You’ll find that a hotel in either location is reliable, convenient, and will have all of the amenities you could ever want.  Plus, being near highways (as the city center ones are) to get in and out on an adventure is another major perk. My friend who came from Golden to pick me up was able to get in and out of the city in a matter of minutes. Airport rides by Uber were also effortless. Win win.

AirBnB is also a good option in Denver, with many cute and well-located properties available. I would stay either near Union Station or in Capitol Hill.

denver union station
union station denver

FOOD:

DRINKS:

ACTIVITIES:

denver central market
denver

JACKSON HOLE:

PLACES TO STAY:

We stayed at two different hotels, which were completely different but each had their own unique assets, depending on what you are looking for. 

Let’s break them each down, shall we? 

HOTEL JACKSON

Always a sucker for a place with a bit of history, I fully appreciated that this hotel was started as a passion project of the Darwiche family, as Jim Darwiche and his wife Safaa spent many decades developing numerous businesses in Jackson and fell in love with the town and it’s heritage before deciding to start the new Hotel Jackson. I say “new” because the original Hotel Jackson was one of the first five buildings that made up the town of Jackson in the early 1900s, and this hotel being so aptly named is a nod to history.

hotel jackson
hotel jackson figs
hotel jackson
hotel jackson

As for hospitality, this absolutely gorgeous, rustic, high-end hotel leaves no detail overlooked. They’ve got luxury dialed in: the front desk runs like a well-oiled machine, and when there, you truly feel as though you have nothing left to do but sit back and R E L A X and let them do the rest.

We noticed lots of little details, from the attentiveness of the staff, to the warm cookies, coffee/tea & adventure books available in the lobby, to the soothing music and bottle of water made available as part of the turn down service at night. We felt very well looked after here.  Not to mention, the lodgy western flair makes you feel warm and cozy, without isolating you from the mountains right outside the front door. Hotel Jackson successfully brings the outside in.

A final perk: Hotel Jackson boasts one of the best restaurants in Jackson Hole, it’s very own on-site Lebanese and Mediterranean fusion restaurant called FIGS, which I’d certainly recommend you at least stop at for a dinner. But be careful setting up too close to the restaurant’s two story fireplace: you may never end up wanting to leave.

Importantly, Hotel Jackson is also the first LEED-certified hotel in Jackson Hole, so is ahead of the curve.

ANVIL HOTEL

Living in Europe has given me a real affinity for hotels that have that lodge meets ultra modern/hip feel.  The lobby of the 49-room Anvil Hotel feels almost as though you’ve been dropped into a Huckberry catalogue. Fancy coffees are available for purchase, and the common area fireplace invites you to waste your day away cozied up in front of it. I have to be honest: I could’ve sat in their lobby and ignored the mountains outside all day long. Yes, it is THAT cozy and inviting.

Another perk: they have lots of fun trendy gear (including sunglasses from my friends over at Sunski!) and the entire hotel’s aesthetic just screams PENDLETON!  Don’t forget to set aside some money to purchase a takeaway from their lobby store... if you're anything like me, you’ll want everything in there.

anvil
anvil
anvil jackson hole
anvil jackson hole

This hotel is a steal at a price point starting in the low 100’s, especially in shoulder season.  What we loved most about the rooms was that they felt upscale and hip, but also just cozy/small enough that you almost believed you were in a cabin in the woods. The room got cooler at night (by choice, we could’ve turned on the heater, but opted not to), and we loved bundling up under the winter-ready heavy wool blankets adorning each bed. It is safe to say that Anvil encouraged us to fully embrace the cabin feels.

Interestingly, Anvil also has a fun history. Bloomberg recently quite aptly called it “the Wild West’s Dude Ranch for Hipsters”. The hotel has been around a long time (since the 1950’s, when it was considered more of a ‘motel’) and first caught the attention of now-owner hotelier Erik Warner in the mid-90’s. Early in his hospitality career, Warner worked the front desk at the “old” Anvil Hotel, and knew then that it could become something special. But it wasn’t until years later, on a visit back to Jackson Hole in 2014, that he discovered it’s current owners were toying with the idea of selling it. Armed with a couple decades of experience in the hospitality industry, and many successful projects under his belt, the time was finally right. Warner made a successful sales pitch and the Anvil Hotel became his. The entire hotel was gutted to become what it has become today. I suppose the combination of city hotelier flare + traditional Jackson Hole rustic is what makes this place feel so special.

