The Giant of Provence – A Climb Like No Other
“It was a long day, the air fine. We enjoyed the advantages of vigour of mind and strength and agility of body, and everything else essential to those engaged in such an undertaking and so had no other difficulties to face than those of the region itself. We found an old shepherd in one of the mountain dales, who tried, at great length, to dissuade us from the ascent, saying that some fifty years before he had, in the same ardour of youth, reached the summit, but had gotten for his pains nothing except fatigue and regret, and clothes and body torn by the rocks and briars. No one, so far as he or his companions knew, had ever tried the ascent before or after him. But his counsels increased rather than diminished our desire to proceed, since youth is suspicious of warnings. So the old man, finding that his efforts were in vain, went a little way with us, and pointed out a rough path among the rocks, uttering many admonitions, which he continued to send after us even after we had left him behind”.
Mountains were not always a source of reverence and awe. The Ancient Greeks were at best unmoved and quite often repelled by mountains. The Romans found them desolate, hostile places, and referred to them as warts on the planet. The Medieval Catholic Church believed them to be part of God’s retribution for Man’s fall, an outcome of the flood, before which the Earth had been perfectly round. Our modern attitude toward mountains is a matter of conditioned learning, inherited through literature and theology. The ascent of a mountain for its own sake can be traced back to the Spring of 1336 when the Italian poet Francisco Petrarch, accompanied by his brother and two servants, climbed what was then called Ventosum. His “driving aim was to see what view such a high vantage point could offer” and it marked a milestone in our shifting perception of mountains. However, had Petrarch realised the trend that he was setting – had he known that many hundreds of years later sport would come replace art and men would be racing cars up his beloved mountain in ten minutes, riding push-bikes up it in under an hour, and RUNNING up the thing in about 90 minutes – he may well have stayed at home that day and continued to appreciate the wildness and asymmetry of nature from the comfort of his garden chair.
Mountain running is a beautiful sport. The beauty of running up a big mountain is found in its contrasts, in the duality of hurting like hell and being in control; of burning, cramping muscles which somehow still feel strong and powerful; and of that hollow, other-worldly, emptied-out feeling that sharpens the senses and brings about a special awareness. No other type of running affords the runner the opportunity to endure so comprehensively and without respite. Racing uphill is the easiest place to find this mindless suffering, a sinister gift of our old but always enthusiastic friend Gravity. Fighting the acceleration of gravity means that even by running at a constant speed up a climb, you are basically accelerating your mass along the gradient. This will lead to pain and agony for all but the real thoroughbreds, those genetic freaks with their magnificent quads and calves and chicken chests who run more miles in a year than most people drive in their cars and appear to glide up the mountains as if pulled by an invisible wire.
Mountain running has branched and evolved into many diverse forms in recent years and has become something of a dick-measuring contest, with it’s champions both on and off the field of battle claiming that such and such a race is the toughest, the steepest, the longest, most brutal, the most dangerous, the most hardcore, the hottest, the coldest, etc etc. All that’s meaningless of course. A race is only as tough as the competition you line up against and the completeness of your own preparation. But there is one common, indomitable thread running through all of this, and that’s The Mountain.
Some mountains are instantly recognisable and command their own special page in history and in your memories for the epic encounters held upon their slopes. They stir something inside you. And in the history of mountains, there are few more revered than Mont Ventoux – a.k.a. The Beast of Provence, The Domain of the Angels, The Windy Mountain (it’s often assumed that Ventoux gets its name from the word venteux, meaning windy, although experts now seem to think that the name actually comes from the Gaulish word Vintur, after an obscure local god reckoned to live on the summit, presumably because he liked ferocious gales blasting through his frost-gelled hair).
All mountains have a certain unpredictability about them and none is ever to be taken lightly but Mont Ventoux is somehow different – it seems almost to emanate an active malevolence. Rising alone above rolling hills, wherever you are in Provence the conical summit of Mont Ventoux stares at you, at once both evocative and sinister. It lacks the craggy sharpness of an Alpine peak and its seemingly gentle slopes belie its height – 1912 metres. The top of the mountain is bare limestone, virtually devoid of vegetation, which makes it’s barren summit appear to be snow-capped all year round when viewed from a great distance. There is a road up Mont Ventoux on the southern slopes that, in cycling legend, has become synonymous with suffering, desperation and woe on the grandest of scales. The mountain has featured 15 times in the Tour de France’s history, and was first included in 1951 in true regard to the ironclad spirit of Henri Desgrange, father of the Grande Boucle, who said that the ideal Tour would be a race which only one rider would be strong enough to finish. In 1970 Eddy Merckx needed oxygen on Ventoux’s summit after his winning climb and in 1967 Tom Simpson pushed himself further still, beyond all physical boundaries in his attempt to conquer this extinct volcano. Lance Armstrong called it “the bastard”. Needless to say, Mont Ventoux draws cyclists like moths.
