The final day of the festival in Chamonix…I decided to take a hike.
You know how some people are organized and methodical? How they pack a proper backpack and wear good shoes with lots of ankle support and possibly some kind of smart socks? With wicking action? !How they have a compass and sunscreen and bandaids and basic antiseptic and a snake bite kit? How they plan routes and plot GPS coordinates? I would guess the GPS has wicking action too.
I envy those people. I am not that person. My decision to take a hike involved me finishing a panini, drinking an espresso, and staring up the side of a hill, wondering how long it would take to get to the top. So I bought two bottles of water and stuffed them in my purse and walked up the mountain, in blue jeans and UGGs and a hoodie.
There is a lot to be said against this approach. What I lack in common sense however tends to get compensated by my innate stubbornness…and so I made it up that mountain into a wilderness area called Aiguilles Rouge. And when I got to the top, I could see this place in the rock where it looked like someone had ripped a hole and filled it up with sky, so then I scrambled down to that little patch of glacier-carved sky embedded in the rock. It took me another hour and a half to get there, even thought it looked so close…and I peeled off my definitely non-space age socks and stuck my tired feet in that lake and listened to the wind and let everything go…the language sadness, the worries for the future, the million and one things I have in my head…just dissolved.
It looked like this.
Something else happened while I was bouncing around the Alps in fuzzy boots and impractical non-wicking fabric..Chamonix has this whole lift system made up of cable cars, cabins, and various other pulley systems to winch people up above 2000 meters. In the winter it opens the world of skiing…in the summer, mountaineers, hikers and bikers use the lifts to access the high country. The highest lift takes you up above 3000 meters to a peak called Aiguilles du Midi. It’s the base if you are planning a summit of Mont Blanc which is the highest point in Europe. From there, you can catch another cable car that will take you across these glaciers all the way to the Italian border. It is extremely expensive, but does offer warm croissants and espresso at the top because much like nature abhors a vacuum, the country of France abhors any space devoid of the opportunity to put yourself in a flour-and-pastry inspired coma. It’s about €80 a person, but due to the magical power of fermented grapes, we had a guy buy a case of wine at the festival who happened to work the lift…and we got the ride gratuit.
This is crossing into Italy.
It was amazing…not least because I don’t think in all my years of reading adventure stories, about Rheinhold Messner and Ed Viesturs and Into Thin Air and mountzaineering stories, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a real mountaineer. But about a third of the people in the cable car on the way up were carrying ice axes and coils of rope and crampons and backpacks. People use wing suits and BASE jump and do some incredibly ambitious ascents…and from the cable car you could see tiny little brightly colored moving dots, moving across the glacier and stepping over crevasses that looked like, from where we sat, like a wrinkle in a piece of paper but in reality must have been vast yawning maws in the ice. It was an incredible thing to witness.
Can you see the little dots in the foreground? Those are people.
Italo Calvino wrote this beautiful book called Invisible Cities…I thought a lot about this one particular passage that day as we rode around in ropes in the sky.
“If you choose to believe me, good. Now I will tell you how Octavia, the spider-web city, is made. There is a precipice between two steep mountains: the city is over the void, bound to the two crests with ropes and chains and catwalks. You walk on the little wooden ties, careful not to set your foot in the open spaces, or you cling to the hempen strands. Below there is nothing for hundreds and hundreds of feet: a few clouds glide past; farther down you can glimpse the chasm’s bed.
This is the foundation of the city: a net which serves as passage and as support. All the rest, instead of rising up, is hung below: rope ladders, hammocks, houses made like sacks, clothes hangers, terraces like gondolas, skins of water, gas jets, spits, baskets on strings, dumb-waiters, showers, trapezes and rings for children’s games, cable cars, chandeliers, pots with trailing plants.
Suspended over the abyss, the life of Octavia’s inhabitants is less uncertain than in other cities. They know the net will only last so long.”
― Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities