August 2007, 3 am in the Jungfrau hütte: a French dude in black bikini underwear paraded up and down the room, rather more than was necessary, as everyone else began the laborious, crowded process of getting dressed. I sat up in my bunk, fully dressed, praying that Mr. Annoying wouldn’t start talking yet.
A good day depends on good coffee, especially when you’re waking up at 3 am; downstairs in the common room, the grumpy hut host was slamming watery coffee into cups and slinging slimy muesli into bowls. You had a choice between coffee or tea, but the coffee I’d chosen was lukewarm and gritty. I emptied half the cup into my cereal bowl, and got up in quest of tea, only to be yelled in Swiss German by the host. Every climber in the quiet, determined room turned to look at me. The host kept gesturing. I crept back to the table, where Larry translated: you only get one cup of hot. The host was giving me the evil eye and I felt foolish and exposed, like a little girl. Mr. Annoying looked amused. I just wanted to cool my cheeks outside in the dark and start walking uphill.
When I brought my tray up to the dishwashing station, with the mess of muesli left in it, the man muttered something in his Swiss dialect. That’s when I discovered that everyone else had left their water bottles downstairs overnight to be filled with a hot, sugary weak tea – an announcement I missed when I went outside to watch the sunset. Big mistake. Now I only had one liter of water for a full day’s climb and was seriously under-caffeinated. I envied every single arrogant man in the room packing his warm nalgene bottle into a knapsack. I hated them all and I wanted to die.
I know that sounds like an overstatement, but it’s a comforting mantra of mine in times of stress and depression. “I hate myself and I want to die,” just like the Kurt Cobain song. I write it in margins of books when I think it too often. “IWTD.” It’s my secret code. My friend M. says climbing is a death wish, but she doesn’t understand that it’s also how I stay alive. There’s something homeopathic about risking death in the mountains that cures the IWTDs – usually.
Tromping out onto the glacier separating the hut from the base of the Jungfrau helped ease the iron grip of my mood. And – oh, happy day! – Mr. Annoying tied into the other rope. Putting on crampons and moving in time with my rope-brothers, Jeff and Peter the younger, came automatically to me; a waning crescent moon lit the jagged Oberland peaks with a ghost fire; and the velvet indigo of the starred night sky wrapped us in infinity. For one blessed hour there was no sound but the scuffing of crampons on crusted snow and the occasional huffing exhale from Jeff, meant to remind Peter and I to breathe deeply. A string of silent headlamps spread out across the glacier and floated up the slopes of the Jungfrau, as if we were a procession of medieval pilgrims. The summit was barely visible in the darkness; the fastest climbers were specks of light drifting upward.
But all the world’s beauty was no match for the drumbeat of my mind, “you can’t, you can’t, you can’t.” Two fast moving French climbers, a man and woman, sleek and glamorous in new climbing outfits moved quickly past us. “That’s going to happen all day,” Jeff said. It was our joke: how the French would come up behind you muttering, “Vites, vites – allons-y.” You could almost hear them thinking “bête Americain.”
At our first rest break, I crumbled. We had crossed the wide glacial plateau and were at the base of the climb, which began with a fifty-yard ice wall. It looked vertical to me, but I’m sure it had an angle to it. It just shot out of me: “I don’t think I can do this.” Mr. Annoying opened his mouth to say something, than shut it again. I thought: this is the right thing to do – better call it a day early, rather than cause a problem later on when it could have serious repercussions. Larry could go with me back to the hut, and we would drink bad coffee and play cards. But Jeff wasn’t having any of it.
“What’s the problem?” he asked. I said I was worried about running out of water. He said I could have some of his. I said I was worried about getting up that wall in front of us. He said that he’d seen me ice climb and knew I could do it. “You’re just sketched out,” he said. So I crammed a protein bar in my mouth and drank some precious water.
Jeff led the way up the wall. The snow was deep, drifting over his knees until he found solid ice and kicked his crampons in. Kick, kick, kick – once his feet had a solid stance, he could use his ice tool as a pick and swing it above his head. Wallowing through the snow, he looked like an ice pig happily rootling about in its winter pen. He made it look so easy. My turn was next. My crampons were dull and didn’t bite into the ice; my hands quickly got wet and started to throb with cold pain. I fell and hung taut on the rope, hyperventilating. I would have felt fat and stupid if I’d had time to think. “Kick in, kick in,” Jeff encouraged. I tried to focus.
