The birds are singing this morning in the forest behind my house, the woodland is deserted, and the flowers are blooming in the warm sunshine that heralds spring has arrived in the French Alps. Yes, there is a chilly wind, but we know change is on its way. I glance always to the snowy peaks and ridges sparkling in the sun and accept that it may be a long time before I can return to the mountains. This is life in 'alpine' lockdown and tomorrow we enter week 2 with no sign of restrictions being removed.
It happened so fast. On Thursday the 12th of March I was sitting in a hotel at Kvitfjell in Norway having just had a fabulous ski along the Peer Gynt Trail when the Norwegian Prime Minister held a press conference. 24 hours earlier while in a remote log cabin we had learned that there were cases of COVID-19 in a village about 40 minutes drive away.
We were concerned for those affected, but not overly concerned for ourselves as we had seen virtually no one as we skied through the mountains. We joked about the 'extreme social distancing' measures we were observing. That all changed on Thursday night as the Norwegian Government made it clear that there was a crisis situation with regard to the spread of corona virus and measures were being taken immediately.
From my hotel window I witnessed the Canadian national ski team frantically loading their skis into a lorry to 'get out' asap. I then called a Tracks and Trails evening briefing that was somewhat different from the norm. My team arrived in my bedroom, grabbed a bed, and settled down for a decision making session. With one day left to ski we decided to finish the trip, then head straight to Lillehammer, and on to our flights in Oslo.
A final day of skiing on the Peer Gynt Trail - perfect conditions and no one else around
The next morning conditions were perfect, blue sky, sunshine, white velvet snow with all the tracks freshly groomed. As we headed for the tracks the guests at an adjacent hotel were being told to leave immediately as the country was 'closing down'. That day we had the mountains to ourselves, then a bus journey to ourselves, and Lillehammer when we arrived was eerily quiet and everyone was subdued.
24 hours later I pulled up a chair, sat down to enjoy the view of Mont Blanc from my house, and was happy to be home in Chamonix, in the French Alps. I was planning not to go out for 14 days as self-isolation quickly became the mantra of anyone returning to their home from overseas. That same evening French President, Emmanuel Macron announced that all bars, cafes, restaurants would close and people should introduce 'social distancing'. Not enough people listened, the following day parks were crowded with people. 48 hours later Macron announced a 'lockdown' and since then I have been at home.
I am writing on the day the UK went into 'lockdown'. The posts on social media by people in the UK this morning are already very familiar me. Can we work? What is 'essential' work? Can we ride our bikes? What's open? As I enter week 2 of the French lockdown I can tell you we are still working it out. No one is totally clear, not even the police in the vehicle which drives past my house about 6 times per day checking permits and ID.
This is how it works here in France. We print off a form which has a number of 'reasons to be outside' and we have to tick one box per outing, take the form with us, carry ID, and be prepared to justify it to any police check. We can choose between:
Movement between home and place of work for 'essential work' only, or if we cannot work at home.
Movement to buy food or other necessities.
Movement for health reasons, eg pharmacy
Movement to assist vulnerable relatives or children
Movement to take brief solitary exercise close to home
Perhaps this now sounds familiar to you also? I am sure that there will be much debate on how these rules are interpreted, there certainly has been here. How far can I jog? Can I go to work if I cannot work from home? We expected an announcement this morning to clarify, but so far I can find no record of the details being published. The main thing is that we all act responsibly and keep our distance, and in Chamonix that appears to be working well.
The streets of this world famous alpine resort are empty, and I mean empty! Shops are closed down, the Mont Blanc Express train is no longer running past my house each day, and the buses that do go past are completely empty. For the first few days of lockdown the streets seemed quite busy, and the forest paths had runners, bikers, and hikers getting fresh air.
This morning I was alone on my daily walk (we are allowed up to 2km from home in a rural area, 500 m in a city) there was no one in the street, no one in the forest, no one on the trails, no one on the balconies chatting to each other as they would have done a few days ago. As each day goes past it seems that we are all drawing deeper into our safe havens. As the horrific death toll of our immediate neighbours in Italy continues no-one is taking any chances.
The empty streets of Chamonix, France at a time of year they would be filled with skiers, hikers and climbers
Yet although we are drawing apart into our own homes, the community is also coming together. Messages from friends whom I have not chatted to in years but kept meaning to, phone calls from family that I do not make enough time for in ordinary circumstances, and strangers who live next door shouting down from balconies with messages of solidarity and support. Above all the message is "Please let me know if I can help you with anything".
Tomorrow on Tuesday the 25th March, 2020 France begins week two, yet it feels like a month. Time seems to have stopped though the virus marches onwards. My own pace of life has slowed, no rush really to do chores as I have plenty of time now. The only deadlines are with regard to Tracks and Trails and decisions that need to be made with regard to trips. Be assured, we will be in touch soon if you have a booking coming up.
Another reason to be grateful right now is the amount of messages you are sending to us, both at a personal and business level. Guests I have guided over the years messaging from the United States of America, Canada, and throughout Europe. No one appears to be 'stressing' about any forthcoming trip they've booked with us and your generosity in terms of consideration for what we are experiencing as an adventure travel business is very much appreciated by both Julia and myself. Thank you, everyone.
Spring is in the air, and time to enjoy being at home
For now I am adjusting to life at home, and apart from the concerns about finance, and business, it is a time to also take stock and decide what is important. I have some blossom sitting on a table outside on the terrace, I'm enjoying just looking at it as I note all the intricate details in the petals. I also watch the golden dust falling from the catkins on the willow. So much more time...stay safe everyone and help others get through this.
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