Sunday 25 August 2013

Just Add Wheels

[Poppies and wheat, rural Burgundy]  

Every July my thoughts turn towards France. You can blame the Tour de France for that. It’s something I simply must watch, though to be honest it’s not because I’m a rusted-on road cycling fan. Drug scandals aside, I find the intricacies of the sport devilish hard to comprehend. It’s more that I cannot take my eyes off the background scenery while I pretend to watch the race. If there’s a more diverse and beautiful country on Earth than France, I would like to see it!

Yet this July I didn’t spend any time in front of the TV watching Le Tour. I went one better, and was actually IN France for the 100th Tour. But don’t imagine it was so I could stand for hours in all weather with thousands of others waiting to catch a glimpse of a whizzing blur of lycra-clad heroes. Rather I was in France to join my own decidedly sedate peloton for a cycling tour through rural Burgundy.

If walking is movement at the speed of thought, then cycling represents manic thought, with angst, exhaustion, bliss and exhilaration thrown into the mix. I bless the inventors of the modern bicycle – several Frenchmen among them – because they’ve given us a human-powered machine that can get us within a whisker of flying.

Even at ambling speed there’s something inherently pleasing about getting through the countryside on wheels. When that countryside is the Saone valley in Burgundy, that pleasure is multiplied.

[Riding a canal path in the Saone Valley] 

Our group spent a week cycling more than 300km through a landscape with a long and deep history. We rode past villages and vineyards, through fields and woods, alongside rivers and canals. We passed mills and lavoirs, churches and ale houses. At times we wouldn’t have blinked had characters from fairytales stepped out, perhaps a hag offering enchanted fruit, or a donkey asking a favour.

[House and tower in Buxy, France] 

When we paused for food, a boulangerie here, a café there, the food was hardly less enchanting. The baguettes were beguiling, the pain-au-chocolat divine, perhaps only the café-au-lait burst the bubble. The locals were very patient with our fractured French, just occasionally having some gentle fun at our expense, as when a group of rural workers cheered our passing peloton on with a mock “Allez, allez!”

[The "peloton" rides an ancient Roman road in Burgundy] 

Of course this bicycle bliss has a downside, and that downside is the backside. The human bottom was not apparently designed to spend long hours in a bike saddle. We were all saddle sore after a few hours, despite gel seats and padded shorts (which I always think of as “nappy pants”).  We expected we’d harden up after a few days, but every day the pain continued. While riding I took to shuffling my derriere from side to side, in search of relief. Off the bike I developed a cowboy’s bow-legged walk.

[Taking a break from the bike] 

As a long time bushwalker, I found myself contemplating the similarities and differences between cycling and walking. As with walking, the gain to pain ratio of cycling is open to measurement. In both activities I find that the bliss generally outweighs the distress. Crucially for me, both activities offer un-mediated experience of your surrounds. Riding through Burgundy we could smell the cattle; hear the church bells; feel the breeze or sun or rain on our faces. And this being near Dijon, we could smell, almost taste, the mustard crops that matured along our route. Car travel, for all its advantages, simply can’t offer any of that.

[Lunch break beside a mill stream near Beaune, France] 

And as with walking, cycling also offers camaraderie, whether deep conversations, jokey by-play or silent sharing of moments. On this trip we also shared moments of pain – including a few falls – and times of disgruntlement. And of course, this being Burgundy, we sampled together the fruit of the vines through which we were riding, albeit in bottled form.

[Riding through vineyards, Burgundy] 

At the end of it all I found myself in rare agreement with Lance Armstrong. “It’s not about the bike”. No ... it was all about France, and wonderful times shared in a beautiful country. I’m not sure how I will cope next July.

Sunday 11 August 2013

No Child's Mountain

What do you get when you ask a child to draw a mountain? Nine times out of ten you’ll get a tall, pointy, pyramid-shaped object cloaked with snow. Chances are it will also be a single glorious entity, uncluttered by other eminences, towering above all else.

[The Matterhorn, from near Fluhalp] 
Most mountains, certainly in Tasmania, but even in the Alps of Europe and the South Island of New Zealand, are not quite like that. Mont Blanc, the highest in Western Europe, is snowy for sure. But its pyramid is obtuse, relaxed, and its throne is jostled by a retinue of Aguilles and other peaks.

