Day Three: Silent Day
We will have to cross the land of death today. Actually, it is not that bad. The potential risk is not reduced, but the immediate danger is. We are, after all, roped together, and we know enough to keep a fixed distance from each other so that the rope is always tight. If any of us should fall into an unseen and treacherous gap of the glacier, the others will hold him until he climbs out. It should be OK…
I only wish I didn’t know the scary feeling that the sight of these gaps and their profound black depths offer when suddenly (as has happened to me many times), the ground gives way below my feet and I find myself above a profound black nothing, with only my upper body leaning against some fragile snow-wall of the crevasse, with my legs having no support to stand on or to push against. But unfortunately I do know what this feels like and I would do anything to avoid repeating those falls.
We walk upwards in utmost silence, amidst snow and ice and yet more snow and dirty white slopes framing this deserted landscape of the upper, vertical part of the glacier. There is nothing else but us, five little slowly yet rhythmically moving dark dots on the back of a seemingly mild snow-covered field. We represent the only life here in the realm of non-life and this makes us more vulnerable, more exposed to all danger. This is a place where one doesn’t stop, doesn’t wonder, just walks through with utmost cautiousness. I am totally one-pointed and, after a time, my eyes learn to scan the huge tables of snow lying before and beneath my feet, the simple change of its shade indicating unstable or more reliable sections.
I breathe deep, trying yogic ways of breathing, keeping the inhaled breath inside as long as possible. Not easy as we are moving uphill at a steady pace!
And then comes my Guru’s advice. While an automatic scanner machine in my head searches for possible risky spots on the snow-covered ground before placing my next foot on it, his voice approaches my heart. ‘Concentrate on your weight, imagine you have no bodyweight,’ he says.
My new mantra suddenly becomes “I am of air, I have no weight”. It is fantastic, and moving becomes wonderfully easy. I feel so light. It must be a glimpse of the ecstasy Saint Peter felt when Jesus made him walk on water. I walk with no weight, in intense concentration. I left my bodyweight at the feet of my Guru. Even the weight of my rucksack! A field comes that I cannot avoid; I clearly feel it is only a snow bridge with a hollow gap beneath it. I just have to cross it, the way our guide did it seven meters before me, ten seconds ago. I am walking on a thirty-to-fifty centimeters thick layer of snow stretching above absolutely nothing. But I have no bodyweight anyway. Like a butterfly, swiftly touching the ground I walk across. It feels like walking on water. It actually is walking on water. Two meters later when I feel that I am walking again on something more solid, I try to extend this lightweight feeling to the three companions who are behind me.
Too late. A pull of the rope around my waist and a sudden outcry indicate that the snow-bridge broke under the one right behind me. I hold the rope tightly with my right hand. The leader pulls me strongly towards himself, away from the gap and yells at me in his unusual (at least to my ears) Swiss dialect that I immediately understand: ‘Move on, move on!’ The person behind me safely and really quickly pulls his lost leg out of the gap while I cautiously place my feet one after the other. I offer a second of gratitude to the Supreme Protector. We continue as if nothing had happened.
I won’t tell you more of these little happenings, as the journey (across a glacier upwards, then across a pass at 3500 m, then across a glacier downwards and then across a huge moraine and debris of zillions of stones scattered on top of each other) lasted for hours and hours. There is yet one thing I have to tell.
While still at the beginning of this day’s journey, still struggling our way up the glacier at the western versant of the mountain, scanning every little place before stepping on it, I remarked the tracks of a single pair of crampons. Whoever wore these crampons must have had an extraordinary sense of the glacier, must have been absolutely confident in distinguishing the places with hollow gaps underneath and the safer sections. There is no hole on the ground nearby these tracks. On a glacier trek one usually sees deep holes all over the pathway across the glacier, indicating that someone (well, at least someone’s leg) had fallen inside when a snow-bridge didn’t resist his bodyweight. The tracks I see here skillfully, amazingly, avoid all risky spots, and lead to reliable snow-fields. After a time, as my own experiences accumulate in recognizing these, I understand that I can perfectly trust these tracks. Also, the leader, just before me in the rope, does the same thing. We follow the tracks and walk quite safely, although extremely cautiously, without a single word or outer sign of communication. Then a thought suddenly puzzles me.
