Monday, April 9, 2012

The Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial at Omaha Beach

Ann and I visited the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial at Omaha Beach and it was certainly the most poignant part of our trip.  The cemetery covers 172 acres, and contains the remains of 9,387 American military dead, and the names of 1,557 missing in action.  Most were killed during the Normandy invasion on June 6th, 1944 and subsequent military operations in World War II.  Included are graves of Army Air Corps crews shot down over France.  The average age of those buried here is 24.  

At the center of the Memorial is a bronze statue entitled Spirit of American Youth. Facing west at the memorial in the foreground is the reflecting pool, the mall with burial areas to either side and the circular chapel in the distance.  There are more headstones beyond the chapel.

Spirit of American Youth

The names of 1,557 Americans who lost their lives in the Normandy campaign but could not be located and/or identified are inscribed on the walls of the semicircular garden at the east side of the memorial. 

I will relate several stories about service men and women who are buried here as told by our tour guide . 

Garden of the Missing
The first story is about a soldier whose name is on the wall in the Garden of the Missing - Raymond S. Hoback.  Raymond's bible was found by Cpl. H.W. Crayton wrapped in plastic on the beach where he landed on D-Day.  Raymond's address was written inside - so the Corporal, not knowing what had happened to Raymond, sent the bible back to Raymond's parents with a note cautiously stating they should know their son was safe by the time they received this package.  About a week after D-Day, the county sheriff delivered the dreaded telegram to Raymond's parents that one of their other sons, Bedford, had been killed in action.  The next day on July 16th, the doorbell rang again with a second telegram—this time informing the family that Raymond was missing in action.  Raymond's sister Lucille recalled that “My mother was overwhelmed, and my father went out to the barn to cry, just to hide his tears from us.”  At the end of the month his parents received Corporal Crayton's letter and package “from somewhere in France”, with its hopeful message.

Raymond and Bedford Hoback were from the town of Bedford, Virginia with a population of only 3,200.  Out of the thirty soldiers from the town that participated in D-Day, the Hoback brothers plus seventeen more were lost.

Raymond S. Hoback

 Not all of the casualties were men.  Elizabeth A. Richardson is one of the four women buried here.  Elizabeth volunteered to serve in the Red Cross and was assigned to a Clubmobile that provided coffee, freshly made doughnuts, chewing gum, cigarettes, magazines, newspapers, and records to GIs while they were in the field. But their real responsibility was to boost the spirits of the soldiers by chatting with them. Elizabeth wrote to her parents, "If you only knew what combat does to these boys--not in the physical sense, although that's bad enough--but mentally." The job required the women to be single, college graduates, and at least 25 years of age. They were expected to be skilled at interpersonal relations and only one in six of the applicants was selected for the Red Cross Clubmobiles.

Elizabeth Richardson

Elizabeth died on the morning of July 25, 1945 while en route from Le Havre to Paris. Both the pilot of the two seat military plane, Sgt. William R. Miller of the Ninth Air Force, and Elizabeth were killed instantly. She was only 27 yeas old.

   When Billie D. Harris and Peggy Seale married on Sept. 22, 1943, he was 21 and she was 18.  Although the couple would usually have two weeks leave for their honeymoon, it was cut short when a troop ship of pilots was torpedoed in the Atlantic and Lt. Harris's group was sent their place.  By mid 1944, Lt. Harris had completed over 60 to 100 missions flying bomber support missions in his P-51 Mustang or pursuing ground targets after the invasion of Normandy.  In July 1944 Peggy received a telegram that her husband was missing in action.  Later, she was notified that Lt. Harris had returned to the United States on leave but no one had heard from him.  The Red Cross told her he was probably being processed in a military hospital. She received a long series of conflicting reports, including notification that Lt. Harris was missing in action, then killed in action, then again missing in action. It appeared no one knew what had happened to the young pilot. 

