A Sentimental Journey.
A Sentimental Tale by Ron Monk
IF YOU CAN'T STAND SENTIMENT, DON'T READ THIS! (of course, now you will read it).
Last year (1999) my wife Gladys and I were on holiday in France. We stayed with a French girl, Christiane, whom we had met the previous year, and her family. They live in the Arve Valley, between Geneva and Chamonix.
They took us on some trips out from there, to Geneva, Annecy, Chambery and several other beautiful places that we had never heard of. But the climax must have been when we went to Chamonix with Christiane and her girl friend Flo.
I had been reading about the Alps since the 1960s, but incredibly had not seen them for real, apart from incidental glimpses on package tours across Europe. So I was familiar with the famous stories of Whymper, Paccard, Balmat and de Saussure, and the names of the Glacier des Bossons and Mont Blanc had entered my imagination in middle age.
It should be explained that we were not entirely new to a mountain background of a sort. Gladys and I had lived in North Wales for more than twenty years, and she and I were on the 2000 foot peaks almost every week. We were familiar with the mountain atmosphere of mist, sun, wind, ice and snow at that level.
But on this holiday we made our first, if remote, contact with the big ones. At Chamonix we saw the grave of Edward Whymper, who led the first successful, and tragic, climb of the Matterhorn, and statues to Dr. Paccard and Balmat, who were the first to get to the top of Mont Blanc in 1786, a date from which modern mountaineering is said to start. And the monument to de Saussure who, disappointed at not being the first, was taken by Balmat to the same summit in the following year. The big moment came when our two friends suggested taking the cable car to the summit of the Aiguille du Midi, 12,605 feet, from which there would be a view of Mont Blanc, at 15,771 feet the highest mountain in Western Europe, four and a half times as high as Snowdon. With us in the cable car were some well equipped guys who were obviously going on to the snow when we got there.
That was when it happened. We were walking round the observation platform on the Aiguille du Midi, looking at Mont Blanc and the surrounding peaks with their covering of snow. Down below we could see some climbers coming up along a ridge that was very much like Crib Goch in Wales, but bigger. There were some skiers, looking no larger than flies from where we were, zooming about. I felt a sudden rush of emotions, and it was hard to say which of them were the most important. Was it because after reading about these peaks for forty years we were actually among them at last? Was it the ghosts of de Saussure, Dr. Paccard, Balmat and Whymper? Was it the accumulated memories of so many days and nights spent on the North Walian hills, in light and darkness with the sun looking through the clouds or rising over the tops in the morning, in the rare heat wave or in the sub-zero temperatures of the winter? Was it the unseen presence of so many friends we had been on the hills with, those with whom we had first (for us) reached the summit of a peak? Or perhaps more to the point, those we had got totally lost with in mist or in a white-out, and come down a different side of the hill from what we had intended? Was it envy of the young and old mountaineers who had just stepped out of the cabin lift on to the snow? Was it the wistfulness and frustration of knowing that because of illness, or age, I couldn't do what they were doing? Was it the sheer joy of being close to so much beauty and awesomeness and being able to share it with Gladys and our companions? Was it the enthusiasm of our young French friends, and their evident pride in their mountains?
It was probably a combination of all these. I'm not sure what it was myself. But whatever the reason, as we stood leaning on the handrail, facing Mont Blanc, I suddenly dropped my head on my arms and wept.
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