Reach for the summit of the soul

Why climb a mountain? Because, cold, pain, privation and final triumph can be a truly transcendent experience.
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
At some point during the climb up Mont Blanc, you are bound to start thinking the same way as all the valley-lubbers who only ever have the one question: "Why?" The best answer is: "Go and climb a mountain. Then you'll know."

Much more revealing is George Leigh Mallory's own question and answer: "Have we vanquished an enemy? None but ourselves."

In the last week of August, "Why?" seemed a particularly valid question, with 15 climbers killed on Mont Blanc in the space of just eight days. To die on a supposedly easy route, even if it does take you to the 4,807- metre top of Western Europe's highest mountain, seems particularly pointless. It raises other questions, too - specifically, whether people should be allowed up there on their own, regardless of experience and ability.

When you consider what is really involved in climbing Mont Blanc, the "why?" becomes even harder to answer, and not just because of the dangers the mountain poses. The most popular route is one long slog, hard on the heels of a steady stream of other aspirants. You don't need to be a technical expert to do it; your fitness and determination are tested above all else.

First you walk, then you scramble up a well-worn route, which is bolted and cabled at the most exposed, steep parts.

At 3,800 metres, hundreds of climbers crowd the dormitories of the Gouter Hut, which may be luxurious compared to a cold night in a tent or a snow hole, but is far removed from most people's idea of mountain solitude. It is also high enough for people to suffer mild altitude sickness in the form of headaches and nausea. If that doesn't get you, the stench of the toilets will; because of the cold, they cannot be flushed with water.

The final section is climbed in the dark, to reach the summit around dawn, a trade-off between the extreme cold of night-time, even in summer, and the heat of the day catching you on the way down.

It means that most of the climb is done by the light of a head torch saving the nervous from seeing the precipitous drops that extend either side of The Bosses' ridge, the setting for the old joke between roped climbers, "if I fall into Italy, you jump into France".

By this time, a combination of cold, altitude and fatigue has made "Why?" a highly relevant question, even for the keenest, particularly when you discover that your water bottle and food have frozen solid, and you realise that if your companions have tusk-like icicles protruding from their noses, then you probably have, too. Even for someone who likes a challenge, this can hardly be considered much fun.

So why climb this or any other mountain, with or without a guide? The view alone is not enough, although the combination of privation and extreme physical effort, followed by the pleasure of returning to the valley, to warmth, ample food and water, green fields and deep sleep, certainly start to add up. But these sensations, to which we can directly relate, seem to be just side-shows, secondary to the real story of mountain and mountaineer.

As a point of focus, the mountain acts as a unique challenge at which to aim, particularly to those for whom the simple possibility of doing something compels them to try to do it - a distinctly childlike quality, still present in a surprising number of adults. And though life may seem challenging enough, by a stricter definition only challenges such as mountains can really cut the mustard. Though you may not be able to see the top, it is there right enough, as a physical and conceptual goal to be reached; yet, until the moment you finally make it to the top, you remain unsure that you will be able to meet the challenge.

Most other apparent challenges tend to have an incremental quality to them, with the goalposts moving over the medium or long term. Some of mountaineering has that flexibility, too, particularly in response to changing conditions, but there must always come a key moment if you are to reach the top, when you move beyond that stage and commit to a course where turning back may no longer be an option. Also the physical definition of a mountain gives climbers a precise objective, an imperative that they cannot ignore.

Which is where it can start to go wrong. Mountaineers survive by judgement rather than luck, but the lure of reaching the top, regardless of the prevailing conditions, can sometimes be a fatal siren. The aspect of climbing mountains that is hardest to reconcile is that the danger itself, which you strive to minimise, does appeal in some strange way.

Inevitably, this draws the most public interest, while the full picture, the connection of danger with the primitive aspect of mountaineering, is often ignored. If the need for excitement, and perhaps danger, is in part a reaction to modern day life, then so is the need to reduce life to its essentials, boiling it down to a few critical decisions.

Instead of having 100 different things to consider and respond to in a single day, you may have just one or two, but they will be vital to your well-being: "Do I go, or don't I?" "Is it safer in this direction, or that?", while the rest - eat when you're hungry, drink when you're thirsty - takes care of itself.

Under these circumstances, the dangers of your environment are just part of your surroundings, part fact of life, and partly the reason you are there. Recognising them and reacting appropriately can minimise risks to a surprising degree, to the extent that learning to cope alone and unguided is not only more rewarding than climbing with a guide, but also allows you to make your own judgements and determine your fate for yourself.

After a while in the hills and mountains, you will know yourself and your capabilities better than anyone. Surviving the risks to reach the top, through a combination of preparation, judgement and effort is probably the closest you will ever come to knowing the answer to the impossible question "Why?" - which leaves anyone who is even thinking about it only one option.