The Full Story (cont.) Part 2.
Transit to France














"Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very Heaven!"









Back to earth, the Biolay











A pilgrims return


Many years later,
( May 1993) :
At Montenvers
Sonia Angela Snowman
Alice and William too and the Dru.





Ode to an A35

For more about A35s


The college transit was duly loaded up in front of the Students' Union in Prince Consort Road, no windows or seats, everything was spread on the floor, covered as well as possible with ropes and any padding available and then we all bundled in, sardine fashion, on top. After the traditional hanging about for latecomers, we trundled off towards the coast, onto the hovercraft and, with ner a halt, down the length of France to the Alps. Our suspicion of all things French and our lack of funds excluded the use of toll motorways, and the journey was a bit of a marathon. I remember we got lost at one point as night was falling in some deserted town in "la France profonde". We screeched to a halt in front of the only indigene we could find who was not yet solidly locked behind his heavy shutters and Dick proudly demonstrated his command of the Gallic tongue. The next half an hour was spent while various linguists in the back of the van argued about the exact interpretation to put on the utterings of our reluctant guide. Part of the trouble was the way straight on road signs point vaguely towards the middle of the road, causing us to turn left or right instead, until we came to grips with the twisted thinking of this alien culture. As for how a sign saying "All directions" could be acceptable for a nation priding itself on Cartesian logic still eludes me after thirty years of living in France!

We drove all night while all but the lucky, and much disputed, three in the front seats, snored away on the sordid heap of gear and luggage in the back. The awakening, however, was splendid, literally breathtaking. Brilliant sunshine and blue skies accompanied us through the first of the alpine valleys. The name of Bonneville has always stuck in my mind, perhaps because my other obsession at the time was motorcycling. Ever since, every time I see it on a road sign or a map, I flash back to that brilliant morning when, twenty years old, I saw those dazzling limestone cliffs for the first time. There is an excitement, and a strange tight feeling in the stomach which I still get today ever time I catch sight of distant mountains, and which intensifies as each bend reveals new glimpses of crags and peaks. This first time it was so intense, amplified by lack of sleep and the wonder of it all, that it felt like being high on some kind of drug, all flashes of blue, white and yellow with the noise of the engine and the drubbing of the tyres in the background.

But this was just the start. When we saw Mont Blanc, the snow, the glaciers, all an unreal, extraordinary, brilliant white against a sky that was so blue that it didn't seem natural, it was like being in a dream. The grey skies of London, Wales or Sussex had not prepared me for this. Luckily, the arrival at our proposed camp site, the infamous Biolay, brought us down to earth. Obviously, the financial situation and ingrained miserliness of the likes of us excluded any idea of paying in one of Chamonix's many organized campsites, paying in Llanberis was already considered shameful, to do so in these foreign fields, and for a whole month to boot, was unthinkable. The solution proposed by an old hand was the Biolay, an area of woods on the South side of the valley, not far from the town, which may once have been an official site but now had become a villainous lair, principally for impecunious British visitors but also the occasional group of taciturn Poles, who even then seemed to be able to travel more easily than other East Europeans. Germans, French and Italians rarely ventured to this insalubrious and ill-famed neighbourhood. There were no sanitary amenities, not even a tap; all but the most hard-line fans of "the grot life" kept well away.

For us, however, it was home, for the month, and in the years to come we returned like migrating birds. Every now and then the local Gendarmes launched raids to clear the Biolay, but as far as I know, they were never successful, their arrival was always spotted well in advance, and like so many Rob Roys, we all crept off higher up the slope and into the dark safety of the pine woods behind. Here, amongst the rocks and the festering evidence of the far from negligible sanitary hazard that the site represented, we waited for them to tire of poking empty tents and plastic bags of rotting socks and the futile interrogation of the odd penniless Polish climber who always seemed to lose all knowledge of any known Western European language for the duration of their visit. They always had the good manners to avoid resorting to confiscation of tents or gear and we took this, rightly or wrongly, to be tacit approval of our presence.

Many years later, on a visit to Chamonix with my family, I found my way with some difficulty to our old haunts. Half pilgrim and half archeologist I identified each clearing, tree and granite boulder. With a lump in my throat I recalled the times spent round a spluttering fire eating spaghetti and Cambell's Meatballs washed down with the cheapest vin ordinaire that money could buy, under the dubious shelter of bits of plastic sheeting hung over climbing ropes stretched from tree to tree. They were truly happy days in retrospect, but in truth as well. I lifted my moist eyes and looked around and realized, all of a sudden, what was wrong, there wasn't a soul to be seen, not a tent or a plastic bag, the woods were empty.

After some thought, I came to the conclusion that the reason is not the increased vigilance of the forces of law and order, nor a reduction in the popularity of the town, it is now far bigger than it was thirty years ago and the climbs and paths are even more crowded. The answer is to be found in the car parks of Chamonix. Sparkling BMWs, neat little fords with leather seats and alloy wheels parked alongside polished Mini-Buses, fully equipped with seats and windows, all with British plates, have replaced the battered transit vans, minis and Austin A35s of not all that long ago. The new generations of climbers have broken out of the puritanical anti-materialism which growing up in a country only just out of rationing and the blitz mentality had rooted in most of us. Prosperity and the accompanying politically correct obsession with safety, not the police, have emptied the Biolay.

(PS. It would seem that there has also been a change in police attitudes, click here for more recent info/opinion - interesting climbing site too.)

Enough sentimentality, back to the tale..... (click on arrow)