In order to write my first book I decided to live in Chamonix, France, next to the Mont Blanc, highest mountain in Western Europe. I worked as a mountain refuge warden there for a while, at some 2,000 metres altitude, but soon enjoyed reading the mountains more than a reader would have reading my never-appearing novel, so I moved down to the centre of town as winter set in. I loved Chamonix.
La Cham in winter – my flat top right in centre background building
La Cham in summer – same flat
La Cham – view from street outside flat door
I loved the friendships I had, with the PGHM, the mountain rescue team, a friendship I struck when working at the refuge, and particularly when one night a hammering at the door woke me; a man in a terrible state, having stumbled and jumped down the steep mountain side to the refuge after watching his wife fall over a cliff, meaning a call for the helicopter. The rescue helicopter went up to look with searchlight and found her, but radioed back they could not get near her in the cliffs at night, and that anyway, she…did not survive the fall, that much they could see. I had gone up anyway to find her, especially after the helicopter team told me in no uncertain terms not to tell the man his wife had been killed in the fall until morning, as he might very well just step straight over a cliffs himself at the news,. So I went up in order to not have to answer his questions and after a few hours saw she was..not in a state of survival. I waited till morning, standing at the door of the téléphérique, the cable car, to tell him, at which he crumpled onto the floor of the cabin, and the big moustached cabin operator later remarked:
”you know Managua, I would have expected him to fly at you in a rage and hit, beat you,”
To which I had answered, ”Yeah, great. Thanks.”
The PGHM had recovered her body and then got into an argument with the local police, who wanted to take the man back to the scene for ‘questioning’.
”I’ve seen it before,” the station head of the PGHM had remarked: ”we’ll have two bodies over cliffs now.”
And the other friendships; with the ski instructor, a woman who had skied down the Bossons glacier, and who giggled at my British reserve when she and her friend had thrown their tops off to sunbathe at a mountain lake only hours after meeting me; and there was Catherine D’Estivelle, the climber, and the woman who owned the bar that let me keep a tab running all winter, the bakery owning couple who made the freshest bread on the spot, which I ate where it was cooked, and the many, many others, who regarded the tourists with mild indulgence; the tourists who had a penchant for acting like tourists – you know what I mean…of which perhaps the most touristy were the Swedes, who drank copious amounts of booze but would not touch the water, for fear of it not being pure, who boasted of a clean Sweden while pissing on the streets at night, uprooting all the Christmas trees in Viking exuberance and drinking coffee slowly each morning, wearing heavy mountain gear that clinked and jangled and jarred on their nerves.
And I decided to leave. To leave the town I loved. The blue/green late afternoons in the shade of the pine tree slopes of the mountains, the cream mornings of snow-capped mountains between open shutters, the beautiful and mysterious neighbour who sunbathed nude on her balcony below mine, the newsagent who gave me my morning newspaper and coffee every morning when I walked through the door, and the mountains, again, and my mountain climbing partners , and the seasons.
My last season in Chamonix was late summer, in the Saami definition of eight seasons. I was living my last few weeks in a tent at the bottom of the Mer de Glace glacier, and my morning plunge into the water rushing off the bottom of the glacier brought a new definition to the word cold, as well as embarrassment, when one morning I had jumped in, lay down briefly in the current and clambered out quicky, and heard a ”coooeeee!”, looked left, looked right, looked behind, looked in front, my skin growing red, my vital parts shivered to mere millimetres, and then heard the ”coooeee!!” again, looked left right front back sideways and finally..upwards, to see a woman on delta wing, circling before landing, and laughing at my lack of restraint.
And the morning I left I met a silver-haired solitary Czech climber, who was hammering nails in his boots and knotting old ropes – his dream happening at last: climbing Mont Blanc, his food with him in cans, his home a tarpaulin over a wire, his happiness complete.
I was going to Oymyakon, the coldest town in the world (lowest temp recorded -71.2ºC/ -96.16ºF) , in Yakutia, Siberia, and chosen because I was sure that sitting in a hut in the coldest town in the world was a sure-fire way of writing, and importantly, completing a book. Immediately I set about planning an expedition through Yakutia, until I remembered it was to write I was going, and to attempt to ensure I was getting myself stuck into a small cabin, with a pile of logs, tea pot and long lost love deep in fur. The last one was not actually a requirement, though it was true that having someone to cook always means a necessary routine can be installed into a writer’s drab existence at the table, which is in reality a window of course.
A local Yakutian lass – not necessarily a good cook (picture from eyakutia.com)
Yakutia, and in particular Oymyakon, fits some requirement’s of a writer’s retreat, but not all: it was exotic, not pricey – the cash flow is going in 1 direction after all, if the book is to be scribed – and the fish can be caught and cooked, a welcomed way to meditate. Oymyakon is a small town, the nature is beguilingly beautiful, but it forces you back to the writing table quickly, and the natives are not too restless.
The town is found on the infamous Road of Bones. It does get a sprinkling of tourists, which is nice, and not all are similar to the Norwegians who got stuck and needed rescuing, claiming to be broken down, or the Germans who also got stuck and chose not to leave their vehicle when being rescued to thank the rescuers. (They would have been charged in another country of course, in places like Vancouver, but then would have probably found ways to sue for being charged for stupidity, as some do.)
The fact that conditions were harsh, and risky, like the mountains of Chamonix, is something of a bonus for a writer. But it is also a pleasure when the little luxuries are available – bananas were prevalent, which was comforting, because at -55ºC ( -67ºF) they are more useful to hammer nails into wood than a badly made hammer, and don’t stick to the tongue like the head of a hammer does – something I can personally vouch is true, and if you don’t think you look absolutely stupid walking around town, even in Oymyakon, with a hammer stuck to your tongue, then think again.
Freezers are cheap
Another balmy day
The wolves do hunt at night, and it if true that if the cold mist descends with the plummeting temperature in the deep snow and you are lost, then you have about 15 minutes to unlose yourself and find your way. After that your chances get pretty slim pretty quick, except your chances of being found next morning when the day is clear, a mere few metres to your cabin. But this provides the tension for your novel, so is worth the risk..
Did I write the book? Yes. Did I find a cook deep in the fur, in a cabin down the road? The culture in Yakutia is captivating. And for those against fur, I can honestly tell you from experience that artificial fur just shreds; falls apart at those temperatures, and not keeping warm is not a question of fashion.
Join me, soon, when I look at other likely writer retreats, in what will become my ”Writer’s Lair” series.