Updated: Nov 12, 2018
You were in the Alps. Was it good? Yeah, it was good, but… For no obvious reason, I spent the first few days in Chamonix swaying between normal mental function, like getting excited by the sight of aiguilles and deciding what to have for lunch, and a dismal stony funk. What should have been a recipe for some reliably good brain chemistry, being in the mountains with a sunny forecast, wasn’t coming out right.
Ferdia says my gestures are becoming French. When I am feeling ennui, or perhaps a little malaise, it is expressed with insouciance in an elaborate flourish of digits, shoulders and lips. I’m not aware of this, so it is hard to tell if it exists as a fiction in Ferdia’s mind, or a result of a fiction in mine. Am I internalising the supposed national character, surrogate enfant of la Patrie?
I used to think Moles was a French name. The earliest written record the internet offers is one Roger de Moles in the Domesday Book, so it seems likely to have arrived in Britain with the Normans, a locative for Meulles in Calvados. Then again, it might equally have originated from Meols in Cheshire, or as a variant of the later English Moll or Mullis. It might have been a nickname for someone who looked like they belonged underground. Since Anglo-Norman French was the prestige language of medieval England, the distinction is not very meaningful. There is sure to be a little Frenchness in there somewhere, but any more than Dutch or Gael or Viking?
No, non, there was no excuse in this imagined fraternité. I was just being a moody shite, latching on to petty aggrievements as the cause of my angst, when really it was the other way around.
Six years ago, on my first visit to Chamonix, I spent the first three hours of the trip, my first alpine climbing trip, watching a speed climbing competition. This sounds like better entertainment than watching traffic and tourists, but once you have seen a few gymnasts sprint up the same bit of resin like fast-forwarded spider monkeys, the spectacle is no less repetitive. Eventually the others, who had been climbing somewhere around the Midi, came to the rescue and evacuated me from the jostle of Chamonix to the sanctuary of the Chamshack. The mythical Chamshack. Calum was the brains of the operation, no doubt, but Marcus and Hertha have engineering pedigree too, and Ferdia unearthed a natural talent for drystone walling. Between them they had refurbished the basic builds of previous occupants into a slightly less basic and comfortably liveable illicit shack in the woods near La Praz. This accommodated many students and dirtbag alpinists over the years, developing organically through seasonal collapses under winter snow and rebuilds from reclaimed building materials at the start of the summer. There isn’t much left of it now, but I’m sure there are others. Our generation has sold out into hashtag van life, or knowing people who have a real house to stay in, but I hope there is still a scene out there, grimy and transient, who would rather live off stolen crisps fried in mayonnaise than go home and get a job for the summer.
On the first day the weather picked up, we attempted the Voie Normale on the Aiguille de la République. The others had climbed a few routes on the trip already, but it was my first route in the Alps. In retrospect, it is quite a long one. It is regarded as a classic, mostly I think because the summit of the République itself is so spectacular, the aiguilliest aiguille of the Chamonix aiguilles, a cheeky ‘casse-toi’ outthrust from the mass of the Grépon. But the independent prominence of the République only starts a couple of hundred feet from the summit, and most of the Voie Normale follows a glaciated trough between the tours Rouge and Brune which ends at a little brèche between the République and the rest of the mountain. It’s not the most aesthetic line in the Alps, and the ascent is mostly indifferent scrambling.
We got almost as far as the brèche before realising it was getting late, people were already abseiling past us back down the route, and five of us needed to get ourselves down on the same two ropes. I learned a lot in those couple of days. I learned that abseiling, especially as a five and especially when anchors take some finding, takes some time. I slithered off the end of the rope back onto the glacier just as turning on a headtorch became unavoidable. I learned why people talk about alpine starts, and that our decision not to have one because we had only arrived at camp late the evening before was a classic case of one poor decision knocking on to another. The next day I learned a heap more. Our plan to climb on the slabs below the Envers hut got off to a bad start when it turned out the path towards the Requin hut had recently collapsed into the moraine. With better planning, we would have known this. Sketchy, ill-advised abseiling ensued, a rescue of a prone Irishman going his own way (text message reads: ‘precarious stuck, embarrassing’), and a terrifying schooling in rack selection for climbing parallel granite cracks (it’s not about taking nuts, and nuts only). Later we learned that walking right down the middle of a heavily crevassed glacier, instead of skirting the edge on uncrevassed moraine, makes for a route that looks like the high score on Nokia 3310 Snake, and more stress than you really need.
