“This is so dumb, this is so, so dumb…” These were the words that I was repeating to myself as I took step after painful step up the steep mountain face. This is not, I’m sure, the mountain climbers’ usual mantra – I expect something like “one step at a time,” or “you got this, Louise” would have been more appropriate and slightly more encouraging.
But in the midst of the freezing landscape, white snow beneath me, white fog around me, all I could think was that climbing mountains is a ridiculous pursuit, and that I would be miles better off sat in the warm mountain lodge drinking mulled wine.
I am painting, perhaps, a slightly negatively skewed picture of our ascent up Gerlach, the highest mountain in the Tatra range. At 2,654m, in the winter it is a long, steep climb up an icy face, and although not the highest mountain we have climbed, it was the most technically challenging (and therefore nerve-wracking!).
With near vertical ascents in deep snow and ice, our guide, Jaroslav, kicking steps into fresh snowfall, and having to trust that our ice-axes would hold fast, I found myself often trying to switch off the analytical part of my brain that might assess the risk, and just concentrate on putting my feet in exactly the right spots.
But I actually do love the mountains: so much so that when I see a sweeping shot of peaks in a film, my heart leaps. They are my antidote to the concrete-and-glass, skyscraping, money-worshipping world of Hong Kong. Their mystery, majesty and beauty continues to lure me, and the days when our world is reduced to a simple goal and a series of challenges to overcome are the most glorious days of my life.
And of course, the feeling when you actually make it to the top is unbeatable. Not just the day’s efforts, but the weeks and months of training and planning, somehow make sense. And we did make it to the peak of Gerlach after hours of self-inflicted torture, and I was exhilarated and justified and full of joy.
The journey down, which I tend to dislike even more than the arduous ascents due to the increased possibility of falling, turned out to be something of a comedy. We had descended the longest snow face, and were resting for a moment while Jaroslav answered a phone call. Michal stuck his axe into the snow and looped the rope around it to create an extra anchor point. But, the axe wasn’t in deep enough, and as he pulled the rope tight, his axe was yanked of the snow and disappeared into the icy rocks below us.
So Michal descended the rest of the face with two 15cm ice screws in his hands, instead of an axe. When we finally got to a place where we could walk facing forwards, instead of descending backwards, Jaroslav joked that the axe was a tribute to Gerlach for letting us pass.
Seconds later, Jaroslav pulled his telephone out of his pocket to take a photo and the cash in his pocket flew out and took off down the valley! He dropped his axe to reach for the cash. Michal leapt to pick up the axe. His thermos dropped out of his backpack, rolling in the opposite direction!
The three of us were tied together on the rope and so by the time Jaroslav could untie himself to chase after the money, it had been carried far and wide by the mountain wind. Thankfully he managed to recover some, but the rest, along with the thermos and the axe, now belong to Gerlach. The thermos is probably resting in the lake – so for anyone in need of fruit tea, albeit, iced, please help yourself and send us a photo!
It is true that pictures paint a thousand words. But the deeper truth is that a picture can never adequately convey the essence of the moment it captures, the tearing wind, the rasping breath, the crisp crunch of snow, the over-worked heart. Photographs only begin to describe our lives and the experiences we find ourselves in. But, along with our memories, they are all we have to remind us of the things we have done, which in turn create the person we become.
So, although I do still think that mountain climbing is in some ways a pointless exercise (you go up so that you can go down…), my days on the peaks have shaped me, more than I know.
But perhaps the biggest curse of mountain climbing is what happens the day after you summit. The dreaded question… “So, what should we climb next?”