glaciers and fires and frozen lakes

18 February 2010 § Leave a comment

The ice we walked across was thin – footholes reaching into the black abyss below frequented our sight, but didn’t bother our sense of danger. Just around the next bend, we would be fine – as if the water wasn’t as cold there, somehow the tropics began their arctic takeover on the other side of this mountain.

The iceflow gave way. I ran to the edge of it and leaped my ill-prepared self across the dark blue below, knowing my feet would find the solid bit of slush on the other side, but considering little as to what the rest of my body would do. Most everyone in the group, this discombobulated crew of egoists and misled adventurers, out for a winter holiday in Iceland, the newest of the Caribbean Islands, was ahead of me, and didn’t speak my language anyway. They wouldn’t have understood the discordant caterwauls emanating from their most recent obstacle – one they seem to have gotten past just fine (why am I having so much trouble with this?) – because they already shed their boots and waterproof shells for piña colodas on the other side.

I am swimming uselessly in bordered water that multiplies gravity by ten or a thousand. It pulls me down, but I am not cold. The guides were lying. Common sense is the new scrap metal. My pack is small, absent of convenient tools for this situation, and there is a giant ferry coming toward me. Between the mountainshore and I it will pass quietly and quickly, without notice for the failed and fake ShackletonScott below.

Just then, my arm is gripped by someone else who is miraculously not swimming but is holding steadily onto the iceshore. At such a pivotal moment, I find it necessary to look around me, to take in the lovely view around this lake or ocean, the tundra covered mountains, the newly planted Caledonian forests, blue sky to the east and dreary grey to the north, nothing to the south. This mountain casts a shadow over me from my backside, and I wonder why it’s there. I am pulled onto the far bit of ice I had leaped to by this woman in a yellow and black coat. I am judged. I give her a thank you kiss for saving my life and she blushes.

She turns away and the icebreaking ferry passes by again, not breaking the ice enough to move as quickly. I decide to take the mountain route to the other side, and it turns out that I probably should have done this to begin with. The climb is relatively steep but easy, and though my crampons seem to have appeared from nowhere (for I had none in my pack), they help greatly.

When I reach the other side of the ridge, the sun shows itself again, and I am at the top of a violent glacier. Not one of those beautiful and smooth ones the helicopter flies up with the camera and you get to see a cloud surface in high definition. No, this is ruptured and cavernous. Crevasses every third step, and it is often a ten metre vertical climb to gain three inches of horizontal advantage. Have you ever seen a lava tree? The volcanic substance surrounds the tree, burning it alive in a claustrophobic space (we humans have sometimes adopted this technique and used it on people we don’t like much). But by the time the tree is ashen, the lava is cooled and is now a cavesurface, the previous root system now a stoneprotected micemaze. The ice seems to have done that here, to trees that have never grown, to humans gone sedentary, having looked for their misplaced hope to find only shimmery blue frozen chalkboard to serve their final lesson. The snow erupts in slowmotion rage, boulders of water at the tipping point of some awful destruction.

This is no place to inhabit. This is no place that we humans have the audacity to invade – and yet we do, looking for something that we cannot conquer, and gladly dying for the chance to.

The cabin was once well-built to suit to dynamic structure of the ‘ground’ – it looks more like a treefort, wood panels placed where they can fit, others cut to size, and hopefully the ice will not crush them when the glacier sneezes or shakes. But it is serviceable and there is a bed and a stove inside, to some purpose of survival, I’m sure. But I knock on the door anyway. Shave and a haircut. I never name the price.

A very healthy looking clone of Robert Downey Jr. opens the makeshift door. The detail of his goatee tells me that he is here by choice, or that he is too vain to not maintain his appearance even under the most dire of circumstances. His hair is gelled, for chrissake. He is too welcoming. As if I was walking down forty second avenue and knocked on his condo door, inquiring about directions to the nearest petrol station. I want to rent a film out. Don’t worry, I’ll make this journey to return it, this pleasant and lovely sidewalk. You may want to shovel it if you’d like to keep your customers, however. Just a suggestion. He invites me in for coffee. I ask for tea.