FOOD:

DRINKS:

SHOPS:

  • Stop into Spirit and Spice, try some of the many options on tap, and pick up some gifts for friends/family. They will ship!

jackson cowboy bar
jackson hole
jackson hole
bin22 jackson hole

ACTIVITIES:

FLY JACKSON HOLE AERIAL FLIGHT

My absolute biggest off-season activity recommendation for Jackson, if your wallet allows (and even if it doesn’t, because it’s absolutely worth the splurge), is to take in aerial views of the region with Fly Jackson Hole.  They’ve been around for about 4 years as of 2018, and their operation is based right at the airport, so you can easily get to them – no excuses.  What better way to see absolutely everything Jackson Hole has to offer than to see it all in one epic full swoop?

fly jackson hole
fly jackson hole
fly jackson hole
Image taken by @bryaneastmedia

Image taken by @bryaneastmedia

We spent a few hours with the pilots, Pete (owner) and Dave, and both are two of the nicest, most charismatic folks you could ever meet.  You get the sense that they really love what they do, love and take pride in Jackson, and simply feel it is their obligation/honor to show other people the place they love so much. 

Importantly, both absolutely know their stuff when it comes to flying, as they have over 50 years of charter flying experience between the two of them. This is an airplane ride you don’t feel even the slightest bit worried or on edge about, which allows you to focus all of your energy on the beauty all around you.

Fly Jackson Hole has 2 planes in their fleet: a Cessna 207 8-seater and a Cessna 172XP.  You can’t go wrong with either – it’s more a matter of how many people you’ve got with you.

fly jackson hole
fly jackson hole

We opted for their Alpenglow Tour, which meant we had 90 minutes in the skies before, during and after sunset.  The tour allowed us to see Jackson and surrounding areas by day, but then get over to the other side of the Tetons to capture photos of that coveted dewey pink just sneaking it’s way across the mountains before the day slipped into night. The best surprise for us was just how much our pilot Dave knew about the region – I’ve been coming to Jackson Hole for years, and felt like I learned more about the entire area in those 90 minutes than I had in a decade. The flight cost was worth the download on local history and knowledge in itself!

If you have any doubts about booking a trip, don’t. Just do it!

Now that we have covered that, here are other off-season activities (check on these before you go, as some are closed at certain points depending on exact timing):

DRIVING / HIKING AROUND THE PARK

jackson hole
jackson hole car
teton national park jackson hole avis
teton national park

I can’t stress enough: the best way to experience Jackson is to get a rental car (even better if it’s 4WD or a fun adventure vehicle) and GO!!! To optimize your time in the region and see everything the park has to offer, you’ll want to be able to get around on your own without relying on hotel shuttles which will only take you to the airport/ski slopes and back. Here are a few must-sees in the park:

moulton barn jackson hole
jackson hole

*BONUS:  Because I attended Outdoor Retailer in Winter 2018, I wanted to share some photos / takeaways from the event for anyone interested in attending a future show.

OUTDOOR RETAILER:

outdoor retailer denver
outdoor retailer denver
outdoor retailer denver

The general consensus especially now that they have split the winter show into two is that it is a much slower show, which actually was nice. It allows people to take a bit more time to chat and feel a little less crunched on time/appointments.  At the 2018 November Winter show, I had a few important takeaways worth sharing around the show and trends across the industry as a whole:

  1. I’ve been really excited to see how many panels/conversations are being had around innovation in an industry that has been slow to change. We are entering a new era.

  2. Sustainability, transparency and a re-examined supply chain continue to be current and relevant issues across many industries - & it definitely applies here. Consumers are getting smarter & want to know what’s in their products, who’s making them, and where they’re coming from. 

  3. Retail and E-commerce as we know it are changing forever, thanks to behemoths like Amazon. Best for retailers to work with it, not against it. 

  4. There is still so much opportunity in the adventure foods landscape - particularly for companies that do things to stand out in a crowded market (i.e. like RXBar). Clif Bar / Larabar, etc. remain dominant players but are ripe for disruption. Bonus pts for clean labels, & fresh/natural trumps long shelf life. A newly discovered favorite brand adhering to this ethos was Four Points Bar. Check them out!

  5. The US & Rest of World operate very independently. Regulations make it hard for brands to export to Europe. Lots of room to improve / work through the regulatory systems in order to take brands GLOBAL.

  6. There’s a real buzz in this industry about using their retail platforms for good to effect real change in the US. Brands are investing a lot of time/resources/marketing $ into causes around public lands & its important work - & is being heard.

 

DISCLOSURE: This trip was sponsored or partially sponsored by Hilton City Center Hotel, Hotel Jackson, Anvil Hotel and Fly Jackson Hole. I thank each for their warm hospitality and partnership. 

Gran Paradiso & Mont Blanc Expedition in Chamonix with Mont Blanc Guides

"We all have the same sickness," said our guide Fabio, in reference to himself and the three other mountain guides leading our trip. "All of us guides come from different places in the world, but all four of us are afflicted with the same disease: we just cannot get enough of the mountains, and the list of places to see never gets shorter." These type of sick people, I've come to realize, are my tribe - and his comments couldn't have made me feel more at home as I threw myself into another high altitude expedition and a week in Chamonix with Mont Blanc Guides.