Peggie and Billie Harris

Peggy did not believe that her husband was dead, and until his parents died in the 1980’s, they also continued to hope that their son was alive.  After he retired, a cousin of Billie's did extensive research including travelling to France where he found the townspeople who witnessed Billie's plane crash.  By October 2005 he discovered what had happened to Billie.  His plane had gone down in the forest outside the small village of Les Ventes, where French resistance members discovered the pilot was dead. They removed his handgun and codebook and left when the Germans approached the crash site.  The townspeople were allowed to retrieve the pilot’s body from the plane wreckage which they buried in a local cemetery along with other local war heroes.  The body was moved by the US Army in 1946 to a temporary cemetery where he was listed as an “unknown”.  In September 1948, without notifying the family, the US government interred him in the Normandy American Cemetery as Billie D. Harris.  It took 62 years for Peggy to learn this.

In the spring of 2006, Peggy Seale Harris flew to Paris and travelled to the Normandy American Cemetery where she was reunited with Billie.  She had never remarried, and since that original visit she often comes to the cemetery on June 6 and sits on a bench next to Billie's white cross.

Billie D. Harris

 On June 6th, 1944 by the end of the day, 34,000 American troops had been landed on Omaha Beach suffering 2,400 casualties in the process. 

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Mount Saint-Michel and the Bayeux Tapestry

From Chamonix Ann and I drove toward the Normandy coast stopping briefly in the Loire Valley on the way.  Not too far southwest of Paris, the valley is referred to as the Cradle of the French Language, and the Garden of France. It is rich in agricultural abundance and as a result has a long history and an accompanying architectural heritage.  In addition to the orchards and vineyards that line the river, there are hundreds of chateaux.  The early chateaux from the 10 century have the typical castle fortifications and many were constructed over the next 500 years.

 Next we spent a day at Mount Saint-Michel (Michael), located on a rocky outcrop off the Normandy coast.  A monastery was built on the site in the 8th century and gained strategic significance with subsequent struggles between England and France. 

Mont Saint-Michel

Replica of Michael the Archangel that sits atop the steeple
In 1067, the monastery of Mont-Saint-Michel gave its support to duke William of Normandy (William the Conqueror)  in his claim and subsequent ascension to the throne of England.  During the Hundred Years War the English  made numerous attacks on the monastery, but were unable to seize it due to the abbey's  fortifications. 

Fortifications around the monastery

 The wealth and influence of the abbey began to fall around the time of the Reformation.  By the late 18th century at the time of the French Revolution only a few monks were left and it was converted into a prison.  Early in the nineteenth century, a campaign was launched to restore what was seen as a national architectural treasure. The prison was closed in 1863, and the mount was declared a historic monument in 1874. 

Inside the Abbey

We enjoyed seeing the old abbey, but the restoration of the walled village attached to the monastery looks more like a Disney creation.  The narrow stone walkways are lined with tacky souvenir shops, ice cream parlors and restaurants.  I guess they need the revenue to help pay for the ongoing restoration?

Disneyland or Mt St Michel?

After visiting Saint Michel, we drove to Bayeux and visited the famous tapestry (actually and embroidered cloth) that depicts the events leading up to and then the Norman invasion of England in 1066.  The Bayeux Tapestry is over 200 feet long with about 50 scenes.  It tells the story of how William the Conqueror, leading a Norman army, defeats the King of England (Harold Godwinson) leading the Anglo Saxons at the Battle of Hastings.   

King Edward the Confessor, king of England and about sixty years old, had no children or any clear successor.  At that time, succession to the English throne was not according to the first born heir but was decided jointly by the king and some nobles.  After Edward dies, Harold is crowned king, but this is contested by William who thinks he should have been king and he builds a fleet to invade England and take over the throne.

The battle of Hastings was fought on October 14, 1066 less than three weeks after the English had fought the Norwegians 400 miles away at the Battle of Stamford Bridge.  As we know, the Norman conquest of England had a huge impact on the history of that country and the rest of Europe.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Piolets d'Or

The Piolets d'Or is an award given to a climb(s) the previous year.  An explanation of this award taken from the official website is as follows:

"The purpose of the Piolets d'Or awards is to raise awareness about the year's greatest ascents across the world.  They aim to celebrate the taste for adventure, the bravery and sense of exploration that lie behind the art of climbing in the world's great mountain ranges.

The Piolets d'Or draw their inspiration from mountaineering's rich history.  They are a celebration of a sense of partnership and solidarity, of shared experiences, and reward individual or collective achievement.