But lessons were learned, and not in as hard a way as they might have been. No storming the Bastille or decapitating the King, no Reign of Terror; my first République was not so much a grand gesture of revolution as a quiet series of amendments in the writing of the constitution. Not for the first, or the last, time.
This time around, 2017, Ferdia wants to climb République Bananière. You what? Where the voie normale reaches the République by the path of least resistance, this voie abnormale proceeds by the corrupt ways of modern alpinism, following the revolution embodied in the expansion bolt – the Robespierre of mountaineering – to seek the route of most excellence. Deviously linking the best features on the Tour Brune and the tower of the République itself, it is one of Michel Piola’s great masterpieces in this style. Tastefully, he only drilled enough bolts to show the way.
We got the last train to Montenvers, mistakenly believing the guidebook's assertion that the walk up to the Envers hut would take no more than two hours. We were unacclimatised and heavy with camping gear, and it was well after dark by the time we reached our sleeping spot. That stony funk crashed in on a vacuum of hypoglycaemia, and an alpine start the next morning seemed indefensible. Instead we got up with the sun and settled on a middle-length route called Pedro Polar, another Piola route twenty years older than République Bananière, which turned out to be totally brilliant. Even so, Ferdia said I didn’t look like I was enjoying myself. There were occasional outbreaks of slab between the beautiful cracks, and god damn but Piola was gifted on his feet. My knobbly heels never do well encased in black rubber in the sun, and ballerina toe smearing is not my strength. That night my inflatable camping mat burst, and my brittle temperament shattered. Stiff and terribly slept, the next day was written off to walk back down the Mer de Glace and regather in the valley.
Ferdia still wants to climb République Bananière, even though it is three times the length of Pedro Polar and has a bunch of pitches graded harder. I found Pedro tricky, I-might-fall-off level tricky, with two of the pitches better represented to a British nuggeteer as top-of-the-grade E3 6a than French 6b. That would be Cornish E3 6a, not Hebridean.
“We climbed the Salbit Westgrat, that’s much longer.”
“But we’re better now.”
“I want to climb something that really pushes us.”
“But my feet hurt.”
“Stop putting up barriers!”
Antipathy festers in the tree-dappled sunlight of the camper doss at Orthaz. Like the bleached sputters of bogroll contaminating the needle floor of the surrounding trees, something isn’t right, an itch I can’t quite scratch. How, when the Dru and the République and all their neighbours lean in above the trees, beckoning with pure inspiration? That is what I want, is it not?
The République…I assumed that the aiguille got its name because la République is such a fundament to the conception of Frenchness that it made sense for such a proud feature to acquire it. But that never fully made sense – if they were bestowing new names to mountains in a spirit of patriotic devotion, then that one would have fallen not on a subsidiary summit, but on the Midi or something else. It turns out that la République is named for its resemblance to the bonnet rouge, the so-called liberty cap that was worn during the Revolution, and which became emblematic of it. I don’t know from which angle they were looking.
Liberté, égalité, fraternité…ou la mort. Such bloodyminded purity, it still raises the pulse. We know better now, better than violent revolution and all the horror, every steadfast truth compromised by nuance. It’s easy to forget we are still living in history. But voices on the radio say that Europe is on the brink of crisis. I keep hearing it, one way or another. Is it true? Isn’t someone always saying something like that? The immigrant crisis, terrorism, fracturing of the EU, resurgence of the extreme right…
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold…
They say Europe no longer has confidence in its convictions, that it falters to defend the values that define it.
The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full passionate intensity…
Are our stories getting old? Are we so used to those grandiose fictions, liberty and the rights of the citizen, that we have become complacent in them? Has affluence made us feel too safe from the nightmare of history to realise that what we’ve got was not given, but won? Too buried in our atomised worlds, a sea of faces without expression in the white glow of screens… too cripplingly self-aware, too enabled to know what to do with ourselves, sating the anxiety and guilt of it all in whatever small ways we can…
What would it take to turn us into revolutionaries now? Our Bastille is the supermarket, Louis’ neck a faster broadband.
The light is a dim red when we set off on the glacier, just enough to pick out the relief of crevasses and water runnels. Not so cold for an alpine dawn, our crampons crunch wet sugar through the mordant icescape, black tidemarks of silt and errant shards of granite. The aiguilles begin to glow.
Again, it comes to this. When there’s nothing to fight for, we pick a fight.
The bergschrund is wide enough to give pause. Chop a little ledge and trade boots for slippery rubber. I hang counterweighted on the rope and slither into the gap at its narrowest, soaking up wet and dirt, then scramble across ledges to the starting groove of the route. One cam? No, two cams please. Ferdia jumps.
