The Winter Challenge Leg 3: Carving Up The Icy Cliff Faces Of The French Alps
Photography by Will Broadhead
This story is part of our series on the 2018 HERO Winter Challenge, you can catch up with the preview and days one and two.
There are moments in life that literally take your breath away. You often meet them for the first time as a toddler when you fall off of something to land on your stomach, but then there’s the better sort, those occasions when you experience something so stunning that all you can do is try to absorb it and store it to be fully processed at a later date. I had one of those encounters on the evening of the third leg of the HERO Winter Challenge while descending from one of the higher passes in the French Alps, whereupon after rounding what had to have been the millionth hairpin turn of the day, I was presented with a vista that fell squarely in the category of spell-binding. Hundreds of kilometers of countryside were cast out around me hundreds and hundreds of meters below our parade of cars, all in the glow of an early spring evening. This was the cherry on the top of a long day, and I don’t mind telling you it was all quite emotional for me.
It did not begin there that morning, and the final view of all views was just part of the list of spectacular roads and scenery experienced during the day as we pushed to our highest point of the trip so far. The morning began with a fight through the breakfast traffic of another valley floor metropolis that served as our base for the night prior, very quickly though, a seemingly unassailable bank of mountains appeared in the windshield and our ascent soon began in earnest. The first regularity test of the day passed through small vineyards and sparse clumps of houses of the people that tended them, along with some of the slenderest roads we crossed yet. The classic car troupe were all in fine song as they sped through these sections, and were rewarded with the first sighting of proper, proper snow at the top of the climb.
The day would run along a series of regularity tests like these, making up the stages with link sections in between. Each more challenging than the last, and some on roads so narrow that parking the media wagon up in a safe place became almost as much of a game as finding a great spot to photograph from to begin with. Not that finding superb vantage points was a problem with the landscapes we were immersed in all day, and the problem was more of a case of being spoilt for choice! No sooner had you moved on from a photo spot than you found someplace a few hairpins down the road that was even more stunning. The snow was deep but not constant, and we seemed to either be staring at lush green pastures, imposing rock faces, or, in parts, glistening white pistes heavy with powder and ice.
The rally certainly found the cold stuff on the frozen grounds of a mountain ice track that served as a location for the day’s speed trial. The presence of a bunch of mad classic car fanatics attempting to counter-steer around a frozen surface drew a good-sized crowd of interested locals, which may have provoked the drivers to slide a bit more aggressively than usual, particularly from those with rear-wheel drives.
Man-made ice circuits are all well and good, but the draw of the natural alpine scenery was far more tempting, so my two new friends and I that completed our media trio took to the roads once more to stay ahead of the rally and photograph the cars as they made their way through the afternoon’s regularity tests in the mountains.
The scenery kept getting better as we climbed higher, and we were treated to rock overhangs lined with daggers of icicles which occasionally let go and fell onto the road as they melted in the low afternoon sun. Torrents of meltwater cascaded off of the rock verandas above us and the cars danced through the spray almost in silhouette in the water’s refraction of the light. It was really a wild effect in an already otherworldly spot on the globe.
We were also fortunate enough to photograph the machines as they passed through one of the many sections of tunnels and precipices that guided the road around the often sheer cliff faces, the age-old rock towering above and careering away from the road into the valley many hundreds of meters below. The forces that had created these natural forms we were seeing are millions of years in the process, and it made the history of the automobiles on our trip infantile in comparison. However, their timeless designs complimented the panoramas of the stages and showed no lack of maturity, in my opinion anyway. These climbing snakes of road in this kind of isolated, extreme landscape are what sports cars were built for, but usually this only happens in their commercials. It was a beautiful thing to see in person, and judging by the smiles and conversation at the coffee stops, an absolute riot for those competing. Not even the abandonment and re-routing of the day’s final test—due to one snow drift too many—could ruin what had been a sublime day.
It was all quite magical, and as we pulled into our dinner stop for the evening and the mechanics went to work on the problems and niggles developed through a hard day of driving, in cars that ought to be drawing their pensions rather than hammering through tight high-altitude passes. I wished to be able to do it all over again almost as soon as it was over—it seemed too perfect to end just yet. Then again, there was the night stage…