After my first encounter with a male alpine ibex crowned with a pair of magnificent horns at Lac Blanc back in the Summer of 2007, I fell in love with this place. Lac Blanc, located at 2352 meters altitude in the French Alps, has an exceptional beauty which gave me an entirely new inspiration in my life. I couldn’t help but to return to this amazing place year after year. As I was a student in London at that time, my budget was minimal at best. I bought a cheap single person tent, a lightweight sleeping bag and a rolled up foam mattress. My friends offered me their chalet La Poudreuse in a small town called Le Tour very near to Chamonix Mont Blanc. I was truly blessed to be able to use this beautifully decorated, cosy chalet filled with the instantly relaxing smell of timber as the base for my trekking.
When I first visited Lac Blanc in the Aiguilles Rouges National Nature Reserve in 2007, I did not have a camera. I never thought of myself taking up photography even as a hobby until the moment I bumped into a male ibex, which made both of us jump as he was browsing behind a boulder unaware of my presence. We stood still at 2 meters in front of each other for a few seconds, and then he made a whistling sound to alert my presence to others. I slowly backed off as I didn’t know what kind of behaviours to expect from this mountain goat with huge, dangerous looking horns. After a few minutes, he reappeared on the top of a rock nearby to watch me setting up my tent with an emotionless gaze. They have narrow, horizontal pupils just like domestic goats. He was not aggressive but just curious and I thought to myself, “If I had a camera, this could have been an amazing opportunity for photography!” I had never had such an intimate encounter with wild animals in the heart of their habitat.
The following year in 2008, I made my second trip to Lac Blanc. A few weeks before the trip, I managed to borrow a Nikon D70 digital single-lens reflex camera from my parents, and I bought a 70-300mm zoom lens and kept reminiscing about that close encounter with the ibex. This time, I wanted to stay in the mountains longer than the previous year, which meant I had to carry a lot more weight thanks to the increased amount of food and water as well as the camping gear and clothes I would need for my adventure. Moreover, I had an extra bag on my waist stuffed with photography equipment which made walking even more awkward. Feeling the actual weight of my backpack after the food shopping, I started to feel reluctant to even start the trek and walked into a bar for a quick beer to defocus my mind from the heavy prospects ahead. It was inevitable that it would be a real challenge to trek all the way up from the bottom of the valley without using the cable cabins. For a brief moment, I considered the idea of succumbing to the power of civilisation that would take me to the 2000m altitude in just a matter of a few minutes. I dared to tell myself, “No, you are not doing that. The sense of satisfaction really comes when you reach the destination on foot…” My ego did not allow me to make this physical process any easier. Feeling suitably tipsy, I finally set out on the trek, knowing that it was the right decision to trek the whole way, giving myself a fuller experience of being in nature.
The hardest part of the ascending process is always the beginning part. My body first has to get used to the pace of slow steps that elevate me up by only a little ratio to the horizontal distance I walk. Walking with the same pace somehow makes this physical process easier. It is like hypnotising yourself into a state of trance by keeping the repetitive foot steps with the tempo that comes naturally as you walk. The lower part of the mountains are covered by forests and the open view is obstructed by the trees but walking along the shady path with the songs of various birds in the background is very pleasing. Nevertheless, there are some points along the way which gives you the view of snowcapped Mont Blanc on the opposite side of the valley.
After passing through the forest, there were more open spaces and more signposts with arrows pointing towards Lac Blanc. I continued walking along the paths through the alpine meadows where some alpine marmots seemed to be worshipping the sun on the rocks while raptors circled overhead in the updrafts. After walking along the paths on the undulating hills through the open landscape for a while, I started to notice more lichen on the rocks. The path to Lac Blanc became increasingly rocky from around 2000m and the Alpine ibex’s habitat extends upwards from about this level. I met a young Alpine ibex staring at me from the top of a rock with curious eyes on the last stretch of the trail to Lac Blanc. I couldn’t help but to snap some shots of him before continuing to the lakeside to take a proper, well-earned rest.
When I reached the cafe at the Refuge du Lac Blanc, a mug of hot chocolate was an irresistible temptation. The people who work here are unaffected, warm and kind. There is a very special atmosphere in this place. After indulging in the best hot chocolate I had ever tasted in my life, I also couldn’t resist the idea of buying a can of beer to accompany my dinner. I dragged myself up a bit once again to find a small flat grass patch to pitch my tent for bivouacking. I chose the area which gave me the best view looking over the lake and the mountains on the opposite side of the valley. As soon as my tent was set up, I started to feel my empty stomach rumbling and took out a can of ravioli in tomato sauce from my backpack. There was no need for anything more than this amazing view and the can of beer to make this cold and congealed ravioli taste like something really special.
