Camping on the glacier, the snow fell softly all night, making the tent sag. But by dawn the stars were out when we set off along the steep snowfield, climbing with the sun. At the Col, we turned left and stepped on the 3,870m summit of Mont Blanc de Cheilon before noon.
Under the dazzlingly blue summer sky the shiny peaks of the Pennine Alps rose like pointed clouds, with the fang of Matterhorn in the distance and the Lac Dixence reservoir a long way down. The euphoria of summiting must have made me careless as we descended: that night’s new snow had covered the slippery ice underneath.
Read also: Overkill on Everest, Damien Francois
The crampons did not hold, and in less than a second I was hurtling past the Indermühle brothers, Fritz and Urs. Both instantaneously dug their axes into the ice, and their combined strength on the rope arrested my fall with a jerk.
‘We made it, of course — I wouldn’t be writing this otherwise…’ Robert Macfarlane writes about his own close shave on nearby Lagginhorn (4,100m) in the first chapter of his book Mountains of the Mind. What possesses human beings to climb mountains despite, but probably also because of, the fear and danger?
Not just another book on Everest, Kunda Dixit
Nepal’s Grand Trek Road, Kunda Dixit
The book came out in 2004, but this passage is worth re-reading in the context of what transpired on Mt Everest this spring:
‘What makes mountain-going peculiar among leisure activities is that it demands of some of its participants that they die… Life, it frequently seems in the mountains, is more intensely lived the closer one gets to its extinction: we never feel so alive as when we have nearly died.’
As a boy, Macfarlane was inspired to climb after spending a summer in his grandparents’ library thrice re-reading Maurice Herzog’s Annapurna. What possessed Mallory, Herzog and others to put their lives on the line? Macfarlane inserts his own adventures and near-death experiences in the Alps, Pamir and Himalaya to dissect the philosophy of mountaineering. We learn about the early Western fascination with mountains and their ‘conquest’, starting with Thomas Burnett, Charles Lyell and others. Charles Darwin, we learn, used his ability to peer into deep time to ponder not just the origin of species, but also the impermanence of mountains. Alfred Wegener showed peaks have a past and future and are constantly reshaped by continental drift.
Highs and lows of Sir Ed, Kunda Dixit
‘To understand even a little about geology gives you special spectacles through which to see a landscape,’ writes Macfarlane in his elegant prose. ‘They allow you to see back in time to worlds where rocks liquefy and seas petrify…’
So it is while trekking in Nepal. What seems to be stunning scenery frozen in time is actually just one frame in a timelapse video that began millions of years ago, and will continue for millions more as mountains rise and fall.