Ever since moving to Europe a few years ago, I have had my sights set on Mont Blanc. In fact, a first-time trip to the Alps (more specifically, the almighty Matterhorn in neighbouring Zermatt, Switzerland) is what inspired me to move to Europe in the first place. It took only one time trekking the trails and traversing the mountains in Switzerland and I was hooked. I knew I needed to spend much more time in these precious places - and what better way to fulfill this dream than to summit the highest peak in the Alps. 

Mont Blanc Guides chalet in Chamonix

Mont Blanc Guides chalet in Chamonix

Three course meals at the chalet

Three course meals at the chalet

My experience has taught me that these types of mountain expeditions are best completed with 1) a knowledgeable and experienced guide, and 2) a group of similarly fit, like-minded individuals, with whom to share the experience. After all, the best things truly are most enjoyed with good company.  While I appreciate the people who boast about completing missions "un-guided," I've come to greatly appreciate the value in having a guide, as learning not only technical skills, but also about the local culture/history is equally as important to me as the mission itself. 

With this thought in mind, I set out to find a solid resource which would make this possible and within minutes, I landed on the website of Mont Blanc Guides. Needless to say, they know what they are doing and made it an incredibly easy decision for me to choose to work with them. Their website was in English (more rare than you might think), well laid out/organized, and even provided a "fitness test" to new mountaineers to help determine how close they were to the fitness level needed to succeed at summiting something like Mont Blanc.

The other important differentiator to me was the fact that Mont Blanc Guides would handle all logistics - from meals, to lodging, to guides, and hut reservations.  Anybody who has taken on big mountaineering adventures, knows these details are a substantial part of the trip and require someone who knows what they are doing and has it down to a science.

Other services/providers I looked at required you to find your own hotel room for the week (and who really wants to go back to a hotel across town every night only to meet up with your crew again the next morning?), or provide your own meals. MBG on the other hand, houses all participants in "The Castle" or the chalet, right in the middle of Chamonix. You get a bunk buddy for the week, as you are required to share a twin room with a fellow guest, and everyone enjoys a three course breakfast/dinner together on all nights spent at the Castle. Plus, because it is 'home' for the week, you have a place to leave your things even when you are up in the mountain huts - which was a game changer for someone like me, who absolutely hates dealing with the logistical nightmare of having to unpack and repack bags all week, only to put them into storage. In the end, it was an easy sell and I happily sent off my deposit to MBG.

Sunny Chamonix afternoon

Sunny Chamonix afternoon

Chamonix downtown

Chamonix downtown

I chose to start my 6-day course on a Saturday, so I would only need to take 5 days off of work. I flew from Amsterdam into Geneva, arranged a quick one hour shuttle with the most popular service in town (Mountain Dropoffs), and was at the chalet in no time. The group who had started their trek on Wednesday that week was there when I walked in the door and overlapped with us in the chalet on our first night, which gave us ample time to get a realtime download of what the week would hold -- from a client perspective, which tends to be the most honest. They gave us tips as to what gear we would need vs what we wouldn't, where to stock up on Snickers bars in town, and what advice to take/ignore, all of which was immensely helpful to make sure we had the important stuff. 

We also had plenty of time to wander around Chamonix - which in the summer season, is quite the attraction in itself. During the week we were there, a slew of ultramarathons and mountain races were taking place, and at any given time, one could catch a plethora of post-race runners stumbling around town on a quest to find a burger and a beer. It was an awesome time of year to just hang out, people watch, and shop to your heart's delight (I spent what felt like half of my month's pay check in Salomon, Millet, and Columbia - damn you, Chamonix).  

Twin room in Mont Blanc Guides chalet

Twin room in Mont Blanc Guides chalet

Gear laid out "military style" for inspections

Gear laid out "military style" for inspections

DAY ONE: TREK TO CHABOD HUT ON WAY TO GRAN PARADISO

After our first dinner getting to know our adventure-mates for the week, we all woke up ready and excited to start our quest.  The morning started with a quick debriefing and intro from John, the MBG founder, after which we were instructed to lay out our gear on our beds "military style," so our diligent guides could survey our gear.  They were quite strict with us as to what we should/could bring up the mountain, and rightfully so, as every extra item (literally, shampoo bottles were eliminated from the packing list) adds extra weight to your back during the climb.

The packing list on the MBG website was pretty straightforward and technical items (ice axe, crampons, harness) could be rented from MBG on site, which made things easy (I didn't want to be troubled with trying to get crampons through airport security!). Anything else you were missing could be bought or rented in town, which was a 5 min walk away - Chamonix is the mecca of mountaineering, after all, so you did not need to walk far to find the necessities. 

Around 11am, we were off over the border to Italy for a three day training climb of Gran Paradiso (4061m).  They took it easy on us for the first day: we only needed to get ourselves up 1000m to the Chabod hut, which took 2.5 hours in the afternoon.  At the hut, we settled into our bunks (all 10 of us, including guides, shared one bedroom, which was surprisingly comfy), and enjoyed some downtime. Showers were pay-per-shower (3 Euros each), and beers/snacks could be purchased at a reasonable price with cash. Most of us waited to shower until the next day, knowing it would be most appreciated post-summit.  After a hearty pasta dinner and dessert, we were off to bed, as the 4am wake up call would come quickly.

