On this day in history : 13th May 1995 – British mother Alison Hargreaves becomes the first woman to conquer Everest without oxygen or the help of Sherpas – only to die tragically three months later….
Alison was born on the 17th of February 1962 and spent her childhood in Belper, Derbyshire where she attended Belper High School…. She married James Ballard and in 1995 they moved to Spean Bridge in the Scottish Highlands, close to suitable conditions for her training….
For it was Alison’s intention to climb in 1995 the three highest mountains in the world – Everest, K2 and Kanchenjunga – and her aim was to do it unaided….
She arrived at base camp on Mount Everest on the 11th of April….and on the 13th of May, at 12.08 local time (7.23am) in Britain) she reached the 29,028ft summit…. She had done it without the aid of Sherpas or bottled oxygen – and was the second ever person to do so – the first being Reinhold Messner in 1980…. On reaching the summit Alison immediately radioed back to base camp as she wanted to get a message home to her husband and two children, 6-year-old Tom and 4-year-old Kate….
After a short break back in Scotland she set out in the June of 1995 for her climb of K2…. She was joining an American team who had a permit to climb the world’s second highest mountain, at 28,251ft and located in Pakistan….
By the 13th of August the team had joined forces with teams from New Zealand and Canada…. Then on arriving at Camp 4, around 12 hours from the summit, they joined a Spanish team….
At 6.45pm on the 13th Alison and Spaniard Javier Oliver reached the summit of K2 – shortly afterwards American Rob Slater, New Zealander Bruce Grant and Javier Escartin and Lorenzo Ortiz from the Spanish team arrived…. It is unclear exactly what happened next….
The following day two other Spanish climbers were descending the mountain when they came across equipment they recognised as Alison’s – and a blood stained anorak…. In the distance a body could be seen – but it was impossible to get to and so was never formerly identified – but it was believed to be Alison….It appears she had been blown off of the mountain…. All six members of the team had been killed…. Witnesses on the mountain at the time said there was a sudden violent mountain storm with winds reaching 100mph….
Alison had died exactly three months to the day following her jubilant conquest of Mount Everest…. Her son, Tom, was to also to go on to become a climber….becoming the first to climb solo all six great north faces of the Alps in one single winter…. He died in 2019, whilst climbing the 9th highest mountain in the world, Nanga Parbat – the western anchor of the Himalayas….
For me, the best time of the year has to be Spring…. New beginnings – the promise of Summer to come….anticipating long hot sunny days and warm, balmy evenings…. After enduring months of dreary winter weather, surely we deserve just this? OK – this particular summer started on a very positive note – soaring temperatures, unbroken spells of sunshine…but then – Well! What the hell happened? The jet stream apparently….
I can’t moan too much…. I am very fortunate, as I have just had a fabulous two-week holiday in a part of the World that has become very dear to me…. When I first met John, nearly 15 years ago, he introduced me to a region in the South of France, somewhere very special to him…. A place we have visited almost every year since…
In the early days we would all travel down together; leaving at a very anti-social hour to catch an early ferry from Dover to Calais. The car would be fully laden, every inch of available space utilised – one year we even transported a sofa bed on the roof….
It was never the most comfortable of journeys, one that took the best part of 36 hours, including an overnight stop. John loves the drive – Jordan and I are less keen…. The final straw for me came the year we were unable to find somewhere to stay overnight and ended up ‘kipping’ in the car….only to breakdown the following morning, on the motorway just as we were about to cross the Millau Bridge… Not an ideal start to a holiday – especially as this particular one was rather special – it was our honeymoon…!
Nowadays, things are much more civilised. John still drives down – he heads off a couple of weeks before us, taking all our baggage and paraphernalia with him…. He’s happy – as he gets a bit of time to himself, does a few chores and unwinds…. Jordan and I then fly down to join him – leaving home at a very respectable 11am and arriving in Perpignan around 7 in the evening – where John meets us….
