8 months ago

Frontiers and comfort zones.

A Letter from the Pyrenees

So good, in fact, that

So good, in fact, that when challenged by the inevitable out-of-town superstores with low prices and literally acres of free parking, the town centre nonchalantly rolled up its sleeves and gave it a boxing lesson. A stroll around the narrow winding streets is always a pleasure. It fizzes with activity, with unexpected encounters and surprise discoveries. Living more outdoors than we English, it is usual to see the local inhabitants meeting and greeting in the streets. Two elderly gentlemen with their autumn cardigans and walking sticks embrace each other, holding on longer than necessary before settling down on a bench in the shade of an urban olive tree; taking our turn in a busy butcher’s shop armed with a completely inadequate vocabulary but, thanks to Christmas charades, reasonable miming abilities, we are aided by other customers pointing and signalling the tastiest cuts; we turn a corner to find a little bar that we’ve never noticed before; we enter to come upon walls lined with books - a library that serves drinks… not bad! And later, a tapas lunch eaten al fresco in October - nice! The road home follows the River Aragon as it rushes south from the Pyrenees. We are heading back, perhaps, to poorer weather but in the boot of the car there are bags containing spicy sausages, slices of cured ham, A library that serves drinks succulent pieces of what must have been giant chickens, mussels the size of castanets and a massive fillet of a white-fleshed fish that I could not name but looked good. And I haven’t even mentioned the fruit and the veg. It’s true. Spain does taste different. Crossing the frontier for us, as with the sheep, has become a leisure activity and, apart from difficulties with the language on the other side, we rest firmly within our comfort zone. Others, in the past, have been more adventurous - more daring. And, on one well-known occasion, it cost them dear. Serious mountaineers are always looking to push the boundaries; the next great problem is what consumes their waking hours and disturbs their sleep; it becomes an obsession that fuels their ambition. So it was for Lucien Carrive and Armand Calame who, on June 24th, 1923, with a party of friends and onlookers crossed over into Spain via the Col de Petrageme. Their objective was to be the first human-beings to set foot on the summit of the Grande Aiguille d’Ansabere. So confident of success were they that the pair had brought this entourage to witness the event and, in some cases, to photograph it, too. The plan was simple: cross over into Spain and climb the easy Pic d’Ansabere which is detached from the Aiguille. They would then abseil into the breche between the two and climb the final seventy metres to the top. Equipment in those days was nothing like the high tech kit used by modern mountaineers. Basically, they had a rope. Not the sophisticated nylon-cored variety that can bear the weight of a family car without breaking into a sweat. They would have to wait forty years for that luxury. No, their’s was a length of hemp-twisted cord they had from a farmer in Lescun. It had been lying Carrive before the fall

around in his damp barn for quite a while and, as he saw no immediate use for it, he was happy to lend it to them. After the descent into the breche the pair made it to a ledge about half way up the wall. The crack above proved more difficult than expected. The Petite Aiguille d’Ansabere (left) and the east face of the Grande on the right. Calame tried to reach higher holds by climbing on his partner’s shoulders, but to no avail. Undeterred, he traversed left to reach a second crack that might unlock the route. This time he was successful and, after climbing over an overhang, called for Carrive to follow. Despite having the advantage of the rope above him, the second struggled to surmount the bulge and eventually, exhausted, allowed his full weight to slump onto the cord that connected him to Calame. It is not difficult to imagine the expressions of horror that must have swiped across the faces of onlookers as the rope broke and Carrive’s body plunged into the breche and remained still. Unable to see what had happened, Calame knew only that his partner had fallen. The spectators, not wanting to make him panic, called that Carrive was all right. Consequently, reassured, he continued to climb making it to the top, without further difficulties, where he left a handkerchief in an empty sardine tin. Then he began his descent. Sadly, this brief moment of euphoria would be followed by tragedy and the small, no doubt traumatised, crowd were forced witness a further moment of terror as, failing to assess by how much the rope had been shortened by Carrive’s fall, Calame abseiled off the end and disappeared into the void. Two days later a pair of mules carried two bodies into the village of Lescun. I have been to the Pic d’Ansabere numerous times - a pleasant day out with a picnic on the summit. But staring down into the breche, close yet inaccessible, it’s another world - a gloomy menacing chasm of rotten rock and tottering towers of blocks. History lingers there like an unhappy ghost. Carrive before the fall. Carrive before the fall

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