9. 10. 2020

English Version | The great Mont Blanc adventure: testimony

by Daniel Matos Fernandes


Alone in a trail that crosses France, Italy and Switzerland, in the biggest mountain of Europe. In silence, without communications, carrying just a tent in my backpack. Nine days of atrocious adventure filled with endless beauty, in the remarkable Mont Blanc trail, the highest mountain of the Alps – and of the European Union. Always against the clockwise, so that time can stand still on the glaciers.

Take off. I cut through the clouds and went up into the sky. This is a story set on high altitude. The flight between Lisbon and Genève is two hours long. The swiss authorities cordially asked all passengers to fill in a document with their fixed address for the next weeks and a valid contact number. I could have explained I wouldn’t have a fixed residence and would be completely unreachable for that time period, but I knew today’s world is not made for those seeking adventure. I handed in the document to the flight attendant and resumed my focus on the headquarters I assembled on two plane seats, with maps of the mountain and handwritten notes all over the place. That flight was the real take-off moment for this Mont Blanc adventure. Well into the night, I took the tunnel route that connected Genève to Chamonix, swiftly crossing the border between Switzerland and France. When I got there, the full moon illuminated the contours of the huge mountains surrounding that cold town, asleep in an elegant silence. Chamonix is known internationally for being the capital of the world of outdoor sports. It was here that, in the 20s, the first Winter Olympic Games took place. Its remarkable ski stance has been the stage for major sports events and the scenery to highspeed ski off-track, like the one featuring 007 in The World Is Not Enough (1998). The true adventure was a few hours and steps away. I fell asleep reading notes about the following day’s trail, while I listened to the rapid and freezing waters of river Arve, running through the city. The great speed of the stream makes sand revolve all the time, giving the water a peculiar white tone. Hearing the strength of the river flow, already with my eyes shut and with an invisible smile on my face, I realized I was exactly where I wanted to be. I fell into a short sleep, too many times interrupted by the unstoppable enthusiasm and eagerness to get started.

The morning of the first day at the trail was like every other morning of mountain trekking. Cold and painful. Dawn comes around 06:00, with the first light of the morning falling incisively on the tent. Usually, the first rays of sun only touch your skin a few hours later, when the mountains surrounding you are no longer enough to cover the brightness of the sun of the Alps on a clear day. The first hour is dedicated to the rigorous task of tidying up all the equipment. A long process lived with its proper intensity, due to the morning cold blowing from the mountain, making for a rather fierce wake up call. Very much in swiss style, I begin to fit the equipment piece by piece on the big backpack. At last I disassemble my tent, my home in each stop for one night. All that remains is adjusting the last objects in a crafty manner and put over my back the 10kg that carry all that I have and that will be with me at every step, in the infinite ups and downs of the mountain. Life is simple here and of unique beauty. I decided to start the trail on the highest point of Le Brévent, a mountain 2525 meters tall on the north side of Chamonix. As according to plan, at 08:30 I was on the first telemechanic cable car connecting Chamonix to Plan Praz, at a height of 2000 meters. From there I took a second cable car that quite literally went through the clouds and stopped at the top of Le Brévent, the starting and ending point of my trail. I would be back there exactly nine days later, the required time to course the 170 kilometers of unparalleled height, with 10 000 meters climbing and 10 000 meters descending on the Mont Blanc trail. It would surely be with a new set of eyes and many stories to tell that I would return. The first ten kilometers of my journey connected the top of Le Brévent to Les Houches. Going down always with a thrill, in between the rocks of the mountain. Continuously with a grand view over the Mont Blanc, watching over me every step of the way on that sunny morning. Solitary and silent, just like me.  It was precisely on that moment that we became friends. A friendship I realized, as overwhelming as that mountain. I felt a huge admiration and adrenaline rush. There it was, the majestic and mythic Mont Blanc watching me. Greeting me. Respect and protection were the conducting lines of our friendship for nine days. Both parts held to their share of the bargain to the tiniest detail of those rules, we now vow to keep honoring, even when we’re apart. The mountain is an immense territory, way bigger than us. Truly we realize just how small we are. We are unquestionably in the hands of nature.

