Monthly Archives: September 2008

Landscape: Aiguilles des Chamois

My camera went MIA for a few weeks, but it turned up in a friend’s car—still stocked with photos and good memories with my recent visit to Chamonix, France. Most people who go to Chamonix to climb end up doing so on the Mont Blanc side of the valley. But the opposite side—the Aiguilles Rouges side—is also amazing and infinitely stocked with climbing objectives. My friend Andy and I headed up to the area to climb a series of peaks called the Aiguilles des Chamois (literal translation: “needles of the chamois,” chamois being deer-like alpine creatures). We wanted to climb to the fifth tour, pictured at right as the prominent pointy peak in front of the more often climbed Aiguille de la Perseverance (needle of perseverance, no kidding; in the sun here). As my cool NYC sister was in town, we all took the telecabine up together for the hike in; she made the descent later that eve, and Andy and I camped out at our bivy near an alpine lake above Lac Blanc.

The hike in was misty, gray, and we were worried a bit about the weather, but it cleared up enough in the morning to make a good climbing day. The climb was an all-day venture, with two nice rock pitches straight off the ground. Some slabby bolted pitches followed, and then we were out on a traverse for a good bit, linking up the towers.

I led through an unstable couloir to the final tower, which had two nice pitches to the top. Andy complained about the cold while I took my time leading to the summit, trying (unsuccessfully) not to kick off any loose rock. We rappelled off into a boulder field and walked back to our camp, at which point Andy decided he wanted to get back to the valley to work. Being on vacation, I decided to stay and enjoy the night out. After he was gone, I jumped into the lake beside our camp and sat out on a rock in my underwear until the sun went behind the peaks.

Andy missed out on the good night views, and the morning ones, too. I drank tea as alpenglow colored the Mont Blanc massif pink…

…and woke to see these amazing sun-lit clouds spread across the morning sky.

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Literature: Coelho’s Eleven Minutes

“…freedom only exists when love is present. The person who gives him or herself wholly, the person who feels freest, is the person who loves most wholeheartedly.” –Maria, in Paulo Coelho’s Eleven Minutes (2004)

In the last post, I admitted to boarding a plane for vacation without a single book. Unusual for me, as the thought of going anywhere without a book is akin to what my sister must feel without her Blackberry: naked. Even though I thought it would be good just to clear my mind and not have to think about anything for two weeks, I spotted a Paulo Coehlo collection on the hearth where I was staying and started reading Eleven Minutes, upon the recommendation of a friend. From the other Coelho books I’ve read (The Alchemist, Warrior of the Light, The Devil and Miss Prym…), I’ve come to expect simple stories that demonstrate spiritual truths. I can’t say that this one was much different—except instead of being a story about wisdom, or hope, or faith, Eleven Minutes is basically a story about sex, love, and desire. It’s racier than I’d imagined Coelho to be.

Eleven Minutes is the story of a young Brazilian woman named Maria who goes to Geneva for work. She is led to believe that she will be working in the entertainment business—perhaps in music or dance—but she ends up working as a prostitute. The book seems to move slowly for the first hundred or so pages, but when Maria meets a talented young painter, her ideas about sex and love are put to the test, and this is where the book starts to get really good. I found that Maria’s exploration of these things had me considering my own ideas, prejudices, and desires. Maybe this is why I like Coelho—he doesn’t simply entertain; his work moves readers beyond fiction and into the realm of their own lives.

Some gems from Maria’s diary (passages are woven throughout the story):

“In love, no one can harm anyone else; we are each of us responsible for our own feelings and cannot blame someone else for what we feel.”

“I am not a body with a soul, I’m a soul that has a visible part called the body.”

‘That is the true experience of freedom: having the most important thing in the world without owning it.”

“…if we are talking in terms of making progress in life, we must understand that ‘good enough’ is very different from ‘best.’”

Life: Unplugged on Mont Blanc

Vacation. Unplugged. It’s what I wanted and needed, so I took the past two weeks without fretting over emails, blogs, and phones. I even asked for the month free of book review deadlines, so I boarded the plane from Denver to Geneva without even a book. I was returning to Chamonix, France—the place where I have lived for the past three summers. I knew that a two-week visit would be a bit like torture, and it was—being so close to a place that I love without being able to stay. I suppose that I’ve made the decision to have some more stability, to stay put in the U.S., and it’s not like I’m being forced against my will to live in Vail, Colorado. It’s just that life in Chamonix seems more beautiful in every way. In France, the pace of life is more leisurely, the night sky more studded with stars. Besides visiting with friends, climbing, and eating a lot of good cheese, I had also planned to climb Mont Blanc with my NYC sister. Mont Blanc, at just under 16,000 feet, is Western Europe’s highest peak, and its sloping summit defines the Chamonix skyline:

I had climbed Mont Blanc with a friend a few summers ago, but last year I became fascinated with the idea of climbing it with my sister, who is adventurous and strong-willed—but not a climber. I was thinking that we’d be on the five-year plan—as in, I’d get good enough to be able to lead, and she’d start climbing regularly so as to round out the team.

Well. It didn’t happen that way. As soon as I planted the idea in my sister’s head, she decided that she wanted to climb Mont Blanc with me this summer, so I suggested she hire a guide. She chose a French guide named Christian who is one of my friends, and he agreed to have me come along, so it was set.

My sister had two pretty dramatic meltdowns on the way to the summit (via the Trois Mont Blanc route), but she pulled it together just when we had to get over the steepest section on Mont Maudit. From there, we held a slow but steady pace to the summit and descended via the Gouter Ridge route.

Being sappy, I had tears in my eyes many times throughout the day, feeling proud of my sister and in awe of the beauty that I was sharing with her along the way. We were all smiles a few times, too—and happy to be back safely in the valley eating pizza at Casa Valerio that night. Two days after we made the climb, a serac along the route collapsed, causing an avalanche that killed eight climbers. We slipped through, but not without remembering that the mountains are as beautiful and they are dangerous: sublime.