Well, it wasn’t quite inadvertent, and I was probably more prepared for it than many of the people in Haba base camp, who had apparently never camped (“It’s so strange sleeping in a sleeping bag – you can’t move your arms!”) or seen stars before (“How will we know if the weather is clear when we start at 4a.m? It’ll be dark!”). But I didn’t plan to do it.
Mountains are fascinating and grand. I love how small they make me feel, I love hiking among them, watching them change with every shift of the light and lift of cloud. But I’ve always vaguely suspected people who risk life and limb to get to the top of them of being… slightly arrogant? Unimaginative? A bit incomprehensible.
Reading about climbing Everest made me feel a bit disgusted with the whole endeavour, particularly its modern commercialisation, but mostly just puzzled by why people would endure so much of what seems like total misery (boredom, exhaustion, altitude sickness, frostbite) just to say they have been on the highest peak in the world – along with, these days, thousands of other people. There’s no purpose in it, no trip from here to there. I suppose other less famous mountains are much more of an adventure still, and an achievement, but really what are they a test of? Endurance? Skill?
And now I’ve done the same thing, on a much smaller scale, myself. It’s just that I was in Haba base camp, half way though a hike, and our friends were in the camp planning the ascent the next day, and the mountain was just there, snow-white and waiting… and really, by that point, why not?
Well, because it was unbelievably utterly freezing, for a start. And 5400 metres high. And we had to get up at 3 a.m to hike most of it in the dark. And at 7 a.m the sunrise was flame and gold and violent and below us, in drifting brilliant clouds along deeply distant valleys, over pink-tipped granite peaks so far left behind they were like crinkles in paper… And at 8 the wind was worse than knives and we were in cloud or fog and there wasn’t enough air anymore. And the steep snow field went on and featurelessly on. And I lost everyone else. It was just me and the rope snaking upwards through whiteness, across whiteness, into whiteness; my own personal icy Sisyphean hell of pointless misery. One tethered rope leading to the next one, the next, a climb going nowhere, and what the hell was I doing this for anyway? Struggling to move, to breath, and for what purpose? I had no idea if I was anywhere near the top, and even if I did reach the top I wouldn’t be able to see anything anyway, no fabulous view, no earth falling away forever, just freezing fog, drifts of snow fine and heartless as dust…
(We’d sat yesterday in the base camp, me and my hiking companion, basking in the sun of a cloudless morning watching the climbers, black dots toiling up this same snow field, then along the ridge at the top that looped back taking them out of sight – watched them the way I’d watch sport on TV, because I’m too lazy to do anything else, except this was an exceptionally slow and boring sport, of creeping black dots – we’d watched some of them get only half way up the snow field, and then turn back and begin the long defeated creep down again)
I didn’t much want to be a defeated dot, but really I was just worried that if I turned back I’d get lost after the ropes ran out. So I kept on. And was rescued by a St Bernard dog with frost in her whiskers and lumps of ice big as golf balls stuck in her paws. I could have been hallucinating at this point…
(but – see this Haba summit photo… my proud and affectionate mum asks, which is you and which is the dog?)
And then cloudless skies and views that go on for ever, all the way down.
So what was it a test of? Endurance? Skill? Stupidity? That familiar human desire to do utterly pointless things…