I’ve been rereading, or rather listening to via Audible, Mountains of the Mind, a book I’ve had for a while. I’m starting to discover that “listening” to a book is a very different experience especially if it’s a non-fiction book and on a topic which has a great deal of emotion as well as information. This book by Robert Macfarlane is full of emotion. It describes how Macfarlane grew up in the mountains (just as I did), scrambled around in his youth (just as I did), learned to climb and ventured onto the snow and ice of the Alps (just as I did), and then began a serious reflection of the risks he had taken contrasted with the “sublime” notion of those self same mountains. The author even reviews “sources of death” which includes falling off a rock face, falling into a crevasse, buried by avalanche, freezing to death, falling through a collapsing cornice, dehydration, and the creeping risk of altitude causing ….. cerebral and pulmonary oedema. We can add to that rock fall, exhaustion …. I’ll Stop! Sobering stuff but it made me reflect considerably on my own experiences alongside Macfarlane’s as well as compared with some of the historical stuff he read as he was growing up.
It all began with the Matterhorn disaster of 1875: people were just starting to explore “the mountains” and we had The Lake Poets writing about the Cumbrian fells as a place of sublime beauty rather than being the home of dragons, together with adventurers like Edward Whymper actually climbing snow and ice peaks in the Alps. But in July 1865 four members of a climbing team with Whymper fell to their deaths on the Matterhorn. It’s an interesting true story of an early mountaineering adventure gone horribly wrong and you can read the full story here. The event led to Whymper’s famous words of caution known off by heart by every mountaineer:
“Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are nought without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste; look well to each step, and from the beginning think what may be the end.”
These words were always used by my regular Alpine Guide, Rich Cross, as I was about to begin my own pitch after he had led on another piece of frozen waterfall …. “OK B, climb if you will, but remember!” Frightened me to death!
Speaking of fear, Macfarlane writes extensively about glaciers, not just big mountains, and these were the places that scared me more than any mountain. Glaciers can be smooth or rough, lumpy and bumpy, full of cracks, some a few inches wide, others several metres wide, often opening into an electric blue abyss. Then there are the cracks you cannot see, because they are covered over by a snow bridge. This is the greatest danger in crossing a glacier after sun-up, the heat of a late morning to mid afternoon sun softening these unseen snow bridges that you might know nothing about until one collapsed under your feet.
The Mer de Glace and the Vallée Blanche are two glaciers I have crossed several times, both situated above Chamonix in the French Alps. The Mer de Glace was named by two English “explorers”, William Windham and Richard Pococke, who were the first to cross it in 1741 and likening its wave-like form to a sea of ice. Despite removing the fear of dragons and demons living there it still remained a fearsome place with artists such as John Ruskin painting and writing about the place and groups of Victorians traversing in large groups for safety.
The Valle Blanche is different, at a higher altitude than the Mer de Glace it is a skiers playground in winter and a mountaineers access for one route up Mont Blanc, or the Dent du Geant as well as a challenge in its own right to cross from France into Italy. Twice I’ve crossed to climb Mont Blanc and once “just for fun” because we fancied an Italian hot chocolate at the cable car station on the Italian side. Yes …. there’s a horizontal cable car crossing the Vallée which I would thoroughly recommend if you are visiting the area. So, here’s a few photos taken on some of my crossings as well as a cable car map. The final photo isn’t Vallée Blanche, it’s on a different glacier in Switzerland and shows just what you might encounter when glacier cracks open up.