Up & down

by Paul Maharg on 25/08/2008

View_over_col_du_mont_maudit_to_m_4

Back from the Mont Blanc massif, climbing with Euan, and then spending time with my friend Peter McCarey and his family in Chambesy, just outside Geneva. Did the trois monts route from Refuge du Cosmique (Mont Blanc du Tacul, Mont Maudit, then MB itself). We started out at 0130, but given the narrow weather window shd probably have set out around 2300. Made good time across the glacier, in eerily warm (the fohne) and clear conditions, with the Milky Way bright above us, and the headlamps of parties above & below us, marking altitudes & gradients. Up Tacul, around the seracs, towering above us, ghostly white in moonlight and headlamp-beam; then down into the col du Maudit, up, much steeper, onto Maudit, up through the ice gully to the ridge, and then in sight of MB itself. Sunrise over the Alps was just amazing. At the col de la Brenva the weather changed — blasting north wind, what looked like bad weather on MB itself. We got as far as the summit slopes, then the weather descended and we retreated, though Euan cd have gone on – so difficult. The weather followed us down Maudit & Tacul to the glacier. After nearly 12 hours climbing we just dropped into our bunks in the Refuge.

So unfinished business, but incredibly beautiful glaciers, seracs, snowscapes, and weather so changeable (except for the first day, which was stunningly clear, but I was still acclimatizing that day so my main aim was not throwing up…). Euan_descending_ice_gully_maudit_5Paul_col_du_midi_3

We learned so much about high Alpine climbing. Next day after an awesome overnight storm snow conditions were poor – windslab high on Tacul, fresh avalanche debris further down from collapsed seracs. At one point that day we were on the other side of the glacier on the col du Midi when the clouds boiled up from Chamonix. We had just time to get a sight-bearing to the Refuge and headed off, with Euan leading – and arrived precisely in front of the rockface below the Refuge. Cosmique itself was great — luxury for a refuge. I remember the grey faces in the early morning setting out: tension, anticipation, eagerness.

Coming back down the Aiguille du Midi cablecar to Chamonix was on one level so dispiriting – to come back to everyday life, away from the single focus of climbing in a rare part of the world. Beauty and purpose — I love climbing because it simplifies and clarifies being, in the midst of such beauty, even if it can come at a terrible price. I found the emotion of being there hard to bear at times, and the disappointment of not achieving the purpose was only a small part of that.

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At the weekend, Peter took us all off to Lausanne museums– the Hermitage Museum first, high above Lausanne with airy views to the alps on the other side of Lac Leman. There was an exhibition of Italian painting, Renaissance > 18th century. The exhibition was arranged more or less chronologically, with familiar names – Bellini, Titian, Lotto, Canaletto – so viewing was a matter of piecing together personal knowledge and responding to the artefacts. There was one small portable altarpiece, beautiful landscape with saints, which opened into another landscape with SS Scholar and Benedict, perfectly executed in oils on wood. If I’d been allowed to take away something, I might have left the portrait of the warlord Lionello d’Este by Pisanello, superb study in power and latent violence though it is, and taken the altarpiece.

Then down the hill to the Collection de l’Art Brut — what a contrast. Profoundly moving, shocking, sinister, touching. I’ve rarely been drawn into such a bewildering world. No familiar historical movements, episodes, historico-social contexts, schools or studio systems. This was art by outsiders – marginal folk, often working entirely in solitude, psychotics, those defined as criminally insane – whose art by definition didn’t belong to the high art of the Hermitage, or indeed fit any formal category. It was arranged not in the light, high-ceilinged rooms of a palazzo, but in interiors with a dark backdrop,with an intense focus on the work, much of which was highly worked and detailed. There was what looked an altarpiece assembled by a French artist who lived most of his life working in a little workshop beside his house, on materials, largely driftwood, he collected from beaches and coves around Marseilles – elaborate, funny, moving. It was such a contrast to the Hermitage altarpiece. Where the Hermitage piece, quite apart from the beauty of its execution, gained some of its power from its place in the European Renaissance tradition and its place in a contemplative and prayerful culture, the Marseilles altarpiece had no such context – it could have been a medieval or an eighteenth-century artefact, with little cultural reference beyond itself. It raised questions about what it was (I called it an altarpiece — would the artist [Emile Ratier, I think] have done so?) the value of itself as art, and the relative values we attach to the Hermitage altarpiece; about high art and low, about responses to cultural activities that are defined for us, and how (John Berger, etc) our views of those activities in what we read as their contexts are defined by our own contexts.

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