In the hut there was no one else who chose the same route as we five did. All the other climbers went for some other destination today, we being the only ones having planned summit ‘attack’ for the next day. We left the hut before five with our headlamps on. Simply no one walked that path before us today. But these tracks are totally fresh. Usually only half-day old tracks remain visible on the snow-fields of a glacier, for everything that is older than that vanishes when the daytime sun melts the upper layers of snow and the night-time cold freezes a shapeless wet snow again. These crampons have so skillfully walked the track THIS very morning. But the only direction they could have come from was ours, the spikes of the crampons also point that way, and yet we are not aware of anyone else having adopted the same route or same plan before us that dawn.
The other strange thing is that there is only one pair of crampons as if only one person had walked there, or as if two people had managed for hours and hours to perfectly step exactly in each other’s tracks, having exactly the same stride for each and every single step. It is impossible. There physically cannot be two people stepping so much alike on such a long distance. And why would they do it? Also, if a single person walked this path here this morning, was he mad? Crossing a glacier alone, completely alone, is madness. Even if this one HAD mastered the gaps and slopes of the glacier then: Who was he, why was he alone and where was he going?
I start sobbing when an answer flashes through my mind. It was neither a solitary climber, nor a madman. It was someone meant to lead us across the harsh sections of this glacier, someone who knew the way and wanted to spare us from erring in vain, someone who wanted us to cross it safely. Therefore he came, marked the unknown path for us with these reliable signs and when we finally crossed and turned to another path, a known road that led to our next hut, he simply vanished. He was sent to lead us through the tough sections…
Day Three: Ceaseless efforts and hitting the wall
The longest and hardest day so far. I slip down a slope of the glacier in the melting, wet snow, but thank God, I manage to stop myself before it comes to pulling the rope. Unlike the others’, MY crampons do not have a snow-repellent plastic bridge and every once in a while I find myself walking on small snowballs as the pudding-like snow accumulates and sticks to the metal. And there is no time to clean it off.
We rhythmically move down a very steep section with visible cracks and gaps all over at the edge of our path. I have an increasingly uneasy feeling, something I cannot explain. I start calling on God to prevent whatever bad thing is about to happen. And then suddenly I hear my own voice shrieking in German ‘Please, slow down a bit!’ It has an immediate effect, but it shocks me: I would have concealed my fear and worry forever, rather then so non-politely yelling at someone who has much more experience on mountains. I would never ever have revealed what a difficulty this fast descent with crampons was for me. And here I am crying out. At that moment when Adrenalin-production is at its top, my soul pops up with gratitude. Without any proof or tangible indication I know that in a few seconds or minutes I would have stumbled and fallen, pulling at least one more of us to roll down towards the bottom of this slope. This forgetful, spontaneous, self-control-less instant saved me at the price of giving up my pride and ‘I can do it’-obstinacy. Again, I have to admit that I am slow, overcautious, faltering and what not… I am not a climber, just an office employee who goes sometimes in the mountains. Nobody minds it however. And this time there is no fall.
The two glaciers and especially the second moraine take a toll on my fitness and good humor, not to speak of my nerves. Another two hours of erring amidst and on top of a chaotic array of stones and rocks and boulders (I have never seen a bigger chaos than what a glacier’s lower body can produce), of jumping across crevasses and breaches, of guessing the right direction in a thick fog, and I feel finished. The muscles of my right leg and thigh ache at every step. We still need to focus, sometimes we take the crampons off, sometimes we put them on again, sometimes we walk with tight rope, keeping an equal distance between each two of us, sometimes we get closer and take the rope in hand. Focusing on each step is crucial as all we walk and climb on is nothing but heaps of stones of various sizes, thrown on top of each other, as it were, by a furious giant once terribly in a hurry. Most of these stones move as we step on them or are unstably lying or actually hanging on other stones and there are smaller or bigger empty spaces between each two of them. None of us wants to sprain his or her ankle, but we have no time to think twice before placing our foot on the next stone. It is God’s grace that we safely make it through this multitude of stones. But the kind of feeling that marathon runners usually have after thirty kilometers starts to prevail. I know that I am about to hit the wall.
From 2800 meters we have to climb up again an arduous pathway to 3030 meters. Here the mountain guide proves that he has excellent reflexes. At a place where two- to-three centimeters thick ice layers are covered by muddy talus I slip back again, but he immediately halts me with a strong pull. I had fallen less than a foot (33 cm) and in two seconds I find a fixed spot for my legs to take my bodyweight off the rope. It is really reassuring to climb with an expert like this fellow.
However, during the last few meters I already feel very sick and when we arrive to the last hut all I want is an Aspirin.
