This is a story which I have often thought about writing but have never known how to, without making it a boring muddle, because it involves curiously mistaken identities which confused the people involved and still confuses the narrative.
I didn’t take any photos of the people. I always want to take photos of the plants, but nearly always forget to photograph the people, even when they might have been happy to pose.
I was staying at the refuge de Basse Rua in the Val d’Escreins in Queyras, in early summer, just when the flowers were at their best. Basse Rua is a village that was abandoned after a disastrous fire in 1914. It lies at the end of a rough road which climbs up from Guillestre. One single-lane section of the road follows the side of a gorge and has no safety barrier; I don’t know what you’d do if you met a car going the other way. If I went that way again I would walk. There are often moments in the mountains when you feel relief and safety at leaving cars or buses behind. A vehicle can be a trap in which you feel helpless. Above the gorge the valley is at first wooded and enclosed, then it opens to delightful meadows and you come to a small car park at the end of the road. The path then takes you over a bridge and through the flowery ruins of the village to the refuge, which was run by a young woman with a baby at her breast who cooked beautifully. At breakfast there was home made jam from the fruits of the forest.
With the refuge as a base you could easily spend a week exploring the Val d’Escreins and the lesser valleys that lead off it, the Vallon Laugier and the Vallon de la Selette, which give access to high passes, peaks and ridges. Prominent at the end of the valley is the Pic de la Font Sancte, 3385m, which is the highest mountain in the Queyras to lie wholly in France; the higher ones are all on the border with Italy. I didn’t go up there. One day a young man climbed the peak, which involved some scrambling and some ice. He left very early, as they do, and told me later that he was back at the refuge by lunchtime, and slept for most of the rest of the day.
That would have been the best time of the day to sleep. The first night I stayed at Basse Rua the worst snorer ever kept the rest of us awake nearly all night. (in German, schnarchen; in French, ronfler; in Italian, russare; everybody has a good word for it.) How strange to know nothing about a man and everything about his snoring, a peculiar intimacy. There was such inventive, demonic energy to this snoring, to its reverberations, crescendoes and explosions. You sensed pressure building towards a volcanic outcome. Nearly as bad as the noise was the tension during short intermissions as you counted down to the next artillery barrage. But more interesting than the snoring itself is: why didn’t I or anybody else do anything about it? The man himself was quiet, almost sheepish, his wife seemed embarrassed. They were all French – why did they behave with the hypocritical politeness of the British and complain behind his back? And why didn’t I go and explore the refuge, look for another room? We had all been put in one room, there were only about 7 people staying the night, and no doubt that made life easier for the gardienne, but we could have spread out. Were the doors to the other bedrooms locked? I never found out. Or why didn’t I take some blankets and go out and sleep in the meadow? I was paralysed by tiredness and the dark, and kept thinking that it couldn’t go on all night. In a refuge in Italy once, a man said that if someone kept snoring he’d throw a boot at his head, but it seems to me that people of all nationalities show a timorous respect for those who keep them awake by snoring, and of course not many people do it all night long. But someone with a snoring habit like that – how could you have the nerve to go on a holiday which involved spending the night in a dormitory with innocent strangers?
The next day the richness of the landscapes and the flowers kept me going, and I got some sleep up on the Crete de Vars, in the shade of stunted pine tree, for it was a very hot day.
The snorer and his wife – how did she survive? – had set out for the refuge de Maljasset: up the Val d’Escreins through open forest, then the side valley, Vallon de la Selette, to the Col des Houerts, and down into the deep valley of the Ubaye. Another couple had decided to spend another night at Basse Rua, although they had also been thinking of going to Maljasset. They were probably looking forward to a better night’s sleep. While we were having dinner the gardienne came to tell us that she’d had a phone call from Maljasset: an expected couple hadn’t arrived. A story needs names of course, and I don’t have any. Except Snorer. The use of initials makes the narrative into a puzzle. A and B, with whom I was eating, said that they had seen C and D, the snorer and his wife who had set out for Maljasset; they’d been ahead of them and apparently walking confidently. What could have happened to them? A difficult time for the gardienne, normally confident and in control, in the way she allocated beds, for example, not letting us spread ourselves out, but now trying to decide whether she should call the mountain rescue services. After another phone call to Maljasset they decided to give the couple till dark, or just after dark, although how do you begin to look for people in the dark? An hour went by – the time of year was early July, so the days were long. Still the couple hadn’t arrived, and everybody was becoming more worried.
I can’t quite remember how and to whom a beam of inspiration revealed the truth: A and B thought that it was C and D who were missing, and C and D, who had arrived at Maljasset long before, had raised the alarm because they thought that A and B were missing. A and B were now adamant that they’d only considered going to Maljasset.
You see what I mean? This story doesn’t resolve itself, it collapses. I think we all slept well that night.
Early morning in the Val d’Escreins:
I lied about the flowers. Waking helianthemums helped me to awake:
The brightness and delicacy of flowers against the bare rock: