Allow me to begin at the end. We left the Bertol hut after all the other groups had departed, but I have no idea of the time. It was probably 8:00, later than normal, because, unusually, our guide had overslept. We were in the habit of waking up around 5:30, eating around 6:00 and leaving around 7:00. There being little reason to stay up late, our exhausted bodies would gladly fade into sleep in the early evening and so the dawn awakenings came naturally.
The windows of the refuge were fogged over with condensation, but it was clear the weather was still terrible. We had climbed the 1400m up from Arolla the previous day in high winds and a blizzard. Nevertheless, hoping for a break in the weather, even a short lifting of the cloud to higher altitudes, all of us had set off to Zermatt via the Tête Blanche pass. I had a cold and a cough, and I was not far from the limits of my corporal energy reserves, but the climb was not too strenuous and there was the promise a 2500m ski descent over a glacier powdered in fresh snow with the Matterhorn as company. We trudged, slowly but purposefully upwards, with very little visibility but hoping against the odds for that break in the cloud.
The group that had set out just before us, suddenly appeared through the gusting snow, roped together. They had turned back; conditions were not safe for the descent down the crevassed maze of the glacier. Our guide considered out loud the options, while pretending to listen to our opinions, and then we continued on. On several occasions he expressed his doubts about continuing on, but he could sense our determination to get through this final stage of the six-day trek, and so continued. Finally, as we ascended into increasingly dense cloud, he pulled a fast U-turn and announced we were going back on our tracks.
At that moment, the weak thread that was all that remained of my strength and motivation snapped. Without the goal of completion, without the forward movement, I gave up. Sadness washed over me, my eyes tingled in preparation for tears. I was sad that we were not going to get to our ultimate goal, but mostly I was aware of the great hole left in me by the completion of the journey. My pace slowed, the cold started to penetrate my many layers of protection and my only desire became to get off the mountain, to go home, to allow myself to comfort the feelings of loss occasioned by having achieved my goal and therefore having lost it as a reference point in my life.
The first day of the Haute Route was the hardest thing I have ever done. I had been planning the adventure for a year. It had been, I realize now, the organizing principle of my life. It had been my motivation to exercise, train and, above all, it gave meaning to me in a way I would not realize until it was over. I have never been as fit as I was the day we started. I knew it would be difficult, but in the same way a 25km run might be difficult for someone who can run 15km. Manageably difficult.
I did set out with trepidation. I was expecting to be afraid, I was expecting to work hard, I was expecting to be cold. The reality was, that the mountain is endless, vast and unyielding. As the initial stage of the first day’s climb ended, and fatigue set in, I became aware that I was much less fit, much less adept than I had imagined. I had watched Ueli Steck on the North Face of the Eiger and imagined that I might be able to do five percent of what he could do, just by virtue of being human too. I was not correct in that judgment. After an exhausting first few hours, we put on our boot crampons and retrieved our ice axes. I contemplated the approximately vertical last stage of the pass. I started up, carefully installing my now lethally sharp boots into the small niches carved out by previous climbers. I planted the ice axe to the hilt with a sharp, scared, adrenaline fueled jab. My breath was the opposite of calm. My watch showed a heart rate of 176, the highest I had ever seen on the display. I stopped, breathed deeply, relaxed. As I started, one hard step up after another, my heart started to race again. My mind was a carousel of questions, one after the other, repeating. “Does this ice axe really work?” “Will my hand slip off the axe handle?” “Why am I not corded to this dumb axe?” “Are these crampons going to slide?” “Is my backpack going to pull me backwards down this wall?” “If I slip, how far will I go?” “Am I going to die here?” “Why did I do this?” “Fuck the equipment, I just want to get out of this alive.” And, as the shampoo bottle says, repeat.
Once at the top, having been a bottleneck for others, having watched those in front of me speed up the wall with aplomb and power, I did not feel very good about myself, but the feeling of safety at having arrived overwhelmed the negativity, I was bathing in Endorphins. We set out again, continuing upwards.
By this point I was struggling with basic physical exertion. Slower than the others, finding the air thin enough to handicap me now that we had passed 3000m, and not able to move any great distance without pausing to catch my breath. I resorted to my old standby of counting 30 or 40 steps and then counting 10 or 15 breaths. I started to feel the immensity of the task I had set myself, the even greater immensity of tasks that I would not even have dared set myself, but that others had accomplished. I began to feel that my pride in my fitness was misplaced, that I was weak, small and nothing special. I felt an immense crack in my self-image, but it was not the crack of something solid collapsing, it was the crack of something false being shed. I thought to myself:
“You are not exempt from the reality that faces everyone else. You did not try hard enough, work hard enough, to merit an easy success here. You misled yourself and tried to escape from the real work, the real struggle that you needed to do to be prepared properly for this challenge.”
The feeling of being put back in my place was not one of humiliation, because it was not another man doing it. It was the mountain. And the mountain had no opinion about me, had not asked me to come, did not care if I quit, would not congratulate me on success and would do nothing to accommodate me. The feeling of being put back in my place was akin to having my body pushed forcefully back into a perfectly fitting mold, it felt honest, right and accurate. My thoughts morphed from the experience at hand to something more general:
“You have made dangerous choices in your life, unsustainable choices and you know it, but you look away. You need to face the reality of the situation in which you find yourself, the truth about that reality, and make the right decisions, strip away the superfluous, get down to the basics of what you want, what you need, what you can actually obtain, how to make up the difference and what sacrifices need to be made.”
It was at once deeply frightening and totally liberating. Somehow, the mountain was blowing the bullshit out of my life the same way wind would blow dying leaves off a tree.
The first day of the Haute Route was a liberation and a purification. My mind was cleared, my muscles were washed from the inside out, my body felt as if it had been burned in a crucible, heated hot enough to burn away the dirt and by the heat also annealed, tensions released, injuries healed. Humbled but clean, I arrived at the Trient Hut and shouted Hallelujah and I meant it literally.