Group photo halfway up to Chabod hut

Group photo halfway up to Chabod hut

Settling into bunk beds at Chabod hut

Settling into bunk beds at Chabod hut

DAY TWO: CHABOD HUT TO GRAN PARADISO SUMMIT AND BACK

Mont Blanc Guides aptly calls this day the "dress rehearsal" for Mont Blanc.  And indeed it is.  You rise at 4am, do a last check of your bag, and prepare to head up the mountain. One of my teammates, Kevin, made the fatal mistake of turning on the light in the dorm room we all shared at 3:55am, only to be yelled at to turn it off, and give us our last 5 minutes of rest. (He didn't make that mistake again the rest of the trip.) Once we were all awake, all we had left to do was shove as many calories into our mouths as possible before setting out.

This morning served to be an excellent trial run indeed, as it made the gear prep and check for Mont Blanc only a couple of days later far easier, having already done it once.  From the Chabod hut up to the summit, we only had to climb 1400m, so not terrible, and was a good opportunity for us all to test out our crampon and ice axe skills. 

Approaching the summit of Gran Paradiso

Approaching the summit of Gran Paradiso

Gran Paradiso Summit

Gran Paradiso Summit

The ascent took around 4-5 hours, which was the requirement from Mont Blanc Guides for us to "prove" that we were worthy (and not a safety hazard) for the much bigger Mont Blanc trek later in the week. The entire team made it without too much trouble, and we waited our turn to summit at the somewhat congested Gran Paradiso summit ridge. This ridge was by far the scariest part of any climbing that week, as there is quite a substantial exposed section. I'm pretty sure I heard about 14 different languages being spoken amongst the 40-50 individuals scrambling around at the top, and it was quite entertaining despite all the chaos to hear the guides quibble with each other over whose group would go first.  Totally worth it for the #summitselfie.

The walk back down was easy and uneventful, and quite slushy given the sun had come up and already started to melt quite a bit of the snow which had been frozen solid on our way up. Conditions this time of year were perfect, with minimal sketchy crevasses, so we could glissade down the mountain without needing to exercise too much caution.

Descent to Chabod Hut from Gran Paradiso Summit

Descent to Chabod Hut from Gran Paradiso Summit

Beers were enjoyed upon our return to the chalet, knowing that all we had to do the next day was get back down to the car and rest.

DAY THREE: CHABOD HUT TO CHALET / CHAMONIX

We did an easy descent on Day 3 from the Chabod Hut through a scenic Gran Paradiso National Park. Given that Gran Paradiso and this portion of the week was in Italy, it was only fitting for us to stop for espressos and gelato before heading back into France. That pistachio and stracciatella gelato was well-earned, and I enjoyed it accordingly.

We were back in Chamonix by early afternoon, which gave us ample time to do some shopping, indulge in a much-needed shower, eat a hearty three course chalet dinner, and unpack/repack our bags for the big show, which would commence the next morning.

DAY FOUR: CHAMONIX TO TETE ROUSSE HUT

We started this morning by meeting the additional 2 guides who would be joining us on this trip: Ally and Tomas. We were only required to have one guide per 4 people for the Gran Paradiso outing, but for a Mont Blanc summit, it was necessary to have one guide for every 2 people. Both guides were awesome: Ally and I swapped stories about Yosemite and Bay Area adventures and travel mishaps (we had both spent a decent amount of time out there over the past couple of years), and Tomas relived stories of his very admirable Andean summits, whilst reminding me that fashion is "very important" in the mountains (as he adjusted his intentionally mismatched blue and yellow socks.) We were off to an excellent start with our late joiners.

There are many schools of thought as to the best way to climb Mont Blanc. Some people believe that the Gouter hut gives the best chance at summitting, as it is up higher on the mountain, and breaks up the ascent into two reasonable day climbs.  But reservations are harder to come by there, and the Tete Rousse (3167m up) has its benefits as well.  In our case, the Tete Rousse was a bit more accomodating for our needs, so we resolved to stay there both the night before and after our attempted summit. This decision also allowed us to again have a "home base" where we could leave our belongings on summit day (no need for toiletries, etc, to be going up the mountain with us), which made for lighter packs. 

Ascending to the Tete Rousse hut

Ascending to the Tete Rousse hut

Climbers gather before dinner at Tete Rousse hut

Climbers gather before dinner at Tete Rousse hut

We were in position for the next day's ascent with minimum energy expenditure, and at 3167m, our overnight at Tete Rousse allowed us to acclimatize gradually as we worked our way up the mountain. We enjoyed a dinner of lentil soup, bread/cheese, and beef stew to fuel us for the next day's adventure, and were in bed by 8:30pm, in anticipation of a 4am wakeup call for our summit. 

