A Hero’s Guide to France: Les Alpes et les Pyrénées

If you ask the Heroes from whence they came they will often reference the West Coast or East Coast before they offer up the specifics of their hometown. This coastal reference point is decidedly the easiest geographical shortcut to identity, taking in the spatial and philosophical side of one’s Id, and referencing cultural signifiers best understood by those of a similar ilk. There is also, of course, the expansive middle of America that is bounded by the Rockies to the West and the Appalachians to the East, divided with no less authority by the mighty Mississippi.

When traveling across France, the Heroes reflected on these markers of their homeland when they came upon France’s great identifying colossi: the Pyrenees and the Alps. Upon returning to America we thought we would take on a little research project to better inform ourselves about these historic mountain ranges, and to guide our travels upon our next visit en Europe. There is no one better to take on this task than Hannah, our summer intern, whose short time with the Heroes will have her taking on the role of Features editor very soon. First up, we take on the Alps; and perhaps more importantly the idea of mountains themselves.

Our initial stop on this journey of understanding leads us to a group of men who were also intrigued by these massive peaks. The Alpine Club was one of the first groups devoted to the sport of mountaineering, and was, as the Nuttall Encyclopaedia of 1907 describes: “a club of English gentlemen devoted to mountaineering, first of all in the Alps; members of which have successfully addressed themselves to attempts of the kind on loftier mountains.” As with most gentlemen’s clubs, in order to join you had to meet certain requirements, mostly involving the largeness of mountains you’d already managed to climb. We will assume that also as with other gentlemen’s clubs a large percent of the activity that actually occurred was of the lounging around in London with a glass of something strong in one hand and a pipe in the other hand, discussing the topic closest to members’ hearts. In this case, the topic was the Alps.

These men (and some few women) who engaged in the Golden Age of Alpinism saw the mountains of Europe as a challenge: something to experience, to conquer, and to set oneself apart from the mundane details of life. Each ascent was an encounter to define and test one’s true self

Edward Whymper, member of this elite group and storied mountaineer, once said of his time among the mountains: “There have been joys too great to be described in words, and there have been griefs upon which I have not dared to dwell; and with these in mind I say: Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are nought without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste; look well to each step; and from the beginning think what may be the end,” (from his book Scrambles Amongst the Alps).

It occurs to we Heroes that this account from M. Whymper would resonate with many a King of the Mountain whom the world of cycling has known, coursing through the Alps in his maillot à pois rouges. And as we look ahead to future travels through the Alps, we find in the Alpine Club a worthy spirit of adventure in whose footsteps to follow.

(Words by Hannah Burtness and Luke Batten) (Photographs by Anurag Chatrath and Jonathan Sadler)