Mountains are undemocratic, unreachable, exclusive and aloof. They are not common land, not landscape for everyone, but rather reserved for a select few: a few who are categorised by trial where the prize of immortality is countered by the risk of death. This price of membership is what marks them apart, keeping them somehow separate from the rural and urban spaces that spread around them. It is not height alone which keeps them from us, but rather the untouchable nature of the summit, a distance not simply physical, but psychological.
Switzerland is a country of mountains: defined by, encircled by, father by. It’s a landscape where vertical distance is a factor in any journey, be it by foot, car or rail: not the distance from A to B, but the exhaustive climb in between.
It’s all about water.
Mountains are thrust up from the fractured, tinted earth. Collisions of continents, spewed from volcano, crusted engorgements over geological timespans. But mountains are not forever: there’s a Swiss Army Knife ‘starter kit’ for sale that contains a small piece of wood for you to whittle. And the mountains are whittled too: eroded by water, through ice and cold, heat and grit. Erosion: deposition. Many climbers are killed by rockfalls, the beating heart of the mountain as it’s eroded to dust. Fracture, split, fall: endless streams of moraine cascading into the valley. Look upon my mighty works, fallen to dust and ruin. Mountains are the frozen wave of rock, captured in the photographic light, painted upon the horizon, before falling in the spray of millennia back into the earth from whence they came.
There is a circularity to rock: the fragmented detritus of the mountain washed away, down stream, down river, into seas and lakes, deposited, crushed over millennia, heated, kneaded, reworked into sedimentary rock, heated and crushed yet further into metamorphic before finally spewed in heat and fire of igneous fury back onto the mountain top, lava as the molten birth. Lava as the life.
Water falls as snow: dusting and encrusting the mountain. For climbers on the infamous North Face of the Eiger, the wall of death as it’s known in a German burst of irony, increasingly it’s favoured to climb in winter when the ice binds together the rotten stone, cementing it in what they hope will be a frozen face to clamber upon.
Snow tumbles and drifts, compressed and reformed into ice, birthing glaciers.
I walk upon a glacier: broad, white, calm, yet nearly a kilometre deep. This thing weighs more than elephants. This thing weighs more than the mountain. A mountainous, monstrous weight of ice that flows: yes, flows and cracks, creases and crevices, crevassed into deadly folds and fractures. This thing weight heavily on the minds of climbers who use aluminium ladders to bridge these gaps: tentatively crawling across the void, weight balanced, weighing up their chances, weighing the odds. Odd behaviour. Crazy chances to take, and yet that is the pull of the mountain: it’s weight giving gravitas: gravity. An endless pull.
The tug of the mountain: it draws you back. It pulls people in. It lures people in. To wonder. To beauty. To die upon the slopes, crushed and fractured, frozen and alone. A gravestone in Zermatt to a seventeen year old who died on the ascent of the Matterhorn: ‘i chose to climb’, it reads, but it haunts me still. Chose to climb? Chose to sacrifice? Is a life led as one reckless plunge worth more than one sedentary and long? This price has been paid. Many times over. The Matterhorn has claimed more: 500 at best estimate. Five hundred lives lost, claimed, fought over and spent. Invested in the fury of the climb.
The Matterhorn is an improbable mountain: existing not in real life, but as the embodied children sketch of the essence of all mountains. It is the jagged faced, unrealistically steep, improbably angled and utterly impenetrably shaped epitome of mountain-ness. It is the jaws of death, the shard piercing the sky, the unenviably fought for trophy, the nemesis and failure, the hubris of the few.
The Matterhorn is an impossible mountain: when Whymper mounted the first ascent he did so at the cost of four lives from his team of seven. Frayed ropes and accusations of foul play. Mountains are the reckless expenditure of youth and arrogance.
The glacier scours: as it inches down the mountain side is sandpapers the edges, it scrapes and devours, eating away at rock face and valley, carving out canyon and slope. The glacier is the death of the mountain.
The streams fill as snow melts, as glaciers fail: the streams fill and fall. Splashing down, over rocks, into waterfalls so high that they seem like clouds until you hear the roar and see the carved stone they leave behind. Streams turn to rivers: raging torrents that wail through villages and have to be encircled, bounded, ruled by walls. Worshiped and feared: carrying trees and boulders. The river in spate is the angry voice of the mountain: the tears for the dead?
Mountains encircle: they stand in ranges, vistas, panoramas. They define and daunt the landscape around them. The valleys cut by water or ice differ: flat bottomed or V shaped, scoured or smoothed, products of erosion of varied flavours. Water or ice decides their fate, decides their shape.
In the valley, the mountain is just ‘scenery’, the backdrop, the painted set upon which life plays out. I walk: traversing the side of the valley. A woman sells bread and cheese from a table: local cheese, shadowed by the mountain. I have a picnic opposite the face of the Eiger. This is an ironic mountain: you can sit in the sun with your crusty loaf and cheese, listening to cowbells across the valley, looking down upon tranquil villages and sun drenched meadows, whilst in front of you is the deathly wall. The juxtaposition is unreal: people perish on desolate mountains, far flung places, remote and reckless. Not in front of the picnic spot. And yet that is what differentiates the mountain: it’s a jagged separation of what is ours, what is mine, and what is meant for none of us. It’s landscape claimed by nature and never to be surrendered.
Mountains are not inaccessible: they are unfathomable. You can climb them, but there is a certain human arrogance to claim we conquer them. A languished enemy does not sit back up to slay again and again. The mountain never falls: it rises.
The summit is evocative: we ‘summit’ a mountain, to get to the top. We host a ‘summit’, bringing people together. The summit may be a holy site, or simply the space we grab and gasp for breath before beginning the most perilous descent.
It’s no coincidence that God or gods are found on summits: intersections between heaven and earth, the point where they touch.
They say the most dangerous part is the descent: the fight is to reach the top, to stake everything on the game, to strive and fear, struggle and claw. But, once there, what is left but fear? All that remains is to go back to the world of men, the fall from grace.
Between the mountains, passes. In ancient times people would forge a way through: to trade, to travel, to seek truth. They would wait for the thaw, for spring, to drive cattle, to cross. To control the mountain pass was to control society, to control trade, to have power.
When we learnt to bridge and burrow we eroded the power of the mountain: driving underneath or over the top, connecting and smoothing, linking and crossing. Mankind seeks to control or subvert nature, but everything comes to dust, even the arches of the viaduct and curved mouth of the tunnel. Nothing is forever, not even the mountain itself.
Toblerone chocolate is modelled on the Matterhorn: this trivial fact was unknown to me, and i consider it as i munch through a bar, staring at the silhouette of the mountain in the midday sun. Tasty. It reminds me that i must go to the dentist when i get home.
Today we ski on mountains, we walk upon them, we cycle down them, sometimes at great speed, but one thing that we never do is own them. They remain aloof, untamed, dormant maybe, but always shadowing, overlooking, warily eying us swarming upon their flank.
As i travel through Switzerland, i realise i become mountain weary: on the first day, i was riveted, wonder and amazement still captures me every time i see their beauty and might. But soon, the canvas dims: the wonder is still there, but we tame and temper it, we come to believe that we are safe, that we are secure, that we are in a landscape tamed.
Mountains are pent up fury and ice. We can watch, we can enjoy, we can frame and capture, we can sketch and paint, but we can never own, we can never truly master, we can never control.
Mountains are the other world, the wild teeth of the storm in winter, the ragged beauty of nature that will forever remain aloof and proud, touchable, but only at a cost.