Thursday, March 23, 2017

Reflection and adventure - at the Refuge de Chavanes

Twenty years ago (a little more actually), on plane from Nepal, I had a fleeting encounter that has lodged with me ever since. After kayaking the Kali Gandaki River I was flying home with amoebic dysentery as a souvenir – next to me sat a Nepalese businessman, who in making conversation was curious as to why I should visit a country that could make me so ill?

I remember explaining that Nepal was special, the mountains higher and the rivers more remote than could ever be found in Wales. ‘Then go to the Alps’ he replied, ‘you can have just as grand adventures there!'

I recalled this conversation last week, high in the mountains of the Haute Chablais, as the ridges of the Pointe de Chalune blushed crimson in the embers of the light. That afternoon, a group of us had skied and snow-shoed from the Vallee du Brevon to the remote Chavanes refuge. It sits in the shadow of a glacial cirque, to the south of Les Gets, about an hour from Geneva.

I’d not worn snowshoes before. In a sense, that was an adventure in itself: adjust the heel, strap in toes, check for grip as the baskets flex... At first, I’m glad of my poles, but soon I’m into my stride, scanning for crossbills as we pass beneath pines that are laden with cones. There are tiny spiders scurrying between the fallen needles, and I try to avoid them by shoeing in the rutted snow.

An hour later, we reach an isolated chalet. There is running water and an improbable earth closet for passers by, though the prospect of undressing persuades me it’s easier to pee around the back. We gobble cheese and salami as Simon, who’s been here before (and is ex-navy so can’t help but command), gives us a briefing: it’s steeper from here, there’s ice on the track; be careful towards the top.

Some in the party are using skis, attaching ‘skins’ that resist backward slippage when the ground gets steeper. It looks an odd way to travel, and all the more so in the knowledge of the lifts and gondolas on the other side of the valley. Eddie tells me it’s like fell walking, only with on planks on your feet - he explains that it might look hard work, but there’s a deep satisfaction in making the summit under effort.   As he talked, I remembered the last time I climbed Snowdon; the contrast between the walkers on the summit, and the crowds, making a beeline to the café from the Llanberis train.  

My snowshoes grip well on the steeper ground, they have integral crampons that bite into the ice, and a ‘heel raiser’ which takes pressure of the calves. Though I start in the lead, the others gradually pass me. A year with a dodgy knee has added considerably to my ‘pack’, but overall, I reckon I’m not going too badly for an old man. Leanne, who looks as though she could skin up in half the time, kindly stays to keep me company. She too has travelled widely, but talks eloquently of her love for the Alps, and desire to keep on returning.

Eventually, the trees give way to more open ground, and the final pull is less steep than I’d feared – the others have waited at the rise. We’re in a ring of granite and ice, cradling a bowl of trackless snow; above us are the peaks of the Chavannais, the Chavasse, Chalune and Haute Pointe  Nobody is saying very much.

At the refuge we meet a walking party from Thonon les Bains; they are leaving after what seems to have been a fine lunch. The refuge is owned and manned by Claudius, who, in his visitor books, is variously described as a ‘sage’ and ‘mountain gourmand’.

So perhaps unsurprisingly, we are welcomed with mouse de cider and wine laced with hazelnut syrup. At night he serves us prunes in bacon, followed by chicory salad, pain de campagne, beef bourguignon, a cheese board the size of which I’ve not seen before… and some apricot cake to finish.

And then, there were the wines.

They began with a liqueur de prune, followed by a homemade apricot, some sapin and cassis, and, of course, a little genepi to finish… At one point I counted nine bottles on the table, but it was getting hard to focus.

I’ve been visiting mountain refuges for more than thirty years and the Chavanes is certainly on the rustic side, but its food and ambience are among the best I’ve discovered. The company was a delight too, reminding me that for all I occasionally dream otherwise, I prefer the warmth of friends to the solitude of journeys made alone.

