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La Meije Mountain Profile: An interview with author Erin Smart

Posted on: December 5, 2017


Erin Smart on the summit of la Meije in 2016, with the Pic Central in the background. [Photo] Kurt DienelErin Smart on the summit of la Meije in 2016, with the Pic Central in the background. [Photo] Kurt Dienel

With Alpinist 60, we conclude our two-part Mountain Profile of la Meije, covering over a century of the climbing and cultural history that surrounds this iconic peak in France. Combined, the articles, photos and essays span 58 pages about the mountain long considered the "Matterhorn" of the Dauphine Alps. La Meije was the last of the great Alps to be summited—and the first by an all-French team—in 1877. The "impossible mountain" soon emerged as a national emblem, and its appeal continues to this day. As Roger Canac wrote in 2007, la Meije "exerts over all who see it from a distance or who approach it a veritable 'magnetism.'"

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As regularly recurring features in Alpinist, Mountain Profiles explore the climbing history of iconic peaks, crags and ranges across the globe.

Writers of Mountain Profiles not only need an intimate knowledge of a landscape, but also a love of research, and—as was the case for la Meije—they may need fluency in a foreign language. At the Alpinist office, we were thrilled when La Grave resident and IFMGA mountain guide Erin Smart first pitched us the idea for this Mountain Profile. Now, more than a year later, we've asked her to reflect on the process and share some stories from her literary expedition on la Meije.

What inspired you to take on the project of writing a Mountain Profile of la Meije?

After spending several winter seasons skiing in La Grave when I was younger, I had become thoroughly enamored by la Meije and the valleys that lie below this magnificent mountain. When I began training to be a mountain guide, one of my leading motivations was to become a ski guide in La Grave. After completing my last exam in September 2016, I moved below the shadows of la Meije the following month, and I am now able to call this extraordinary place home.

I wanted to learn more about the larger context of this mountain that provided me with so much inspiration. I first heard about the nineteenth-century mountain guide Pierre Gaspard from a friend in town in 2004. Other than reading a few tales and seeing an occasional old photo in La Grave's seasonal newspaper, I didn't know much more about the history of la Meije. In writing the Mountain Profile, I connected in a way I didn't know was possible with this region that already held such a strong hold on me. Paging through old French books and documents, scrolling for hours through PDFs of the original alpine journals from the late 1800s to the present day, and discovering photos and personalities I had no previous knowledge of was such a gift—one that will linger with me for many years to come.

Part I of the Mountain Profile entails a history of the known attempts on la Meije up until 1877, whereas Part II covers 1877 to the present. What was the research and writing process like for Part I, and how did it change for Part II?

For Part I, about 99 percent of the primary resources were in French: old academic or poetic French. I remember that when I started reading the first book for the project, Henri Isselin's La Meije, my progress was extremely slow. Every sentence included words and conjugations I didn't understand, and it took me hours to work through just a few pages. A few weeks into the process, I thought I had taken on too big of a project for my level in French. I wanted to give up and to tell Editor-in-chief Katie Ives, Sorry, I can't do this. But I stuck with it, and read through book after book, and then dove into the alpine journals. It was all painstakingly slow, but soon enough I had a rough-enough outline to begin writing. When the final edits were being completed on Part I, I read through the pages with the chosen images, and couldn't believe how it had all come together. After seeing the final product of Part I, my motivation increased for Part II.

When I began the research for Part II, in addition to all the reading I had done for Part I, I had also been living full time in France for almost a year. My French had improved dramatically, and I could read faster which made the research enormously easier. As well, for certain sections I was able to interview the climbers, which was a welcome change of research as opposed to sifting through hundreds of pages of books and or journals to create one or two paragraphs. The Mountain Profile of la Meije was the biggest writing and research project I've ever completed, and it was worth every challenge to see both sections come to life.

Given the immense span of history you had to cover, some stories had to be left out. If you had an extra paragraph, what is the one tale you would add?

It's true that I was not able to include every story of la Meije, not even close. I tried to collect those that stood out within the history of the mountain, as well as throughout the evolution of alpinism. If I had one more tale to tell, it would be of the modern mountain guides who have lived under la Meije their entire lives: those who have dedicated their careers to this place, and have summited the mountain more than 200 times.

Research for any Mountain Profile involves sifting through hundreds of articles, books and interviews. What were some of the gems you discovered during the research process—readings or titles you'd like to revisit or that have stuck with you since you first encountered them?

Before this project, I had never looked through old alpine journals. Throughout Part I and II, I discovered so many incredible pages of writing that connected me not only with la Meije, but with the history and place of mountaineering throughout the world. The routes and peaks that people were attempting and succeeding at before the invention of modern gear are phenomenal, and a common theme arose in their humble and poetic words describing their adventures. These are public documents, and I recommend to everyone to look through some old alpine journals. They are incredibly inspiring.

