I love France. I really do. Big spaces and the art of welcoming foreigners, an incredible diversity of landscapes and cheerful souls. And, of course, stunning mountains and a genuine interest in mountain culture.
“On top of a mountain we are all equal” is the treasured lesson we are reminded of each time. For this reason, it is always a pleasure to see people of all ages and backgrounds at mountain-related events. One such case was the Soirée Annapurna, which took place in Chamonix on 14 February. Organised by the association Retour à la Montagne http://www.retour-a-la-montagne.com, and moderated by Gilles Chappaz, this was a good example of “pushing and shoving” for a good cause.
Annapurna was first climbed by a French expedition led by Maurice Herzog and Louis Lachenal on 3 June 1950. It is a milestone in French mountaineering history and the French are, quite understandably, proud of it. The evening, however, was not aimed at promoting national strength, but rather a celebration of the conquest of this mighty peak.
Illustrious speakers talked about their experiences. René Ghillini discussed his adventures in the Himalayas with Alex McIntyre in 1982. Enric Lucas, the Catalan who was part of the first Alpine-style expedition to reach the summit in 1984, joked about him being only 22 at the time and “not having trained that much…” Christophe Profit evoked emotional memories of his friend Pierre Béghin – with whom he opened a new line on the west face of K2 in 1991 – perished during an attempt on Annapurna in 1992. Ueli Steck illustrated his exceptional feat, soloing the south face of Annapurna in 28 hours on 9 October last year. Finally, Stéphane Benoist and Yannick Graziani talked about their ascent of this colossal face on 24 October 2013.
In the presence of Eric Fournier, mayor of Chamonix, and introduced by David Ravanel, the president of the Compagnie des Guides des Chamonix, the evening was intense but joyous at the same time. An astonishing 6,000 euros were raised at the auction for Maurice Herzog’s original ice-axe, and Stéphane openly shared his belief that yes, Ueli did reach the summit, challenging any doubters, conveying the bond that only mountains can create.
I really hope to see more of this type of events across the border – I mean Italy… – and wish that the example set by the French (and the UK in other similar cases) would pave the way for an unpretentious and authentic mountain culture.