weather on Gran Paradiso on descent
has it that the Alps were the abode of dragons and that the
villages below were cursed. That is not what drew me to the
Alps a few weeks ago, but it certainly added to the mystery
surrounding these mountains.
has become one of my favourite pastimes and how could I not
make a pilgrimage to it's place of origin? It's no coincidence.
The term Alpinism is derived from the Alps. Several European
countries comprise the Alps, and each one has it's alpine
center. Chamonix in France, Zermatt in Switzerland and Courmayeur
in Italy, to name a few. The Alps even extend all the way
to Austria and Slovenia.
Chamonix as my base and decided to explore the Alps up close
and personal. I was met in Chamonix by my guide Raphael. Raphael
was 22 years old the youngest guide I've ever had.But he had
passed the rigours of the French Mountaineering School which
is recognised as one of the best in the world. I told Raphael
I spoke a little bit of French and he suggested we speak that
language. Hmmm… I wasn't sure that was such a great
idea. In the mountains, even my English gets slurred, my French
would surely be incomprehensible! I would be inviting disaster
the trip was adventurous would be an understatement. On the
way to Italy to climb Gran Paradiso, fumes started coming
out of Raphael's car. Here was one situation mountaineering
school had not prepared him for. First came the swear words
and then came the cigarette. All of this was accompanied by
a blank look. Not knowing what to do, we emptied our drinking
water into the empty car radiator and barely made it to the
base of the climb. We'd figure out how to get back after the
Paradiso was a spectacular climb. It was not too challenging
a mountain to climb, but the last bit to the summit involved
a few exposed rock moves that added to the excitement. Being
the highest mountain completely within Italy, it provided
amazing views. Just as we were getting off the mountain the
weather took a turn for the worse. On the way down from Gran
Paradiso, it started to rain. We had to find oil and water
for Raphael's car in the pouring rain. We hadn't tested our
Goretex waterproof clothes against the mountain elements,
but we sure were testing them now. Eventually we found oil
and water, despite the fact that everything in the Italian
alps seemed to be "CHIUSO" (closed) because of rain.
We managed to make it back to Chamonix in one piece. I wasn't
slaying any dragons yet, but I was certainly fighting some
weather that hit the Alps was there to stay. So I took advantage
of the bad weather by sitting in one of the cafes, drinking
fine French coffee and taking a few telepherique (mountain
lift) rides. But after a day's rest, I grew restless and was
ready for more action. There was a slight problem--my next
goal, Mont Blanc was invisible. No, it hadn't disappeared,
but there was an ominously large lenticular cloud covering
it. That meant winds could be blowing up to 100 miles an hour.
It had also been raining heavily. With a change of plans,
Raphael and I found some dry rock to climb close to Chamonix.
Les Gaillands and Servoz were excellent rock climbing venues
and it was amazing to see the number of small children, out
climbing with their parents. Here were the mountaineers of
the future, taking their first baby steps up rock walls!
next day I drove to Annecy, another beautiful area with charming
canals and a lake. Here too it rained. Was I to be completely
shut out? Was I being punished by the dragon up high? I was
going to slay this dragon! The next day, I packed my ice axes,
with a vengeance, and off we went to climb another mountain--Petit
Aiguille Verte--by a technical ice climbing route. Yet another
slight technical problem awaited us. The lift was broken.
A helicopter had been dispatched to fix it. This was a really
big and mean dragon I was fighting.
was as fed up as I was, and he asked if I wanted to drive
far. The weather might be good and we might be able to do
some rock climbing. So off we went to the south of France
in search of blue skies and dry rock. Leaving the dragon behind
seemed to do the trick. Clear skies awaited us near Grenoble.
Even Raphael's car cooperated.
in Presles - where we climbed - was phenomenal and Raphael
was animated as always. He let me lead a section and pointed
out that he was doing me a favour. He said "This is a
cadeau (gift) to you." Little did he know that this gift
was way over my head. I got off route and ended up doing a
harder route by accident. I came off the wall a couple of
times and yelled "TAKE" as hard as I could because
Raphael was out of sight. What's the French word for "TAKE"?
Good thing we'd settled upon English as our mode of communication.
I made it to the belay station with a mighty struggle and
belayed Raphael up. Raphael looked at me from below. He said
"Man, you are off route! I asked you to lead the 4+ and
you did the 6b." Oops. We rappelled down and got back
on route and finished the climb in good form. Needless to
say, I received no more gifts from Raphael. However, he had
a pack of cigarettes that he bought for both of us. He kept
it right in front of me on the dash and said, "I am not
going to offer you, but please do not hesitate." I kept
it together, hesitated and stayed away from the cigarettes.
I didn't need the extra challenge. The dragon was vicious
always the case at the end of a trip, my last day was sunny
and beautiful. Mont Blanc had eluded me, but not Petit Aiguille
Verte. Raphael and I climbed it well and topped off our trip
with a beautiful summit. It was a nice "cadeau".
As for slaying the dragon, I think it was just warming up
to me and despite its hostility, in the end we became friends.
Friend enough to allow me to climb Mont Blanc next time? I
hope so. But as the age old adage goes … the mountain
will still be there …
Atique is a senior product engineer and adjunct math instructor.
He is an avid climber and has climbed extensively in the Canadian
Rockies, Alps, Andes, Africa and the NorthWest Cascades. He
lives in the San Francisco Bay Area of California.
(R) thedailystar.net 2004