DAY FIVE: THE BIG SHOW: ASCENT OF MONT BLANC (4,808m)

I couldn't believe how quickly summit day was upon us, as it seemed like we had just arrived in Chamonix, yet here we had already climbed one mountain and spent nearly a week together.

We rolled out of bed at Tete Rousse at the very generous wakeup time of 4am (other teams had left at 1am, but we opted for a later start given the anticipated weather window) and started our journey up.  All week, our guides and John at MBG had given us advice which I found to really come in handy on summit day: 'take the summit in 2 hour intervals, and just keep moving - don't worry about the end.'  They were spot on with the advice. All in all, we targeted to have a 11-12 hour day from Tete Rousse to summit and back. 6 sets of 2 hour pushes - easy.

The route from Tete Rousse hut to summit - 12 hours round trip

The route from Tete Rousse hut to summit - 12 hours round trip

The ascent / summit portion of the day could best be thought of in three sections:

1) Tete Rousse Hut (3,167m) to Gouter Hut (3,815m): a steep rock climb/scramble.

The Tete Rousse to Gouter hut was the most demanding section of the entire summit bid for me. Not only are you doing this part in the dark, but there is quite a bit of scrambling which requires a lot of emotional energy/attention early on in the day. Fortunately, the sun did begin to come up pretty soon after we started, given the long days this time of the year, which made for a beautiful sunrise.

The Grand Couloir (location shown on map), only an hour into the ascent, has also earned itself quite a reputation and has itself inhibited many climbers from even getting up onto the mountain for an attempt at the summit. One only needs to YouTube "Grand Couloir Mont Blanc" to see why; this area is completely fine/safe when nothing is happening there, but on a bad day, rocks the size of basketballs come aggressively tumbling down the mountain and propel people down the couloir before you know what has hit you - and has led to many of the fatalities on the mountain in the past. It's absolutely necessary to approach this section with caution and the proper equipment - crampons, and proper ropes (thankfully, we did not find out until later that an unprepared climber had tumbled to their death off this section only 12 hours prior to us crossing). 

 After two hours of hard and cautious climbing paired with incredible sunrise views of the Alps, we found ourselves approaching the Gouter hut.

Sun rising as we made our way towards the Gouter hut

Sun rising as we made our way towards the Gouter hut

Approaching the Gouter hut after a two hour scramble

Approaching the Gouter hut after a two hour scramble

2) Gouter hut to the Vallot hut (4,362m): a very snowy uphill walk/climb.

We stopped in at the Gouter hut after the initial climb to leave behind some equipment (helmets were no longer necessary after the first scramble), warm up, and have a quick cup of coffee with a snack - which to be honest, felt a bit like cheating the summit, but was a welcome respite.

(*Fun fact: gouter, in French, actually means to have an afternoon snack, so it is aptly named as a designated place to sit, take some time, and eat to fuel up!)

The new Gouter hut was built in 2013

The new Gouter hut was built in 2013

Heading up the mountain post Gouter hut mid morning

Heading up the mountain post Gouter hut mid morning

Only 20 minutes later, we were bundled back up and ready to head to the Vallot hut. This 2-hour stretch was one of the most enjoyable, as the morning light was perfectly illuminating all of the surrounding alps, and the walking was relatively effortless so long as you were paying attention. We were extremely fortunate with weather conditions and enjoyed a perfect blue bird morning. No major effort needed here, other than to just keep walking and stay warm.

3) Vallot hut (4,362m) to Mont Blanc Summit (4,810m) : the final steep, sketchy/icy/windy 2.5 hour push. 

The Vallot hut was truly a sight to see, and was a good stop off point to check in with other climbers. While called a hut, it is really a glorified shoebox, as it's only a 35 m^2 shelter made of aluminum sheets placed on both sides of two thin layers of plywood. We popped in to do a quick clothing swap (here, we added every layer we had brought including wind proof pants and heavy jackets), and chat with a few other climbers who were either also headed for the summit or had just come down. What I didn't expect to see when we walked in was 7 or 8 climbers piled upon each other in a corner, in full gear (sunglasses, goggles and all!), sleeping in unison. Likely they had already summited that morning and were too wrecked to head back down without a bit of shuteye. Others stood around, waiting for the winds to die down for a second attempt to summit, as excessive winds earlier in the morning had thwarted their first attempts, but not enough for them to give up on the day. There was a real sense of simple and pure mountain camaraderie there which I will not soon forget.

Vallot Hut is an aluminum shed for climbers to rest

Vallot Hut is an aluminum shed for climbers to rest

After 10 minutes and a couple packs of energy chews later, we headed out for our final summit push! Those last two and a half hours were challenging and required you to be careful, so as not to make a misstep on some of the more narrow areas as you approached the summit. Fortunately, I have never had any issues with altitude sickness which meant I felt quite well as we approached the 4,810m summit, while some of the others on our trip fought a constant feeling of illness/headache and shortness of breath. Thankful to not be afflicted with any significant physical complaints, I truly and humbly had nothing to do but keep walking (there were quite a few false summits on your way up), and take in the absolutely incredible views of the Alps (when not getting pelted in the face with ice). With views like those, I could have kept walking for hours, but was happy when we finally reached the summit around 10:30am. WE DID IT!!

