The White Valley

One powerful song, one special place, one very long way down.

Some days, you are lucky enough to find yourself high up above worldly concerns and perched on the top of a mountain with a camera. Mom, Big Sis and I had been traipsing through Switzerland by tour bus for several days in August 2011, and finally slipped across the border into France and the gravity-defying valley of Chamonix, in the shadow of Mont Blanc, the highest peak in Europe.

From the valley floor, there is a cable-borne aerial tram that hauls 50 or so passengers at a time 9,000 feet up the mountainside towards but not all the way to the summit, at steeper and steeper angles until it’s basically traveling vertically for the last few hundred feet. It’s absolutely terrifying, or at least it was for me. I kept silently repeating “Swiss engineering, Swiss engineering” to reassure myself of the quality of the equipment around me, though I knew full well I was technically in France. Ahem.

Although there are a couple of lower stops, no one got on or off at any of them, and they appear to exist for no reason besides maintenance and maybe so some of us can breathe out again and unclench our fists/jaws/other orifices. You’re really there for the final stop on the tram — the Aiguille du Midi, or Noonday Needle, a remarkably large three-story viewing station carved into and stacked on top of the rock. Complete with gift shop and mountaineering depot, large enough for several hundred people to mill around in, it’s a jaw-dropping feat of engineering and ambition that in order to construct someone somehow hauled piece by piece from the valley up 9,000 feet of sheer cliff.

On one side of the building are the mountaineering station and the head of a truly remarkable trail, and here is where I got a look at the photos you see here, as well as a look at a most extraordinary brand of human. Mountaineers in heavy gear of all sorts were checking their equipment and clothing, especially their shoes — every inch of the soles covered in four-inch spikes to keep them dug securely into the ice at all times. Every minute or so, one stepped past me and into a single-file line of supremely brave people that plunged down the narrow ridge and into “La Vallée Blanche” — The White Valley — there to congregate for some unknown but decidedly Druidic-looking purpose across the snowy expanse between impassable ridges.

Maybe some will go on to make attempts on some nearby peak or other, but most will simply take in surroundings that couldn’t be found anywhere else. All are, without question, risking their lives for the privilege. One slip to the left off this winding staircase of ice, and your next stop is likely a couple of thousand feet below you. I consider myself quite the outdoorsman, but this was several levels beyond anything I’ve found within myself yet. Traversing the White Valley is a profound challenge to nature and yet an embrace of nature at the same time, at the extremes of what both man and mountain can draw out of themselves.

I’d made up my mind at some point that on reaching the building and finding the right view, I’d listen to one of my favorite songs while staring out from the safety of the Aiguille — “The Alps”, by Disco Ensemble. It’s in at least middling contention in my mind for the title of Greatest Rock Song Ever Recorded, and its harrowing power is never diminished no matter how many times I listen to it, or how loudly. Of course I was going to call it up when I had a free moment high among its title subject.

“The Alps” is heavy and thundering, and its lyrics are utterly brutal, with the imagery of every line harshly but poignantly evoking the band’s frequent themes of loneliness and despondency. At first blush, it isn’t enhanced much my choice of location. The Alps of the song’s lyrics aren’t really a literal mountain range in Europe, they’re a symbol for the desperate dream of escape from a world of misery, alienation, and fear — a world where we all have “one foot in the grave, one pushing the pedal down”. Where it’s no longer considered remarkable when someone throws themselves in front of a train.

The need for escape is beyond palpable in the vocals, it’s downright painful. When singer Miika Koivisto howls “I’m afraid, afraid of everything,” you can feel the truth and the agony of his words. And so you become desperate to imagine along with him that just maybe there is some vague relief from the slings and arrows of life, if we drive like demons away from all that’s holding us down and head for the Alps, as the song says we must.

But even if the Alps of the lyrics are obviously metaphorical, seemingly unconnected to my photographic excursion, am I not up here to escape? Isn’t that why we take vacations? Why we go to places with beautiful scenery, and board trams that take us so far from anything recognizable as conflict, or regret, or deprivation? Forget about me, are the mountaineers laughing in the face of death below me not escaping the very confines of what it means to be human for pretty much the rest of their lives? When life in nature’s arms or death at her hands are their only concerns, are they not living in the Alps of the song’s lyrics more literally than the authors could have thought possible?

I do in fact find a little escape from terrestrial concerns in the images I took home that day. Look at the surroundings: the terrain is so mountainous and sparse that whether you’re technically in France, Switzerland, or Italy at any given moment is academic. All three almost certainly appear in the photos somewhere. Seeing these pictures now, I’m struck by how ludicrous the very notion of national borders can be when seen through the right frame. Look closely at the sheer drops and towering crags — can you tell what of your view is in what country? Of course you can’t, because in certain places in the world, nature makes a mockery of our notions of ownership and tribalism by overwhelming them with beauty and power.

Maybe the special breed of daredevil that spends their time up here has it figured out. They’ve left hatred and fear down below a slope they couldn’t possibly climb, and found home in an air too thin for grief and sorrow to breathe. Is that the point of such an extreme activity? Is that what a select few are willing to go to the ends of the Earth to find?

I feel a little pang of sorrow having never wandered for hours in the White Valley, in commune with nature and with her other followers. I remained safely on the balconies, as tourists do, left building after an hour, as tourists do, and got ferried mechanically back to civilization below, as tourists do. And all my worldly troubles were right there waiting where I’d left them.

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