Later on, towards the evening, when I am recovered I go out again to sweep the nearby mountains with a glance. Phenomenal views await me both upwards and downwards. I finally spot our goal of the next day, the calm and gentle, so called ‘easy’ four thousand meter summit. I am absolutely not pleased by the thought that it is top to bottom wrapped in glacier and only its last two meters are rock.
Day Four: Be Brave!
This day I wake up with my Guru’s voice in my inner ear. I actually get up and not wake up, for I couldn’t sleep all night, so I am happy when finally the first batch of climbers leaves at three o’clock. We have another hour to rest, which I can use for prayer and meditation.
I had dreamt that my teacher, Sri Chinmoy, approached me and said, ‘Be brave!’- no more and no less.
I remember that in China when I had a wonderful sojourn with my Guru, I offered a picture with a poem on it as a gift (Prasad) to everyone. The poem was the following prayer by Sri Chinmoy:
‘My Absolute Lord Supreme,
I must concentrate soulfully
On what I am doing
And not on how or why
I am afraid to do it.
Only Your Compassion, Your Compassion, Your Compassion
Is what I need
And what I am
And what I shall forever be.’
I remember that just the next day he composed a song with the refrain ‘No fear’ and the refrain ‘Be brave!’ I hadn’t thought of this song since January but now it sings itself in my head. Later on, at the time of writing this story, I am rifling my diary page of January 1, 2005. I scribbled just a couple of sentences my Guru told us that morning, including this sentence (and I am definitely paraphrasing): ‘I am telling you, fear overcomes you, but if you challenge fear then fear disappears, it will go away.’
So this is the song, and its line: ‘Be brave!’ accompanies me while stumbling from stone to stone in the dark morning across another glacier section of the mountain. I am worried not to hurt my ankles, not to slip down, not to get injured today of all days, just hours before we start our pilgrimage to the summit that I may or may not reach. Then again, I leave it up to God, after all, if He, oh sorry, She doesn’t want it, there will be no way of getting up to the top. As a recompense I can have a glimpse of the first dawning hues of the sky just behind and above the Weismies mountain and then of the sea of clouds floating amidst various chains of mountains. None of us speaks a word, there is a solemnity in our silence and I categorically feel like never in my life. The only feeling I could compare this twilight to is the tight stomach feeling on mornings before my hardest exams. What will happen to me today?
The rest of my tale is a merged memory of our struggling collectively up and up, higher and higher on a steep glacier aggressively caressed by a zillion kilowatt strong sun on its other side and a mild forty kilometers per hour wind on our side, a wind that compels us however to put on all the warm clothes we have. I remember giant crevasses we pass by. In some of them an entire bus could have been thrown without touching its edges. At places I see big broken vertical fields where massive blocks of firm snow had fallen from leaving behind the view of ten-fifteen years of snow layers, stratum upon stratum. At places I see the unfriendly but familiar holes in the snow, reminding me that I walk on a glacier, quasi on empty space covered with melted and refrozen (or ‘re-melted’ and ‘re-re-frozen’) pudding-like snow. At places I see nothing, I just feel an intense pain in my right leg. I am yearning, craving, moaning for just twenty seconds of rest, just to get the cramps out of that poor muscle. But mountain climbing is not like marathon running because here you cannot just stop whenever and wherever you want, no helpers will bring you food supplements, no massage is given and there is absolutely no way of lying or even sitting down. I sigh and move on, constantly upwards on a sometimes 60-70 degree steep (!) slope. I wonder how on earth the snow stayed there. Normally something that is as steep as this would be an avalanche field and it would definitely not bear a 15 meter thick layer of snow. The rope-head teaches me a new technique of placing one crampon before (and above) the other, something that is less tiring for the legs. But it is too late. I grow tired with every new step. At the same time I know that we have less than five, four, three, two hundred meters of altitude difference, which means that the summit should be within reach.
I think of my Guru again and he comes to my rescue. Breathing in a little rarified air is no longer a problem and breathing so consciously definitely helps. I am a bit revived, although I still move utterly slowly. Let us not dwell on details.
I ask myself why I haven’t opted for table tennis or chess instead of this silly self-torture. At this moment I am yet unaware of the fact that just two hundred kilometers away, my dear friend Dharmaputri, who is a much more advanced and accomplished climber (and also, much more modest than I am) asks herself something very similar while battling with her ice axe against the north wall of Bifertenstock, an alpine challenge not too many women would be able to tackle. She in fact decides never to do that again, just to wander in the hills and knit nice pullovers at home.
