The Frogmarch

"I've got to pull up my stakes and roll, man." --Jean-Jacques Libris de Kerouac

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Git Off the Dang Roof!*

[You'll want to click these pictures to enlarge them. Totally worth it this time.]

At 13,000 feet, the sunlight is pure white, melting the very air, vaporizing the thin clouds. The snow fields and icefalls shimmer. I reach to put on my sunglasses, but they're already on. A group of climbers inch up the Glacier de Geant like a short column of ants.

The little thermometer on my backpack zipper pull registers 40 degrees F. It is mid-August atop the Aiguille du Midi, jagged neighbor to the taller, round-shouldered Mont Blanc, some two miles almost vertically above Chamonix.

To my left are the endless peaks of the Alps sweeping across Switzerland to Austria; back to my right, the green valleys of France's Haut-Savoie. Across that mountain there, Italy.

As recently as the eighteenth century, no one had even attempted to climb Mont-Blanc; it was believed that merely attaining this height would result in death via some sort of altitude-induced existence failure. Climbing a flight of steel steps to the observation platform, I'm inclined to see their reasoning--after that simple effort my head suddenly swims and I feel spacey, as if I'd just chugged Robitussin.

But things have changed a lot since the 18th century in these Alps, notably the construction in 1955 of the world's highest cable car. Anyone with about 30 euros and a decent head for heights can go from downtown Chamonix to one of the highest peaks in the Alps in about 30 (terrifying) minutes. For 30 more euros, one can keep going by cable car over the massive ice fields to Courmayeur, Italy.

"I think we should go back down now, Dada," Boog says quietly. While I've been snapping pictures he's been keeping a prudent distance from all of the railings. We're here on a side excursion from the day's activity, a lower-altitude hike across the Grand Balcon Nord to the Mer de Glace glacier.

A platoon of Gore-texed climbers clump by in crampons, bundling coils of rope, ice axes and various rattling climbing widgets and doohickeys. A heavy steel door posted with dire warnings in French, German and Italian leads to the outside, like a space station airlock.

There is a rack of postcards for sale here, and remarkably, a mailbox; cards dropped in here will be given a special postmark indicating their origin at Europe's highest boite postale. But I don't have a pen or my address book, and Boog tugs at my hand. He's ready to have our picnic lunch a few thousand feet below, where there is plenty of solid-looking ground, and where it is still summer.

[*of Europe, that is.]


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