In the midst of the seasonal shift, Between The Seasons documents Natalie Berry’s recent move to Chamonix, and her desire to seek out new lines as the temperature starts to drop.
Travelling – although my favourite hobby – can have a dizzying effect on me. A sort of physical and emotional displacement that my brain often struggles to compute. How can I end up somewhere entirely different within such a short space of time? The answer is, of course, that new-fangled thing: air travel. But I never fail to be both disoriented by and in awe of this teleportation-esque mode of travel.
24 hours earlier, I had been walking along the concrete flagstones outside my Grandparents’ house in Huyton, Liverpool, near to where I spent my first three years of life. I waved goodbye to my 86 year old grandmother who – despite her spritely nature in both youth and old age – didn’t have the luxury of air travel and adventure sports when she was my age.
Now I’m stood at 2317m of altitude in the heart of the European Alps, at the Plan de l’Aiguille: a plateau topped with scattered granite boulders a little over mid-way up the cable car journey to the Aiguille du Midi; a totemic emblem of the Mont Blanc Massif and the European Alps in general.
Below lies the storied alpine town of Chamonix – a place I recently moved to in search of mountains and the adventures they bring. In the high seasons of summer and winter, swathes of tourists babble in a cacophony of tongues; shops, restaurants and hotels overflow with bookings and the mountains are littered with climbers and walkers.
As Autumn approaches, end of season sales attract people and money to the luxury shops and stalls. Ice-cream sales dwindle and hot drinks become more sought after. In the space of a few days, the scenes have seamlessly cross-faded into quiet streets and deserted crags. In some ways, the peace and quiet is eery; Chamonix becomes an alpine ghost town.
The convivial atmosphere dampens as the autumn dew sets in and temperatures drop. But there’s beauty in this absence of people: nature filters the harsh light of summer and illuminates its best features in sepia and ochre tones. The leaves on the trees flanking the town on either side of the valley turn from green to amber, aptly signalling a change in season as the mountains pull on their first coat of snow.
I take the gondola from the town centre and recognise the incongruous concrete and cables marking the landscape. An environmentally inconvenient convenience, I think to myself. Within minutes I arrive at the plateau and feel the thin, cold air filling my lungs and stinging my skin. Chamonix looks like a tiny maze far below, whilst the mountains above appear even more imposing as I approach their feet.
I recalibrate my sense of scale and search for climbable lines on some of their offcuts: the granite boulders. Many features of this landscape are vulnerable to the passage of time. Snow, glaciers, trees, animals and humans are all ephemeral, but the mountains and the coarse granite comprising them withstand the elements better than all.
The cable car deposits cube-loads of tourists who amble near to the lift, the more daring amongst them walking slightly further away. I’m alone but for the tourists at the station and the occasional bubble of tourists floating past. The landscape is a convenient playground with a jumble of boulders, many of which hide their true form until one is stood right in front of a particular aspect.
An arête hides the clean overhang beyond it; an inviting slab bears a prow in its cache. Alpine choughs circle and call to break the silence. A rockfall scar serves as a reminder of the seriousness of this environment, despite its accessibility. It’s easy to be lulled into a false sense of security here.
Lines appear as I approach the rock and chalk up. The crisp temperature provides perfect friction and signals the start of a new season. I have never before bouldered in such a breathtaking setting; relaxed, quality climbing with altitude and atmosphere. I top out and survey the landscape, its scale too much to take in without shifting focus and looking for reference points.
A layer of skin shed and lungs refreshed with alpine air, I leave my little bubble of bouldering focus and join the queue for the last one down to civilisation below.
Living in this valley is a curious mix of hustle and bustle and peace and quiet. Bouldering at the Plan de l’Aiguille is an escape from people and problems to immerse yourself in problems of a different sort. I think back to where I had come from the previous day, and ultimately to where I really came from. Huyton, 43m to here, mountains at 2317m and beyond.
Film by: Chris Prescott // Dark Sky Media // www.darksky-media.com