Dispatch from the Razor's Edge, the Blog of Michael Stephen Fuchs

Day Ten: The Last Ascent

Morning at the sublimely magical Refuge du Lac Blanc. The sun star-flashed on snow-covered peaks, mist evanesced upon the glacier-scored stones, and the day was already glorious.

We beat the horde of Japanese (ha!) to breakfast, to retrieving our kit from the cramped out-building – and finally, just, to departure. As we set off, they were marshalling behind us. I turned and indulged in a dramatic and deeply silly gesture. There's this lovely Japanese phrase (*): O-karada o daiji-ni. Colloquially, it means, "take good care of yourself". But the literal translation is more exalted. I turned back to face their group, stood tall, raised my voice, and belted out:

O-Nihonjin! O-karada o daiji ni!

The first "O" is an honorific. But, basically, there was no getting around the fact that what I said was: "Oh, Japanese people! Your bodies are precious!" And with that and nothing more (what else?!), we set off down the shining mountain.

Bye bye, Refuge du Lac Blanc

Morning on the mountain, as you can't miss, was equally misty and mystical – and we also felt very much alone there. My internal marching cadence today was what's perhaps my favourite song of all time: "Doppelganger" by Curve. Join me. →

We faced a long, meandering, rocky descent – rocky enough that it made one glad for the stiffness in one's boot soles.

As we came down out of the cloud, we squared up on Mt. Blanc, its summit quite clear. Actually, we'd be climbing back down into the clouds once more, before finally dropping out below them again.

After we'd got our last glimpse of the refuge, and as we walked alone, together, in the mountain soup, I considered that if Rifugio Bonatti had been Rivendell, then Refuge du Lac Blanc was Shangri-La.

I appear to have taken no notes between here and our first stop, at a ski resort far below. Enjoy this uninterrupted series of 21 photos.

The only dude who passed us all morning – and he had an ice axe in his pack

At the out-of-season ski resort, we sat at an outdoor table, enjoying soft drinks and sandwiches from the little shop hut. There wasn't a cloud in the glorious sky.

Mark: “Looks like smooth sailing.”
Me: “This is how disaster stories always start: perfect weather, only a few hours’ walk, easy trail to follow… then the avalance.”
Mark: “A three-hour tour…

As we got going again, I realised I had the Gilligan's Island theme stuck in my head. It was time to break out the Mental Saltine.

My peeling arm here testifies to the solar beating we took on much of this walk

As should be obvious, our path continued to contour the western wall of the Chamonix valley. Mont Blanc was still nearly dead ahead of us – and now the summit was totally clear.

Our first glimpse of the swooping paragliders of the Chamonix valley

All across the valley, birds chirped, daffodils bloomed, and paragliders swooped around like ungainly butterflies.

While Mark and Tim took a sandwich break in the shade, I went around the bend to burn some more of my infinite film trying to get shots of the paragliders – in many cases, with the summit of Mont Blanc itself for a backdrop.

Then we headed off again. Not to be outdone by the paragliders, real butterflies now flitted around our legs and heads.

As it started to look like Mt Blanc was going to be staring us in the face every minute of this whole day – a very pleasant experience – I wondered if the trailmakers intended this, when they made Les Houches both the beginning and the end. Well played, trailmakers. Well played.

That right there is the actual, gen-u-ine totally clear summit of the tallest peak in the Alps. → I assume it's a long way behind those paragliders; but, still, they're right between it and me, and these shots are pretty sublime, if I do say.

It looks like every step of Day 10 is going to be in direct sight of the Old White Dome. I guess this is why they call it the Tour du Mont Blanc.
The others taking a break – waiting on me to finish shooting human butterflies

So. We had one last mountain to climb on this day, and on this walk: up to Col Le Brévent, at 2525m. And we were nearing the start of the climb.

I don't want to rush today at all – I want to touch everything, smell everything, see everything.
Someone climbing Le Brévent – the hard way
Today is an amazing gift. One my father never got. (*) God, how I miss him.

So that right there → was the most dramatic and extreme cable car any of us had ever seen. It went straight up to the very peak of Le Brévent. And, not lost on us, was the fact that it also went straight down into the centre of Chamonix. This led to the first of our final two big decisions. (More on which in a second.)

As we started this last ascent, we realised we were climbing above the spot where they launched all those colourful paragliders. I stood around, and walked backwards, trying, wildly unsuccessfully, to get shots of them taking off – and I was of course doing this instead of being where I actually was and seeing what I was actually looking at. Labouring instead to pin some ridiculous butterfly for future appreciation. This sad fact led to the second of the two final big decisions (again, more on which in a second).

That's the launch point down there And, zoomed in, here are all those paragliders not taking off This is the others waiting around for me to finish faffing and failing to photograph the paragliders taking off. Granted, they were in a totally soul-tweaking spot to have to wait around in.

