It had been an awesome three days in the Auvergne region in France walking a section of the GR400 route and climbing volcanoes.
In three days we had hoped to climb four volcanic peaks as part of my #40by40 quest to climb 40 volcanoes by the age of 40 but we’d only been able to tick off three (because of our leisurely pace) – Puy Mary, Puy Chavaroche, and Puy Griou (the latter hadn’t even been on the original list).
I’d been a little bit gutted that we hadn’t been able to make the last two, Puy du Rocher and Plomb du Cantal, but as I was quickly coming to learn with this challenge, it was no easy street and there were bound to be blips and bumps and failings. I just had to be flexible, not give up, and remember that everything would be ok in the end.
And so it was that I went to depart the Auvergne, happy in the knowledge that I’d climbed another three volcanoes (well technically not individual volcanoes – more volcanic peaks – as they were all part of Europe’s largest stratovolcano).
My train was at 11am. I got there in plenty of time.
But 11 o’clock came and went and my train did not arrive. Surely it must be running late?
Fifteen minutes later and there was still no sign. The station office was dark. There wasn’t a soul. I tried the door. As I suspected: locked.
Hmmm what was a girl to do?
I felt the initial waves of panic but reminded myself that all was ok, that this wasn’t the end of the world. Instead of catastrophising I went to Google for my answers.
A nation-wide train strike. Great! I wasn’t getting to Paris any time soon and by the look of Eurostar I wasn’t even going to be able to leave France. I was stranded in Le Lioran.
I looked at the blue sky and mountains, thinking back to the walking and climbing of the past three days. Yeah there were worst places to be stranded, I figured.
After a herculean effort and several hours of research I had finally worked out how I was getting back to London – it was going to take two days – and had sorted out my interim accommodation. It was time for lunch and to reassess how I could take advantage of this setback and turn it into an opportunity.
I sat alone at an empty bar in Le Lioran facing the cable car and ski routes for Plomb du Cantal, that volcanic peak I hadn’t been able to summit the day before. My hiking companions had left, fortunate enough to board a train only to be chucked off a few stops later when the driver decided he was also going on strike.
It was now getting on towards 4:30pm. I looked at the two volcanic peaks ahead of me. Could I reasonably hike to their summits and back? The guidebook estimated a five-hour return. I looked at the time again – it was a little sketchy. I looked back up at the volcanoes.
I felt the familiar feelings of self-doubt wash over me along with the excuses: It was getting late in the day – if I left now, I might get back in the dark; I’d be going out by myself, what if I got lost? I’m starting to come down with a summer head cold, should I really be pushing myself to climb another two volcanoes? Does it even matter, given I’ve already ticked off three on this trip?
They swam in front of my mind’s eye, taunting me. They were like a group of evil pixies mocking me, telling me I wasn’t good enough to strap on my backpack and hike to the summit.
And then I thought: “You know what, this is ridiculous. Enough with the I can’ts and what ifs. I came to the Auvergne to climb some volcanoes so I’m bloody well going to climb some volcanoes.”
With that, I drained the last of my fizzy drink, pushed back my chair and headed to my hotel to change.
Half an hour later I was striding forth, a much lighter weight on my back, Puy du Rocher and Plomb du Cantal in my sights.
I took the GR400 trail into the forest, slowly climbing along a canopied route, just me and the trees, and the red and white trail blaze painted on their trunks.
By the time I exited the forest, I’d climbed some 250m and was sufficiently out of breath. There was almost 400m still to ascend.
But now I was looking at valleys and distant mountains, rather than grey lichened tree trunks. I laughed. I couldn’t help it. It just burst forth, this bubble of joy at how supremely perfect the vista was and how happy I was that I’d locked my self-doubt in the cupboard and thrown away the key.
It was just me and the mountains, with the wind whipping strands of hair from my braid, and the sun beaming brightly on its merry dance towards the horizon. This was what I was meant to do.
Puy du Rocher beckoned, its craggy summit looking empty compared with the distant Plomb du Cantal and its motorway of ski lifts.
I glugged some water and carried on.
On reaching Puy du Rocher, a small scramble was required to make it to its top, helped also by the metal ladder rungs that had been glued to the rock. A small sign told me I had arrived – volcano number 13 done and dusted.
I didn’t linger – Plomb du Cantal was 2km distant. Off I set.
At the junction Pas des Alpins, the immediate landscape changed. Wide gravel tracks had been carved into the landscape, framed by high fences. Along the route were ski lifts, a cable car and even a café, all closed for the day. With all the man-made architecture, Plomb du Cantal felt positively bustling compared with the previous peaks I’d summitted. I passed the first people, four, walking in the opposite direction who had already been to the summit and were heading back down to Le Lioran.
Once they had started to take the route down, it was just me again, alone on the mountain. Plomb du Cantal’s summit was an easy staircase to a cairn and a view out over Le Lioran and the surrounding valley. The sky was a brilliant blue filled with a shimmery gold as the sinking sun shot out its sunbeams.
Contentment oozed through my veins as I absorbed the spectacle, chuffed to bits that I’d conquered self-doubt, made the effort and could proudly lay claim to another two volcanoes – all because of a train strike.
And with a smile on my face, I tuned and headed home.