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A completely silly picture (we took moooore of these) after doing the Vertical Kilometre for the first time. There was time for wild strawberries and pictures, so I wasn't trying super hard, as I knew I'd pay for it the following morning. Made it to the top in 1h10min, and I feel absolutely fine now after a good night of sleep. Thank you Elena! We're going to do it every Monday now, woohoo! #NotARunner #trainingforclimbing #climbinglife #lifedge #verticalKM #chamonix #trailrunning #rookie #mountains #outdoorwomen
The picture above this post was taken in June 2015 by a friend who is no longer here.
I had just moved to Chamonix and was slowly settling in when one of my new work mates announced she wanted to show me the Vertical Kilometre, a particularly steep trail above town. Having completed a couple ultra marathons, Elena was an experienced runner and I was happy to learn from her.
On Monday after work we drove to the trailhead. I was apprehensive and expected a gruelling climb. It was still warm in the lowering sun and the vegetation on either side of the trail gave out a sweet scent. Elena shot out ahead and soon was out of sight.
Determined not to lag behind, I sped up and took a corner. Elena was nowhere to be seen. Where could she be gone? I looked around without slowing down, gasping for air and with sweat dripping from my face.
I noticed movement in the firns above me and spotted Elena’s blue jersey. She was crouching down off the trail. With her back turned to me, she was munching on wild strawberries.
At first I was surprised to see my new running guru take a casual snack brake mid race (in my head it was, after all, a race between the two of us). After a moment of thought I squatted next to her and we stuffed ourselves silly with the sweet berries.
There were a few more foraging stops on the way to the top, before the trail became barren and windy. We arrived at the finish in 1h 10 minutes, posed for pictures, got our head torches ready, and started the descent.
That was the first lesson that Elena had taught me.
She did everything to the max, always present, most of the time smiling. She knew there was a time and place for everything. When we worked together in France, it was time for hard work. She would stay after hours to complete her tasks, despite never being paid overtime, never getting enough recognition.
I remember her sitting on the concrete veranda in front of the office, pushing a half-eaten lunch around her plate. Tears were streaming down her face and she was cursing in English and Italian, spitting out a laundry list of complaints. Things were not going well that day, maybe even that month. The meltdown lasted about ten minutes. Then Elena wiped her face with the top of her hand, and said she wouldn’t let work problems spoil her food.
She finished off lunch and with a genuine smile went back to the office, ready to fight mounting paperwork.
When I moved from Chamonix to Bulgaria, I frequently looked back at the time spent in France with Elena and another friend, Alice. It was Alice who told me over messenger that Elena left the office and went on to pursue her dream of becoming a mountain guide. I was so happy to hear the news.
It was also Alice who called me a few months later. She said that descending from a climb, Elena was wiped down by a small avalanche.
Although we only spent six months together in Cham, nine months after that phone call I still feel a very tangible emptiness inside me. A little place in which Elena isn’t any more and, at the same time, forever is.
I think about her everyday. I wonder how many people think about her everyday. Not only her closest family and friends, whose lives were forever scarred by her loss, but people like me, or those who only had the briefest chance to meet her.
I like to think that we don’t need avalanches taking our friends to be able to learn from them, but it cannot be undone and Elena is gone. For me, and I’m guessing for many others, her passion for life is apparent now even more than it was before the fatal climb. It is our chance to look at it and learn from it. Do what she’d do.
Live more. And I don’t mean the “drop everything and follow your dreams” stuff, although you might think from my story that this is what Elena did.
But dropping everything and relishing the change is easy. The hard part is hard work. The days when nothing groundbreaking happens. Early mornings before work, late nights at the office. Traffic. Shopping. Ordinary moments with friends.
Living more means being present through it all. Always giving a hundred percent yet knowing when to stop and eat wild berries.