As you meander around just about anywhere in the Rhone Valley, and you look east, you can't avoid it - it dominates the horizon with its brooding size ever present. Rather than just admire it for what it is, the French have built a radar station and a television mast on the very top, and you can see these from tens of miles around. It is a truly majestic mountain.
Bless them, with the scientific stations at the top came two roads, one going up the north side of the mountain to the very top and the other coming down the south side. From the top, on a clear day, you can see both the Pyrenees and the Alps.
"Vent" in French means "wind", and the mountain is extremely well named. Wind speeds nearing 200 mph have been measured there. Up to about 1600 metres, the ground is covered with an assortment of Provençale trees, but as you continue to climb, the trees disappear, and you quickly find yourself in a very alien landscape. Huge, huge areas of unremitting limestone shale and shingle are the only things surrounding you. You drive relentlessly upwards on a Long and Winding Road, marked by poles to guide you through the winter snows. In the distance you can see the scientific stations at the summit, which in themselves look like a huge Saturn Rocket next to an enormous Golf ball. But there's nothing else. It's like being on the Moon.
Being in the South of France, the French passion for cycling is not far away, so it has been the location of some of the most iconic cycle races ever in the Tour de France. Every few years, one of the mountain stages of that gruelling event involves the climb of the mountain, usually in the fierce 95 degree heat of a July afternoon. As a recipe for sorting cycling men from boys, it has few peers, and everyone with an interest in cycling looks forward intently when the Tour passes through.
The main part of the climb stretches over nearly 22 kilometres, during which the riders climbs over 1,600 metres, nearly 5,000 feet. As you reach the top, with the tree line's protection from the wind and the heat having died away, the gradient, rather nastily, gradually increases. The last kilometre is a constant 1 in 10.
A friend of mine, who considers himself to be of a good "county" standard as a cyclist, set off a few years ago on a pilgrimage to climb it, and was pleased to get to the top in around 3 hours. The current professional record is just under 56 minutes!
Such a test stretches them to the limit – and sometimes beyond. Half a mile from the summit, you come across a small memorial to Tom Simpson, a great British cyclist who, in 1967, due to a combination of drugs, alcohol, heat, illness and unbelievable determination rode himself to a total standstill there - and fell over. His last words were "Put me back on my bike", which they did, and he died still clipped into his pedals. The small monument is very moving, always with a permanent collection of souvenirs and memorabilia surrounding it. A desolate place indeed.
I drove up very early one morning, just after sunrise in late May. Expecting the glorious Provencal weather later that day, I ventured out in shorts and a thin T-shirt to take my pictures. Thank Goodness, there was no-one on the mountain to see my antics as I drove up. Towards the top, I had the car heater full-on, and I sat in the car between shots to unfreeze myself, just before rushing outside to get each picture. It was blowing nearly a gale, and the temperature was 2 degrees. Quite why I'd left my brain so far below me in the valley, I don't know.
It was about 7am as I rolled over the top, and started to descend the other side. About 50 metres from the summit, a speck in the distance appeared, looking just like the French equivalent of Omar Sharif's amazing entrance in "Lawrence of Arabia". Except, he was on a bike, not a camel. He pedalled, frighteningly quickly I thought, up towards me, wearing the condom like top and shorts beloved by most keen cyclists. In the howling wind, and zero degree temperature, he passed me at a fair old lick, with a cheery "Bonjour Monsieur". I just stood there clapping him, quite astonished.
NOW THESE TWO WERE STRUGGLING - AND THEY'D ONLY JUST STARTED!
Just to prove that the French can be as mad as anyone else, once a year, there is a competition for amateur riders, where you have to ride up the mountain as many times as possible in 24 hours. The record is 11 ascents!!!
But going down can be just as dangerous. In a car, you can go the whole way without engaging a gear – I know because I've done it. You get great fuel consumption, but the brakes end up glowing Cherry Red! This time, part of the way down, I stopped to take a few pictures of the flowers at the side of the road, only to hear a sudden explosive whoosh behind me. If I had stepped back 3 inches at that precise moment, there would have been two dead people on the mountain that morning, and you would have been looking for something else to read at this moment. He must have been doing 60 mph.
I can read the ad on e-bay now – "Unexpectedly for sale - D300 camera – light use only. Slight scuff marks to body. Residual blood stains and minor tarmac indentations are a little unsightly but do not affect operation of camera."
After all, it is a Nikon.