Wild Days Gone By, We Miss Them So
Snell’s Field, the alpine climbers’ version of Camp 4 outside Chamonix, France, was for 20-odd years a squalid (if free) conglomeration of makeshift rain shelters, tents and rolling wrecks typically populated by British, American and German alpinists, none of whom especially liked the others.
This article appeared in Ascent 2017.
Snell’s Field, the climbers’ camp outside Chamonix, France, was for 20-odd years a squalid (if free) conglomeration of makeshift rain shelters, tents and rolling wrecks typically populated by British, American and German alpinists, none of whom especially liked the others. When it rained in the Alps, which was often, the football-field-sized campground became a fetid bog. Wine by the cheap liter was the elixir for depression, anxiety and boredom. There were fights and police raids—the Brits were especially fond of pilfering from the Cham merchants. Sometime around 1990 the officials and townspeople had had enough and the place closed for good. In “Climbers’ Camp Chamonix,” first published in Ascent in 1972, John Svenson (an artist by trade) succinctly captures this madcap bygone era, with a sobering continuum.
Sprinting through the meadow, the “Mad Spaniard” clacks like a wooden puppet as a rack of planed and sanded wedges jostles from steel carabiners on double slings. Babbling something about the “Drus,” he grasps his Stubai hammer and slashes at the sky. Miscalculating the ground, he leaps off balance and crashes into a thicket of brambles with a scream.
Not far behind, a chattering mob of Japanese climbers emerges from a small tent city at the far side of the meadow. They “Chee! Chee!” and do cartwheels up to the site of the now-still Spaniard, who looks up and … smiles. Like spiders they scamper about, lifting rocks and prodding clumps of grass. After a short time one of them lets out a sharp screech and prances up to the grinning Spaniard; in cupped hands a slimy thing crawls. Everybody gathers around and watches as the hammer drops and a hand darts out and grabs the tasty slug. Into the mouth, a few chomps, then down the throat. The Spaniard belches. Screaming with approval, the Japanese turn back to their camp.
Picking dirt from his hobnailed boots, the Spaniard grins to himself, then beats on the ground with his hammer and yells, “Walker Spur!” The far side of the meadow roars with joy. He scuffs over to his tent and dives in; the camp is silent.
Aie! Bout me a Hammuk! drifts to my ears from the circle of Jamet tents next to our campsite. A rather lanky fellow with red hair and freckles has his fingers tangled in a new Cassin net hammock. From three tents a strange assortment of people emerges, and conversation begins.
Huu much? Ah, three pounds, six schillings. Jesus Creest, nuet baad. Ye’ver hung un wun frum pegs? Nay! Twoud be a manky bivvy! Aie, und a cold un at that! Lut’s find tu trees ta strung it up un. Aie, und I’ll fetch the brew!
Later, after a futile search for two perfectly spaced trees, a hammock loaded down with four heavy climbers swings, almost touching the ground. Giggles and tee-hees echo through the climbers’ camp. Nothing stirs this day other than the English, no? A flag flutters at the far end of the clearing, a white flag with a red circle in the center. But the Japanese climbers are out today, or are they? A tent ripples, then another and another. As one, 19 heads jut from tube entrances. A flurry of boots and baggy knickers mingle with pointing fingers and high-pitched chattering; soon 19 fully dressed Japanese are hopping about their tent city. Within seconds they are gathered under the trees next to the hammock, waving racks of gear and piton hammers. The only words said and understood by all: “Climbing hammock.”
French beer mixes with saki and dried squid; all is merry in Chamonix camp. Suddenly, three of the newcomers leap into the hammock on top of the four already swinging. A giant ripping sound and screams of anguish send birds into the air. Seven people lie panting on the cool grass amid shreds of nylon surrounded by a half-drunk mob of mumbling climbers. The bottles still work their way around the circle. One laughs, they all laugh. “Climbing hammock, climbing hammock,” yell the flexible Japanese climbers as they leap and swing about. With light heads the Englishmen roar with joy as they tear even more at their new toy. An hour later, from exhaustion and saki, the two groups drag themselves back to their camps; another normal day has come to an end in the climbers’ camp in Chamonix.
Apart from the other tents, off in the trees, two Japanese climbers sip tea while stoking a stubborn fire. A light drizzle sifts down and around tents, rain tarps and people; it settles like a blanket and muffles all sound, giving a rather eerie effect. The Englishmen have gone to town; others are either lounging in their tents or hiking in the thick fog. A very quiet day. The two climbers say not a word, only stare into the fire.
As the deep blast of the Montenvers train echoes through the forest, they both turn their heads to the mountains, then back to the fire. An empty cup sits on a third log; every climber in camp knows why there is an empty cup. That is why the camp is vacant today. They are thinking, thinking about climbs and climbers, gazing up at the sheer, icy granite walls and wondering why it had to happen at this time, why it had to happen at all. Reality is forced into the minds of all; the windswept slabs of the Grepon have taken a member of the team. Nestled among the towering faces, in an ice-filled crack, he sleeps. Far below, in the valley, the third log bursts into flame, then sputters and dies.