Gulping down the last piece of ravioli with the beer, I was ready to venture forth and look for something to photograph around the lake. Walking up and down on the rocky terrain with just a camera bag on my waist felt so easy even after the strenuous, all-day hike. I found the boulder where I saw the ibex last year but alas, he wasn’t there. Of course, it would have been too good to be true to have this encounter in exactly the same way as I did a year ago, but I couldn’t help but hope. As the light started to fade, I returned to my tent and lay down. I enjoyed looking up at the rapidly changing colours in the sky as the sun set over the silhouetted outline of the surrounding mountains. The night fell quickly like a dark sheet over the terrain and the cold wind prompted me to close my tent. Though physically exhausted, it wasn’t so easy to sleep comfortably in the small tent. At the altitude of 2352m, the temperatures at night can dip below freezing – even in August. I woke up in the middle of the night and had to put more socks on my feet inside the sleeping bag to keep them warm enough to sleep comfortably through the coldest hours before the sunrise.
The following day I decided to hike to the summit of a mountain just behind Lac Blanc. On the way up, I found clear spring water which tasted just like the sweet mineral water we can buy from the shops. I filled up my empty plastic bottles and continued the hike to the summit. As I ventured further upstream, I saw a fawn ibex suckling from its mother as well as another ibex ruminating on the shady, jagged cliff edge. When I reached to the top, I met some hikers walking along the ridge of the mountains. The 360 degree view from the summit at around 3000m altitude was impressive but I soon began to feel a chill as the sweat coating my skin from the trek upward began to cool in the strong wind sweeping up the mountain slopes. I took some photos and began my descent. Some part of the descending process was more akin to sliding down the jagged stones than walking. I paused for a quick splash in the cold water of the stream on the way back to Lac Blanc, enjoying the sensation of being refreshed.
In the late afternoon, many ibexes start to approach Lac Blanc to browse on vegetation. I picked up my camera and walked around the lake searching for some photographic opportunities. Just as I was returning to the tent, I spotted a large male ibex in front of the same boulder where I saw one for the first time in 2007! It was tough to believe that the moment was perfectly orchestrated in the way I had visualised in my so many times. Although he probably was just another individual, it still was an amazing surprise from the universe. “Thank you!” I thought. I followed this male ibex with the camera in my hands for a while and he posed for me in various locations. An extremely talented model with confidence, he had a pair of magnificent horns and it really seemed as if he knew I was trying to capture the dignified appearance he possessed. Often the big males would let me get closer than the females and fawns. Some individuals are more friendly than others and one young male I met the following year in 2009 showed an extensive curiosity about me approaching him with a camera.
The ibexes have an amazing agility to manoeuvre themselves on the steep rocky terrain. They are so sure-footed and their graceful movement gave me an impression of agile felines when they climb up and down the near-vertical cliff surfaces. Around Lac Blanc, Ibexes have little threat from predators. Though the males grow huge horns, they are mainly used for play fights as well as scratching their bums. However in the Autumn rut season, the adult males exhibit more serious territorial fights for the mating right. They stand on their hind legs to put as much bodyweight behind their strike, slamming down rivals with their massive horns. I have seen the shadowy silhouettes of three large males sparring on the cliff in almost pitch-black conditions. I could only follow how quickly they were moving with my eyes but I could clearly hear the sound of their crushing horns. While the ibex are the mountain kings, there are other wildlife around Lac Blanc too. I have seen marmots, grouse, alpine choughs flying over the lake, and an illusive stoat.
Lac Blanc is fed by a stream which is formed by thawing ice at higher altitudes that has remained from the winter snowfall. With the fine sediment in the water, the colour of the lake has a beautiful, pastel-like quality. Throughout the day, the water colour transforms from pale blue, emerald green and then to a deep moss green depending upon the quality of the sunlight. On the lake surface, there are various interesting patterns created by the reflections of the surrounding mountains and the sky above.
When the night falls, it is absolutely silent and seeing beautiful cloud formations drifting over the Mont Blanc and other mountains on the other side of the valley really brings the sense of being one with the nature. There is nothing quite like the feeling of your entire existence extending into the depths of outer space while lying down and stargazing. However, such quiet peacefulness could suddenly turn into a disaster in the mountains when Mother Nature’s mood swings.
One late afternoon on the way to Lac Cornu where I planned to bivouac after leaving Lac Blanc, I spotted a Chamois which is a kind of goat-antelope. As I did not find them around Lac Blanc, I wanted to take some photos of him but the light was already falling. I followed this Chamois for a while but I decided to give up taking photos of him as it was already too dark. I turned back toward Lac Cornu, but I soon realised that I had lost the track of the path. I found myself standing in the midst of open rocky hills with some grass patches amongst them. Dubious about the safety of trying to descend to Lac Cornu in this dark condition, I looked for a flat surface on which to sleep. In no time, I found a perfect grassy patch that my tent fit neatly and I managed to pitch the tent in the dark. Feeling exhausted, I went straight to sleep. Z z z ..