Soon I am in that black mustang, or alighting from it, and there is an elevation change to far from me. We are in the American Southwest, but the characters in the story dictate that we are even farther south than that. This ancient building and its lofty basement. The secret safe in clear view. Ceiling height bookshelves, cabinets, red Persian rugs sprawled across the hardwood floor. The stone fireplace is my saviour. I wonder why it is fashioned from marble. I discreetly hope, to the offer of some scotch, that this is not the marble house with the replica sculptures outside it. I will check later, in the restroom, to see if there is a round window.

I accept the crystal glass and we, Downey and I, speak of the thrill of climbing mountains, the allure of desolation, the vanity and frivolous nature that draws us toward it. Yes, it is a test, but the only passing grade is appreciation. Success is only survival. Self-induced. Out here, in the world, success is a matter of bullshit – how much hard work others see you accomplish instead of how much is actually done. I agree with him, unsmiling.

He mentions it first, that horrid word that keeps me from pursuing mountaineering on anything more than an idealistic, selfish level: conquer. Conquering is what William did, swimming the English channel with a sword that never touched the water, singlehandedly slaying every breathing opposing force, and building his castles with one eye and a broken big toe. Atilla conquered. Alexander made it into reality television. Caesar. Genghis. Adolf made a reasonable attempt to. Coronado did so bitterly. But what did they conquer?

Downey raises his hand, as if in school, with a sardonic smile, and blurts out the answer. I think about his name for a moment, and that he climbs. It occurs to me that I do not know his name. I have given this name to him, because Socrates didn’t fit, but neither did Amedeo or Mallory. People.

You see, despite what the Discovery channel may spew as truth, despite what the National Geographic writers (who must love their jobs fervently) may enthusiastically pen, there is no comparison between Reinhold Messner and Genghis Khan. Not K2 nor Everest, Annapurna, Gasherbrum IV, not even St. Elias, Blackburn, or Denali have been truly conquered by any means by man or woman, but simply have been visited by a number of ambitious climbers, wanting to feel the wind on their face and to enjoy the panoramic vista for a few minutes.

For those with the illusion that they have defeated a mountain by summiting its peak, Downey and I laid out a theory. Winds on Denali have been recorded to have reached 148 degrees below zero, Fahrenheit. Mt. Washington in New Hampshire has witnessed 231 mile an hour winds. The lack of the jet stream is a primary factor on Summit Day on Everest. If any one of these winds blasted the face and body of some adventurer while on a knife-edge ridge, the results would be rather logical. Crawl outside your Bibler tent in the middle of that blizzard you’re waiting out. John Grisham will be read a dozen times before you see the sky again. The idea is to survive, and if one can barely pull that off, conquering is still a long stretch of highway down from that. Exit at Sesame Street.

By our fourth glass of scotch, the sun was falling and we were back in his cabin on the glacier. The books we had been consulting all afternoon were a memory, reshelved in that elegant library. I had forgotten to check the restroom. The cold was setting in, and I had to be off for the evening. There were northern lights to capture in my glass jar, to take home with me for bragging rights and children’s nightglow. A stone can be from anywhere: the moon, the Nanga Parbat descent, a Paris graveyard, the Berlin wall, the local playground. Alone it is not important, but the concept of this fragment is the salient memory, what it represents, in legendary or mythic form, is a personally written history book – not necessarily for the the indulgences of others and their studies, but the results of the test are catastrophic and wise.

Our theory, in retrospect, was full of holes and became quite blurry by the end of our discussion, but the general idea was transmitted, despite the protruding spires and inconvenient walls of the glacier to block its reverberation. We had succeeded in something, though to pin down exactly what it was would destroy its authenticity forever. So we left it alone, and said our goodbyes. This landscape would introduce her true intentions to me soon, and even if it was a dream, it’s best to be prepared. Which I am not.

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