The way down was uneventful, but it has to be said that like on any mountain, it is especially wise not to be lazy on the descent, as this is where costly mistakes are often made. Especially on the initial two hour scramble, which would be the final 2 hours of our descent that day, we had to be especially cautious as many rocks were loose and falling. Not to mention, we still had to cross the Grand Couloir, which always requires special attention and respect. On our way down, we heard helicopters, which it turned out were there trying to locate the belongings of the person who had fallen to their death the day prior. Quite the ominous background sound, for tired climbers just wanting to get back to the hut - and a clear reminder of the dangers of the mountains.  Fortunately, we went through all of the above without incident, and were back down at the Tete Rousse by around 3:30pm. 

DAY SIX: TETE ROUSSE HUT BACK TO VALLEY / CHAMONIX

We all woke up super pleased with ourselves for our work the day prior, and scarfed down breakfast, anxious to get down off the mountain and shower since we had not been able to after the summit (no running water at the Tete Rousse hut!)

After 3 short hours of uneventful downhill hiking and a quick train ride the rest of the way, we were back in the village and made time to pose for one more group shot.

Team photo in village post-Mont Blanc summit

Team photo in village post-Mont Blanc summit

Veggie tacos and sweet potato fries from Monkey, the perfect post-adventure meal

Veggie tacos and sweet potato fries from Monkey, the perfect post-adventure meal

We went back to the chalet, where a plethora of homemade cakes and pastries were waiting for us with coffee and tea (and a couple well-earned Heinekens for good measure!) and we made one final toast to our guides before we would send them along their way.

As we sat around the table recounting stories and laughs from the past week, Tomas prompted us to go around the table and each give one word that would best describe our feelings about the week/adventure. "ICY, hard, fun..." answered my new friends around the table... then my word came to me quickly and easily: INSPIRING.

The people I had been around the entire week INSPIRED me to want to complete this task as a team. The guides we had the pleasure of climbing with motivated and INSPIRED me to want to keep pushing my limits, and more importantly: become a smarter mountaineer. The experience itself, too, further INSPIRED the "sickness" in me: to keep on chasing these summits, pushing beyond my comfort zones, and not let anything stand in the way.

So, I said it then and I stand by my (cheesy, but true) word choice today: climbing Mont Blanc INSPIRED me, and I suspect will continue to inspire me to chase my affliction for many years to come :)

Three final things:

1) I would be remiss if I didn't mention the amazing dinner we had as a team on our last night in Chamonix. We went to Monkey and it was incredible - great tacos, burgers, fries, beer selection and all of the other post-adventure food you could ever ask for.  It's a must.

2) We spoke in quite a lot of depth while trekking about Anna Karenina by Tolstoy, as well as his thoughts on living an unconventional life. Those discussions have stuck with me and rattled around in my head since. I would like to leave you with a few of my favorite quotes I've been reading, in reflection:

“There was no solution, save that universal solution which life gives to all questions, even the most complex and insolvable: One must live in the needs of the day--that is, forget oneself.” 

“Without knowledge of what I am and why I am here, it is impossible to live, and since I cannot know that, I cannot live either. In an infinity of time, in an infinity of matter, and an infinity of space a bubble-organism emerges while will exist for a little time and then burst, and that bubble am I.” 

“There are people who, on meeting a successful rival, no matter in what, are at once disposed to turn their backs on everything good in him, and to see only what is bad. There are people, on the other hand, who desire above all to find in that lucky rival the qualities by which he has outstripped them, and seek with a throbbing ache at heart only what is good.”

3) One final shoutout to our guides, all of whom I would highly recommend to ANYONE for any Chamonix outings, or other expeditions around the world... I would trust any of these guys with my life on a future mountain expedition, and am so excited to follow all of their future adventures:

 

Neil Mackay https://skiascent.com/

Fabio Levi https://www.facebook.com/fabio.levi 

Ally Swinton http://allyswinton.blogspot.com/

Tomas Franchini https://tomasfranchini.com/ 

A Focus on Zermatt: Mountain Views and Culinary Delights

Red! White! Yellow! Green! Indigo! Black! White!

We sat on our almost too-good-to-be-true balcony at the aptly named ‘Matterhorn Focus’ hotel, looking up at the still dimly visible Matterhorn set upon the starry backdrop, noticing the oddly sporadic and countless colors blinking on the light on the Schwarzsee side of the mountain.

“What do you think those lights mean?” I asked. 

