The Monk, the Maiden, the Ogre and me, Part One

August 2007: We were due to take the train from Zermatt to Wengen, in the Bernese Oberland region of Switzerland, overnight in a hotel there, and from there head uphill to climb the Monch and the Jungfrau (the “Monk” and the “Maiden”), next door neighbors to the Eiger (the “Ogre”). I joined the rest of the group at the train station, hoisting my bruisingly heavy duffel bag (with no wheels) down the crowded street, trying to avoid the goat poop pocking the cobblestones. Mr. Annoying had commandeered a golf cart to take the others and their luggage from the hotel to the station. “Where were you?” he peevishly asked, “we looked for you at the hotel.”

I tried to ignore him, sweating as I was, and hoisted my duffel onto the piles of over-sized luggage just inside the train door. Thankfully, Zermatt was towards the end of the line, so the car wasn’t crowded yet. Mr. Annoying sat next to me, lugging his Random House edition of Finnegans Wake with the illustration from the Book of Kells on the cover. Earlier in the trip, he explained that he was a “peak bagger,” someone interested in tagging the summits of as many mountains as possible; now it appeared that he was also a book bagger, as he informed the entire train car that he was reading through all 100 novels on the Random House “greatest novels” list. Finnegans Wake was on it, and therefore he would read it. “That’s brave of you to attempt it,” I said, “I’ve only read it in class where we’d read a page a week and discuss it for an hour.” “Oh, watch your grammar around her, she’s an English professor,” he said, and opened the book to page one. He closed it almost immediately. “So what do all your tattoos mean, anyway?” he said. I gave my usual stop-talking-to-me answer, “oh, they’re so old, I don’t even think about them anymore.” He was quiet for 10 seconds. “Is that a praying mantis on your arm? Do you know what they do to their mates?”

The next morning we joined the tourists on the crowded Jungfraubahn on our way up to the highest train station in Europe, the Jungfraujoch, holding our Alpine rucksacks on our laps, carefully facing the crossed ice axes strapped to the outside in towards our own bodies. The cog train ground its way slowly uphill inside the mountain, stopping for vista breaks every once in a while at windows ingeniously drilled into the thick cold walls of the Eiger.

The Jungfraubahn. Photo by Peter S.

After the darkness of the tunnel, the glaring whiteness of the Jungfraujochand the sudden entrance into a tourist’s mall on the glacier, with snacks, souvenirs, and picturesque views behind glass, was shocking. But stepping into the cold air outside soothed my hot face. I put on my glacier glasses, lenses polarized to protect from snow blindness, and looked at the wide Aletsch glacier snaking its way through the black rocks like a six lane highway. A tourist lady in a lavender sari, beaded purse, and gold sandals stepping delicately onto the groomed snow. I sat on my pack to pull on my sharp crampons over my heavy boots, gobble a protein bar, and fasten my harness, while tourists in jeans and fleece sweaters took photos of our group roping up, as if we were part of the landscape. At last it was time to climb the Monch and get away from the people. Too bad I ended up on the same rope as Mr. Annoying.

The summit ridge on the Monch. Photo by Peter S.

With guide Larry in the lead, me in the middle, and the heavyset Mr. Annoying at the anchor end, we began to pick our way over the glacier to the beginning of the climb. The Monch is the kind of peak that looks like a stegosaurus’s armored back, and our task was to traverse up and over its knife-edge ridge until we reached the summit. Because the terrain kept changing—from a more vertical rock climb, to an icy section, to a snowy ridge—Larry kept the rope pitches fairly short, building anchors at the top of a wall to belay us one at a time. This afforded Mr. Annoying ample time for commentary on my climbing, as I learned to carefully fit the front points of my crampons into little crevices on the wall. “I like red hair,” he said, as I negotiated up a mixed rock and ice section, using my ice axe and a gloved hand to climb away from him and up towards Larry. “I asked my wife to dye her hair red for our wedding. Wow, she wouldn’t like to know I was climbing with a red-head.” I tuned him out and listened to Larry’s instructions instead. This was actually pretty fun. Every pitch was different, and once I got up to Larry’s anchor and clipped into it, I had time to look around at the new world at my feet: concentric rings of jagged peaks fading into the horizon line, the tourists back at the Jungfraujoch tiny strands of ants decorating the flat white plain below. It sure was taking Mr. Annoying a long time to make his way up to us, but it gave Larry and me more time to talk, Larry with his wide gap-toothed grin, a wife named Blue and a dog named Murphy. Larry was as awesome as Mr. Annoying was, well, the opposite.

