Discovering the finest madonnas in the Alps

2008 MXP WINNER

In summer 2008, Maxime Casanova and François-Régis Thévenet journeyed between Alpine summits that host a Madonna. From La Meije to Mont Dolent, the two buddies climbed more than 10 legendary mountains via routes chosen for their historical and aesthetic value. They wanted to pay tribute to the alpinists who had hauled the statues to the top, often on their backs.

Departure

26 June 2008

Arrival

7 August 2008

Duration

43 days

PAYING TRIBUTE WITH A MARIAN CROSSING

The adventure stemmed from a great friendship between “Fanfan” (François-Régis Thévenet) and “Max” (Maxime Casanova). These two mountain-sports enthusiasts were studying the sciences and techniques of physical and sports activities (“Staps” in French) in Lyon. They wanted to share a great Alpine project... but had to think of one, when it seemed everything had already been done!

“We’d twice climbed Le Grépon, and coming face to face with the madonna at the top was an intense experience. We tried to find out more about her, but without success. We were no luckier when researching most of the Marian effigies installed on Alpine peaks. So we began to investigate the history of these unusual sculptures, and soon found ourselves enthralled by tales of epic ascents. The idea of a crossing then began to take shape, to pay tribute to the alpinists who had taken the madonnas up and anchored them,” explains Fanfan. 

“Coming face to face with a madonna at the top is always an intense experience.”

A NOVEL ALPINE PILGRIMAGE

On 1 July 2008, their pilgrimage began in Oisans (Dept. of Isère): climbing the eastern peak of La Meije and discovering Marie de la Meije, a small wooden Virgin Mary at nearly 4000m.

“Gérard Turc, the warden at Le Chatelleret Refuge, helped take this madonna up in 1996. He told us all about it – a brilliant story, and a super gift to kick off our trip,” recalls Max. “We then cycled to the Vanoise Massif, and friends took care of leaving the bikes in their drop zones. We climbed La Rechasse up to the madonna at 3212 metres. Then we climbed the Vion route up the south face of La Grande Glière, at 3392m, and found the ‘mountain rescue Mary’.”

At the summit of La Réchasse, the weather was amazing. A chamois seemed to be waiting for the duo. He turned round and stared at them. And there was the Virgin, just behind it... A magical moment.

Then, another bike transfer to Le Ruitor and “Our Lady Who Smiles and Forgives”, followed by the “Intégrale de Peuterey” route via the Virgin of L’Aiguille Noire (3372m) and an enforced 48-hour stop.  “I got altitude sickness while climbing L’Aiguille Blanche de Peuterey. I was heliwinched off the pass and taken to hospital,” says Max.

“This journey wasn’t a crusade or a religous statement.”

After two days’ rest, their journey continued with La Tour Ronde and its Black Virgin (3792m); La Dent du Géant (4013m) and its hundred-year-old madonna; and Le Grépon with “Our Lady of La Salette”.

Fanfan and Max then reached “Our Lady of Lourdes” via the north face of Les Drus: a madonna with clasped hands and a rosary of gold pearls, anchored at the peak of La Pointe Charlet (3730m). The duo’s adventure ended with the Virgin Mary of Mont Dolent. 

AN ENCHAINMENT STEEPED IN HISTORY

A fantastic enchainment, rich in emotions and powerful moments... “We free-climbed every time. We systematically tried to follow the routes alpinists used when taking the madonnas up. History, not difficulty, was our focus,” says Max. Fanfan adds: “This journey wasn’t a crusade or a religious statement, but a tribute to the alpinists who transported the madonnas.”

Looking back on their itinerary, they have a special thought for the little madonna of La Meije, which they found shrouded in snow. They also remember the halo of light around the Virgin Mary of Le Grépon, while they were bivying at the summit and the bad weather gave way to a magnificent sunset… And they also recall how rewarding it was to share every moment. “This enchainment strengthened our friendship. It really was a beautiful mountain experience.”

“Mary of La Meije” was hauled up by the Vénéon Valley guides in 1996. This very understated madonna, crafted from wood, is the fourth to be anchored at this summit. The first, erected in 1936. was hit by lightning and replaced in 1958 by a madonna made from Oisans granite, which was no more weatherproof. In 1988, a small wooden icon was placed at the top of La Meije in tribute to the village priest of La Grave. So there are currently two Virgins at the summit. 

ENOUGH MATERIAL FOR A BOOK!

Since their trip, Fanfan has regularly recorded the accounts of guides who once accompanied madonnas to the highest point. And in parallel, he’s continuing to gather information on the statues:  “They personify the summits, and each one has its own story. But they’re also sources of stories for the people in their valley. It’s a fascinating subject...”

The story is ongoing: in 2011, the madonna of La Dent du Géant was replaced – and Fanfan attended the blessing, notebook in hand!

Naturally enough, he plans to write a book. He has his theme, and plenty of material... now he just needs time!

 

The Team

Maxime Casanova (born March 1983)
Started climbing in 2003. Now a climbing instructor in the Department of Ain.
François-Régis Thévenet (born April 1983)
High-mountain guide. PhD student in biomechanics and life sciences.