Here are a few links if you are interested in reading some older alpine journals. If you want to find a particular year that is not available, just send an email and usually someone will help you find what you are looking for.

The first ascent of la Meije: http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k9709791j/f309.image.r=premiere%20la%20meije?rk=171674;4
French: http://gallica.bnf.fr/accueil/?mode=desktop
UK: https://www.alpinejournal.org.uk/Browse_search.html

After learning more about the stories behind the routes on the mountain, what is the one climb you haven't done that you most want to do now, and why?

I have only climbed la Meije twice, both times by the Voie Normale (Normal Route). Most of my connection with this mountain actually comes from the many seasons I have spent skiing beneath it and on the steep glaciated walls that fall below the summit pyramid. There are many routes I would like to climb on la Meije. The one I would like to do next is the Pierre-Allain route, or the Face Sud Directe (South Face Direct). While not falling exactly like "a drop of water," it climbs quality rock up a fairly direct route up the south face to the summit of the Grand Pic. On the north face, I would love to try and ski the Gravelotte Couloir (if ever it forms enough again). While the climbs on the peak in my front yard are incredibly inspiring, the ski lines that brought me here in the first place are still at the forefront of my mountain dreams.

Erin Smart first encountered the mountain in 2004 as a self-described ski bum in La Grave. [Photo] Courtesy of Erin SmartErin Smart first encountered the mountain in 2004 as a self-described "ski bum" in La Grave. [Photo] Courtesy of Erin Smart

What about the history of la Meije surprised you most?

The story of Meta Brevoort—and that of Gaspard's socks. Before this project, I had no idea that an American woman brought the race to summit la Meije back to life. I also didn't know that she was the first to summit the Pic Central. I knew that the well-known mountaineer W.A.B. Coolidge had been part of the party, but I hadn't heard of Brevoort. It was in fact she who first introduced Coolidge, her nephew, to alpine climbing. For many years, alpine journals reduced her to his sidekick, so it was wonderful discovering her personality in more modern books. It was a pleasure reviving her story, as well as gaining inspiration from her adventures.

In spending time in La Grave, I had heard the story of Gaspard's first ascent of la Meije many times. A small detail that was always included in the story was that he summited the mountain in his socks, and so I added this description in my first draft. But Katie Ives—being the extremely detail-oriented fact-checker that she is—wanted to verify this small yet important image because she could not find where I found this part of the story. I explained that it was local knowledge, but I would look into it more.

Emmanuel Boileau de Castelnau, Gaspard's client, wrote the original description of their first ascent for the French Alpine Journal. But he only described that they took their shoes off—not that they were in socks. And he only used this detail in describing their first attempt, when they did not summit. He does not mention anything about their boots for the actual first ascent. During this time, socks were very expensive and, unlike the fitted socks we have today, they were big and floppy. Most mountain guides could not afford socks, and instead would put hay in the bottom of their boots and keep their legs warm with a bande molletiere, a cloth wrapped from their knees to their ankles.

Bruno Gardent, a local guide, also tried to verify this sock myth a few years ago. After also coming up short with the written history, he experimented for himself. On a rock nearby la Meije, he tried climbing with old boots with nails on the soles, much like the first ascent party would've worn in 1877. He reported that the boots were near impossible to climb with on a slab. He concluded that it was very unlikely that they had climbed with their boots on the more difficult sections. Gardent also then tried to climb in loose socks, and found that it was equally difficult to climb with ill-fitting socks, and that barefoot makes more sense from a technical level. From his experiments, he reasoned that it makes the most sense that the climbers were barefoot. The story of Gaspard climbing in his socks was a historical interpretation that became local myth. I believe that after a few generations, when people learned about the climbers taking off their boots, they imagined themselves doing it. If you were to take off your boots today, you would have socks on; I think this image is where the myth started. All we know for sure is that they took their boots off, and it's more likely that Gaspard first climbed those difficult sections with bare feet.

It was such a pleasure to write this Mountain Profile on la Meije. None of it would have been possible without all the amazing staff at Alpinist, as well as everyone who helped with the research, fact-checking, and editing. A very special thank you goes to Katie Ives for believing in and being excited about my project; she is an incredible editor and without her this would not have materialized. Sharing the magic of this place and mountain that has had such an impact on me was a passion project, one that I am also very grateful for all the readers who have enjoyed the pages.

[In addition to the hyperlinks in the text above, other Mountain Profile essays about la Meije and various historical figures can be found on Alpinist.com for: Henry Duhamel, and Mary Paillon and Katharine Richardson, with more to come. A 2007 feature story by Lionel Daudet also features la Meije and other peaks that he climbed during his circumnavigation of the entire border of the Hautes Alps Province by non-motorized means.—Ed.]

Here at Alpinist, our small editorial staff works hard to create in-depth stories that are thoughtfully edited, thoroughly fact-checked and beautifully designed. Please consider supporting our efforts by subscribing.
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