This is exactly when I’ll interrupt the story. I could write infinite pages about the vertiginous landscapes that take your breath away and that I found on those days. I could tell you all about the big conquests of the trail, the moments of solitude and consuming emotions at the top of the mountain. Maybe one day I’ll write about the adrenaline, surrounded by danger, I felt when walking alone, almost blind, at 2537 meters high, through the densest fog that stuck with me for miles on end, as I passed the Grand Col Ferret, the point marking the border between Italy and Switzerland. Maybe one day I’ll share more about those nine days, but until then I prefer to leave those secrets stacked away in the glaciers and keep the mystery surrounding the mythical Mont Blanc, intact. There will be a million stories to be told about that trail, but there is one that is bigger and more important than the rest. That is the story that must be told. I owe it to Mont Blanc. I saw with my own two eyes, and felt it on my skin, at each step, a huge warning sign. I saw from the front row the vitals of Mont Blanc crashing and disappearing into one straight line. I walked inside a glacier that loses 30 meters each year that goes by, faster with every second that passes. For 170 kilometers I walked contrary to clockwise, crossing France, Italy and Switzerland, and understood it wasn’t by chance. I was walking against the passage of time. I realized time had to stop and rewind so we could save the big glaciers. Truth is climate change and global warming are causing temperatures to rise more and more every year at the Alps. There’s less snow every season, leaving behind signs of mass destruction. When we think of defrosting, we think of remote sceneries such as Antarctica or the Artic, but this is irrefutable proof that this is indeed a global issue happening at an absurdly fast speed, close to home, here in the center of Europe, putting at risk one of the most beautiful and mythical locations of the world, the Mont Blanc. The alpine glaciers are zones on the hill of the mountain where snow of many seasons accumulates, creating enormous masses of thick ice. Considering only the two biggest glaciers on the French side of the mountain, more than 800 meters of length have been lost in the last three decades. If nothing changes, and given the rhythm’s speed of atypical defrosting caused by climate change, in less than 80 years we will have lost up to 90% of all alpine glaciers. We will lose Mont Blanc. In these mountains there are more than 70 glaciers covering a very vast territory, in need of protection, because it is a vital habitat for hundreds of fauna and flora alpine species. Mont Blanc and the incredible natural landscapes of our planet need people with infinite courage. Courage to act. Courage without end.

To save the big glaciers is the only way to save Mont Blanc and preserve its biggest secret: the grand white silence. I listened to this silence for days while I was walking side by side with the glaciers, but it was only in the last moments of my journey that I grasped its grandiosity, bigger than life itself. The grand white silence is not always void or empty. In some moments it’s the sound of water that falls straight from the mountain top towards the rivers, revealing the absolute force of nature. In cold sunny mornings, it is the elegant sound of birds that fly above us, or mammals who carry on their way, proudly, in the intertwines of the mountain. In cloudy afternoons, it is the strong wind blowing and pushing us against the rocks. It’s the sound of ice and the sound of all four seasons in only a day’s time. In foggy days it is the revolting sound of the sky we can hear while walking through the highest peaks of the mountain. It is the sound of danger and the sound of bravery. It is the sound of the perfectly preserved and untouchable Alps. The grand white silence is the absolute respect for nature. The absolute respect for ourselves. The mountains are special places, because they’re closer to heaven. The grand white silence is the sound of gods that live here, on the edge between the highest point on earth and the beginning of heaven. Walking alone, the silence revealed to be greater in all its vastness. Beyond any measure. You begin to hear and see past what you once could. A silence that sharpens all your senses. A silence that brings back our instinct. A silence you can only hear when you’re truly alone, when you become a little wilder. A silence that makes life more authentic, more difficult, fuller. A silence that engraves every second of the trail in our memory.

As time went by, I became more and more immerse into that silence. I was back at Le Brévent, in the last kilometers of my journey, this time approaching from the other side of the mountain. I climbed breathless with pain as every cell in my body worked on overtime. The spot that had marked the beginning of that adventure was about to become its final destination. I just have to make it a little further. It was in that moment that something colossal happened, upon the trail that binds the Col du Brévent to the top of Le Brévent. I was a few minutes away of finishing, between 2368 and 2525 meters of altitude. I had walked nonstop for six hours. A few minutes after I crossed the Col, I was panting while in the midst of an immense sea of rocks with no trail in sight, only with small yellow signs painted on the granite and indicating the way to the highest point. I quickly understood I was living a unique moment. The view was limitlessness. It was the very definition of infinity. I stopped waking and tried to hear something, but there was no sound to be found whatsoever. It was overwhelming to look over all those mountaintops, all that horizon, without being able to hear a sound. Not even wind, or birds, or the usual tree branches. There are instants that last only a few seconds, but that stay with you forever. This was one of the most beautiful moments I have ever had the privilege of living and that for sure left a deep impact in me. The most crushing experience of the whole trek was in that absolute location, remote and immense. I had walked 170 kilometers contrary to clockwise and there I was, for only a moment, feeling something I had never felt before. Time stopped. It was as if all the watch hands of the world had stopped. To this day I believe that in that split second, time froze off. Everything was on hold over the massiveness of that mountain top. And I asked: “Who are you who walks alone in the grand white silence?

Originally published on Vogue Portugal October 2020 issue, Into The Blue.