I want to feel wasted, that’s what she says. Totally spent and content, it will be transcendent. We will buy steak frites, another coffee, maybe some ice cream, and won’t care about anything. Let the body lead the mind…
With more speed, less haste. Or is it the other way around? When you climb faster than your natural rhythm, which for us has evolved as the cautious cadence of the creeping nuggeteer, it feels like taking the brakes off when cycling down a bumpy hill. The mind a little ruffled in the wake of the toes, tripping to keep up. Where I would test the smear, scuff off grit on my trouserleg, weight it again and consider a different sequence, I just step up and keep moving. One, two, move together, six, seven…
Up and right through the voie normale, up and right past the wreckage of the Tour Rouge refuge. How could it last, when it was built larger than the ledge it sat on? “The building is of wood and it moves when many people are inside…” The complexity of the face opens up, zigzagging grooves and cracks to ledges, gratuitous slabs (the perverts!), more cracks to more ledges… the Trélaporte glacier grows level and distant. The tent is a miniscule green blob in the no-man’s-land of polished domes that guard the Trélaporte’s retreat. Spot that from your helicopters!
At the foot of a stunning arcing dihedral splitting the Tour Brune, we take sandwich. I’m a little boy in shorts, a few francs warming in my fist, volunteering for the cool morning boulangerie run. A chance to speak some rehearsed French. “Deux baguettes, deux grands pains, trois croissants et un pain au chocolat, s’il vous plaît.” The pain au chocolat is for me. “Merci, au-revoir.” The boulangerie changed, the ratios of pain changed, but each summer re-inked its imprint. Baguettes underarm, sometimes on a bike, paper bag of croissants in hand. The table set with a pot of coffee and conserves. At lunchtime, a plate of oiled and seasoned fresh tomatoes, a choice of Comté and Port-Salut, a jar of cornichons. A bottle of Panach’ from the fridge. How good would a cold Panach’ be now, to wash down the day-old soggy baguette, a mockery of yesterday’s artisanal assembly of cornichons, saucisson, and moutarde…
Haul the bag on this one? Yes, alright. Ferdia leads up the dihedral, at last putting our double set of cams to use, as the corner expands and she becomes tiny. Check time? After one already. Better speed up.
The mood is forgotten, a vapour displaced by the solid drive of action. Another pitch, an abseil, another pitch then a rubble gully, the waste depository for the true aiguille of the République. Passage is guarded by more immaculate dihedrals, the crux of the climb. Swimming up polished laybacks, there is no chance now of falling off. I am possessed with too much certainty of purpose, punched through into that space, so hard to find as we drift in post-everything vacillation, where I am simply doing. My body and mind have not evolved for the mire of complexities, they still need to gather and hunt and learn to survive. Liberté...ou la mort?
How did we fail to summit the République before? I only recall moving quickly. I don’t remember any excess of timewasting. How can these experiences be reconciled, that then and this now, separated only by a few years? If I can barely grasp my own immediate past, what can I believe about history? The story told can never tell the whole story, but the way it is told begets the ongoing story by which it is consumed... The République was built on a story, told well enough that the world was changed forever. Did they feel certainty as the guillotines dropped, unwavering belief in the fictions proposed? A terrible beauty is born…
We are going to make it; it is only a matter of seeing it through. Teams on the voie normale are on the way down as we drag full rope lengths out on the easing upper tower, questing for the summit. Just like us, storytellers and mountaineers, to be in love with the sense of an ending. Emerging on the tiny crest of the summit block, where the sudden void rushes in from every side, we teeter amidst a host of the proudest pinnacles in Europe. We enjoy briefly an exhilarating closure, knowing we must go down.
“You love France. Monsieur le Mole.” Ferdia finds it funny.
Tiramisu flavoured breakfast cereal, what’s not to love?
Maybe. I don’t love the endless flat of the industrial north, rude public servants or terrifying driving manoeuvres. I’m not sure about French coffee, and I can’t get used to everything closing in the middle of the day. I’m sceptical about what it even means to feel something towards an idea so amorphous as a whole country. A land bounded by rivers, seas and mountains, a nation-state, a story? And itself a character in a wider story, the fascinating shambles of old Europe… Maybe I’m responding to the sniff of a threat to something taken for granted, and feeling a little more European. You don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone…
Stars come out, and the moon is up before we hit the glacier. Across the Mer de Glace, other lights twinkle in strange places. Just like ours but alien, light from other worlds.