You never really know what you can do until you really have to do it, no excuses, no exit. I had to get up the wall, period. So grunting and panting, my feet constantly popping out of the ice, I struggled up the wall, inch by inch. Every time I fell and was caught by the rope, I’d first managed to climb a few more feet up the wall, a little bit closer to Jeff. When I got to the anchor, I felt like kissing Jeff’s boots, but as soon as I clipped in, I got the “screaming barfies.” The name says it all: the excruciating pain your wet and frozen hands feel as the blood surges back into them. I clutched my hands in tight fists inside my gloves, squeezing them isometrically, riding out the waves of pain, as Peter climbed the wall up to our anchor, much faster and cleaner than me.
In all my struggles, I’d forgotten to notice the first sign of dawn, that thin strip of light at the outer edge of the horizon. Now the blood orange sun peeked above the mountains, tinting the snow a rosy pink: Alpenglow. It was morning, and the traffic was starting. Rope lengths of climbers, now visible as dark smears on the snow, zig-zagged back and forth across the long slope to the summit. “We’re going to have to move fast at the anchor points,” Jeff said, striking fear into my tortoise-like soul.
What he meant was that on this steep snow slope, the only anchor points were metal poles drilled into the ground for every climbing team to share. It would be easy to mess up, to unclip a vital component of another team’s anchor instead of your own, a costly, possibly even deadly mistake. With different teams speaking English, French, German, Italian, and Spanish, it would be hard to communicate – and not everyone was friendly. The morning’s alpenglow never looked so ominous. Why was I doing this again?
It was so crowded at the first anchor pole that Jeff sat right down in the snow and used a hip belay, running the rope around his lower back and using his body as a brace. I had to climb right up to him and try not to fall. The air was thin and I panted and felt dizzy as he grabbed the carabiner from my harness and clipped it into the knot by his waist. I crouched down next to him as he brought Peter up, taking in the rope as Peter climbed. This was how we were going to make it up the last 1,000 meters to the summit. Some anchors we used the metal pole, others not; it was stressful to share the pole with other climbers, everyone moving fast and impatient with awkward hands. Each time I had to move – “quickly, quickly” – I hyperventilated and made little choking sounds in my throat. At one anchor point I had another chance to say to Jeff, while Peter was climbing, “I can’t do this,” which is what my brain had been saying to me all morning long.
“You know how I know you can?” Jeff said, “every time you tie into the anchor, you recover your breathing right away.”
And it was true: while waiting for Peter to climb up to us, I’d calm down by looking around me at the high piled drifts, the avalanche chutes, the Aletsch glacier, at this whole vast and incomprehensible mountain landscape, so much larger than any human mind can comprehend. I gloried in the perspective. This view was earned beauty, earned with my body and breath. It was why I was here.
“You know who you sound like when you climb?” Jeff said, “Monica Seles. Nyuck, Nyuck!” He meant the tennis player. Apparently I was grunting a bit louder than I thought.
“Oh, fuck. You’re really going to get me up this thing, aren’t you?” Jeff’s duck laugh brought out my own. Climbing has a way of turning hilarious the minute you’re out of danger. Now that I could actually see the summit, it all seemed fairly straightforward. What was I so worried about? Here was a GU energy gel right in the pocket of my North Face jacket – Espresso Love flavor. God, I love coffee. The morning sun warmed my face.
The mountain worked its magic on my mind once again, erasing the IWTDs: while you might die on a mountain, you’re certainly not going to kill yourself on one. It’s a subtle distinction, but all that adrenaline shooting through me had one message for my brain: stay the fuck alive, asshole. The STFAs were like white blood cells attacking the infection of the IWTDs, getting me up the last few pitches towards the summit, every bit as surely as Jeff and his duck laugh.
And then we were there: Peter and Jeff and I perched on the summit of the Jungfrau, on a crystal clear summer’s day. “Don’t wave your hands,” Jeff joked, “the REGA helicopter will think we need a rescue.” The sun’s radiation bouncing off the snow was intense, so I smeared sunscreen inside my nostrils and tried to keep my mouth shut so as not to burn the roof of my mouth. It made me look so pretty in the summit photo Jeff took of me, the one where I’m giving the finger to the camera.
I felt a sudden wave of compassion for Mr. Annoying, all puffy in his hiking pants: he and Peter’s Dad, with guide Larry, were still making their way painstakingly up the slope toward us, a hundred meter away, their faces silent and inward as they each negotiated with their own minds and bodies. To look up and see people already at the top, sprawled on their packs and eating cookies, while you are still climbing sucks. It’s funny how you can be physically close to people, literally tied onto the same rope, and yet know nothing about what’s happening inside their minds.
