In my time in the mountains I seem to have had at least my fair share of bad weather over many years.
Coldest was minus 26 degrees C in northern Norway on a ski tour. For two days, I was really glad of the spare thick mitts I’d brought with me. Not for my hands, but to tuck down the front of my trousers! My most worrying encounter with bad weather was also skiing in Norway. I set out alone to ski some trails north of Lillehammer one New Year’s Eve morning and got overtaken by a really bad storm. I knew I was about half way round the route, so carried on, rather than turn back. I’d forgotten that the route (which I’d nevertheless skied several times before) finished over a 1,200m rounded peak before dropping steeply back to civilisation. Suffice it to say, I don’t recommend crawling on snow on all fours dragging your skis and poles while peering through spindrift looking for the next marker wand beside the trail.
In my last blog here, I promised I’d use a photo of the Petit Dru, above Chamonix, in a future instalment. Well, here you are. The last blog looked due south from the spot known as Le Signal. Turn 90 degrees to your left, and, on a good day, you get a magnificent view of the West Face of the Dru. In truth, the Dru is simply an outlying lump on the side of the giant Aiguille Verte. You’ll see that from some of the photos I’ve linked to below. Nevertheless, it gives one of the most impressive mountain views of the Alps, in my opinion.
I first saw the Dru many years before I first went to the Alps. How so? Well, there used to be a giant photo of the Mer de Glace and the Dru in the restaurant at one of the Paris rail stations. I can’t recall whether it was the Gare du Nord of the Gare du Lyon. Perhaps someone can recall? I saw it as a kid on a school exchange trip and still remember the effect it had on me. Were there really places on earth that awe-inspiring?
It’s been no more than a coincidence that more recently I’ve paid a visit to see the Dru in real life in October every year since 2010. This is a fantastic time of year to be in the mountains, in my view, principally because there are so few people about. Most visitors see the Mer de Glace and the Dru, and then build the interminable and irritating piles of stones at Le Signal, via a ride on the Montenvers mountain railway straight up from Chamonix. This closes for annual maintenance every October. Result: no tourists.
Beneath the West Face of the Dru is where you’ll find what’s left of what climbers have for many years called The Bonatti Pillar. In 1955 (with all that that implies regarding equipment and alpine clothing) Italian mountaineer Walter Bonatti climbed what was then called The South West Pillar entirely solo, over several days. This was a climb of extraordinary significance for alpine climbing.
You don’t stand for very long at somewhere like Le Signal without hearing the sound of rocks falling somewhere not far away. The Dru is huge, but flawed and fragile. The top section of the Bonatti Pillar fell down in about 2005. Ten days before I visited in the autumn of 2011, a truly massive rockfall took away what remains of the route. The pale grey rock in the centre of my photo still pretty much shows where, several years later. After the 2011 rock-fall, there was dust in the air over Chamonix for 48 hours. There are even photos of it happening, and some video. By one of those strange coincidences, on the day of the big 2011 fall, Walter Bonatti himself died, of pancreatic cancer, in Rome, aged 81.
Nothing new fell when I was there, but I was again gambling with the weather, and the Føhn winds were bringing in a monster of a storm, forecast to come in from the south. It’s only about 30 minutes walk down from Le Signal to the Montenvers railway station, or, as I discovered, about 20 minutes if you run. I was so captivated at the sight of the Dru standing alone and proud from the Aiguille Verte in a final shaft of light, that I failed to realise how much, and how fast, the weather was deteriorating around me. The curtains closed, and things got very dark indeed. My photo was shot on my little Lumix GF1 digital camera. I must also have done something to the camera settings to get the texture to the shot, though I have no idea what. At the time, it was a case of shoot and run!
The continuous lightning of a sudden electrical storm is terrifying if, even at five foot ten, you are pretty much the tallest thing on a big slope. I ran hell for leather down the path towards Montenvers. The rain and hail beat me in more ways than one. The sound on the hood of my jacket was deafening. The pummelling was actually painful. I’d had no time to put on over-trousers and my legs were soaked to the skin within a minute. Happy to relate, there is plenty of shelter at the Montenvers station, but it was a cold and amazingly dark hour’s wait while things calmed down. I’ll never forget the sound of the wind and thunder, or the metal of the station singing and buzzing in the storm.
October. No trains. I dried out as I walked down to Chamonix. On arrival, it was clear that it hadn’t even rained there! Until I had loaded the photos on to the computer, I wasn’t completely sure I’d not dreamed the whole thing.
Finally, I’ve pieced together a bit of a panorama of the Dru/Mer de Glace area from three shots taken on a different visit. They very nearly connect up the views of this blog and the last one.
And really finally, just a quick word of thanks to those of you who read this blog. I began it very nearly exactly a year ago. It’s taken me personally down many memory lanes, most of them good, and been an excuse to delve down to the dusty end of my photo archives at times. If this is your first read here, I hope you’ll look back at a few of the earlier posts too. All the best for 2014.
(This time’s title is a very appropriate one, taken from a great track by the even greater Jackson Browne.)