Tenuous in the Face of Nature

S&C regular Paul Valentine meditates on the rejuvenating effects of visiting ‘the highest attraction in Europe’.

I am in the Void. Above me pure azure sky. Below, nothing for thousands of metres and then virgin snow for mile upon mile with odd rocky crags sticking out like astral shit. I am at the summit of a mountain. But also at the summit of a great idea. A great idea rubbished by the human capacity to be both frightened and socially cohesive at the same time.

I am on top of Mont Blanc in the French Alps and the void I am speaking of is the glass room at the very top of the three cable cars that take you right to the summit of Europe’s highest peak. The idea came from the Sky Walk at the Grand Canyon and the designers wanted the same structure. Unfortunately, winds of 220km per hour and a temperature variation greater than 50C made this impossible. The room has 12mm thick glass on three sides and the top – and crucially also the bottom.

I think there are two reasons why such a mind-blowing experience hasn’t worked in the way it was intended, both of which relate to psychology. The first is social media. In spite of the fact that it is so easy to obtain ‘selfies’ with nothing but pure alpine views behind on the way up, pretty much everyone uses the void for phone photography, which means that eyes never leave the security of the friends, family and others queuing behind. The other factor is that you must remove your shoes. This is a bit like removing your armour in the face of battle; it appears counter-intuitive and gives an immediate sense of insecurity – stepping onto a glass floor with nothing underneath for thousands of metres but glass and sock.

I would like to know what the statistics are for the number of brave nomads who step out on the glass facing out to the Alps then look above and below, and take in the majestic natural panorama they face. It must be a small number especially given the social constraints to ‘conform’. If my own experience is anything to go by, I have no doubts at all that I was perceived to be an anti-social Brit refusing to be caught up in the ‘fun’ of the moment like everybody else. That may be so, but what I would say is that it was ‘my’ experience for which the void was built in the first place and it was an experience that was truly life changing. It will ‘stay’ secure in my mind for the rest of my life.

But it doesn’t end there. That view becomes all-encompassing and travels down with you so that the whole experience becomes totally magnified; you are able to map the whole downward journey. Your mind awakens and combines elements of both brain lobes to conjure the magical reality of what such a place is; to touch the snow, to smell the clear pure air, to hear the eagles, to see the vastness of an ice domain, to taste that razor edge between fear and safety, and safety and fear. To be in a place that takes you a thousand miles away at an instant. And to feel a knowingness that, rather than making you anti-social, such an experience makes you value and cherish the love and warmth of companionship, because you realise at once how delicate and tenuous such things are in the face of nature. So even though we didn’t round the experience off with an ‘aprés ski’, I am absolutely sure that the cheese fondue will also stay within our memories as the most wonderful way to conclude a remarkable journey down and into Chamonix

Image by Simon from Pixabay

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