Around 4am, I wake up with the sound of wind and soon the rain began to fall.
I could smell a storm coming and the wind and the rain started to hit the tent harder and harder. The rain water was seeping through the flysheet and I started to worry if my cheap tent would withstand the pressure of the wind. From a distance, I heard the thunder echoing a few times with some intervals, and all at once, everything in my sight became extremely bright as the huge clap of thunder froze my entire body. The lightning struck an area so close to me that there was no perceivable time lag between the light and the sound. I had suddenly found myself in the middle of a fierce Alpine thunderstorm. Each time the lightning struck the area, violent vibrations shook the ground and long echoes of powerful, roaring thunder traveled through the valleys. I realised that the intense rain was forming rapid streams on both sides of my tent. I tried to keep myself composed and think whether it would be wise to move to somewhere else, but I feared that I would become the target for the lightning if it detected an electro-conductive human body wandering around in a vast open space, devoid of trees. With nobody else to share this fearful experience, I started to have a rather dramatic monologue which went like this, “Ok… I am in the middle of the thunderstorm, and I know that… So what am I going to do now? Hmm, the tent is nylon and poles are fiberglass.. so it should be safe.. but hold on, what about the metals on the pole joint? Well they are made with aluminium and if my memory is right, this is the only metal which doesn’t conduct electricity so not to worry… Ok..are you sure about that? No… not really, I might have just created the fact now… What about the water which is highly electro-conductive? Well..I guess you are right, I didn’t think about that… Indeed, the rain is seeping through the fly sheet and ground sheet but why would the lightning bother to hit my tent? It just wouldn’t do that would it?… Well.. only God knows… Ok…then, I will keep myself neatly on the top of the foam mattress without touching the wet groundsheet and the flysheet.. Anyway, I am in my sleeping bag and my body is still dry..I should be perfectly safe…How about that? Well, you know…there are rapid streams forming on the both sides of the tent and anytime it can flood inside the tent and you will be completely soaked… Are you really sure you don’t want to evacuate to somewhere? But where to?! I don’t know… You know what? I am just going to become unnoticed… I am not here until the storm is gone… I do not exist at all right now…”
All I could feel for the next couple of hours was my heart beating steadily in the most realistic-cinematic-multi-channel-surround-sound of angry Mother Nature.
The storm finally dissipated around 6 in the morning and I fell asleep again, completely exhausted. I woke up around 10am and it was still raining, so I waited in the tent with a hope that the rain would soon stop. At 11:30, the rain still persisted but after lying down for a long time in the small, damp tent I had become extremely uncomfortable and I eventually lost my patience. When I got out of the tent, I saw my tent sitting on a tiny grassy islet in a dry stream bed which clearly floods with heavy rain.
“Idiot,” I thought to myself as I broke down the tent. I just could not see the details of the surroundings when I pitched the tent in the dark. I went up to the ridge of the mountain and continued my trek. As soon as I was back on the main trekking path, the blue sky began overtaking the grey overcast. The sunlight started shining through the clouds and the shimmering reflections from the rain drops on the grass and leaves were euphorically dazzling my eyes. There was a sudden inexplicable joy arising from inside as the universe smiled once again. My face couldn’t resist grinning as I walked on. I had never felt so happy just to be alive and able to embrace that blissful moment in life. It was so hard to believe that only few hours ago I was shivering in the darkness.
It took only 3 hours or so to descend down to the town of Chamonix Mont-Blanc. I had already run out all the food I took with me and was very hungry. I found a food bar on the main street and went straight in for cold beer and french-fries while waiting for a grilled burger and melting emmental cheese. I put my backpack on the ground and sat around the tall table outside the bar. As I opened the can, the pull-tab made that brisk, refreshing sound you can only get from properly chilled beer. As expected, the beer was cold and fresh while the sandwich was hot and juicy. The salted french-fries were ever so mouthwatering that I ordered another portion as well as another can of beer. Feeling nicely tipsy once again, I just sat there for a long time and enjoyed watching strangers walking past me on the sunny streets of Chamonix Mont-Blanc.
I would like to say special thanks to Georgia and Spen who kindly let me use their chalet La Poudreuse as the base for my little adventure, to Pasang and everyone else in the Refuge du Lac Blanc for always being so welcoming, and to my parents for lending me their camera which I have yet to return.