I love making the journey this way – it’s far more relaxed and I get to spend a little quality time with my son. Once landed, we’re off the plane, through passport control – and as we have no baggage – we’re out of the airport and into the car in a jiffy…. Perfect….!
Once we are out of the hustle and bustle of Perpignan, we’re on the road across the Plain of Roussillon to Llauro, a French Catalonian village, about half an hour’s drive away…. As the scenery rolls by I look out for the familiar landmarks, not least the majestic peaks of the mountain the is Le Canigou….
It is perhaps its isolation that makes Canigou stand out so much – whereas other mountains are surrounded by massive peaks within their range, Pic du Canigou stands proudly alone…. At an elevation of 2,784m (9134ft) it was, until the 18th Century, thought to be the highest peak of the Pyrénées – (This accolade actually goes to Anéto in the Province of Huesca, at 3,404m or 11,168ft)…. By mountain standards, Canigou is not a massive peak, it is only the 395th highest in France alone….but this does not make it any less impressive….
Visible from much of Southern Languedoc-Roussillon, Canigou lies west of Perpignan and about 10km, as the crow flies, from Prades, a small town in the Eastern Pyrénées – and is within the Parc Naturel regional des Pyrénées Catalanes (Regional Natural Park of the Catalan Pyrenees). Canigou became a Listed Grand Site de France in 2002….
To the people of Catalan it is the sacred mountain – ‘La Muntanya Sagrada’. Canigou is a symbol of unity for those living on different sides of the border but sharing the same land….a physical and spiritual landmark…. For many, to climb it, is in fact a pilgrimage….
Many myths and legends surround the mountain and being the spiritual home of Catalan it is a place where French and Spanish Catalonians gather for certain celebrations. One such time being the Nuit de Saint-Jean – or the eve of Saint John’s Day – on the 23rd of June (which also coincides with the Summer Solstice). Saint John’s Day is the feast day of Saint John the Baptist – ‘Féte de la Saint-Jean’ – and is a Catholic celebration. On the night of the 23rd a fire is lit on the summit of Canigou – known as the ‘Flama del Canigó’ – the Ceremony of the Canigou Flame. A vigil is held throughout the night and from the flame torches are lit and relayed all across the Pyrenees and Catalonia, to light bonfires elsewhere…. Some sources say up to 30,000 fires are ignited from this flame….
The weekend before Saint John’s Day sees the ‘Trobade’, which comes from the Catalan ‘Trobada’ – meaning ‘meeting’. Bundles of wood are taken to the summit where they are deposited – hidden within these bundles are messages of friendship, love and peace….
The first Sunday in August is also a notable date in the Canigou calendar – it is when the ‘Course du Canigou’ or Canigou Race takes place. It entails a 34km course, with a 2,180m climb, from the spa resort town of Vernet-les-Bains at the base of Canigou, to the summit and then back again…. Not for the faint hearted…!
Personally, I have yet to climb to the summit of Canigou, the furthest I have been is to the Chalet des Cortalets, one of the starting points often chosen by those making a more serious ascent…. My son puts me to shame in this respect, he and John climbed to the top a while ago, when Jordan was just eleven or twelve years old….
The locals often say it is a savage mountain….the weather can be unpredictable, with fog and storms arriving with very little warning. In deed this was the case the time I visited, one moment it was glorious sunshine – the next we were amidst a ferocious thunderstorm…. So it is advisable to check the forecast thoroughly before attempting to make an ascent and to be aware the weather can change in an instant…. The best time to climb is June to September; it is wise to leave early in the morning to avoid the heat of the day. Some choose to spend the night before at one of the refuges, for example Cortalets, where climbers and walkers can sleep, cook and refresh free of charge…. There is also a café at Cortalets….