The world changes the moment I reach the ridge in the footsteps of the guide and the splendid and spectacular view of anything that can be called a mountain range in Switzerland, Italy and France is below my feet within a distance my eyes can cover. I no longer yearn to play table tennis in a warm club hall. A little later Dharmaputri also reaches the top of that awfully unattractive block of a mountain and decides to postpone knitting to her older days. Things are back in the right order; I am at the right place in the right moment and I want to cry, it is so magnificent. I sincerely enjoy the pushes of the wind and the snow it blows and throws in my face. Around us two colors dominate: white and blue. Familiar.
Twenty more meters and we are at the summit cross, at 4027 meters. One of the most famous Olympic champions of my country wrote once ‘Only the winners are allowed to cry’. I am glad that finally I can allow myself to cry. I inwardly and quickly bow to the Crucified one looking down from this solidly fixed cross and … I have to fight my tears back as the leader shakes my hand to congratulate, then shakes hands with the others, then everyone with everyone. The solemnity of the moment is gone, I am again in company of four more people and a minute later in company of two more, the French climbers who have summited by a difference route. The summit is too small for seven people, even the five of us had to gather tightly, the ridge itself is just large enough for one person to walk along safely, therefore very soon we have to start descending. But before that I can measure the real size of the Feechopf, Rimpfischhorn, Alphubel, Matterhorn, the Mont Blanc, the Dent Blanche, the Monte Rosa, Jungfrau, Moench, Aletschhorn, and two equally appealing nearby mountains, the easier Breithorn and the beautiful Weismies. Plus hundreds of named and nameless summits, chains, glaciers (including the ones we crossed a day ago), and also cloud-seas concealing Italy and France below their white puffy layers. The neck and head of the Mont Blanc are enveloped in a dark grey overcoat and the closest mountain to the north from us also generates thick and long dirty clouds of the same type. We are lucky to have reached the summit in time, and now we have to leave it well in time, before those clouds reach and hide our slopes. We start a descent and I am increasingly sad. I had thought that I would be the happiest person on earth if I managed to get to the summit of my dream-mountain and now I am a bunch of nerves trying to make it down the steep slope without slipping off and rolling away, pulling also someone else tied in the same rope.
Minutes after we reach Europe’s highest functioning ski trails somewhat lower at 3500 meters and before we take a cable car down to the village, the summit wraps itself into heartless, unplayful, grey clouds. The gift I was given at 10:43 a.m. today is no longer available to others, not even to our own eyes. In the cable car and later on in the train I silently cry. Then I leave a message on someone’s answering machine.
I remember the words of another mountain guide who taught me a glacier course earlier this year: when all cameras fail, the digital cards are full, the battery goes down, the film runs out or the lens breaks, there is still another camera that will perfectly work and no human can ever erase whatever that camera recorded. That camera is the heart. I try to stock as much as possible from all I have seen in this little lotus-shaped Minolta of mine somewhere deep inside.
Four days later I cannot but think with utmost gratitude of my spiritual teacher who helped me through these strenuous days; who understood, inspired and encouraged me, gave me very good breathing tips and meditation exercises.
I also offer my most sincere thanks to Richard, the rope-head and mountain guide who performed his duties as a real service, with perfection, skillfulness and enduring patience. I am sending warm thoughts to my friends Dharmaputri, Anugata, Kripabindu, Divaspati and others whose capacities are far beyond mine (for them this would have probably been an easy trip) and whose inspiration and precious advice I always gratefully accept. Special thanks once more to Dharmaputri whose home was always open to me whenever dirtily, filthily, I descended from the Alps to take a hot shower before embarking on my journey home.
Days after this great altitude tour, when I type these words, I know that saying ‘yes’ was worth it. It was the right thing, the answer I HAD to give. Not because I have seen the world a little from above and I have come to the conclusion that the really great and remarkable things can only be seen from up there or that the world is beautiful if looked at from 4000 meters. No, it is actually the fact that those five days of hardship and those five months of senseless self-torture (uphill running, push-up tryouts, repeating knots, etc.)- were in and of themselves my greatest rewards. According to an old advertisement slogan ‘no one sent home breath-taking pictures from Base Camp’. Yes, the summit certainly offers a better view if you can attend its call and if Grace taps on your shoulder.
Please, all of you who cannot imagine why we take such risks, try to understand us when we say that you don’t know what you’re missing!
Kamalika is a member of Sri Chinmoy Centrein Hungary