This article first appeared in the March 2016 issue of Climber Magazine.
The train shudders, then lurches forward. It clunks out of the station and we begin to crawl up through the pines. Wiping condensation from the glass, I see Chamonix slide beneath us, cold and frosty. The sun illuminates the mountains on the far side of the valley, but the town still lies in the frigid grip of early morning. I look to the summits in the distance, watching them glow in the first rays of light. They stand tall, proudly rising above the landscape. My mind begins to wander, dreaming of alpine climbing...
The train slows, clunk... clunk... and then we halt, already at our destination. We pull our minds to the present, step into the mountains and begin our long journey. As our boots start to crunch against cold, clear ice, my restless mind begins to stray again.
Alpine colours. Bleached white glacial granite, round and smooth. Proud boulders, strewn across the glacier by a giant. We slowly trudge, heavy packs pulling at shoulders. Walking poles go clack-clack-clack as we wind through scree and debris. Eyes stretch up to the spires of rock, looking at the unknown. A shudder, the stomach sinks... what will tomorrow bring?
We leave the white tongue of the glacier below, walking higher now. Dark brown moraine, dirty and dusty. The sun finds us, at first a gentle warmth but quickly we become hot and tired, the legs going slower now. Water becomes scarce, no longer trickling through ice. Sore lips and red cheeks. The mountains grow in height, standing tall, chests out. We tiptoe, dust on our boots, into their lair. They don’t notice us, but we stare at them.
Finally we reach the bright orange. The mountain rock, clean and sharp. Cracks, perfect for the hands and biting into skin; corners, making us bridge wide and press with our calves; edges, thin crimps to lock onto, desperately holding on. Weathered granite standing proud, stretching up into the blue. Jagged ridges, stegosaurus spines, solid towers. The heart rate rises, matching the jumpy lines of the horizons. Battered by storms, frozen by ice, baked by sun; the granite endures all.
A pause. We stare, catching our breath. We permit ourselves to dream. Of reaching the belay, the relief at the end of the pitch. Of running up easy ground, the difficulties over. Of standing on the summit, the route in the bag. Why do we always forget about the descent? We dream of exchanging that contented look: complete satisfaction. For now, though, we have another hour’s walking before reaching the bivi. Tomorrow, if we are lucky, we will climb.
How often do our dreams match the reality? Alpinism is the most lucrative, exhaustive, expensive climbing I know. Success seems so rare. When it all comes together, it’s truly special: a flicker of magic.
But sometimes we turn around, empty. It needn’t be as exotic as the boom of thunder or ‘whumf’ of an avalanche. It’s usually the million tiny reasons we’ve been ignoring for so long. Excuses stacking up, logic finally heard. The weather, the conditions, the altitude, the fatigue... knowing when to push on and when to turn back is a true test.
In our dreams, we float over snowy arêtes, crunch crisp snow and smile at the squeak of nevé as the ice axe bites. But reality can interrupt: the deep rumble of thunder and flash of lightning in the distance; a storm approaches. We dream of reaching the summit before nightfall, savouring an orange-pink sunset. Reality returns in the hurried shout, voices echoing into the night. We know the climb could continue in darkness, a quick snatch and pull of rope through gloves.
Alpinism has many faces, many sights and emotions. Today, it’s the silent groan at the 3 a.m. alarm. It’s the faint light of the moon, silhouetting the mountains. It’s the cold, still air which nips the fingers and numbs toes. It’s the burnt tongue on the hot soup and the rising steam. It’s the heavy legs, tired arms and aching shoulders. Puffy eyes suddenly wide, awake. The whisper of the stove as the gas runs low. It’s days which last for weeks.
We climb fast, efficiently. It’s the twist of the heel to make a front-point stick. The flick of the wrist to make the axe sink into the ice. The calm after peering into a crack and finding gear, reaching up and finding a hold. The joy at finding another bar in the pack, just when we thought we were finished. It’s the knowledge that, although we’d give everything to be somewhere else right now, we know we’ll be grateful we pushed on in the years to come.
We feel the fear. The heavy whirr of falling rock bringing a tense dread, the need to hide or flee. It causes eyes to lift nervously to the sky, stomachs to lurch. I’ve grown accustomed to the sounds, but never forget to flinch. I used to look when I heard the crack and slice of granite. I used to find the source, before it found me. Now I just tuck in tight, hunch my shoulders and accept it as part of the course.
We play the mental game. It’s the nervous scrape of crampons on loose granite, tentatively weighting each placement, wondering if it will rip or resist. Where is the next piece of gear? A worried glance over the shoulder, heavy clouds threaten the horizon. Do they bring snow or will they fade beneath us? Studying the topo, desperately trying to make it fit, wondering how we’d gone off route. Looking up and seeing water running down the rock, bringing numb toes and hot aches. The shivering as soaked clothes sap our warmth. A rush to get to the belay, grabbing the only warm jacket we share, eager to take your turn.
Alpinism is finding satisfaction. Pulling it off. Of standing on the summit, only the descent to go, knowing the suffering is nearly over. The end of the route, squeezing sore feet from rock shoes and taking a different view of the world. The golden glow over distant summits and a sea of cloud washing far below. A relief; it’s nearly over. Down we go, as fast as we can, chasing the last light and the lengthening shadows. We can still appreciate the sweet smell of pine as we walk through the forest, nearly back at the car at midnight.
Alpinism is the contented exhaustion. Throwing off the heavy pack, raiding the food box, satisfying the cravings. Sitting on solid ground, slipping harnesses from bruised hips, sipping water through parched lips. It’s the union of all our skills, energy and knowledge to bring success. Sometimes - just sometimes - we pull it off. A smile, a nod, a knowing look. A massage of aching muscles and tending to battered hands. The can of beer which makes us tipsy, and a pizza that costs... who cares? We did the route!