Wednesday, July 2, 2008

soaped poles and ice axes

"The Alps themselves, which your own poets used to love so reverently, you look upon as soaped poles in a bear-garden, which you set yourselves to climb, and slide down again, with 'shrieks of delight'". This was part of John Ruskin's scathing attack on climbers and tourists despoiling the Alps in his lecture 'Sesame and Lilies' of 1864.

I think I see where he's coming from. I've long loved being in a mountain environment - the views, the elevation and change of perspective away from busy life in the valleys, the physical challenge of reaching a summit. But I've not been a very conscientious munro-bagger despite living in Scotland, and as I've got older, I've been drawn more to walk amongst the human stories that haunt the lower ways, the passes and old roads, the journeys through mountain territory. There can be something gruesomely target-driven about summit fever, cars on Saturday and Sunday mornings clustered below honey-pot Munros, eroded single-track paths.

So why am I off to the Alps with the intention of climbing one particular summit - Finsteraarhorn, the highest in the Swiss Bernese Oberland at 4274 metres? The idea first occurred to me when in 2004 I went to Norway with my friend Yuli and some of her family to retrace the journey her father, Sven Somme, made in 1944 through the mountains from the west coast and across the border to safety in Sweden, after escaping Nazi arrest and certain execution. He had written an account of this journey which made it possible to retrace the route fairly accurately and to imagine some of his experiences and feelings along the way.

It began to occur to me that I could do something similar in the footsteps of my own father who died when I was very young. Perhaps I could climb a tribute towards his memory. Knowing that I shared with him a passion for mountains, but with little knowledge of his climbing experiences or their whereabouts, I began to dig about. I found more about the dramatic details of his own trip to Switzerland in 1952, and was led by a series of coincidences to find a couple of compatible climbing partners amongst friends.

So the ice axes, crampons, are assembled, muscles at least partly flexed. This is my first Alpine trip and I've heard Ruskin's warning about the culture. As I rub shoulders in mountain huts with climbers obsessed with lightweight gear and gazing up to slippery slopes, I will take care not to look at any mountain as if it's a 'soaped pole'.

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