Hiking in the Contamines Montjoie region with Columbia
Written by Mark Bullock // Photography by Manon Guenot // Columbia
Columbia are – depending on which metrics you choose – one of the biggest outdoor apparel brands globally. They have achieved this prominence through their fiercely proud middle-market alignment with hiking. And Columbia’s values underpin that identity. A family owned company since 1938, they believe passionately in encouraging more people to enjoy the outdoors.
This is at the very heart of what they do, and is allied to meaningful and ethical CSR partnerships such as the Planet Water Foundation, UK & US National Parks, Bluesign, and Conservation International. Their BSR initiative HERproject looks directly at programmes improving the lives of the women that represent 75 per cent of Columbia’s global supply chain workforce. More recently, they’ve instigated The Hike Society – a community space and source of inspiration for the new generation of hiker. The mission is to facilitate more time spent outside and promote the benefits, ‘from cities to summits’ as they say.
Columbia recently invited Sidetracked to come hiking with them in the wonderful Contamines Montjoie area of the French Alps. Once we’d transferred from Columbia’s European home in Geneva to Notre-Dame de la Gorge, we hiked alongside our guides from 5eme Element up the consistently steep Roman Way, gradually gaining altitude towards our base for the trip: the recently developed (and stunningly positioned) Refuge des Prés. After aperitifs, and a frankly hotel-standard dinner, our group got an early night ahead of a morning hike up towards Lac des Jovets.
Here we saw two beautiful glacial lakes situated well above 2,000m, set amongst the vivid colours of blueberry fields – both reflecting la Tête d’Enclave and Mont Jovet. On our way up to the Col du Bonhomme at 2,313m, we had a fascinating presentation of the nature reserve and conservation work in the area by an officer of the Conservatoire d’Espaces Naturels de Haute-Savoie.
After lunch back at the Refuge des Prés, the refuge founder Pascal Chapelland regaled us with the story of the creation of the hut. Reclaiming a disused and dilapidated cattle barn had created a bright, plush refuge, as popular in summer as it is with skiers in winter – which is when Contamines Montjoie really comes alive.
After a luxurious yoga session outside the refuge in the warm afternoon air, everyone showered before an evening agenda of entertaining ambassador talks. First was The Hike Society, presented by Columbia UK’s Eoin Treacy and landscape photographer Brendan Clayton. The Hike Society is a vibrant, semi-urban initiative co-opted by passionate hill-going converts looking to build a like-minded community. The simple goal: to get outside more by organising regular group hikes.
Second we heard about Megamarsch, founded by the charismatic Marco Kamischke in Germany. Megamarsch events have been astounding in their success – which is based on the simple premise of walking 100km around your local community. Thousands have signed up for these wholesome occasions.
Finally, a preview of the film Alaska Patagonie: La Grandé Traversée, by Jérémy Vaugeois and Sophie Planque. Jérémy delighted us with his tales of bikepacking the extreme latitudes, from the northernmost reaches of Alaska to the southern tip of Patagonia over an extended two-year period with Sophie.
There’s no wingsuit BASE jumping here. No sick sends by rad dudes giving devil-horn signs into the camera lens. The stories are friendly, charming, and mellow. Because it’s such an obvious common thread throughout these Columbia-supported partnerships, the group talked extensively about Columbia’s values and their place in the modern outdoor world, their history and heritage, their mission and vision. But we also discussed their unparalleled innovation in clothing and equipment that has been so fundamental to the success of all these projects.
Columbia have pioneered or invented something close to 30 proprietary technologies for warmth, waterproofing, cooling, sun protection, and footwear. They are perhaps chiefly known for their various Omni-Heat reflective linings. Their fabric technology, and the simple effective functionality of their clothing, really is imbued with the same family values and character traits of their company. And their European team truly embodies this too. All the team members exude a genuine warmth, a passion for what they do, and a charming hospitality that is sadly unusual in today’s outdoor industry. After the most delicious fondue I have ever tasted – where I also learned that its correct culinary partner is actually white wine, not red (who knew?) – we retired ahead of our final day.
We found the walk down to Notres-Dame de la Gorge considerably less breathless than the hike up. A more leisurely and circuitous scenic route spoiled us once again – with soothing late-summer French sunshine, and with soul-nourishing mountain vistas across the valley to the majestic snow-capped Mont Blanc.
While we strolled through Alpine meadows to the sound of cowbells and trickling streams, the group shared stories of hikes from their past, and the camaraderie you only seem to get in the hills began to blossom.
The zeitgeist of our age, or at least of outdoor culture at the moment, is getting more people into the outdoors. The benefits that mountains give us – exercise, appreciation of nature, better mental health, community – are well known and well eulogised. However, while ideas such as accessibility, inclusivity, and diversity are bandied about with largely good intentions, a ‘more, more, more’ attitude can have repercussions on fragile ecosystems. I have learnt that with Columbia these positive sentiments are long-standing, deep-rooted, and earnest.
Columbia might be the biggest global outdoor brand, but it is heartwarming to know that one of the core reasons behind that success is that the founding ‘family’ values they based their company around are still embodied by their employees today.