Day Ten: The Last Ascent
Morning at the sublimely magical Refuge du Lac Blanc. The sun star-flashed on snow-covered peaks, mist evanesced upon the glacier-scored stones, and the day was already glorious.
We beat the horde of Japanese (ha!) to breakfast, to retrieving our kit from the cramped out-building and finally, just, to departure. As we set off, they were marshalling behind us. I turned and indulged in a dramatic and deeply silly gesture. There's this lovely Japanese phrase (*): O-karada o daiji-ni. Colloquially, it means, "take good care of yourself". But the literal translation is more exalted. I turned back to face their group, stood tall, raised my voice, and belted out:
The first "O" is an honorific. But, basically, there was no getting around the fact that what I said was: "Oh, Japanese people! Your bodies are precious!" And with that and nothing more (what else?!), we set off down the shining mountain.
Morning on the mountain, as you can't miss, was equally misty and mystical and we also felt very much alone there. My internal marching cadence today was what's perhaps my favourite song of all time: "Doppelganger" by Curve. Join me. →
We faced a long, meandering, rocky descent rocky enough that it made one glad for the stiffness in one's boot soles.
As we came down out of the cloud, we squared up on Mt. Blanc, its summit quite clear. Actually, we'd be climbing back down into the clouds once more, before finally dropping out below them again.
After we'd got our last glimpse of the refuge, and as we walked alone, together, in the mountain soup, I considered that if Rifugio Bonatti had been Rivendell, then Refuge du Lac Blanc was Shangri-La.
I appear to have taken no notes between here and our first stop, at a ski resort far below. Enjoy this uninterrupted series of 21 photos.
At the out-of-season ski resort, we sat at an outdoor table, enjoying soft drinks and sandwiches from the little shop hut. There wasn't a cloud in the glorious sky.
Me: “This is how disaster stories always start: perfect weather, only a few hours’ walk, easy trail to follow… then the avalance.”
Mark: “A three-hour tour…”
As we got going again, I realised I had the Gilligan's Island theme stuck in my head. It was time to break out the Mental Saltine.
As should be obvious, our path continued to contour the western wall of the Chamonix valley. Mont Blanc was still nearly dead ahead of us and now the summit was totally clear.
All across the valley, birds chirped, daffodils bloomed, and paragliders swooped around like ungainly butterflies.
While Mark and Tim took a sandwich break in the shade, I went around the bend to burn some more of my infinite film trying to get shots of the paragliders in many cases, with the summit of Mont Blanc itself for a backdrop.
Then we headed off again. Not to be outdone by the paragliders, real butterflies now flitted around our legs and heads.
As it started to look like Mt Blanc was going to be staring us in the face every minute of this whole day a very pleasant experience I wondered if the trailmakers intended this, when they made Les Houches both the beginning and the end. Well played, trailmakers. Well played.
That right there is the actual, gen-u-ine totally clear summit of the tallest peak in the Alps. → I assume it's a long way behind those paragliders; but, still, they're right between it and me, and these shots are pretty sublime, if I do say.
So. We had one last mountain to climb on this day, and on this walk: up to Col Le Brévent, at 2525m. And we were nearing the start of the climb.
So that right there → was the most dramatic and extreme cable car any of us had ever seen. It went straight up to the very peak of Le Brévent. And, not lost on us, was the fact that it also went straight down into the centre of Chamonix. This led to the first of our final two big decisions. (More on which in a second.)
As we started this last ascent, we realised we were climbing above the spot where they launched all those colourful paragliders. I stood around, and walked backwards, trying, wildly unsuccessfully, to get shots of them taking off and I was of course doing this instead of being where I actually was and seeing what I was actually looking at. Labouring instead to pin some ridiculous butterfly for future appreciation. This sad fact led to the second of the two final big decisions (again, more on which in a second).
So the first final big decision we made was: We weren't going to finish the walk. Yes, you read that right. The walk officially ended where it started in the little French village of Les Houches. However, I'd booked us in that last night at a hotel in Chamonix mainly because a night there looked livelier and more interesting than a second night in sleepy Les Houches, with an enormously wider range of accommodation and dining; and also because it was slightly easier to get to the airport from. So, the trip plan had us rocking up at the end/beginning in Les Houches; and then catching a train back to Chamonix.
However… however, the more we looked around us now, and the more we fell under the spell of the Chamonix valley… the less we felt compelled to finish every inch of the mandated official slog to the end, and then sit around waiting as much as an hour for the train back back to the amazing place we were already in right now! This was the place! And we were already in it! And it also seemed to us that the climb up to Le Brévent, and the breathtaking cable car ride all the way back down to the valley floor, would make the exact perfect fitting finale to the whole TMB. (More so than would checking the box of completing the exact official full circuit.) We were not going to slog on ceremony; instead, we were going to enjoy this.
But first we had to get up there to 2525m (8,284 ft).
And it was somewhere along here… picking our way across the side of this completely majestic mountain, overlooking a valley of such soul-tweaking beauty, and overlooked in turn by the breathtaking face of Mt Blanc and her giant glacial massif… and also shortly after my misguided paroxysm of staring into the camera at paragliders instead of actually looking around me and experiencing this amazing place that I was in… that I made the second decision.
What I really made was a promise to myself: that for just one segment of this walk, the final one, I was going to put the damned camera away; and slam shut the notebook, too. I was going to stop pinning butterflies, throw off the tyranny of the perfect shot and the obsessively scribbled observation, and have just one experience for the sake of the experience itself and for me.
Nobel-prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman has this nifty theory that 'the experiencing self' and the 'remembering self' are actually two rather distinct entities ones whose interests aren't always aligned. (Quick example: eating a box of donuts might feel great while you're actually doing it; but, immediately afterwards, feels like a gut-punch of guilt and disgust. More here.) Well, spending all this time and energy and attention recording the trip was very much robbing Peter (the experiencing self) for the great benefit of Paul (the remembering self, later on).
Now, finally it was time for the experiencing self to have its moment in the sun.
We emerged onto a great, high promontory. It looked like the perfect place to take the end-of-walk group photo. I found a perch for the camera, posed Mark and Tim, set the auto-timer, dashed and clambered back over to the edge then of course tried to compose myself to look as cool as they effortlessly did.
And that was it for the photos, and for the story. I love that last photo, not only because it kind of captures Tim. But also because behind him, way in the distance, you can just make out the Bond-esque cable car we would soon ride back to Earth; and at its start you can also see the peak of Le Brévent the peak we still had to climb over and up to. (And the location of the patio bar where we'd have our celebratory end-of-walk drinks.)
All I will say about this final traverse and climb is that it had a little bit of everything that had made the last ten days extraordinary: steep and dramatic rock formations, blanketed snow, snow diagonals, wildlife, steel ladders, danger and of course absurdly picturesque views all around and below us. Beyond that, well…
And with that, I closed the notebook and buried the camera in my main pack and I buried it deep.
I love lovely phrases in other languages that simply don't translate to another language but, more, to another culture. Another unique (and uniquely Japanese) one is: Kochira koso. Said in response to a compliment, it means, all at once: • thank you very much indeed; • you're far too kind; • oh, no, that's not true at all; • in fact it's much more true of you. Translate that! And, importantly, you now know a lot more than you did 30 seconds ago about how the Japanese, culturally, react to praise. This is why languages even when you suck as badly at them as I do are so cool.
I'd gotten the idea in my head to try and take Rich on one of these walks. But by the time I did, it was too late. Don't wait to do things with your parents.