A quick Google search revealed that there were three lights of this kind visible from Zermatt, and between sunset and sunrise, they could be easily changed at will by a simple telephone call.  As it turns out, all you need to do is own a cell phone and you can make your own impact on Zermatt.  The Yeti club originally came up with the idea, aptly named Lumorama, in celebration of mountain guides who give their time and unfortunately, sometimes their lives to the mountains.  All funds from the calls go towards a fund which is given to families guides in times of need.  The spirit of the Lumorama, to us, embodies exactly what Zermatt, Matterhorn Focus, and the people of this region of Switzerland stand for:

Creative, thoughtful, and ever focused on and toward the mountains.

MATTERHORN FOCUS: A SHINING STAR

We arrived at the Matterhorn Focus Hotel on an unseasonably warm afternoon, and were immediately struck by the friendliness of all of the staff – as well as a much-needed welcome drink.  The people we met quickly felt like friends, eager to share with us their insights on the town, the best places to catch the right light/views at each time of the day, weather-dependent.  While one might expect the hotel to be modest assuming the views of the Matterhorn would do the heavy lifting, that couldn’t be further from the truth.  The hotel itself is a shining star, and the views of the Matterhorn and surrounding peaks from the room are merely a cherry on top of the exceptional experience within. 

Focus Matterhorn Royal Suite

Being American, living in London, and having an ongoing obsession with the Nordic culture of minimalism and simplicity, we tend to favor places that have a perfect fusion of all of the above.  We were shown to our Royal Suite and to say that it did not disappoint would be an understatement.  A mountain view? Check. Minimalist, clean and welcoming rustic design? Check.  Easy access to endless miles of trails? Check. Walkable distance to good food & the town? Check. Matterhorn Focus has it all, without swinging too far into the red-and-white-checkered-everything, old-fashioned Swiss-chalet style.  It makes those of us non-Swiss who come from other places and are experiencing a bit of a culture shock feel comfortable and right at home.

MOUNTAIN VIEWS

You can’t go wrong with a room at the Matterhorn Focus.  You are either positioned in a room with breathtaking unobstructed views of the Matterhorn, or given the chance to look over the entire town of Zermatt and all of the other surrounding peaks from the other side. We were treated to the Matterhorn views, which made waking up for sunrise a little less painful, as we could watch the very tip of the mountain turn that specific shade of alpenglow pink that is worth waking up for every time – and then head straight back to bed for another hour of shuteye.

While we were there in the summer, it’s also worth noting that for winter visitors, this would be an ideal place to check weather conditions from bed, rather than by iPhone, and decide whether or not to hop on the lift right away or give yourself another few hours to doze.  The lift is painfully convenient in proximity, and allows you to expend more energy up on the slopes, rather than getting to them.

 

Balcony View at Matterhorn Focus

Balcony View at Matterhorn Focus

RUSTIC MINIMALISM

When coming off of the mountain, even in the summer, there’s nothing more enticing than a frosty cold beer and a nice place to sit down and relax.

Our suite was cozy and loaded with ample plush fixtures: a free standing bath with soaking salts, a personal Nespresso machine, several fluffy blankets and pillows; as well, multiple sitting rooms in the main lobby were equally inviting and rustic without being too pretentiously lodgy.  Every room just begged to be sat in and enjoyed – whether for a quick rest before taking on the next activity, or for curling up with a book for a few hours and lazying away the day.

Matterhorn Focus Lounge Area

Matterhorn Focus Lounge Area

TRAILS GALORE

Getting away from the crowds, selfie sticks, and souvenir shops is an imperative for every trip we take, even if just for a little while – and having been to Zermatt as very much classic “tourists” before, we made it our mission on this particular trip to stay somewhere that was well positioned to escape and hit the trails conveniently and easily.

Matterhorn Focus is just a hop skip and a jump out of the downtown, so as to be convenient to the train station and trails, but far away enough from the riff raff that you can enjoy the mountain experience without feeling surrounded by day visitors and tourists.  We found it to be effortless to get in and out of the downtown (quite different from prior experiences where we dreaded heading into town, only to face a monstrous uphill climb back to our chalet after indulging in a few too many post hike/ski beers). 

While we had originally planned a “rest” day for our first day, the accessibility of the trails was too good to pass up, and we set out for the enviable Trift trail hike, leading up to the Platthorn and Mettelhorn.  We geared up with a hefty breakfast at Focus’ incredibly ample buffet (eggs, bacon, yogurt, fruit, cappuccinos, a plethora of breads and cheese – what more could we ask for?), knowing we would need every calorie we could get and soon thereafter (well, after one more coffee), set off for the mountains.

Within 10 minutes, we were well on our way up the Trift trail, navigating rocks and roots and sketchy cliff drop offs.  We spent the entire day far away from civilization, seeing only a handful of other hikers, and summiting the Platthorn mountain a couple hours before dinner.  From up there, visitors willing to work for their views are treated with absolutely astonishing views of Zermatt and 360 degree panoramas of the Swiss and Italian alps from an entirely new perspective.  The walk down certainly led to sore legs, hungry bellies, and dusty legs after a few lazy falls, but we emerged into Zermatt and wobbled the quick 10 minute stroll back to the Focus, where we were treated to a cold beer, a hot shower, and free afternoon treats to reward our efforts.

