Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Ascent of Mont Ventoux

Mont Ventoux

Mont Ventoux, nicknamed the “Giant of Provence,” is a big mountain in a part of the south of France where it seems rather out of place.  It is as though Whoever laid out the Alps later discovered there was one Alp left over and jettisoned it more or less randomly and all on its lonesome onto the inland plain above Marseille and Avignon.  No mountain ought to be where this one is, especially such a tall and imposing one.  Its name, “Windy,” is apt, as air currents swirl around its summit frequently and with significant force.  It has a considerable literary and athletic history.  In 1968 we lived in a rustic paradise on the edge of the small town of L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, nearby.  Ostensibly I was doing research at the Musée Calvet in Avignon, but it was the time of the Great Strike or Mini-Revolution, and we had to exercise flexibility and improvise somewhat.


The mountain’s athletic reputation is rather sinister.  At some point the organizers of the most famous bicycle race in the world, the Tour de France, deciding that their grueling event was insufficiently hellish, added a slog up Mont Ventoux to the official course.  I am not sufficiently schooled in the lore of the velodrome to tell you exactly when that was, but it was all the chatter of Vaucluse when we arrived there.  It seems that in the previous year, 1967, a well-known British cyclist named Tom Simpson had dropped dead on the steep upgrade.  A post-mortem examination suggested that ingested alcohol and amphetamine tablets had contributed to this sad result, but Ventoux itself played a major part, justifying its new appellation contrôlée of “Killer Mountain.”

There is now in situ a kind of shrine to Mr. Simpson, established by pious members of the cycling fraternity, but it is not the only, or even the most important historical memorial to famous ascenders.  At the foot of the mountain there stands (or stood) a monument erected by the Touring Club de France in honor of the famous medieval writer Francis Petrarch (1304-1374), lauded as the world’s “first alpinist”.  Petrarch, whom I love for all sorts of endearing medieval qualities, is beloved by many others for his alleged demonstration of a “modern sensibility,” one manifestation of which was his decision to climb a tall mountain just for the hell of it or, alternatively, because it was there.
Petrarch celebrating Arbor Day

Well, Petrarch did indeed write an elaborate Latin letter, addressed to his friend and confessor, the Augustinian hermit Dionysius of Borgo San Sepulchro, describing his ascent of Mont Ventoux.  It is a spiritually uplifting cock-and-bull story, though people who go for the modern sensibility part seem to be able to swallow it.  The fact that the letter’s supposed recipient was long dead at the time Petrarch wrote it is only one of several  reasons I regard it as fiction.

Petrarch’s story is the following.  He had retreated in a spirit of lay asceticism to a remote place in the Provençal sticks, the Fontaine de Vaucluse, which is in fact the source of the river Sorgue.  (This part is true).  Having decided he would climb Mont Ventoux, he began wracking his brain in search of the perfect climbing partner.  The nearest village, Malaucène, had an official population of eight, which included two old women and one lame dog, so there was not much on offer there.  (This part I made up.)  He finally remembered his brother Gherardo, a monk and a spiritual athlete: the ideal Sherpa.  Oh, yes, very important, and I almost forgot.  During the climb Petrarch will have in his pocket a small-format edition of the Confessions of Saint Augustine, given to him by friar Dionysius.  It is at this point, if not before, that the wise reader, however modern his sensibility, should tumble to the fact that Petrarch is having him on.  I don’t know whether Petrarch was the first alpinist, but he remains to this day the most allegorical alpinist.

The climb begins.  Brother Gherardo takes off up the steep path like an arrow from the bow.  Petrarch wanders around laterally for a while before eventually discovering that he has actually been descending—a good trick, when you are at the base of a mountain.  Quite clearly, in Petrarch’s epistle, progress in climbing the mountain is so closely bound up with progress in the spiritual life of ascetic practice that there is not a denarius’s worth of difference between them.  All you need to comprehend this is the feeblest vestige of medieval sensibility.  But Petrarch finally does get to the top, long awaited by his monkish brother, and looks out at the magnificent view.  To that magnificence I, who reached the summit in a Citroën Deux-Chevaux, can attest.  Petrarch then remembers the Augustine in his pocket, and opens it at random, his eyes falling by chance upon the following passage: And men go about to wonder at the heights of the mountains, and the mighty waves of the sea, and the wide sweep of rivers, and the circuit of the ocean, and the revolution of the stars, but themselves they consider not.  So if you want to climb, go easy on the alcohol, and skip the amphetamines altogether. Know thyself!  Nosce teipsum.