It’s strange the memories and stuff that come at you when you revisit somewhere you’ve not been for a while. It’s several years since I spent time in Chamonix, “capital” of the French Alps. I passed through ten days ago, on a diversion from somewhere else I’d been staying, and stopped for lunch.
“Cham” on a bright sunny day was as it always is – rammed. I managed to find a parking spot near the apartment I used to rent occasionally, and somewhere to sit for lunch. So, not too rammed on a September Thursday, I guess.
There was a very excitable young english couple on a table near to me. It was apparent from their conversation that they had recently had some kind of “near death experience” in the mountains, involving a thunderstorm. They’d clearly lived to tell the tale. It had me thinking about the occasions I could remember when an electrical storm added a certain something to a day out from Chamonix. Happily, I too had lived to tell the tales (such as they were) each time. I was probably never in real danger on either occasion, although it really didn’t feel like it at the time.
My private reminiscences continues on as I hit the motorways and began my journey home. and a thought began to puzzle me. We’ll come back to that.
One of my favourite spots of all in the French Alps is Le Signal. It’s the top of a broad, sloping pass, about 30 minutes walk above the Montenvers mountain railway station, or a couple of hours away, if coming from the west, from the middle station of the Aiguille du Midi cable car.
Le Signal is the place to view the famous Mer de Glace glacier, with its famous view up to the Grandes Jorasses. The view isn’t half what it probably was a hundred and more years ago, because of the pace that the glacier has retreated, but it’s still a very fine view indeed, which I have photographed often.
Le Signal is also the place par excellence to gawp at the west face Petit Dru. The Dru is a shapely flying buttress on the side of the taller Aiguille Verte, but the top of the Verte is almost completely hidden in the view from Le Signal, which emphasises what a shapely, fairytale peak the Dru actually is.
Now, a slight diversion. I don’t shoot much film any more. I was a latecomer to digital photography, and for quite a few years, used my film and digital cameras side by side for landscape work. However, for reasons I now forget – other than the bargain price – in about 2008 I sank all of my investment in film cameras into one extensive Zenza Bronica GS-1 outfit. This camera and the bits and pieces that go with it is, in my view, the un-sung king of medium format film cameras, save for one thing: its bulk and weight. The GS is made to last. Even a bog-standard kit of body, basic lens, film back and prism viewfinder weighs in at almost 3 kilos. That’s before you’ve added to your bag an extra film back or two, a couple of other lenses, a handgrip and, more often than not, a pretty sturdy tripod. I was even more of a latecomer to the concept that it’s not what you put in the bag that matters, it’s what you decide to leave out.
To compromise, I stopped carrying a digital single lens reflex (DSLR) camera for landscape work. My Nikon DSLR is a bruiser, and its quality lenses are heavy too. I was glad to be persuaded to buy a Panasonic Lumix GF-1, compact digital camera with a range of interchangeable lenses. It’s a camera known as “the poor man’s Leica”. Seven or so years down the line, I have two of these in regular use. Great cameras, but more to the point here, they extended the time that I could justify the effort and sweat of lugging my Bronica GS outfit up into the mountains.
The Bronica, like nearly all medium format cameras, uses 120 roll film. The negatives/transparencies it shoots are 6cm by 7cm. In other words, pretty big. this means I get precisely ten shots to a roll of film before needing to go through the rigmarole of rewinding and changing the film, or digging out a second, pre-loaded film back. Medium format photography is a slow and very deliberate business, key to which is as much deciding which shots not to take, as it is deciding which ones to shoot.
Now, Le Signal is one of those spots where it is possible to justify packing a medium format outfit. The walk from the Aiguille du Midi cable car middle station is mostly a broad, undulating mountainside path, albeit with a half-hour brutal uphill finish. The walk up from Montenvers station is on a mess of paths, steep but direct, for about 30 minutes on a good day.
The occasion I have in mind was not, to begin with, a good day. Overnight rain had lingered, and, as September became October, unsettled autumn weather was taking control. Getting the most out of my stay in Chamonix involved spotting the weather windows and trusting to luck. By 11am, it looked like luck was heading my way, but it was early afternoon before I plucked up the courage to hop on board the Aiguille du Midi lift and head for Le Signal.
The walk-in had become very familiar. I’d been this way twice before during my current stay in Chamonix. This would be the last, as I was heading home in a week. Behind me, the summit of Mont Blanc stayed hidden in cloud, but I was treated to an afternoon of rapidly warming and fast-moving weather. I was happy to be out later than usual, having the backup of a return to Chamonix on the Montenvers railway.
Upon reaching Le Signal, the conditions were disappointing. There was a fairly poor view up the Mer de Glace, and the clouds were swirling around, making any photography hit and miss. This is really not what you want with medium format stuff. With digital, it’s usually a case of shoot away, and then delete the poor shots. At ten to a roll of film, to the cost of which needs to be added that of developing, the weather rather encouraged me to keep the camera in my rucksack and be philosophical about things. I’d at least brought a book with me to read while waiting for the train back, so I settled down in the shelter of some rocks, broke out the flask of tea and what was left of some pastries bought in the town that morning, opened the book, and waited to see what the weather would do.
What it did, within half an hour, was get quite dark. This sort of crept up on me, as it came from the east, and the lowering cloud was initially concealed by the bulk of the Aiguille Verte and the Dru, immediately across the valley from my seat. There was something else, too. Initially a bit intangible, but it was almost as if there was a humming in the air. Before I could dwell too much on that, however, the late afternoon sun dipped below the bottom edge of the clouds to the east that had been hiding Mont Blanc. The light was focussed like a giant torch beam from the east, over the saddle of Le Signal, and straight at the Petit Dru.
The Bronica had been on the tripod for some time, armed with its 50mm wide angle lens (which needs a 90mm filter, would you believe? You could eat your dinner off it!). Across on the Dru, the light was giving the clouds hovering around the summit a yellow tinge. I could tell by the shape of them that the mountain was attracting a storm all of its own. I took five shots. Half a roll of film.
Then…CRACK-BOOOOM. No gap between the lightning and the thunder. This wasn’t good. There was no immediate sign of rain, but the air was highly charged, and self-preservation demanded immediate descent. Things were thrown in my rucksack, and carrying the still-extended tripod, I made a heavy-laden run for it downhill towards the Montenvers railway station, as further bolts of lightning illuminated the afternoon. I’d be early for the 5pm train, but not by a great deal.
There was a different kind of shock waiting for me at Montenvers. Today was the first of October. The Montenvers railway, from here to Chamonix has its annual closure every year, for maintenance work, during October. There were no trains. The rain came an hour or so later, as I was trudging endlessly down through the forests back towards Chamonix. Aside from the tripod, my gear was safe inside several layers of waterproof bag. I had a jacket, but no over-trousers, and my boots had filled with rain many times over by the time I reached my apartment. The electrical storm had been violent but short-lived, fortunately. The rain carried on all night.
Fully two years later, I found that half-used roll of film still in the film back in my camera bag. I quickly frittered away the other five shots and sent the roll off for developing. The puzzle I’d mentioned earlier was that I had no idea at all where those photos had subsequently gone. When I arrived back in the UK from my recent trip, I nearly took my office apart in my search, until there, tucked into the back of a negative folder, was the plastic strip which I’d done nothing with since the day it had returned from the processing lab. Taking the film strip from the plastic was the start of a trip back down memory lane which has become the blog you’re now reading.
The photo at the head of this blog is one of the five I shot at Le Signal that day. As good as, if not better than I remember it!
My blog title this time is a James Taylor song. Of course, I didn’t.