Which, in a roundabout sort of way, brings me back to the man on the plane from Nepal. I long ago came to the conclusion that he was right. I’ve been exploring wild places for all of my adult life, and am fortunate to have easy access to the Alps – but the truth is, we don’t need to go very far, or always to be alone, to find adventure.

The Valley de Brevon is a stone’s throw from the Portes de Soleil, and yet, a million miles from the après ski of Morzine. I could show you places that are much the same in Wales, The Lakes, or Northumberland. Only last month the definitive Scottish Bothy Bible was published – there’s enough inspiration in its pages for a lifetime.

The next morning (after breakfast by Claudius) we descended to the bustle of the valley, and I reflected on the simple, life-affirming, trip we had made together. The Chavanes refuge is, to use an expression coined by the Himalayan explorer Mo Antoine, as wild and as wonderful, as I need to ‘feed my rat’. He meant, by that, to ‘scratch the itch’, to sate his quest for adventure. 

I understand what he meant, and feel privileged to have done something of the same.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Pictures of you

It's always a thrill to see one's writing in print, even if only a book review.  Here's a piece I wrote for Booktime Magazine, appraising Rory Maclean's new book.

Pictures of You: Ten Journeys in time
by Rory Maclean

Given unprecedented access to the photographic Archive of Modern Conflict, Rory Maclean chose not to chronicle its pictures and the circumstances of their taking. Instead, he responded with stories, inspired by the moments and lives that had been captured on fragile emulsion coated papers. The result is a collection of ten remarkable tales, at odds with the discord of the century they traverse.

The Archive of Modern Conflict houses more than four million documents. Taking a broad interpretation, its collection encompasses major wars to regional feuds and civil rights disputes; the scope stretching as far as relevant cinema from the last century.  And so Maclean’s stories travel across time and place: from Rangoon to Alcatraz, Cameroon to France… some triggered by pictures, others by diaries; one by a file of human hair.

‘A delicately beautiful book, haunting in its effect.’ - Alexander McCall Smith

The stories, each set in a different decade, form a chronological journey through the twentieth century. Taking inspiration from a photograph or group of images, Maclean reinvents the dreams and despairs to which the camera was indifferent. Imagining their back stories, he invites us to consider a possible history of the forgotten faces. By accepting the offer, we come to view these people and their conflicts anew, discovering a human perspective hidden in events that conventional accounts most often objectify.

Maclean’s imagination is a lyrical counterpoint to the detachment of the photographs that inspired them. In one story, he describes the life of a concubine in China; in another he’s a black undertaker’s assistant in a racially segregated US town. As readers, we too become these people, connecting with their lives and pondering what might have been. The circumstances which bind them to their fates, speak to a collective humanity across a century defined by progress, and yet scarred by some of the worst atrocities of all time.

Of all the leading travel writers, Maclean is perhaps uniquely skilled in bearing witness to the human side of conflict. He was in Berlin when the Wall fell; has travelled in Burma, across the Middle East and more recently to the Balkans and former Soviet States.  His signature approach is to describe place through its people, documenting lives that we relate to at a compassionate level, even if the circumstances are alien. In Pictures of You, the characters are invented, but the connections no less powerful.

‘A unique virtuoso exercise in empathy, narrative and imagination, with learning and hints of mysticism thrown in’  - Jan Morris

Between the chapters, Maclean weaves a second narrative, using notes that describe his time and findings at the archive. From his first exploration of its shelves, to nights sleeping by his desk - and as the stories take form, to inserting his own photographs into the files.  Here too, fact blurs into fiction and we are left uncertain as to which is which - or whether it matters.  In many ways, the greatest quality of Pictures of You is that by the time we reach the end, we don’t really care.

Mark Charlton

Rory Maclean is the author of more than a dozen books, including the UK top tens Stalin’s Nose and Under the Dragon. His recent Berlin: Imagine a City was chosen as book of the year by the Washington Post whose reviewer described it as ‘the most extraordinary work of history I’ve ever read’.