Friday, July 25, 2008


Gertrude Bell wrote of the 'terrible and wonderful things that happen in high places' after climbing the north east face of the Finsteraarhorn in August 1902. She spent 57 hours in the attempt amidst a blizzard and mist, her ice axe teased by lightning, which provoked her cool words: 'It's not nice to carry a private lightning conductor in your hand in the thick of a thunderstorm'. Finally the party made a safe retreat to Meiringen, where she consumed a great many boiled eggs and jugs of hot milk and discovered her toes to be frostbitten. This made Finsteraarhorn the end of her illustrious and extraordinary climbing career.

My own attempt last Tuesday was on a far easier route - the south west flank and north west ridge that most parties take from the Finsteraarhorn Hut. The cloudless star-filled sky gave way to a lilac and rose dawn, a day that later fulfilled its promise, higher up, when it exposed below us and far away the fins, butresses, waves and ripples of the Alps. The dark rift of the snowless Rhone Valley was a shadow separating us from the further reaches of the Valais where we had climbed the week before.

Our own expedition was not hampered by bad weather but by a heavy fall of snow the previous day which made the going slow, hid the yawning crevasses from us, and turned the final ridge to a mix of ice-silled rock and slippery snow stacked loosely against the steep fin-side of this monarch of a mountain.

Mindful of the 'terrible things' that had befallen my father's party in 1952 by decending too late in the day, I'm proud of our decision to embrace the sense of height, achievement, view, and our fast-beating, roped-together, joyful hearts and turn back 100 metres from the summit. Looking back the following day as we left the mountain to descend to the green valleys via the Grunhornlucke (pictured), the wisdom of this choice was spelt out by the chaotic scribble of avalanched snow that now covered the graceful curving line our feet had drawn into the snow.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

soaped poles and ice axes

"The Alps themselves, which your own poets used to love so reverently, you look upon as soaped poles in a bear-garden, which you set yourselves to climb, and slide down again, with 'shrieks of delight'". This was part of John Ruskin's scathing attack on climbers and tourists despoiling the Alps in his lecture 'Sesame and Lilies' of 1864.

I think I see where he's coming from. I've long loved being in a mountain environment - the views, the elevation and change of perspective away from busy life in the valleys, the physical challenge of reaching a summit. But I've not been a very conscientious munro-bagger despite living in Scotland, and as I've got older, I've been drawn more to walk amongst the human stories that haunt the lower ways, the passes and old roads, the journeys through mountain territory. There can be something gruesomely target-driven about summit fever, cars on Saturday and Sunday mornings clustered below honey-pot Munros, eroded single-track paths.

So why am I off to the Alps with the intention of climbing one particular summit - Finsteraarhorn, the highest in the Swiss Bernese Oberland at 4274 metres? The idea first occurred to me when in 2004 I went to Norway with my friend Yuli and some of her family to retrace the journey her father, Sven Somme, made in 1944 through the mountains from the west coast and across the border to safety in Sweden, after escaping Nazi arrest and certain execution. He had written an account of this journey which made it possible to retrace the route fairly accurately and to imagine some of his experiences and feelings along the way.

It began to occur to me that I could do something similar in the footsteps of my own father who died when I was very young. Perhaps I could climb a tribute towards his memory. Knowing that I shared with him a passion for mountains, but with little knowledge of his climbing experiences or their whereabouts, I began to dig about. I found more about the dramatic details of his own trip to Switzerland in 1952, and was led by a series of coincidences to find a couple of compatible climbing partners amongst friends.

So the ice axes, crampons, are assembled, muscles at least partly flexed. This is my first Alpine trip and I've heard Ruskin's warning about the culture. As I rub shoulders in mountain huts with climbers obsessed with lightweight gear and gazing up to slippery slopes, I will take care not to look at any mountain as if it's a 'soaped pole'.