You will often come across animals when out and about in the mountains; mostly cows, goats, sheep, or the occasional marmot. They are always nice to see, I like sharing my mountains with animals, but in general I wouldn’t normally describe any of them as having a great deal of character, and I’ve certainly never seen one pose for the camera! However on a recent mountaineering trip we came across most definitely the coolest, most characterful cow I have ever seen, almost a cow with attitude!
She was in the middle of the hiking trail, and stood her ground as we approached, then as soon as the camera was on her, she tilted her chin upwards, looked nonchalantly in to the distance and struck a pose, no two ways about it. Judge for yourself, she was just marvellous!
I’m reading a fascinating book at the minute, Where the Mountain Casts its Shadow, by Maria Coffey. The former girlfriend of a mountaineer who died on Everest in 1982, it’s about climbing and mountaineering, but not your average mountain story. She’s looking at the other side of this addictive passion, why people choose to take such risks, and more importantly, what effect these risks have on those they leave at home. She recounts stories of brave heroes, incredible feats and those who simply cannot walk away from the challenges no matter what the consequences. Yesterday I read about a truly remarkable story, one which I find difficult to believe that it actually happened. Here it is in her words:
Nanga Parbat. Its summit guarded by the Rupal Face, the biggest mountain wall in the world. A murderous wall: sheer, beset by storms and avalanches. Four Japanese men are attempting it. They enter a long chute called Merkl Gully. A storm breaks. The men do not return. At base camp the rest of their team wait … and wait … Before abandoning the mountain they climb the fixed ropes to 22,000 feet and leave a duffel bag filled with equipment, food and shelter. A gesture beyond hope; an offering to the dead.
Some years later, four North American men attempt the same mountain, by the same face. They are in Merkl Gully, 1,200 feet from the summit. One man is suffering from altitude sickness. A storm breaks. They retreat. Spindrift avalanches pour over them in waves. One, far bigger than the rest, sweeps them off the face. Their rope holds by a single ice screw.
Dangling in panic from the mountain, choked by rushing snow, they expect the screw to fail at any moment, and death to follow. When the avalanche ceases, the sick man’s face points upwards, his eyelids frozen shut. ‘I was going to unclip,’ he tells his friends, ‘and get it over with.’
Hour after hour, they fight their way down. Around ten at night, they emerge from Merkl Gully and reach a protective overhang. Two of the men remove the ropes from the final section of the gully. ‘I’m letting go of the ropes,’ shouts the man at the top. The wind blows away some of his words. His friend misunderstands. He hears a command. He obeys it. ‘Okay, I let go,’ he shouts back. Their ropes – their umbilical cords to the mountain, to life – sail away through space.
They have two choices. To stay where they are and freeze to death. Or to attempt the impossible – descending the Rupal Face without ropes.
Morning. Four specks cling to a mountain by a few slivers of steel – crampons and ice axes. No safety net. A single slip, and they fall 10,000 feet. Chances of survival: negligible. Then they see it … a duffel bag, clipped to the wall. Sunbleached. Tattered. Emblazoned with Japanese writing. They cut it open. Sixty pitons spill out. A dozen ice screws. Chocolate bars. A tent. A stove. Two new fifty-metre ropes. An offering from the dead.
So it’s something we hear all the time. To quote Baz Luhrmann: “Do something every day that scares you”. But I wonder whether this is advice that should be branded around or whether it is a foolish suggestion that has no positive impact on a person’s life and indeed could be seen as having quite the opposite effect and proving detrimental. Clearly everyone is different so advice can never be universally helpful, however, is being afraid beneficial at all? Should we ‘face our fears’? Or are we better off steering clear of the things which we fear the most?
I have always seen fun as being in different categories. There are those things which are always brilliant, from the build up, to the activity itself and finally the aftermath. It’s all great fun, really enjoyable and everyone is glad it happened. Such as birthday parties, a wonderful holiday, skiing untracked powder…! Then there is another type of fun. The fun which makes you feel apprehensive beforehand, utterly terrifies you throughout, yet once it’s over you can breathe a great sigh of relief and are thrilled you did it. Although I’ve never done one myself, I imagine that a sky dive or a bungee jump are examples of such activities. People do these things to challenge themselves, to push their limits and to gain new experiences. But is there a third type of ‘fun’? The fun which seems like a good idea at the time and which you feel like you really should do, but which terrifies you and which you look back on afterwards and admit that it probably wasn’t worth the fear and panic. Now this doesn’t sound like a great deal of fun! But overall aren’t these experiences which shape you as a person and inevitably make you stronger?
Living in the mountains is what has got me thinking about this. There is so much excitement around us, so much to explore and new challenges to face every day. Many choose to stay within their comfort zones and keep life simple, enjoying the scenery and opportunities that the landscape provides. However others don’t want to stay where they feel comfortable and choose to take this a step further, or two or three! This could be anything from basic rock climbing to jumping off a cliff side wearing a wing suit! Why people choose to do some of these things, well you would have to ask them, but through mountaineering and alpine sports I have learnt more about myself than in anything else I’ve done. I don’t have a huge risk tolerance and would by no means describe myself as extreme or particularly adventurous, certainly not compared to a lot of the people in this valley! But I am happy to try new things and have a go at something I never thought I would achieve. But being in the mountains is a scary business and no matter how long I spend in amongst them, I don’t think I will ever really feel brave.
I have done many things I am proud of and which tested my limits of both fear and exhaustion. And when it was all over I was happy I’d made it and would even consider doing it all again! But then there is the occasional time when things don’t quite go to plan and if I’m honest, I’d never do again if I was paid! I’m happy to say that I’ve never come to any harm in the mountains, yet I know many that have and I am fully aware of the potential consequences of a minor slip up or accident. Being scared is not something many people enjoy, including me, and I have realised that there are a million and one things I can do which challenge me and make me happy, without having to terrify me at the same time. I think it is so important to step out of your comfort zone every now and again, not to live in a safe bubble all your life. But personally I don’t think that doing things that scare me is beneficial. Things that test me, yes. Things that physically exhaust me, yes. Things that challenge me, yes. But things that scare me, I can live without.