Tag Archives: Monte Rosa

What I learned from a towering wall of Alpine ice

Descending beneath an ice wall on the Parrotspitze.

Descending beneath an ice wall on the Parrotspitze.

Mountaineer Joe Simpson called it ‘the beckoning silence of high places’ – the lure that pulls people to the mountains, often to their most dangerous spots.

I’ve been to few places higher, or more silent, than the icy glacier that sits atop the Monte Rosa massif, the mountain chain which borders Switzerland and Italy, a sea of ice flowing down a frozen valley beneath the peaks of the Dufourspitze, Zumsteinspitze and Parrotspitze.

Six years ago this week I traversed the massif, climbing eight peaks in five days and pushing myself to limits I wasn’t even aware of.

Over the course of the week I came dangerously close to losing a glove in high winds on the Zumsteinspitze, assisted in bringing a fellow climber down after he was struck with altitude sickness, and – the payoff for repeated endurance tests – witnessed a series of incredible summit vistas.

Summit of Castor (4,228m)

Summit of Castor (4,228m)

I also took not-insignificant risks, one of which is pictured above. The picture was snapped as I descended from the Signalkuppe (4,554m), travelling by a hanging serac wall under the Parrotspitze (4,432m).

At the time the huge mass of ice above barely registered, despite it being mid-afternoon and a dangerous time for avalanches. I’d been climbing for 12 hours. Like the other members of the small group I was with, I just wanted to get down – and the route under the Parrotspitze was the most direct way.

In fact, given my tiredness, light supplies and the hour of the day it was the only option.

Perhaps that’s why the danger never registered at the time – when you’ve a single route forward and no way back it’s pointless to dwell on a concept like risk (or tiredness, or freezing feet, or an unquenchable thirst and a very finite amount of water in your flask).

Afterwards – if there’s an afterwards – you applaud yourself for your bravery, or dig up your photograph and write about it all.

I’m reluctant to draw life lessons from trips to the mountains, but when the Monte Rosa picture popped up on a social media feed this week it occurred to me that risk is a phenomenon that takes up as much space as you allow it to.

If you’re on a single path, to a single destination, it becomes – as it was under the Parrotspitze – simply part of the landscape.

Under the mountain - Parrotspitze, 2010

Under the mountain – Parrotspitze, 2010

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Back to the mountains

Slieve Donard, February 2014.

Slieve Donard, February 2014.

“Time and money – that’s the problem with this game.”

The game? Mountaineering. The sage? A sunburnt, rock-battered British climber.

We were sitting in the bar of a small hotel in Leysin, Switzerland. It was August 2010; I had just finished a week-long traverse of the Monte Rosa massif on the Swiss-Italian border.

My fellow climber had left his family behind in England to undertake two weeks of climbing in the Alps. He made the trip yearly despite, as he acknowledged, the financial and emotional difficulties of leaving home.

I didn’t have these challenges. I was working, single, with a severe dose of summit fever. His comments passed me by.

Getting to the mountains, and getting up and down them, was everything in these years. Nothing else would stand in my way – it was hard to think of an August that wouldn’t see me cleaning crampons and packing an ice axe before catching a flight to Geneva.

A group of us drank late that night at the Lynx Bar, planning new trips, checking diaries, before leaving for home early the following morning.

I haven’t been back to the Alps since.

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Looking at my diary for 2010 I see that I hiked and climbed in Ireland almost every weekend – for eight or nine months of the year at least.

Numerous days on Lugnaquilla, different routes in the Mournes, weekend raids on the Mweelrea mountains, a week spent around the MacGillycuddy’s Reeks. It was a year, like others before it, of days spent climbing or planning to climb.

And then time moved on. In 2011 I climbed Ben Nevis, made frequent trips to the Wicklow mountains, and summitted Carauntoohill by a couple of new-to-me routes..

Descending from Signalkuppe, Monte Rosa Massif, August 2010.

Descending from Signalkuppe, Monte Rosa Massif, August 2010.

The following year saw less trips. I moved house and got married. I had less weekend time to spend in the hills and less inclination to spend long days away from my wife. Nonetheless I got up when I could.

2013 started slowly but a spectacular snowy hike in Wicklow promised good mountaineering in the Spring.

Life then intervened. A loved one was seriously ill and I had no intention or desire to spend my free time away.

I managed a summer Saturday on Lugnaquilla but my heart wasn’t really in it.

I didn’t return to the mountains for the rest of the year.

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As the months passed it began to gnaw at me. Standing at the foot of Croagh Patrick a fortnight ago I made up my mind: I had to get back.

And so I found myself awake at 5am last Friday, after a fitful night’s sleep. Rushing my breakfast I departed at daybreak for Slieve Donard, the highest peak in the Mourne Mountains. Hours later I was standing on top, under a blue sky, facing down an icy northwesterly.

Sheltering behind the summit cairn I thought of the night in Leysin and the conversation with the English climber.

Yes, mountaineering costs time and money. But it takes more than these; it requires effort and energy. It often conflicts with home life. You’re often wet or cold or both. Injuries are commonplace.

Why do I go back?

At times I wonder, but never during the times I spend on the mountains. When I’m there I’m in the great immensity, part of The Whole Thing.

I imagine that British climber returns to Leysin. I might head back there myself one day, or not. But I’ll always keep going back to some mountains, somewhere.

Summit of Slieve Donard, February 2014.

Summit of Slieve Donard, February 2014.

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