In the Bernese Alps, classic mountains such as Jungfrau, Mönch, Finsteraarhorn and the Eiger only approximate the triangular, and they have to share the heights with a crowd of other peaks. But the Matterhorn? Ah the Matterhorn is exactly that classic child’s mountain shape!

Although it’s not the highest – it only just sneaks into Switzerland’s top ten highest – it is an exuberantly mountainous mountain. Fine 20th century French climber and writer, Gaston Rébuffat, captured it perfectly.

“This pyramid is the more beautiful in that it stands alone. All around lie nothing but mountain ruins: peaks that have fallen asleep, bent over and crumpled.”

[Breithorn "sleeps" above the Gornergrat glacier]

Before he had seen the famous mountain, Rébuffat feared he may be disappointed. “Suppose it were not all I expected? Truth often brings disillusion.”

I share that apprehension as we settle into a chalet down valley from Zermatt, in Täsch. Its deep, steep-sided valley keeps the Matterhorn frustratingly out of view. It’s the following day before we board the train to Zermatt for a potential meeting with the mountain I've admired from afar for so long.

The morning is fine and crisp as we negotiate Zermatt’s car-free, shop-filled, toy-town streets, and head from the train to the gondola station. All the while I scan up-hill, where the mountain must be. And then, as plain as a hand in front of my face, there’s the Matterhorn. Any thought of disappointment dissolves. I can only echo Rébuffat’s words. “In this case the truth is that here is the perfect mountain.”

[The perfect mountain? The east and north faces of the Matterhorn] 

It helps that the weather is also perfect as we ride the gondola high into the mountains, then walk higher still towards Rothorn. This and so many other worthy mountains surround us, and there are wildflowers everywhere. But all the while our eyes keep returning to the massive, irresistible Matterhorn.

What makes it so remarkable is partly down to accidents of geology. The upper thousand metres or so of the peak is composed of gneiss, a metamorphic rock that often has planar, sheet-like structures. In some cases these can peel away in layers, leaving both flat faces and sharp edges.

Glacial erosion of the Matterhorn has produced just such features. But in addition the glaciers have swept away the rubble that would normally clutter the scene. From a climber’s point of view, the result is both enticing and terrifying.

It took until the mid 19th century for the mountain to be first climbed. Englishman Edward Whymper and a team comprising Zermatt locals and other Englishmen, reached the summit on July 14, 1865. They had beaten an Italian party, climbing via a different route, by only a matter of hours.

Whymper wrote that they remained on the summit for an hour, one crowded hour of glorious life”, before starting their descent. Disaster struck shortly afterwards when one of the party slipped, taking himself and three others to their death. All seven had been roped together, and only the fact that the rope broke saved Whymper and two of his Zermatt guides.

On our own July day, nearly 150 years later, we pause to look closely at the mountain’s terrible beauty. It stands stark and clear against a perfect blue sky, its gunmetal grey upper ramparts spattered with patchy snow, save for the snowier upper section of the north face. Here and there the dark grey has a reddish tinge, including near the Hörnlihütte (Hörnli Hut).

[Safe, sunny, flowery views of the Matterhorn] 
Whymper’s route went up the Hörnli Ridge from there. To us it looks absurdly difficult, yet by the 1930s this “easy” route was being traded for the seemingly impossible north face. We shake our heads as we look at the sheer face around the corner from Hörnli, but in 1931 German brothers Toni and Franz Schmid succeeded in climbing the route.

By the early 1950s, Frenchman Gaston Rébuffat had also climbed that route, along with all the other “impossible” north faces of the Alps. He exulted: “We stood upon this most wonderful of mountains and looked around. Fragile creatures set upon a pyramid that soars to heaven.”

If there can be any final heroic ascent of the Matterhorn, then Walter Bonatti’s solo winter ascent of the north face would have to be it. In February 1965, nearly 100 years after Whymper’s climb, the remarkable Italian draws near to the top of the perfect mountain.