The bluebird skies and warm August sun that felt so kind against my face on the top of the mountain now conspired against us with radiant heat wobbling in the atmosphere as we began to march downhill. Most mountaineering accidents happen on the downhill climb when people get careless and tired, as the body braces against the impulse to plunge, every fiber strained to its utmost in the struggle against gravity. Children run downhill; adults fight it.
Jeff and Larry decided to hazard a short-cut through a chute between two sketchy bergschrunds; the possible avalanche danger due to the afternoon’s heat less pressing than our collective need to get down to the Jungfraubahn and drink coffee. We’d been climbing almost 9 hours at this point, so our haste was excusable. “Let’s make like babies, and get out of here,” Jeff said, stripping down to a t-shirt. Larry, Mr. Annoying, and Peter’s Dad plunge-stepped away, kicking in with their heels in a slip-ski motion down the mountain, the deep snow arresting their further fall. I tried to be efficient, but every time I pulled my foot out of the snow, a softball-sized clump of wet snow came with it, stuck to my crampons like superglue to a finger. The softballs turned into basketballs and sunscreen stung my eyes as I took my ice axe and tapped it against my foot while it was in the air, fruitlessly attempting to dislodge the snow. The rhythm was: step, lift 10 pound snow weight, ting of axe on crampon, and repeat for 3,000 feet. I was slowing us down again.
I was in a downhill fugue state.
“Just take the crampons off,” Jeff advised, “we’ll get you some anti-balling plates in Chamonix.” It was a good call, despite the ice lurking under the summer layers of melted and re-frozen snow. I could now take deep, plunging steps, and stop embarrassing myself. Larry’s rope team had long since moved out in front of us: “we’ll meet you at the café.” Fuckers.
The lines of ants moving in circles outside the space-age architecture of Europe’s highest railway station gradually assumed the form of tourists, gaping at the melting glaciers. We took off our rope once we got down to the plateau, and Jeff and Peter quickly moved off, while I continued my slog, my mind a dull load. People seemed like ghosts to me as I joined the queue going up the station’s metal stairs. My quads were completely pumped, useless and inflamed, so I held onto the cold metal railing and guided each dead leg up a stair, while lithe German teenagers in Ugg boots shrieked past me.
Inside the station was intolerably crowded, like Penn Station on a holiday weekend. After the 12 hours of mental solitude on the mountain, I was completely unable to comprehend my surroundings, so I went back into fugue survival mode. Find a bathroom and appreciate a flush toilet; wash hands in warm water and soap. A lovely treat, but a double edged sword: on the mountain, exposing one’s bum to the vast panorama of the Alps, while gentlemanly rope-mates look downhill, it’s at least cold enough to disguise the odors of being human.
Afterwards, I found my team-mates huddled on the floor, as rivers of Japanese school children in navy blue blazers eddied around them. “We have to wait an hour for the next tram,” Larry twinkled, holding up his cappuccino like a carrot in front of me. Where did he get the cappuccino? He pointed at the long line of parents and children. I stood behind them. All languages were being spoken. “Un café, s’il vous plait.” I slid down against the wall with Peter and Mr. Annoying, our heads level with most people’s crotches. We didn’t speak. My body felt itchy and hot. The coffee tasted burnt. It flowed through my blood stream and reached my brain stem: I would live to climb another day.
After the nausea crush of the cog train downhill, back through the dark bowels of the Eiger, we found ourselves once again in the green world. Walking uphill from the station to the threadbare luxury of the Hotel Falcone, I began to relax and notice again the sensations around me: oak leaves twittering in the afternoon sun, red and pink impatiens in wrought iron window boxes, the cool dark lobby, and the heavy brass key kept in a cubby hole behind the front desk. I had my own room, a single, with a French door opening out to a pocket balcony and a view of the Jungfrau from my bed, dressed with scrupulously clean linen sheets.
I sat on the floor and stripped off my wet plastic boots, pulled out the limp inner lining and set them to dry under the flower box. I took off my climbing pants, stripped off the gross long underwear and the disgusting sports bra and draped them over the French doors. The shower stall was barely big enough for my body. Finally I lay down clean and naked on the rough chamomile-scented sheets stretched tight across the single bed.
Like Virginia Woolf’s Clarissa Dalloway, I had retreated from the hubbub and buzz of the world; like Clarissa, I would read deep into the night in my virginal bed. But unlike Clarissa, I could see the Jungfrau rising pure and massive above the latticed foothills dotted with Alpine cottages. In the space of a single day, using my own legs, I had traveled from that frozen world to this green one. The book slipped from my hands as my fugitive soul, finding all quiet, sank back into my tired body.