In modern mountaineering, questions of style and means of ascent take precedence over reaching the objective itself.  It is no longer a matter of employing huge financial and technical resources (bottled oxygen, fixed ropes, high-altitude porters, so-called 'performance-enhancing' substances…) and large numbers of people to reach the top at all costs.  The Piolets d'Or throw the spotlight on imaginative and innovative new routes, using a minimum amount of equipment, and building on experience."


The climb that Mark Richey, Freddie Wilkinson and I did on Saser Kangri II last year was one of six nominated climbs for this award.  It was a huge honor for us just to have been nominated.

The organizers choose a jury each year to select the nominees who come to Chamonix for the event.  At the event, each of the nominees make a presentation to the jury that then chooses a winner(s).  The criteria that the jury uses for selecting the nominees and deciding the winner(s) is:

"The jury judges these ascents irrespective of a climber's nationality and against the following criteria, both on a point-by-point basis and as a whole:
  • Style of ascent
  • Spirit of exploration: original (previously unclimbed) route and/or mountain, creative and innovative approach
  • Level of commitment and self-sufficiency
  • High level of technical ability required
  • Suitability of route in light of objective dangers
  • Efficient and sparing use of resources
  • Transparency regarding the use of these resources
  • Respect for people, climbing partners, members of other teams, porters and local agents
  • Respect for the environment
  • Respect for future generations of mountaineers by leaving them the possibility of enjoying the same kind of experiences and adventures"
2012 Jury led by Michael Kennedy on the left

 In addition to choosing a winner of the year's Piolets d'Or, the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement award is also given.  On Thursday, the first night of the event, a presentation was made honoring the recipient of the this year's Lifetime Achievement Award, Robert Paragot.

Robert Paragot
I wasn't very familiar with Robert's accomplishments before going to this event.  But I learned that his major first ascents between 1955 and 1971 (many of which he led) include:
  • South Face of Aconcagua in Argentina (highest mountain in Western Hemisphere-6962 meters)
  • Mustagh Tower in Pakistan - 7273 meters
  • Jannu in Nepal - 7710 meters
  • North Face of Huascaran in Peru - 6768 meters
  • West Pillar of Makalu in Nepal - 8463 meter
He certainly deserved to be recognized and it was a privilege to meet him.

Doug Scott with Paragot & teammates - note small boots on left climber from frostbite amputations after S. Face of Aconcagua

This celebration is a big media event in Europe and in the towns of Chamonix (France) and Courmayeur (Italy) where the events associated with the Piolets d'Or are held.

Posters in the town plaza in Chamonix
The final evening of the event was held in Courmayeur on Saturday night.  There was a big press conference where the media asked questions of each of the nominated teams followed by a dinner attended by dignitaries from both towns.

Large posters of the nominated climbs.  Conrad, Jimmy, and Renan's climb of Meru was around the corner
After short video presentations of all six nominated climbs, the jury announced that the ascent of K7 West by the young Slovenian climbers Nejc Marcic and Luka Strazar was the winner.  The jury then announced that this year they were giving two awards, with the other for the first ascent of Saser Kangri II by Mark Richey, Freddie Wilkinson, and me.

2012 Piolet d'Or Winners

Saser Kangri II team with Freddie (center), Mark (right) and me
It was a huge honor to receive this award.  All the climbs were worthy and it seemed quite subjective  to pick a winner from the six nominated climbs.  For me, the most important thing about the event was participating in a great celebration of mountaineering with wonderful people and making some new friends.  

Looking back on the Saser Kangri II climb I've come to appreciate my partners Mark Richey and Freddie Wilkinson even more.  The teamwork we had on the ascent and their tireless efforts to take care of me and organize a rescue after the descent when I got sick are great examples of the true spirit of mountaineering and the meaning behind this award.   

Chamonix - Skiing the Vallee Blanche

I've always wanted to ski the Vallee Blanche - a 9000 foot descent from the top of the Aiguille du Midi back to the town of Chamonix.  We were here for the Piolet d'Or (more on that in my next post) and had a couple of days to play.

