Monday, December 29, 2014

Castle Climb in the Fog

Fort l’Ecluse, France

The weatherman had promised unusual sun but all we got was a fog that deepened and thickened throughout the day. We still drove to Fort l’Ecluse as planned though, a trunk full of ski helmets, harnesses and the springy lanyards which are supposed to keep us firmly attached to the mountain. Close to the quaint French village of Collonges, Fort L'Ecluse was built in the 19th century by the Duke of Savoy to command the Rhone. The lower fort consists of a narrow tower staircase embedded into the mountain and leads to the larger, upper fort which overlooks the river. The parking lot was empty except for one man with two dogs and a pet sheep. From the car, it was only a few minutes hike to the start of the Via Ferrata. 

Via Ferrata is italian for “iron road” and it means what it says. Mainly found in Europe, they are constructed paths of steel steps, rings, ladders and ropes for an easy ascent to heights that normally would only be attempted by superhuman climbers. Made easy for the body but not the mind. Most people have the stamina and strength to do it: psychological limits are tougher to overcome. All your senses will bombard you with panic and flare guns. “Don’t do this!” your eyes will scream as you stare at the thousand-meter drop, the slanted rocks, unable to calculate how much farther you have to go, and how far you would fall. You have to have faith in the metal clips connected to steel rope connected to anchors drilled into rock, which together keep you from dropping from the mountain.

At first the climb was straightforward: the steel rungs made a neat vertical line up the cliff. The steel was cold and wet, which made my step a little more hesitant and my hands aching for waterproof gloves. A little further and the fog had swallowed us whole. Other than the immediate rocks and tufts of trees, we couldn’t see anything beyond the mist. We knew there were the castle walls and secret staircase, we knew there was a river somewhere and hundreds of meters of elevation, but we saw nothing but gray. It was a dewy and comforting blanket, which dampened my fears since I couldn’t perceive the depth of falling should a hand or rope fail.

Somewhere in the middle, the climb became more difficult with wider steps, scrambling up rock edges, calling on upper body strength I didn’t have. One section has you stepping on nails over sheer nothing to get from one chunk of mountain to the other and a sharp overhang that needs a broad swing of the arm to get back to vertical. In the fractured seconds I allowed myself to look down, I was amazed at how one toe on a tiny steel nail was the only thing between me and the ravine. Friends laughed at me when I raced up the tough spots, not giving myself any time to think, to build fear, and then crumbled to a whiny girl at some muddy slopes on the easy walk to the bridge.

Before arriving at the bridge, we first had to cross a wooden beam without handrails, which had me muttering, I don’t like this at all, why the hell did I want to do this, never again, I like the idea of adventure, less the actual doing... Then the monkey bridge came into view. The word “bridge” is used liberally here as it is nothing more than two steel wires, one for hands and one for feet, stretched across to the fort. The incessant wobbling and acute feeling of being naked in the air was unsettling at first, but soon I found it an easy slide over.

While the fog was close and personal during the climb, opened up at the fort, it was a billowing mass, rolling over the crumbling turrets, pouring through the narrow windows, lining the wet grassy paths. The stone walls, already softened by history, were now blotted and dimmed to a fantasy. Did we accidentally climb into another world? Chocolate and dried mangos revived my cold fingertips, made a damp fire in my chest, while we walked between the gray walls with flecks of white, stepping on weeds and grass hardened by autumn, passing under the tragedy of vines and blackened moss.
Of course M and T had to find a way inside the iron-locked fort and with some scrambling up a hill and squeezing through a window, they managed. Inside, they said, the fog was filling and filling the vast loneliness of the castle. There was an entrance to the long staircase down the mountain but they knew the exit would be locked. Instead, we took the hiking path down, a conventional loveliness of fall leaves and dewy spider webs, leaving the ghosts behind us with every muddy step.

  Travel Tips
·       Where: Fort L’Ecluse is a 30min drive from Geneva, makes for an easy day trip. See map.
·       Duration: Ascent is about 1hr 30min, hike down another 30min
·       Bring: Helmet (climbing or ski), harness, lanyard, climbing gloves (especially if it’s cold), sneakers or hiking boots not climbing shoes
·       Links: