A Mountain Is An Idea
Photograph by Felix Sproll, Story by Richard Skinner
Night. Mountains. Big mountains. I can sense them more than see them. As my eyes adjust, I can just make out their shape above me, my eye tracing their edge against the coal-black sky. I am standing in the snow, roping up. My father is standing next to me doing the same. We’re ready. Our guide, Jacques, says, ‘Shall we go?’ We nod. We’re off. It’s 3am. Our headlamps skitter on the snow in front of us. Far ahead of us, there are several rows of lamp lights, like glow worms, all moving towards the same point above. We could be miners about to start a shift, but we aren’t about to go down a pit shaft, we are about to climb the highest mountain in Europe—Mont Blanc.
We had arrived in Chamonix five days previously in order to acclimatise to the altitude. We spent the days practising our rope work and rock climbing above the town. Over to our right, Mont Blanc in daylight looked like a majestic beast. It seemed madness to think we could climb to the summit. The evening before the climb, we took the cable car up to the Aguile, the cable car station perched on the edge of the glacier. We had dinner there and watched the sun go down behind the mountains. We grabbed our stuff and left the station, walking down a few icy steps to the refuge where we were to spend the night. There were 100 people sleeping there that night, all crammed into bunk beds like sardines, my nose just inches from the ceiling. It was difficult to get enough oxygen in the room. Someone opened the small window and the icy blasts of air were a relief.
Jacques leads, my father in the middle, me last, all connected with rope. The ascent will take 9 hours, the descent the same—18 hours in all with little food and no rest. We make steady progress for the first few hours, not speaking in the dark. I make sure to tread in my father’s footprints. Then the sun breaks over the high ridge and the world of bright ice and white cones and parallelograms reveals itself to us. The dawn light has a bluish tinge to it. Jacques’ ice axe waves in front of us, like a wand, as he points the best way over the glacier’s broken back. Jacques has climbed Mount Everest 8 times and our lives are in his hands. We place our trust in him and follow.
Before our trip, I had read a great deal about the birth and growth of Alpine mountain climbing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Les vertiges de l’âge d’or. So many famous guides but the most famous of all, Lachanelle, who, it is said, lived in a horizontal world. Great height was flattened to him. He was not bothered about the height to be gained, only the distance to be covered. To be a high-altitude climber, you have to live in a horizontal world.
My father keeps falling down and it takes both Jacques and me to pull him back up again. He is 58 and is finding the going tough. Our ski gloves are not warm enough, so Jacques gives us exothermic crystals to put inside them. Joy! The cols appear but, each time we clear one, there is another slope in its place. Progress is torture. Our boots have lead in them. The atmosphere is vacuum-packed. In the thin air, breathing is difficult. A mountain is an idea, a question of belief, but a mountain is also a lack of breath. Every breath you take is a battle. As we gain height we swap breath for clouds. We are eating clouds.
All that snow makes you amnesiac. The moment you feel pain, you forget it. The moment you feel hunger, you forget it. Each time you draw breath, you forget it. The only thing that matters is the summit. It draws you up, like a magnet. Every time you look up, you swallow the distance. You must believe that your feet will cover the ground, no doubt about it. It’s just a matter of time. The last col pulls us up. By now,
all drive is lost. Just the top to be got to, the world looked down upon with relief.
Then, at midday, the last slope, gentle as a dune, then the sky. It takes a few moments to comprehend that we are on the summit. It is a patch of snow about the size of a badminton court. Maybe half a tennis court. I look at my father. His face is frozen and he is exhausted. We embrace. We did it, but there is no sense of triumph. Just in front of us, a sudden drop of thousands of meters into Italy. Ridges far away, a series of gauzy fans in the noon haze. Further away still, I can see the horizon, but it is curved. I can see the curvature of the Earth. The sky above us is a deep royal blue, a blue fit for chrome jets, yellow balloons, the kind of blue you never see at sea level. It makes you feel as though you are entering space. We are astronauts!
The sun is now at its zenith, its light at its hardest. There are half a dozen other people on the summit. They look around, as we did, defeated by the effort of getting here. Now all I’m thinking about is the trek back down. They say it’s even worse than going up. I unzip a pocket of my father’s rucsac and take out the camera. I point it at my father. He stands with his frozen hands in his pockets. I have never seen him look so frail. Hard light shines in his eyes, making them bluer and more watery as he holds a smile for the camera’s quick wink. Blink and he’s gone.
Richard Skinner is a writer working across fiction, life writing, essays, non-fiction and poetry. He has published three novels with Faber & Faber, three books of non-fiction and three books of poetry. His work has been nominated for prizes and is published in eight languages. Richard is Director of the Fiction Programme at Faber Academy. Follow him here - @RichardNSkinner