Friday, May 17, 2013

Operation one school year in France: complete

As I write this, I am sitting on the TGV to Paris, to go back to Norway for 10 days before I start a summer internship in Grenoble. My last exam in the French school system was today; my year at school in France is over. More than any other moment this year, I really feel that today is a turning point, a moment of triumph. Also, rather symbolically, I'm doing the same journey I did on the way here in reverse. I'm alone again, crossing France with my gigantic bicycle bag. Going home.

I succeeded - I survived my year in France! "Survived?" you might ask, "But I've been read all about how much fun you've been having riding your bicycles and skiing all over the Alpes!" This is true. It's time, however, for me to reveal The Truth About Being An Exchange Student. Here goes:

Sometimes it really sucks.

For every hour that I've spent enjoying the mountains, I've also spent an hour in line dealing with the bureaucracy the comes with moving to a foreign country. For every time that I've made a new friend, I've also had a moment of absolute, overwhelming loneliness. And I've gone through a few of the most intimidating moments in my life. The moments where you have to take a deep breath, and walk into a room of complete strangers, who all speak a foreign language.

Let's talk language barriers. I spoke some French before I came, and am fairly fluent now (as in all my classes and exams for the last have been in French). I had this idea that learning French would be an uphill process. It would be hard at first, and then get easier the more I practiced. Unfortunately, this has only partially been true. I think the French language is a tiny bipolar person that lives in my brain. So some days he's like, "This is awesome, let's go!" and other days he's morbidly depressed and won't do anything. So even now, 10 months later, I still have days when I open my mouth, and all that comes out is gibberish. I want to personally apologize to every Frenchman, especially those who have had to do project work at school with me, for every time I have butchered the French language. I want to thank everyone who has taken the time to try to understand what I'm saying.

I wouldn't give up all this adversity for the world. I know now that I can take unintelligible sounds and turn them into a language I speak; I can enter a room of strangers and turn them into friends. And yes, I can fill out boring paperwork. In some ways, maybe I'm just teensy weensy bit more grown up.

(Nah, totally kidding.)

Thank you for bearing with me through today's philosophical edition of the adventures of a Wild Bazilchuk. I still have two months left in France, I promise to fill this blog with croissants, Tour de France and wine.

-The Wild Bazilchuk

Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Raid de Grenoble INP: Mud, mud and more mud

I've been waiting to write this post because I was hoping the pictures from the event would come out (I didn't bring my camera). But the race organizers are taking their own sweet time about it, so I'm going to go for it without pics. You can, however, watch this movie of the first day to satisfy all your multimedia needs:

My team appears at 2:00 crossing the enormous suspension bridge. Unfortunately I'm in the back pushing a bicycle so you can't really see me. Our team leader, Sylvain, is the guy waving his arms around and posing as he runs across the bridge.

Two days before the 2013 Raid de Grenoble INP, it started to rain. It rain cats. Then it rained dogs. Then it rained St. Bernards. Luckily, just before the Raid, it stopped raining. And left behind a world of mud.

I firmly believe that there are many types of mud in the world. There's deep, wet mud. There's a thin layer of slippery mud that covers rocks and turns them into booby traps. There's sticky clay. There's thick, black mud that seems to enjoy jumping up onto people, especially into people's mouths.

So when I say that I experienced all types of mud last weekend, I want you to really reflect on what that means.  Because there really was all the mud at the Raid last weekend.

This escalated the Raid, a multisport, multiday race, into what I shall now refer to as An Epic. It was also the funnest thing I've done all year.

We rode bikes. We ran. We orienteered. We shot biathlon guns. We shots bows and arrows. We went swimming in a freezing lake. We stopped at all of the aid station and finished most of their food (hey, isn't that what the people at the back of the race are supposed to do?).

The running joke was, "I only signed up for this because of the mud. If there was no mud, I wouldn't have come."

The Raid was so big that I don't feel like I can sit down and give a full description of what happened. So here are some of the moments, good and bad.

The happiest moment: When we arrived at the lunch aid station on the first day, and spent 20 minutes stuffing our starving faces.

The scariest moment: When I had to swim 200 meters in Lac de Monteyard, and I completely forgot all swimming technique I ever had and swallowed a bunch of water by accident. I couldn't breath, and I thought I was going to die. That was pretty bad. And pretty much turned me off triathlons forever. And Nico on my team swam twice!

The wierdest thing I asked for during the race: "Excuse me, can I borrow your scissors, I need to cut this loose piece of sole off of my shoe." (See: LaSportiva Quantums. They have been officially declared dead.)

The low point: The descent at the end of the second day. It was super technical and muddy, and I was sooo hungry. Tears of frustration may have appeared. I thought downhills were supposed to be the easy part!

The hero: Fabien on my team, who pushed my bike, running, for 10 kms when I broke the chain, while I rode his, until we found a replacement bike.

The worst bit of trail: The creek crossing followed by a steep, muddy uphill. I slide down the entire hill, bike in hand, on my first try, coating my running tights in mud.

The best bit of trail: A dry, flowing single track on the first day. Riding bikes is fun, as long as you can stay on the bike!