Warning upon exiting the tunnel from the top of Aiguille du Midi

The Telepherique to the top of the Aiguille du Midi
The aerial tramway system (they call it a telephierique) that goes to the top of the Aigulle du Midi mountain is in two stages.  You take one car From Chamonix at around 3,000 feet to a midstation and then get off.  There you board a different telepherique that carries you in a single cable span (no towers) to the top at 12,000 feet.

Skiers descending the ridge on the Aiguille dy\u Midi
The summit of the Aiguille du Midi has been tunnelled out so you walk through the mountain and out onto a ridge.  You must then walk down the ridge to where you can put on your skis and descend the glacier on the backside.

Skiing the top portion of the glacier
You are skiing on an active glacier so the main concern is falling into a crevasse.  We had a local guide with us who is familiar with the terrain and knows where the crevasses are and always went first. 
Open slopes with little crevasse danger

We were instructed to always ski to the guide and not beyond in case there were crevasses.  Where there were open slopes without crevasses we could pick our own path through untracked snow.
Our guide - Christian Trommsdorff who also was an organizer for the Piolet d'Or
In other locations there were narrow sections between crevasses and we had to follow the exact same path behind Christian.

Michael and Julie Kennedy
It was a beautiful day with a fun group.

Climbing up using skins
We descended most of the upper glacier and then put on our climbing skins (fuzzy fabric strips that stick to the bottom of our skis) to ski uphill on the glacier below another mountain called the Dent du Geant (giants tooth).  We wanted to climb high on this glacier to get another ski run down.

From the top of Aiguille du Midi in center we skied down and left and then right of the big icefall

Skiing the good snow below the Dent du Geant
Our group on the Mer de Glace near the finish 

Thursday, April 5, 2012


We were nominated for a Piolet d'Or for our climb on Saser Kangri II last year (more on this award in a future post) so the organizing committee flew us to Chamonix for the event the end of last month.  On the way Ann and I spent nearly a week in Paris.  It just happened to be our 20th wedding anniversary so it was a great place to celebrate that event!

In front of the Eiffel Tower
The Eiffel Tower was designed and built by Gustave Eiffel in 1889 as the entrance arch to that years World's Fair.   It is the tallest building in Paris and stands 1,063 ft tall.  For about 40 years it was the tallest building in the world. 
View of Paris from the top
The Arc de Triomphe  honours those who fought and died for France in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars and was completed by 1836.   The names of all French victories and generals are inscribed on its inner and outer surfaces and beneath its vault lies the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from World War I.
Arc De Triomphe
A live figure in one of the ponds near the Louvre
The Seine
Figures on the side of the Notre Dame cathedral
 Palace of Versailles was the royal chateau outside of Paris and was the centre of political power in France from 1682, when Louis XIV moved from Paris, until the royal family was forced to return to the capital in October 1789 after the beginning of the French Revolution. It is very lavish so Versailles is famous not only as a building, but as a symbol of the excesses of the monarchy at the time.

Palace Versailles - The Royal Chateau
Chapel inside the palace

Typical ceiling inside the palace

The Kings bed
Overlooking the Grand Canal

Ann catching up on her rowing in the Grand Canal

Paris is a great place to view some of the most famous works of art in the world.  In addition to visiting the work of the Impressionists at the Musee d' Orsay we visited the Musee Rodin named after the famous French sculptor Auguste Rodin (pronounced Rodan).  Here are some photos of his sculptures in the garden of the museum.

The Burghers of Calais
In 1346 Edward III of England defeated the French in the Battle of Crecy.  Edward offered to spare the people of the city if any six of its top leaders would surrender to him - with the reasonable assumption that they would be executed.  Edward had them walk out - with little clothing and nooses around their necks - and carrying the keys to the castle. Though the burghers thought they would be killed, their lives were spared by the Queen of England, who felt their deaths would be bad luck for her unborn child.

The Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris, known as Sacré-Cœur Basilica is located on a hill in north Paris.  It was built fairly recently compared to structures like the Notre Dame Cathedral that was built in stages between 1160 and 1345.  Construction of Sacre Coeur began in 1875 and was finished in 1914 and was consecrated after the end of World War I in 1919.

Sacre Coeur

View from the Dome looking south towards the Eiffel Tower

And the French will be...............the French?

Billboard in a Paris subway