mardi 24 février 2009


A grave marker

the cemetery in Argentière,
looking up to the glacier

The mountains offer another form of peace, the rest of eternity. While I walk through the forest at their feet and feel the urge to lie down on that cold earth that beckons kindly, watched over and protected by the eternal peeks and soaring trees, promising to cradle me gently under the night sky, others climb the rock faces and the glaciers and find their rest and safety below the cold ground and snow.

I have walked through this cemetery when there was scant snow cover and seen the granite slabs lying side to side, headstones telling the stories of the lives lost scaling the rock and ice of the mountains that surround us, a death that is part of the life of these valleys. They are men, mostly young, although not all. Some have lived to risk their lives more times for the satisfaction of establishing their place in the harshest, least hospitable parts of this landscape, their home.

It is irresistible for some who live in this element. Even the skiers.

Some among us outgrow skis and poles and the blue, red and black trails, staked out nicely by the poles along their sides, with names and signs marking one's progress down them in case of an unfortunate tumble, fill backpacks with shovels and picks, carabiner clips, step into their harnesses, sling rope from their hips, attach their skis to their packs and climb to the tops of the needles to ski back down the untouched snow of the highest corridors, leaving graceful, sinuous trails to mark their passage.

Others ride to the top of the trails to which we will remain faithful, attach their rope and drop down the corridor to unthinkable perches from which to detach and chose their path to the bottom. This is one such point of depart, at the top of Bochard at Grands Montets. Sam and I watched someone do this, fixing their ropes to drop down the V of rock with his friend and their snowboards to ski places we have never seen in 10 years here, Mont Blanc witnessing serenely another human need to conquer this ultimate challenge from across the glacier below.

Most succeed and tell their tales at the bars come the evening. Like the two guys from England here in the hotel lounge where I am writing.

"He's spent 5 days trying to kill us, I think," said one into his iPhone before the other came down to get on his Mac, "It was quite scary, really, especially given my level of fitness right now." They have spent 5 days hors piste, or off-trail, sking the powder of the Mont-Blanc massif. It turned out that the second man was the informal guide for his group of friends. The first was only too happy to recount his perilous outings of the past several days.

"I was the only one without a Recco. I felt quite paranoid, really."

"Yes, you'd have been the only one not to return from your day on the powder."

"Buried under the avalanche," he nodded.

"But, you're here, safe and sound to tell us your tales," I said before turning to his friend, installed with immense calm and confidence in his chair at the corner table, to ask, "You must know the terrain well," I said, "How is that?"

"Oh, he's been coming here for 20 years, skis 50 days a year," said his friend.

"120 this year," rejoined the friend. He looked over at me, "I'm retired now."

"Yeah," said his friend, "100,000 £ cars, 6 months skiing a year. The life, really."

"In what line of work were you in that you could ski 50 days a year, might I ask? I am needing to counsel my son for his education and career, and he might appreciate the lesson." We laughed.

"I photographed cars for trade magazines for 25 years." If only Sam had been there to hear that. Not only did he have a Mac, he's a photographer who makes enough to retire and ski 6 months in the likes of Chamonix.

"My son should be here to hear that," I said. "He spent a ride up the oeufs telling me that my Dell is crap and that a Mac is the only thing to have because he also wants a much better camera. He's thinking international law or photography."

"More lucrative, law, I'd say," said the photographer, with a chuckle.

"Depends on what you love to do, though, doesn't it?"

"I didn't enjoy school, but I have enjoyed work for every day for 25 years," he nodded.

"My son hates school. He's bright, but he can't stand it. I sometimes wonder how he will survive university, if they let him in. He might enjoy being a lawyer, but he might be better off doing what it sounds like he could love." We nodded together. I wished I could get Sam to come down and talk with him. I did go and try to get him, and I was right. He wouldn't come down. The covers up to his chin and Barcelona v Lyon on the little Philips had won out over "buy one, get one free" chicken wings and Manchester United v Inter Milan on the giant screen across the street at The Office.

His friend, who discovered what it is to fear losing one's life, or being seriously frightened and possibly quite mangled at high altitude is a professional commercial pilot.

Go figure.

Others, one day, there are no tales of adventure and danger exchanged by the fire in the comfortable chairs. They accept, rather, their place of rest in the cemetery of Argentière, where they know they might well come to rest.
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