Fortunately for runners, Provence is a trail-running paradise and there are some superb trails up the Ventoux. The most interesting and hardest tracks follow the GR4 and the GR91, and once every year on the first weekend in July a mountain race takes on this route. At 20km and +1660m this trail more or less mirrors the road. With an average gradient of about 8%, it’s statistically innocuous, it doesn’t sound too bad. And when you break the climb down into its three obvious sections it paints a steeper although not wholly unjustifiable picture. There’s nothing above 15%. However, Mont Ventoux is not about the gradient. From the start line of the race in the small medieval town of Bedouin (300m a.s.l.) you can see quite clearly the frightful, leprous, windswept summit of the Giant of Provence sprouting it’s sinister radio mast, thrust up out of the surrounding landscape of tree-clad slopes. Run up there? you say to yourself and shiver. The Ventoux is as much a psychological challenge as a physical one. You cannot underestimate the effect on your mind and your resolve of the first glimpse of that vast and silent brute of a mountain dwarfing all around it.
The trail rises harmlessly for the first 5 kilometres or so through rows of plane trees, fields of lavender, olive groves, vineyards, and peach and cherry orchards. There’s nothing more sinister than 5% slopes, but this is simply the approach to the mountain and gives no indication of what might lie ahead. It all makes for a nice, relaxing warm-up for the legs, and if you’ve done your homework you’ll go easy and take time to breathe in the air. To smell the sweetness of this region’s plants and herbs is a luxury that cannot be missed and one that will not be possible when you reach the ‘tough stuff’ further on up the mountain where the double digit gradients await.
The slope gets steeper as the trail starts to wind irregularly through some really attractive woodland with a multifarious mix of trees including oak, pine, cedar, larch, beech and juniper. This dense forest is the result of over a hundred years of replanting and afforestation, the mountain having been denuded by centuries of depredation, by the constant attritional passage of men and animals, of felling for timber, of burning for charcoal, of over-grazing. You’ll sometimes catch the briefest of glimpses of the moon-like rocks of Mont Ventoux’s summit through the leaves, a monster hiding behind the trees, waiting. And it’s here where you might first begin to hurt and feel a little queasy. The scenery is breathtaking but the heat and humidity might be too, and the summit still appears a long way off. It is. There’s 10 kilometres of forest to negotiate. So brace yourself, from hereon it’s upwards of 11% all the way, but you will get the hang of things, you’ll absorb yourself in the task, settle to it. Besides, what option do you have?
Eventually the vegetation thins and gives way to an arid, wind-scraped landscape of stunted, scrubbier trees and calcified white rock. The mountain is suddenly exposed and you are exposed with it. A scoured and barren line of ridges runs for the final 5 kilometres via the Col Des Tempetes to the top. The radio mast on the summit, like an early rocket on its boosters, darts frustratingly in and out of view. Look up, and these kilometres appear fearsome, steep and nasty. They are. Those final kilometres demand the level of suffering that truly defines the essence of mountain running. There is no getting away from it and so it’s better to tell it how it is – these are horrible, ugly kilometres, a long hard grind along bleached rocky ledges hacked roughly out of the rock, like the steps of a giant Mayan sacrificial pyramid. The degree and severity of your suffering will depend on the day. Part of the reason why Mont Ventoux is considered such a killer is in the unpredictability of it’s weather.
With luck you will have deep blue skies and mild weather and a chance to profit from the epic views below you. If it’s a hot day, the white rocks will reflect a searing, desert-like heat up there in that airless alien moonscape, and it could be around 35 degrees, adding to the inherent difficulty of those long final ramps. But remember, conditions could be anything so be prepared! It’s often very, very windy and the higher you go the fiercer the winds become. The wind blows at 90 km/hour for 240 days of the year and you might find yourself leaning at an angle to counter the wind. Of course, if you’re very lucky, you may get a nice tail-wind; and if you’re very unlucky the wind might be out of the north-west and you may be blown to a standstill and robbed of breath by the raw and bitter fury of the mistral howling right into your face (Mont Ventoux holds not only the record for the highest ever windspeed in France, but also one of the fastest in the world, at 320 km/hour).
It is quite a moment to arrive on the flat ground outside the observatory, to see the open sky beyond. The view is truly magnificent, especially if a mistral has cleared the air. From the northeastern lookout alone you can see most of the Alps, including the Vercors, Chaine de Belledonne, Mont Blanc, the Ecrins, the Queyras and the Mercantour. Then the skin starts to chill as the adrenaline wears off and you’ll look down at the long descent back into the valley and consider your options. Run back or take the bus.
If you’ve never tackled a long uphill mountain race before, Montee du Ventoux on July 3rd would be an excellent and unforgettable place to start. Although before you sign up, perhaps consider for a moment the words of the French philosopher and sports enthusiast Roland Bartes: “Physically, the Ventoux is dreadful. Bald, it’s the spirit of Dry: Its climate (it is much more an essence of climate than a geographic place) makes it a damned terrain, a testing place for heroes, something like a higher hell”. However, remember also that Mont Ventoux is a French legend and cultural icon, and legends are central to any culture – to the weird and twisted culture of mountain running more than most. A legend is a thing that lodges in memory, a thing that is unique enough to pause space and time. The best legends are those that transcend. To ascend a legend using simply your heart and lungs and muscles is to find that place, to connect the mystic with the real. Le Mont Ventoux is sacred ground, a place of pilgrimage, c’est une legende superieure. There will be suffering for sure, but it will be the run of a lifetime.
For more info on this year’s race go to the race website: http://www.monteeduventoux.fr