Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Travels in foreign lands-II (Chamonix Mont-Blanc!)

The drive from Grenoble to Chamonix Mont-Blanc, a distance of about 120 kilometres, takes about two hours. Annecy, the famous town with a beautiful lake is on the way. We started after breakfast. The drive is through beautiful countryside.
Everything looks so artificial! Back home we have everywhere wild landscape which has, unfortunately, been destroyed recently by the greed of the people. The most impressive to me was the motorway as I had been used to narrow and dusty roads back home. My friend was driving over 120 kilometres per hour and I did not feel it in the car. The only indication was the noise of rushing air outside which made me tense. My friend switched on his stereo with loud playing of some music by Chopin and Beethoven. This completely drowned the whistling of the air. We stopped for lunch at a lake side restaurant in Annecy. He ordered a speciality. Fried trout with almonds. The fish had been fried in butter with sliced almonds on top. It had been fried to a brown colour and was very crisp and tasty. It was the most delicious trout I had eaten so far anywhere. In Kashmir, the chefs of the Hospitality Department do prepare trout in butter, small boneless pieces wrapped in paper and cooked in butter. However, there is no match for the Annecy trout! From Annecy we drove along mountains to reach the Chamonix valley in early afternoon. Chamonix at the foot of Mont-Blanc, the highest mountain in Europe is the famous centre for mountaineering and skiing. We drove straight to Hotel Mont Blanc where rooms had been booked for us. But I told Bernard Colomb that I wanted to call on Maurice Herzog, the Mayor of Chamonix who had been waiting for us. The Mayor received us in his office and invited us to a film show about Gaston Rebuffat, the famous mountain guide.
I had already met Rebuffat in the first International Mountaineers Meet in Darjeeling in 1973. In fact, I had taken him along with his wife to Kashmir for few days. He was very happy to see me again and invited me to his house for lunch during my stay in Chamonix. The Rebuffat film was very educative about the French Mountain Guides. Rebuffat was a down to earth mountaineer without any false airs. During his Kashmir visit while going round Thajwas glaciers in Sonamarg, I asked him how we can produce good mountaineers. He told me to bring a hundred young persons for trekking to Sonamarg. According to him, may be 20 look at the snow on top of these mountains. May be five out of them think of going on that snow and according to Rebuffat, those would be our mountaineers. To produce real mountaineers Rebuffat suggested trekking for the youth all over Kashmir Mountains. He always worked like a professional guide and truly loved mountains. At the end of the show, Maurice Herzog introduced me to Sylvain Saudan, the impossible skier. That was my first encounter with him. He wanted to know more about Kashmir Mountains and invited me to his office next morning.
My first meeting with Sylvain was very brief but interesting. He told me that he had made many first descents. Unlike mountaineers who claim first ascents, he claims first descents on skis from the tops of various mountains. He had already skied down Mount McKinley in North America which is about 6,000 metres high. Now, he was looking for a 7,000 metre peak in the Himalaya. I showed him a picture of Nun peak in Ladakh (Suru valley). It is 7135 metres high. He was immediately sold to the idea of skiing down Nun next year! He felt it be his dream mountain! In fact, Sylvain came to Kashmir in 1976 with an expedition to climb and ski down Nun. However, he failed as he had under-estimated the mountain. His failure gave Kashmir more publicity than his success would have given. Entire French press splashed his failure as it was first time that the impossible skier had been beaten by a mountain. In 1977 he came back and successfully climbed and skied down the peak thereby making it a very famous mountain. Subsequently Sylvain became a part of the Kashmir Tourism scene by starting heli-skiing in 1987, which he continues to organise with some breaks in between caused by logistical problems.
Before leaving Chamonix I visited two more institutions. The first was the French National ski School (ENSA) and the second was the French Military High-Altitude School (EHM). The military school is to train army personnel in serving at high-altitudes. This school also trains the French Gendarme in mountain rescue. We have in Gulmarg a similar military school known as HAWS. The Commandant of the military school received me and pinned a badge on my shirt. He already knew about the Gulmarg School and they had some exchange visits. The Director of the National Ski School received me in his office and we had a discussion about an exchange programme between Gulmarg and Chamonix. He was willing to propose this project to his ministry of sports in Paris which controlled the school. He asked me to contact Monsieur Grospeillet, Assistant Director in charge of such programmes in the Ministry of Youth and Sports in Paris. This I did during my second visit to Paris and we had an exchange programme in place for over a decade. About half a dozen instructors from Gulmarg visited Chamonix for undergoing training in the National School for periods ranging from one to three months. In return we had half a dozen French Professors of skiing supposed to be the experts in the field, visit Gulmarg every year to impart training to locals. The exchange programme got shelved after my departure from Gulmarg and the subsequent outbreak of militancy. Recently, some instructors from Gulmarg have approached me to help them in restarting the programme.
Apart from these job related interactions, there were two other visits which I was keen to undertake. First was to take a ride in the cable car going over Mont Blanc from France to Italy and the other was to visit the restaurant on top of Aiguilles du Midi. The first one could not materialise due to bad weather over Mont Blanc forcing temporary closure of the cable car. However, the other visit was most exciting and rewarding. Aiguilles du Midi is a rock formation jutting like a needle into the sky. Aiguille in French means a needle. The French have taken a cable car to the top of the needle and built a panoramic restaurant on top of it. The ride to the top going along the rock face is not only thrilling but sometimes scary. People with weak hearts are not allowed to take the ride. From the top one has lovely views of entire Mont Blanc massif and Chamonix. We had lunch in the centrally heated restaurant. I wished we too had such decent facilities in umpteen similar spots we have in Kashmir! Thus ended my first visit to Chamonix, the hub of mountaineering in Europe. I visited the place over half a dozen times in subsequent years. In the next episode I will be describing my first visit to London where I spent couple of weeks before returning to France.

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