Wednesday, 24 August 2011

THE BIRTH OF THE ALPINE IDEA. (Historical Milestones.)

Mont Ventoux, at 1912m with a whaleback profile rather than a spectacular peak, would pass almost unnoticed if it stood among the Alps. But it has one unique distinction apart from being the highest mountain in Provence. Ernst Feuz, a mamber of the Swiss Alpine Club, thought it worthy of submitting to the SAC journal of February 1939 a German translation of a letter written in Latin by the "Father of Humanism", the great scholar and lyric poet Petrarch (Francesco Petrarca) in which he set out the first detailed account of an ascent of a mountain. This has been described as the "birth of the alpine idea".

Having spent most of his life in the area (although he was born in Italy), Petrarch had always seen Mont Ventoux on the skyline and his desire to climb it grew stronger until in the year 1336, at the age of 31, he achieved his dream. The impulse to climb a mountain simply because it is there appears to have been very rare in those times, though today we take it for granted as a part of human nature. His work in various clerical offices at the court of Pope Clement V in Avignon allowed him plenty of time for his writing, poetry and travel. Travelling purely for the pleasure of seeing new places was also unusual in the 14th century, and Petrarch has also been dubbed "the first tourist", as he travelled extensively. It was therefore characteristic of him to want to climb the highest mountain he could see from his home.
He adopted a very modern approach to what was then a serious expedition. He had to choose a companion who was compatible with him, and knew that character traits which could be easily tolerated at home in the charitable spirit of friendship could become intolerable on a journey, especially a challenging one such as climbing a mountain. Assessing his friends' psychological makeups and physical abilities he had to dismiss all of them, and decided to take his younger brother Gherardo and a couple of servants.

The brothers spent the first day travelling the 50km from Avignon to Malaucene, which lies at the foot of the mountain, where they had a rest day before setting off for the ascent the following morning, leaving the servants at the inn. The weather was fine, without the strong winds for which Ventoux was and is notorious. (The clue is in the name!)
The route was very steep, but at first they found the exertion exhilarating. They met an old shepherd who tried hard to deter them, claiming that 50 years ago, fired by the same youthful impulse, he had made it to the summit but all he'd got out of it was a lot of bruises and torn clothing. He stated that no-one else had dared to attempt it before or since (which was not strictly true but Petrarch believed him). The old man behaved much as some people you encounter today - trying to frighten you off whatever your planned ascent happens to be. And the Petrarca brothers reacted much as you or I would now. "Yo! Challenge! Let's go for it, Bro!" They left their superfluous items of kit with the shepherd and set off at a cracking pace, which of course they could not keep up for long. Fatigue set in and they had to stop for a breather before setting off again at a more measured speed. Gherardo was the fittest and took the most direct lines upward while Francesco tried repeatedly and unsuccessfully to find easier routes, realising eventually that it merely lengthens the journey while postponing and increasing the inevitable pain. As a man of religious background, Petrarch saw in this an allegory of the Christian life, aspiring to Salvation which can only be reached via the high, hard route, not the low, easy one.

It was a typical Long Slog. Annoyed by his own mistakes, Francesco struggled to follow his brother, arriving with trembling knees to find the laughing Gherardo already refreshed, having had a rest while waiting for him, ready to start off again.
Philosophising on the nature of the soul and temptation, Petrarch at last reached the summit. He was dazed by the panoramic view. The clouds were below them. Looking towards Italy, his beloved homeland, and feeling a pang of homesickness, he could see the snow-capped Alps; to the west the Pyrenees, which he knew were there, lay beyond the range of human vision, but the mountains around Lyon were clear as was the Bay of Marseilles and the river Rhone. As we all know, mountain summits can create a literally elevated mood, and he goes into great detail about the religious, philosophical and moral insights and conflicts which came into his mind. But the sun was already low and they could not delay their descent any longer. He was content to descend his mountain.

What would Petrarch think if he could see Mont Ventoux today? A road was driven up it in 1879. Like so many scenes of great adventures in the past it has been tamed and civilised, a trend which saddens many of us.
Mind you, Mont Ventoux is still a notorious climb  -  as a stage of the Tour de France.

See you on the hill!