Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Above The Tree Line

When you think of Mont Ventoux--


...Well, you are now. Go with it.

Mont Ventoux, when AND IF you think of it, you know as one of the more storied climbs in the Tour de France.

...Yes, the Tour de France has characteristics beyond that of so many people doping that we've just about come all the way back around to a level playing field again. Stop interrupting.

The climb has gained notoriety over the years as one of the most difficult, downright brutal ascents in France, despite an elevation of only 6,263 feet, with no trees to provide shade, winds that blow riders all over the road, and the knowledge in the back of every cyclist's mind that the climb has in the past taken a life. In the 1967 Tour, Tom Simpson of the United Kingdom rode himself to exhaustion, collapsing and dying one kilometer from the summit. His last words were "Put me back on my bike." A memorial stands where he fell.

...what now? Oh, fine, let me go look. ....yes, he had amphetamines on him when he died. Shut up already.

In any case, there is more to this mountain than a bike race. This peak, while brutal to bikes, does not pose a great deal of challenge to straight climbers, though the lack of trees might necessitate carrying a decent amount of water. Mont Ventoux, because of that ease to ascend without a bike, is therefore about as good a mountain as any to be considered the birthplace of mountaineering.

To be sure, mountains have been climbed since time immemorial. But before 1336, it was done purely out of necessity- migration, military maneuvers, some sort of religious purpose. Mountains were not climbed merely to be climbed. However, on April 26, the Italian poet Petrarch, alongside his brother and a pair of servants, became the first to do it for fun. As he wrote after his climb, in 'The Ascent of Mont Ventoux', he states right off the bat, "To-day I made the ascent of the highest mountain in this region, which is not improperly called Ventosum. My only motive was the wish to see what so great an elevation had to offer." Certainly he was not doing it to be first to the peak. Petrarch himself met someone who had, many years before, gotten to the top, but while the exact reason is not stated in the text, Petrarch's predecessor certainly did not have fun...

"We found an old shepherd in one of the mountain dales, who tried, at great length, to dissuade us from the ascent, saying that some fifty years before he had, in the same ardour of youth, reached the summit, but had gotten for his pains nothing except fatigue and regret, and clothes and body torn by the rocks and briars."

Petrarch was no expert climber. The easiest way to get up mountains is generally to find a ridge- the high road, basically- and follow that. By taking the high road, you are, obviously, climbing from a higher position, making for a flatter incline. Petrarch's brother followed this guideline, but Petrarch describes in the text how he instead elected to take valley routes, which is fine at the start of an ascent, but you have to cover the same amount of vertical either way, and a valley route just makes you do the vertical all at once at the end. Petrarch made this mistake several times, picking routes that in fact descended at some points.

"Suffice it to say that, much to my vexation and my brother's amusement, I made this same mistake three times or more during a few hours."

He did, of course, eventually reach the summit, and there, staring out into the distance, is where Petrarch cemented Mont Ventoux's place in the climbing world, not as a challenge, not as a feat, but as a pilgrimage:

"At first, owing to the unaccustomed quality of the air and the effect of the great sweep of view spread out before me, I stood like one dazed. I beheld the clouds under our feet, and what I had read of Athos and Olympus seemed less incredible as I myself witnessed the same things from a mountain of less fame. I turned my eyes toward Italy, whither my heart most inclined. The Alps, rugged and snow-capped, seemed to rise close by, although they were really at a great distance; the very same Alps through which that fierce enemy of the Roman name once made his way, bursting the rocks, if we may believe the report, by the application of vinegar. I sighed, I must confess, for the skies of Italy, which I beheld rather with my mind than with my eyes. An inexpressible longing came over me to see once more my friend and my country. At the same time I reproached myself for this double weakness, springing, as it did, from a soul not yet steeled to manly resistance."

And so it is that, to this day, when not occupied by the Tour de France, Mont Ventoux is occupied by climbers that, if they so choose, can follow Petrarch's exact route, GR4.

And not all of them are on steroids.

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