Trift Trail Hike above Zermatt

Trift Trail Hike above Zermatt

 

UNPARALLELED LOCAL CUISINE

We would be remiss if we didn’t mention the proximity of Matterhorn Focus to our absolute favorite restaurant in Zermatt, the Sonnmatten.  After a full day of uphill hiking and showering the dirt off, we were starving but not in the best form to walk far – so our favorite restaurant being a 3 minute walk away from the hotel was quite possibly the biggest treat of the day.

Sonnmatten boasts absolutely incredible views of the Matterhorn, which are only surpassed by the scrumptiousness of their cuisine. During the winter, they offer a daily fixed menu, which we had enjoyed when last in Zermatt over the winter, but by summer, the fare is a la carte and features local delicacies, fresh salads, a wide variety of Swiss meats, oversized hamburgers, and of course, endless amounts of the favorite local craft beer.  We watched the sun go down and wrapped ourselves in blankets as we enjoyed a meal of homemade house salad, goat cheese honey bruschetta, and deer with spätzle – all delicious (and you must try the homemade hay schnapps)! 

Sonnmatten Zermatt

Sonnmatten Zermatt

Paresa Resort - Finding Cliffside Luxury in Thailand

“Do you hear that!?” Was exclaimed wide eyed as our aged and previously abused rental car exerted itself up the winding roads that bring you to Paresa Resort Phuket.

Most resorts will happily provide a variety of transfer options to and from the local airport, however we thought the more interesting approach would be to rent/hire a car allowing for much more freedom and options to explore.  Also, driving in southern Thailand is a great experience… it’s a two lane road?  Why not make it three by using the shoulder area?  The white lane lines are apparently just a suggestion, and you have to be vigilant and prepared for the myriad scooters, sidecars laden with watermelon or other in-season fruit on its way to a local market, and of course the very occasional elephant which we saw around one of the winding corners as we drove from the busy Patong to the tranquil Kamala.

Paresa Kamala Resort is creatively positioned on the cliffs affording fantastic, only-interrupted by trees views of the Andaman sea from every room (13) and suite (36) at the property.  It’s unique layout also allows for a very memorable and distinct hotel visit - epecailly when looking at other resorts in the area. You arrive at the very top of the property and descend to the reception area where we were warmly welcomed, provided with much needed cool and scented towels, a fragrant chilled tea, and asked to pick a scent for the room (lemongrass or coconut) as you run through the check in process.   

Paresa View from Room

Paresa apparently means ‘heaven of all heavens’ and here because of the cliffside layout over many private acres you descend and ascend throughout the resort either on foot or with one of the many on-call buggies.  It is a unique set-up that creates a sense of isolation and privacy… and your legs will remind you of your efforts (it is a great way to work off a bit of the fantastic breakfasts and or dinners you will experience while on site – again with unrivalled views).

Paresa Restaurant View

And that noise that we heard when we were first driving to the resort? Thousands, if not millions of cicadas and other chirping critters in the surrounding jungle/forest… a cacophony that rises and falls throughout the evenings there and serves as an unforgettable backdrop to the scenery – and thankfully those critters were heard but not seen as we gazed out at the squid boats lit up in green and white in the distance and the heat lightning that illuminated the night skies.

Ambient noise from the cliffs at Paresa Resort in Thailand

 

At risk of repetitiveness, the resort’s infinity pool (if you get sick of your own room’s pool) is located just below the restaurant and just a cliff level above the spa  – all again with amazing views of the sea that will have you reaching for your phone or camera over and over again trying to capture that elusive perfect angle that captures the feel of Paresa (it is difficult to do).

Paresa Pool

 

The spa itself offers many of the traditional treatments one expects to find, but with organic oils and materials and all created locally.  I opted for the special ‘after sun’ massage (peppermint, eucalyptus and tea tree) after foolishly spending some non spf time outside of our suite – it did not banish the burn but definitely made it a bit more manageable! (thank you)

Paresa Spa Menu

Paresa also offers a host of activities (and yes - a fantastic beach as well)  – both their own and then some offered by a boutique third party provider where unique opportunities have been selected that keep you away from the tourist hoards and engaged with the local culture.  We chose to hop in our car in order to explore the Phuket Old Town on our own schedule.  The Old Town was a very pleasant surprise.  It has been both preserved and modestly gentrified – a great blend of the old Sino tin mining heritage and a nod to reforming and cleaning up its more ‘dusty’ areas which are now full of color and good smells (for the most part!).

Phuket Old Town Street

 

We’d highly recommend visiting this area of the world.  Phuket has a little bit of everything – depending on what you are in to and looking for.  We came looking for interesting adventures, new cultural knowledge and an understanding of the area and some tranquillity / downtime and found it all at or within striking distance of Paresa Kamala.