BOURG-SAINT-MAURICE, FRANCE — My ears and temples are throbbing. My face is fiery red and hot. Sweat is cascading from my hairline. My heart is racing. And we’re only 15 minutes into our morning hike.
On one of the hottest days ever recorded in France, I start out on a “red hike” from Club Med Les Arcs Panorama, where I am staying, through lovely Vanoise National Park, in the country’s mountainous Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region.
A red hike is designed for experienced, physically fit and adequately equipped hikers, of which I am one. However, shortly into the hike I bend a nordic pole belonging to the resort and tumble down a steep incline like a beginner. Thankfully, the only thing hurt was my pride.
I pick myself up, dust myself off, and continue the gruelling hike through the difficult terrain, thin mountain air and oppressive heat, determined to push my 40-year-old body to the limit.
Above: Writer Kathryn Dickson puts her 40-year-old body to the test on a French hike.
However, the hike quickly makes me realize I’m mildly out of shape and I soon regret prioritizing work over my cardiovascular health the last few months.
I should have been in the gym working on my summer body instead of sitting in front of a laptop. I’m determined to push on, though.
I won’t miss out on seeing Mont Blanc and the Italian Alps from the highest point where the French and Italian borders meet.
There are 10 hikers and a guide in our little group. I position myself third from the back — just in case I fall again, one of the two burly male hikers behind me will hopefully stop me from tumbling to the bottom of the mountain.
My 40-year-old knees are holding up just fine but the heat is taking its toll. Club Med prepared us for the red hike with a green hike — it's meant for beginners through the relatively flat Rosuel Valley when we arrived, but no one could prepare us for France’s hottest day EVER!
Above: It took every bit of energy Kathryn could muster but the Alpine view was worth it.
Even the usually cool air at 1,600m, where we start the red hike, is hot and heavy on this day.
Because of the higher altitude, I, like all hikers, begin to breath faster as my body compensates for the lower air pressure.
Soon, I start panting. It can take a week to fully acclimatize to higher altitudes and I’ve been here just a few days.
I won’t let all the wine, cheese and bread I’ve consumed since arriving at the fabulous Club Med resort slow me down.
I soldier on up the steep slope, spurred on by the health benefits — mountain dwellers have stronger hearts and live longer, according to Scientific American magazine.
The Belgium hiker behind me tells me, “I come to the Alps to decompress for a week.” Decompress? I feel like I’m about to explode from the heat and dehydration.
Terrain wise, this is definitely not the most strenuous hike I’ve ever done. My 1km hike up a steep mountain in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park was far more taxing.
Mt. Washington in New Hampshire was even more difficult.
But I was 22 back then and now my 40-year-old body, which is fighting an autoimmune disorder, is not as agile as it once was.
I soldier on, though, not wanting to hold up my fellow hikers.
At one point, I pause to catch my breath under the guise of taking a picture of the beautiful Alpine vista.I apologize, but the man behind me is totally understanding.
“You might never be here again, so please go ahead and take your picture,” he encourages me.
That trick worked so well I utilize it a few more times.
When another woman starts to slow her pace, I fall in behind her.
About 2 hours into our 2.5 hour hike, I start to doubt my ability to finish. However, when the frontrunners start to slow down and I catch up, I feel revitalized for the final push.
When we begin our decent to Club Med Les Arcs Panorama, I get my second wind and feel euphoric.
Back at the resort, I dig into a large buffet lunch on the sun-drenched terrace overlooking the Tarentaise Valley with majestic Mont-Blanc and the Italian Alps off in the distance.
I’m so excited about my accomplishment, I toy with the idea of signing up for another hike before I leave.
My 20-year-old mind just has to convince by 40-year-old body that we can do it. •