So the first final big decision we made was: We weren't going to finish the walk. Yes, you read that right. The walk officially ended where it started – in the little French village of Les Houches. However, I'd booked us in that last night at a hotel in Chamonix – mainly because a night there looked livelier and more interesting than a second night in sleepy Les Houches, with an enormously wider range of accommodation and dining; and also because it was slightly easier to get to the airport from. So, the trip plan had us rocking up at the end/beginning in Les Houches; and then catching a train back to Chamonix.

However… however, the more we looked around us now, and the more we fell under the spell of the Chamonix valley… the less we felt compelled to finish every inch of the mandated official slog to the end, and then sit around waiting as much as an hour for the train back – back to the amazing place we were already in right now! This was the place! And we were already in it! And it also seemed to us that the climb up to Le Brévent, and the breathtaking cable car ride all the way back down to the valley floor, would make the exact perfect fitting finale to the whole TMB. (More so than would checking the box of completing the exact official full circuit.) We were not going to slog on ceremony; instead, we were going to enjoy this.

But first we had to get up there – to 2525m (8,284 ft).

Still waiting for me! (Still totally soul-tweaking!)

And it was somewhere along here… picking our way across the side of this completely majestic mountain, overlooking a valley of such soul-tweaking beauty, and overlooked in turn by the breathtaking face of Mt Blanc and her giant glacial massif… and also shortly after my misguided paroxysm of staring into the camera at paragliders instead of actually looking around me and experiencing this amazing place that I was in… that I made the second decision.

What I really made was a promise to myself: that for just one segment of this walk, the final one, I was going to put the damned camera away; and slam shut the notebook, too. I was going to stop pinning butterflies, throw off the tyranny of the perfect shot and the obsessively scribbled observation, and have just one experience for the sake of the experience itself – and for me.

Nobel-prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman has this nifty theory that 'the experiencing self' and the 'remembering self' are actually two rather distinct entities – ones whose interests aren't always aligned. (Quick example: eating a box of donuts might feel great while you're actually doing it; but, immediately afterwards, feels like a gut-punch of guilt and disgust. More here.) Well, spending all this time and energy and attention recording the trip was very much robbing Peter (the experiencing self) for the great benefit of Paul (the remembering self, later on).

Now, finally – it was time for the experiencing self to have its moment in the sun.

The supervillain's fortress that we'd seen at the beginning, now from the other side

We emerged onto a great, high promontory. It looked like the perfect place to take the end-of-walk group photo. I found a perch for the camera, posed Mark and Tim, set the auto-timer, dashed and clambered back over to the edge – then of course tried to compose myself to look as cool as they effortlessly did.

And that was it – for the photos, and for the story. I love that last photo, not only because it kind of captures Tim. But also because behind him, way in the distance, you can just make out the Bond-esque cable car we would soon ride back to Earth; and at its start you can also see the peak of Le Brévent – the peak we still had to climb over and up to. (And the location of the patio bar where we'd have our celebratory end-of-walk drinks.)

All I will say about this final traverse and climb is that it had a little bit of everything that had made the last ten days extraordinary: steep and dramatic rock formations, blanketed snow, snow diagonals, wildlife, steel ladders, danger – and of course absurdly picturesque views all around and below us. Beyond that, well…

The final stage, the ascent of Le Brévent, and the grandest possible conclusion to the grandest walk ever… is just for Mark, and for Tim – and for my experiencing self.

And with that, I closed the notebook and buried the camera in my main pack – and I buried it deep.

  hiking     mountains     pitely     pops     tim     tmb     walking  
close photo of Michael Stephen Fuchs

Fuchs is the author of the novels The Manuscript and Pandora's Sisters, both published worldwide by Macmillan in hardback, paperback and all e-book formats (and in translation); the D-Boys series of high-tech, high-concept, spec-ops military adventure novels – D-Boys, Counter-Assault, and Close Quarters Battle (coming in 2016); and is co-author, with Glynn James, of the bestselling Arisen series of special-operations military ZA novels. The second nicest thing anyone has ever said about his work was: "Fuchs seems to operate on the narrative principle of 'when in doubt put in a firefight'." (Kirkus Reviews, more here.)

Fuchs was born in New York; schooled in Virginia (UVa); and later emigrated to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he lived through the dot-com boom. Subsequently he decamped for an extended period of tramping before finally rocking up in London, where he now makes his home. He does a lot of travel blogging, most recently of some very  long  walks around the British Isles. He's been writing and developing for the web since 1994 and shows no particularly hopeful signs of stopping.

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ARISEN : Operators, Volume I - The Fall of the Third Temple by Michael Stephen Fuchs
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