Strangest sight seen: 20+ athletes shivering in aluminum foil survival blankets as they wait for their turn at the archery post. This is what happens when you run and bike for 3 hours straight, and then stop all of a sudden without a lot of extra clothes to put on.

So, to the organizers of the Raid de Grenoble INP, thank you for an extraordinary weekend! And to my teammates, thanks for an unforgettable experience! And who knows, maybe I'll show up next year?

- The Wild Bazilchuk

Thursday, May 2, 2013

In which red blood cell count is increased by the entirely legal means of breathing thinner air for a few days

The mountains of the Monte Rosa massif are absolutely spectacular. So given another chance (vacation all of last week!), I went back. Luckily, I have two trusty skiing companions ready to jaunt down to Alpes whenever they are need: Audun and Dad.

After a day of acclimatization around Zermatt, we headed back into the real mountains, this time Täschhütte in a different valley. The day was foggy and the snow cover sketchy lower down, so the 1100 vertical was a long slog.

Dad, stoked about the snow conditions
On the way up we crossed the debris of several very large avalanche, confirming our good decision not to ski in the day before.

Audun crosses some debris.
After a quiet supper with the hut's four other guests, we headed for bed early. In good alpine style, we would be starting the next day at 4.30 am. Although I consider myself a morning person, 4.30 is stretching it for me. The reward is beautiful morning light.

Sunrise on Weisshorn, taken while waiting 45 minutes for Audun to find his sunglasses (which where hanging on his backpack).
We headed off on icy snow up the valley, the sun finally hitting us as we reached the glacier. Our goal for the day was to try and summit 4199m Rimpfischhorn, and then continue on to Britanniahütte on the other side of the mountain.

Me under Rimpfischhorn (photo by Audun)
The ski up to the glacier was nice and mellow, and we roped up as the climbed steepened towards the saddle.

Audun leads up the glacier, in the tracks of two groups ahead of us.
We reached the saddle past 1pm, due to our 'late start' at 6.45am (re: Audun spends almost an hour looking for his sunglasses!) The last 200 vertical take you up a steep, rocky spire to the top, and we saw some of the other groups high above us. Even though it was late, we decided to take our skis off and attempt the climb.
Headed up the couloir, photo by Audun. Note the Matterhorn in the upper right hand corner! (Photo by Audun)
To make a long story short, we ended up turning at about the point were the climb turned from 'steep snow' to 'rock climbing'. I didn't like the loose, afternoon snow nor the steep slope, and we thought the climbing section would take too long given our experience. We figure our high point was at about 4100m.

The ski down the glacier was enjoyable, even if I was a little worried about hidden crevasses.
You know, free your heel and your mind will follow. Or something to that effect. (Photo by Dad)
The rest of the ski into became kind of a slog, as we had to put our skins on twice more (to make a total of 4 times for the day) before we pulled in at around 5.30pm.

We were all tired after a really long day, and decided we wanted to 'take it easy' the next day. Unfortunately, at Britanniahütte they come into your room at 4.30am and turn the lights on. So no sleeping in there!

Strahlhorn (right) and Fluchthorn (left), bathed in sunrise.
It's amazing how little I was able to eat at 4.45am the next morning. I just sat and stared at my breakfast, finally choking down a single piece of bread with jam. And two cups of coffee . We headed out at 6.30am, still later than most guests, into the morning light again.

We climbed about 800 vertical to reach the top of sub-4000 Fluchthorn. I was feeling sluggish in the morning, but perked up as the top grew closer.

Victory on Fluchthorn. Italy is covered in clouds (Picture by Dad).
We took a steeper route down from the top and found untouched powder, which can be difficult at a time of year when wind and sun evolve the snowpack so much. Success!
The next day we decided to go for Strahlhorn, a very popular peak to climb from Britanniahütte because it's an easy 4000m - no climbing involved! This turned out to be a big challenge for me, because I was fatigued from the 4.30am wake up calls and days of skiing at altitude. It took me a while to 'get my motor running', but stubbornness wins out in the end, and we reached the top at around 2pm.

Dad heads up the glacier in the morning light.

Audun and Dad at the summit cross of Strahlhorn

The view from the top of Strahlhorn towards the Monte Rosa massif
After 3 days of gorgeous weather, the forecast called for changing conditions and so we decided to ski out to Saas Fee and relax in Grenoble for the last day of the trip. A bumpy ski out to the valley and 6 hours of train finally brought us to the long awaited shower. And it was heavenly.

And now, for something completely different...

This weekend, me and a team of 4 Frenchies (Romain, Nico, Sylvain and Fabien) will be participating in the Grenoble INP Raid. As far as I can tell, 'raid' is French for adventure race, which is a code word for 'we shall send them out into to the mountains and have them do a bunch of different sports until they are very tired'. It's going to last all weekend, and I really don't know what I'm getting into. Which should be great fun!

We had to qualify for the Raid by completing the Prologue about a month ago. It involved mountain biking and running. It was the first time I've raced my mountain bike, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Casper in action. 
The team on the run
Since the prologue, I've biked a lot but haven't run much, so it will be interesting to see how this weekend goes. Rumor has it there will be swimming too. 

Wish me luck!

- The Wild Bazilchuk