Once we made our way onto the snowy knife-edge ridge, Mr. Annoying and I walked just to the right of its edge, while Larry walked to its left: if we fell, Larry could self-arrest and use the crest as a brake. Kicking our feet into the snow and ice for purchase, exposed to a thousand foot drop on either side, it was a bad time to discover for Mr. Annoying to discover that his fear of heights. Shouldn’t a peak bagger already know this? We were all three attempting to walk in time, since keeping the rope equidistant between climbers is essential for safety, but Mr. Annoying kept stalling out, bending over as if he’d rather crawl along the ridge than walk. It was kind of windy, but I felt so exhilarated by the exposure, like my brain was a clean sheet dancing on a laundry line. But it didn’t matter how strong I was feeling: if Mr. Annoying fell down, we were all in trouble. The rope was our communal lifeline, and we each depended on the others. I held the rope lightly in my hand, so that I’d know when he stopped, so I could halt in turn and communicate that to Larry. Larry and I began to encourage him: “hold your ice axe in the uphill hand,” “breathe,” “keep moving,” and “you can do it.” The other rope-group— a father and son, and guide Jeff—caught up to us, and Jeff walked right behind Mr. A, reminding him to pressure breathe, a kind of forced exhale that brings more oxygen into the lungs and helps mitigate altitude headaches and dizziness. We were all working together now, step by step and breath by breath, like a line-up of draft horses snorting in the cold.

The summit itself wasn’t really any different from the climb: we simply got to the highest point on the ridge, and placed ourselves on either side of its edge, digging out little ledges to sit in and eat more bars. Mr. A was uncharacteristically silent. It was a pleasant summer’s afternoon at 4,000 meters: far off in the distance, beyond the roiling purity of the mountains, a thick grey-green haze sat on the horizon, summer’s smog. It had taken us about 3 or 4 hours to make it up, and now it was time to go down. Summits really are anti-climactic, when you consider that going downhill is where most accidents occur; or as the guides like to say, “getting to the summit is optional, but getting down is mandatory.”

Downhill all the way on the Monch. Photo by Peter S.

This time Larry had me lead the down climb while he anchored the rope; Mr. A would be sandwiched between us. I felt as if I had graduated as I led the way down the ridge, a promotion observed by Mr. Annoying, who began a steady round of complaints and instruction aimed at me. “Maintain a steady pace,” he said, “don’t pull the rope taut.” He loved it when I briefly stumbled, catching a crampon tip in my pant leg, and told me all about people who had given themselves crampon puncture wounds in similar circumstances. He must have been feeling better.

Jeff’s rope team was in front of ours, and it took me by surprise when Jeff turned around and yelled to Larry “dig in! dig in!”. In mountaineering, it helps to have been raised according to the child-rearing practices of The Great Santini; my mother used  to discipline us like a drill sergeant: “when I tell you to jump, you jump! You don’t ask how high!!” So I jumped, and Larry, Mr. Annoying, and I dug into the exposed hillside in record time, making a little horizontal area to crouch in. We only heard the REGA rescue helicopter coming after we’d hunkered down, and saw its graceful red form emerging over the shoulder of the Jungfrau, glittering in the late afternoon sun, and heading straight towards us. “What happened?” Larry yelled, over the increasing noise. “Broken leg!” Jeff shouted back, pointed below us to a pair of climbers stranded on a shelf of rock. Larry stayed back to anchor all four of us clients, while Jeff moved down to help stabilize the injured party. The chopper was so close over our heads, I could look right up at the bearded man flying it. “This is going to be great,” Larry enthused, “a real Alpine rescue!”

REGA helicopter rescue on the Monch. Photo by Peter S. Thanks Peter S.!

Having scoped us out, the helicopter flew away, only to return a few minutes later with an unexpected sight: dangling out of the bottom of the helicopter was a long thick rope, with a human rescuer attached to it by harness, swinging through the air as easy as you please. The rotating propeller generated gusts that hit us hard, so I got as small and as close to the mountain as possible, clawing into it with crampons and ice axe. To my left, Peter the younger had pulled out his camera, “I’m making a video!” he shouted, and Larry responded with a “Woo-hoo!” The pilot balanced his machine just above our heads, his hands working the gears to keep it steady, while the man at the end of the tether got his feet on the rock long enough to clasp a brace around the climber’s broken leg, and then positioned the climber on his own lap, facing towards him like kids on a school swing-set. Locking themselves in, the rescuer gave a thumb’s up to the pilot, and away they flew, the pair of humans swaying below the helicopter, tiny specks in a vast landscape. It was suddenly so quiet. We got ourselves down off the Monch without further incident.

That night at the hut, we slept in rows on hard wooden pallets, with thin mattresses and heavy blankets. None of this stuff is cleaned during the season, so I tend to sleep in all my clothes, just as if we were outside camping in a tent. It’s certainly warmer in the hut than in a tent. But hell is indeed other people, and while there might have been another woman in the crowded bunk room, I didn’t see one – and the only spot left for me in the wall of men was, you guessed it, right next to Mr. Annoying. A grey haired man in an ancient heavy flannel shirt farted loudly, looked at me, and talked scornful Swiss German to his friends. Mr. Annoying was the closest thing I had to an ally in this room filled with Euro climbers.

Eventually I slept and dreamt of Larry as a blacksmith, standing at a forge and pumping the bellows to make the flame burn higher. “Breathe,” he said, “breathe!” I woke up happy, for some reason, but then turned over and saw Mr. Annoying. He was snoring, and his blanket had fallen open to reveal his capacious belly, sloshing gently over the waistband of his boxers. That 3 am wake-up call for the Jungfrau would be a welcome one.