Bonatti has endured four days of solitary climbing, and is all but overcome with fatigue. He writes that he had started to see himself as some mythical creature “condemned for his sins to climb eternally.” But the sun came out at last, illuminating the cross on the summit. “As if hypnotized, I stretched out my arms towards the cross, until finally I clasped it to my chest: my knees buckled and I wept.”

Just looking at the Matterhorn, even from a safe and sunny meadow, I almost do the same.

Saturday 3 August 2013

I Want To See Mountains

[The roots of Rivendell? Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland]

“I want to see mountains again, Gandalf, mountains.”

It is the opening chapter of his monumental trilogy The Lord of the Rings. JRR Tolkien is putting words into the mouth of the hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, that undoubtedly reflect his own feelings.

Tolkien fell in love with mountains decades before he came to write about hobbits. In the summer of 1911, just before starting his university studies, the nineteen year old had joined eleven others in a walking journey through the Swiss Alps. Beginning in Interlaken, they had walked first up the Lauterbrunnen valley. Its steep sides, cut by shining waterfalls and clad in deep green forest, are surrounded by some of Switzerland’s highest peaks, including Jungfrau, the Eiger and Mönch.
Tolkien was so awestruck by what he saw and experienced in the Alps over those few weeks, that its landscapes, legends and even some of its place names, found their way into his works. In the 1950s he admitted in a letter that "the hobbit Bilbo's journey from Rivendell to the other side of the Misty Mountains... is based on my adventures.”

Even towards the end of his life the memories remained vivid. In 1968 he wrote to his son Michael: "I left the view of Jungfrau with deep regret: eternal snow, etched as it seemed against eternal sunshine, and the Silberhorn sharp against the dark: the Silvertine (Celebdil) of my dreams." (The letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, No 306.)

[The always-snowcapped Silberhorn in Switzerland]
Just over a century after Tolkien’s Swiss sojourn, our own journey finds us intersecting parts of his path. We pause for a picnic lunch near Lauterbrunnen, and we too are awestruck by our surrounds. The deep U-shaped valley is the perfect “riven dell” – as indeed it was in Tolkien’s mind, when he used it as inspiration for the elvish stronghold of Rivendell. Even the name “Lauterbrunnen” seems to reflect the name he gave to Rivendell’s stream, “Loudwater”.

 [One of many waterfalls near Lauterbrunnen]

In The Lord of the Rings Tolkien describes the wider scene.

“Sam walked beside [Frodo]...looking at the great heights in the East. The snow was white upon their peaks. The sound of running and falling water was loud, and the evening was filled with a faint scent of trees and flowers, as if summer still lingered."

For us summer is more than lingering, it is in full swing. The mountains above Lauterbrunnen glow with the remains of late spring snow, but any clouds are decorative rather than threatening. Everywhere at altitude wildflowers are abundant, and in the lower fields farmers are making hay.

Each town and village we visit in the Alps seems to have its own special mountains. In Chamonix it is Mont Blanc; in Zermatt the Matterhorn. But in Grindelwald, it is the Eiger that dominates. Day and night from our chalet we stare up at the legendary mountain. By night a single light glows from the steep flanks of the monstrous mountain. To me the mountain is legendary in terms of the ferocity for climbers of its north face. (Its name is plausibly translated as “ogre”.) So I am utterly amazed to learn that the light comes from a railway station: the Eigerwand.

[The North Face of the Eiger from Grindelwald] 

In the late 19th century, industrialist Adolf Guyer-Zeller had begun work on an ambitious rack railway up and eventually through the Eiger. Today’s Jungfraubahn is the highest railway in Europe, taking you via the Eiger onto the glaciers just below Jungfrau and Mönch.

During Tolkien’s 1911 visit the railway had already been cut through the Eiger, and would be fully opened the year after his visit. That incredible engineering feat must have impressed the young student, and is likely to be the inspiration behind the Mines of Moria that the dwarves tunnelled beneath the Misty Mountains.

[Workers digging the Eiger tunnel, early 1900s]

Yet I'd be willing to wager that it was the ferocious beauty of the mountains that impressed the young Tolkien more than any human endeavour. That was certainly the case for us.