On the North side of the mountain there are jeep tracks; it is possible to drive a certain distance before having to resort to foot…. There is more than one way to tackle the climb – a popular choice is from the afore-mentioned Chalet des Cortalets; at 2,150m it is roughly a 3.5 hour round trip to the summit and back. Another well-known route is from the Mariailles Refuge – this is, perhaps, for more seasoned adventurers as it is approximately an 8 hour round trip….
From the base to between 800 to 1,000m a Mediterranean climate prevails; between 1,000 to 1,700m it becomes a mountain climate. Venture up further, between 1,700 and 2,300m a sub-alpine climate is found and then 2,300m to the top it is an alpine climate…. Generally snow is continuous over 1,800m from mid-November through to May….
On the way up there is plenty of flora and fauna waiting to be discovered; you never know you may just spot a marmot or a vulture and there are plenty of eagles to be seen soaring in the skies….
On reaching the summit there is a cross to be found – often decorated with the Catalan flag and always adorned with offerings from climbers and pilgrims alike…. There is also an orientation table….
The view from the top is that of the Pyrénées Mountain range, the Roussillon Plain and the Mediterranean Sea…. On a clear day, Barcelona can be seen, which is 200km south, as the crow flies….
It is said the first ascent of the mountain was made by Peter III of Aragon in 1285 – (there is some discrepancy, as recorded by Italian monk – Fra Salimbene – as to whether he actually made it to the summit). Legend has it the king claimed to have thrown a stone into a lake on the mountain…. From the water emerged a dragon, so vast that when it flew into the sky it obscured the sun, blotting out the daylight….
For those not brave enough to attempt the climb to the summit, Canigou has two ancient monasteries at its foot that are well worth a visit….Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa and Martin-du-Canigou….
We visited Abbey-Saint-Martin last year. Quite a steep climb that zig-zags up the mountain side – but I’m glad we made the effort…. Built on a rocky peak, at the beginning of the 11th Century, by Count Guifred, it was a Benedictine Abbey for 800 years. It eventually fell into ruins but has since been restored and is now a spiritual retreat for members of the Communauté des Béatitudes – who are very welcoming to visitors, so during the holiday season it does tend to be quite busy…. On reaching the top, one simply has to take the path that climbs above the Abbey – to look down on what is one of the most stunning views imaginable….
The great-grandfather of Count Guifred was reportedly the founder of the Catalan dynasty. According to legend it was he who created the Catalan flag. Mortally injured in battle, he dipped his fingers into his own blood and drew them across his shield, creating four red stripes….he declared this was to become the ‘flag of Catalan’….
The first written references found relating to Canigou are in Latin from 949; ‘Montis Canigonis’ and ‘Monte Canigone’. The first written Catalan reference dates to 1300; ‘Canigó’ – from this comes the French – ‘Canigou’….
One of the greatest Catalan poets, Spanish writer Jacint Verdaguer (1845-1902), celebrates Canigou in his works. In 1877 he wrote ‘Canigó, L’Atlàntida’ – an epic poem consisting of ten books! In it he covers many wonders such as the creation of the Mediterranean Sea, the discovery of the Americas and the sinking of Atlantis…. Manuel de Falla’s opera, ‘Atlàntida’ is based upon it….
Canigou can only be described as one such wonder in itself….the way its majestic beauty dominates the Roussillon Plain…. Sometimes it looks peaceful and calm, with the sunlight glinting upon it…. Other times it looks moody and angry…. Occasionally it can’t be seen at all, as it is shrouded in mist and cloud…. Whatever mood Canigou is in – I, for one, never tire of looking at it….
At the end of each holiday it’s time to pack the car up again for the return journey. We all drive back together as I have not successfully managed to persuade John that it is absolutely necessary for Jordan and I to fly both ways…. It is an epic 18 hour non-stop door to door trip – and quite frankly a bit of a killer…. When we set off at first light I take one last look at Canigou – waking from its slumber – and I whisper ‘au revoir – until next time’…. I like to think Canigou bestows a little of its magic upon us, to see us home safe and sound….