Adventures and Reflections from Cathy O'Dowd

Adventures & Reflections
from Cathy O'Dowd

A team of five, a week to prepare – the goal: to ascend and ski the second highest peak in the Alps! Now the only thing that lay between failure and success was ourselves….

Or not.

The thing about being a climber – or at least someone who wanders around in the mountains in various ways – is that people assume you must always be off to ‘conquer’ something. It is written into the DNA of how we think about mountains, and how we use them as a metaphor for attaining goals.

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But ‘conquering’ has always been an odd concept to use. It is not as if the mountain is going to pay you tribute once you’ve ‘mastered’ it. It is about a meaningful as an ant declaring that by crawling on to the top of your fridge, it has conquered it. (Possibly my fridge is crowned by a line of ants taking turns to wave very small flags, and call their sponsors on very small satellite phones. Possibly I don’t spend enough time in my kitchen to notice this phenomenon.)

A year ago I was wandering around the Saas Fee / Zermatt area on touring skis with three friends. We had a go at the Dufourspitze – at 4634 metres, the main summit of the Monte Rosa massif and the second highest mountain in the Alps, just 176 metres lower than Mont Blanc. Peering through thick mist, weaving between giant crevasses, we made it all the way up to the ski dump at 4515 metres. There the wind was so strong we couldn’t even stay on our feet for the time it took to remove the skins stuck to the bottom of our skis which allowed us to climb upwards. It was too risky to try the narrow rock ridge that leads the top and we slid back down through fresh powder to the valley instead.

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It seemed the perfect objective for a return mission and this year I put together an Eagle Ski Club tour traversing around – and with luck, up – a series of 4000 metre peaks before placing us below the Dufourspitze for the final two days.

Challenges mounted. We were finishing up on the Easter weekend and the space-ship structure that is the new Monte Rosa hut, which sleeps some 140 people, was already full. There was no other point from which we could realistically tackle the peak. I was convinced that others, less committed than my team, would drop out and I kept pushing until, just a day before the tour was due to start, I had confirmation that we were in! Come hell or high snow, we would be there!

But what are goals really about? They are certainly useful. Without general goals, I’d probably stay in bed all day and read a good book. Without specific goals, I’d get up but wander around the house, making cups of coffee and inspecting the fridge for ants. Goals give me purpose and direction, but I’m not actually all that invested in attaining them. All too often while heading in their direction, I’ll get distracted by something more interesting – and I like it that way.

Clearly there are those who empowered by having clear long-term goals, whose lives are focused by 5- and 10- and 20-year plans. I speak for those of us who stand sheepishly by, not quite able to admit that we are just going to see how it all pans out and make it up as we go along. How do these goal-setting paragons know what the world will be like in five years time, what they will be like, what they will want? Are they not so focused on their path to destiny that they fail to notice the interesting track going off in an unexpected direction? Or the incoming storm that makes their objective impractical?

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We know from weather reports that a storm is coming in on the first of our two possible Dufourspitze days, but we are forging on regardless! (Besides, it’s the Easter weekend in Zermatt, it’s not as if we are going to find anywhere else to stay.) We are twenty kilometres away, at the Britannia Hut, with 1200 vertical metres to climb, and we need to beat the storm to the Monte Rosa Hut. Our additional objective of the Stralhorn is abandoned, we gulp down the 6am breakfast of muesli, bread and jam, and leave the hut by the light of our head torches and a shortly setting moon.

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My team is fast and efficient and all experienced enough to know the score – we don’t want to be caught out on one of the great glaciers of the Monte Rosa massif in a storm. Even with the delay of the rock ridge crossing, where somehow we end up down climbing a via ferreta with skis on our rucksacks, we are safe and cosy at the Monte Rosa hut in less than seven hours, wondering whether to take out a second mortgage on the house in order to afford a rosti with egg for lunch.

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We discover that of those 140 people, less than 30 have turned up, only those with true commitment have forged on towards their objective!

And then follows 36 long hours, watching the snow fall, listening to the wind howl, chatting, sleeping, reading Kindles, trying to stretch out our meagre snacks until we finally make it to the dinner hour. We have one day left, the storm has lifted, the mountain lies on our doorstep….

We are going out onto 1800 vertical metres of fresh snow, less than 6 hours after the storm subsided (oh the joys of 3am breakfast!). It’s not a good idea.

There are two places on the Swiss ski map where the Dufourspitze route switches from creamy white to a pretty shade of pink, a shade that says the slope has an angle of more than thirty degrees, an angle where the avalanche monster dwells, avalanches that will be triggered by our own body weight. No amount of commitment, or inner grit, or ‘winners never quitting’ makes this a good idea.

The handful of teams idly passing time in the common room glance around at each other’s maps, ask casually about plans for the morning. A word is building momentum in the room: Signalkuppe. 4554 metres high, 5th highest peak in the Alps (or 6th, depending on your list), still a 1750 metre climb, but crucially with a route entire free of pretty pink patches.

We leave the hut at 4am. We watch the rising sun tint the summit of the Matterhorn a deep pink and then bathe the serrated peaks in golden light.

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Eventually we leave the skis below the final rise and crampon up icy slopes to stand on the summit at 10am, breath snatched away by the thin air, and by the astonishing view of wave after wave of blue-white mountains stretching away from us into Italy and Switzerland and France. It is the highest peak in the Alps that any of the five of us has reached. (Yes, I know I’ve climbed Everest, I’m still excited!) We hug and chatter and take endless photographs.

We can see the Dufourspitze just across the way – a wonderful reason to come back here another time – but right now we are more interested in the 2800 vertical metres descent that lies below us, on much of which we will be able to put in fresh tracks.

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Our goal has got us out of bed, focused our path through the mountains, pushed us on as conditions became ever tougher. But we have let it go, as lightly as a flag blown away in the wind. What matters are the landscapes we have travelled through, the experiences we have accumulated, the choices we have negotiated. None of that is linked to any specific target, but rather underlies our understanding of why we chose to travel in mountains. We travel, not to ‘conquer’ or to ‘fail’ but to discover and explore, to enrich our lives and share our joy. Nothing is conquered but everything is gained as we ski the line offered to us by a beautiful, ever-changing world.

Ants industriously raising the flag (have you checked your fridge recently?)
ant-jimaImage by Sami Rautiainen. Shared under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA.

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