A haibun from high up
In the 1980s, for quite a few summers I worked at the Refuge de la Flégère, a mountain refuge where climbers and hikers would stay the night, opposite the Mer de Glace; the Sea of Ice, a glacier which ran down from the Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in Western Europe, and a long, arduous trek upwards on ice, done with crampons and care.
Behind me there were also dangerous cliffs to scale and lakes to bathe nude in at the mountain tops, and my refuge was on the Tour du Mont Blanc, a route hikers took over twelve or so days around the Mont Blanc mountain, and going through three countries, France, Italy and Switzerland. Mont Blanc is seen at the top right of the header image, on a picture taken from the Lac Blanc, a short walk from the refuge, probably less than an hour if my memory serves me well.
Blissful days. Some tragedies, like when climber’s wife fell, and I spent a few hours at night looking for her, and found her, with a helicopter searching with spotlight at the same time. When I got back to the refuge I had to lie about why the search was over, and why the helicopter had turned and was flying away. It was only in the morning that I could tell him his wife had not survived the fall. Telling him at night would have done no-one any good. You don’t know what reaction someone like him could have, high up on a mountainside, and it was for that reason that the head of the mountain rescue police refused the local police’s request later to take all back up to the scene of the fall by helicopter, to establish whether a crime had been committed.
“No way,” he said, “I’ve seen it before, these guys jump.”
Some of us jumped with parachutes — paragliding into the valley, a wonderful sport, even from near the top of Mont Blanc, where my crazy friend Jean Marc jumped then snagged his chute on a cliff in the high wind and had to be rescued-
“You cannot believe it,” the helicopter winchman said, over a glass of pastis afterwards, “we were there, trying to get as close to him as possible, trying to get a rope and harness down to him, and we hear ‘bump..bump..bump ..bump..bump..’ the pilot looks at me — ‘what’s that noise?’ he shouts in my earphones. I look up. The rotor spinning round is whacking the cliff face. Crazy.”
Far down below, on the Mer de Glace, I’d taken a colleague under the ice against my normal reasoning, as she’d wanted to experience it — a highly dangerous thing to do, it involves finding areas at the end of the glacier where there is a gap between the ice and stone ground, and crawling into the gap to discover caves and tunnels. Sometimes the glacier collapses onto you when you are there, though. And it did to others later. They did not survive.
The mountains, the snow, the ice, stones, height, are beautiful, but dangerous, and many tourists are fools. Rescue stories are plentiful of women marooned on glaciers in high heels, and I met more than one irate guy who demanded I get him off the mountain back to town in the valley below. They would come up by cable car and walk around a bit then miss the last one down. Asking me to go and get it started again, to get them down cut no ice, and no, there was no bus — nor a road for that matter.
But there were many more trekkers who were fun, and interesting. They were good days, very good. One day I’ll return to the region, set up some small shop, and be in my mountains again...
the mer de glace moves
thirty two centimetres a year
I move thousands of kilometres
but we both meet in the same place
where the ice melts