Sapiens, Master Of The Universe, Best When Mountains Fall

Climbing Is About Nothing And Everything, Just As Life Itself, Or Climbing can be viewed as an adventure in mastery between oneself and fate. 

Climbing, well done, is experiencing an entire life, in one, or a few days. Climbing, well done, does not murder the emotional lives of those who love us, by killing whom they love. Any climber of some experience had close calls. Reinhold Mesner, the first to climb all 14 8000 meter peaks, had many close calls (for example falling inside a crevice on Everest while completely alone). He climbed them without oxygen. Sometimes by new routes (Broad Peak, Annapurna, Everest), sometimes solo, even making probably what is, to this day, the only real solo climb of Everest without assistance whatsoever (it was August, during the warm and wet monsoon, nobody else was on the mountain besides a photographer girlfriend in base camp). 

Mesner was lucky: he made much of his own luck, sometimes (Nanga Parbat) waiting patiently for a slope to avalanche away before climbing it when it had been scoured clean. He knows luck was on his side, he wrote about it. 

Some love to compare today’s exploits with those of the past. In the past the equipment was not what it has become, and not what it will be some day. One can’t compare yesterday’s achievements with today’s, or tomorrow. A few months ago, in the solo sailboat race around the world, a rogue wave broke the boat of a famous sailor in two, in the middle of the southern ocean, far from any shore. He had the time to inform a satellite of what had happened, and got into a rescue device. The race center in France was then able to vector several other competitors to the area. With more electronic and human feat, the sailor in his shelter was localized and recovered by a competitor who then transferred him to a French warship. 

All the part delimited by the white line avalanched off 2006. A few years earlier, my partner and I, leading across a giant ice gully, a hundred meters below point C, below the picture. That’s when and where the huge rock avalanche struck, at the worst possible moment. It hit the ropes, when I was twenty meters out of a very bad belay (it was bad, because there was nothing else and I had set it up myself. It is extremely rare that I could not make a belay good by wedging various devices in cracks… Then, having miraculously survived the rockfall, I went straight up, a bit right of the Bonatti Pillar route, and more on the pillar than Bonatti. I had cams, which Europeans did not have at the time, so I could protect cracks, and also crack practice, from Yosemite… Amusingly the near death below propelled me to great heights (generally I am a very cautious climber… but not that day… because of the hubris effect I describe below…)

Someday, maybe everybody will be climbing solo with anti-gravity devices… Or some other way to prevent falls…

In the mountains what we are, and what nature is, is revealed. Including morally. 

Climbing can also be an adventure between oneself and companions who keep us alive. In any case, climbing, optimally done, should be about life. However, some went to the mountains as an alternative to suicide… As when Bonatti climbed the south west pillar of the Dru. 

I made a first ascent of a route on this one, after getting nearly killed partway up it, in a massive rock avalanche caused by the greenhouse heating most severe in the mountains and polar regions [1]. I was climbing extremely well that day, because I had just died, I could not believe I was still perhaps alive, and my miraculous survival made me believe God, or the effective equivalent of God) was on my side (or something like that). I took more risks that day than I ever had lead climbing. I would make enormous runouts, ignoring my bleeding arms. Pulled off the mountain by the avalanche, I had succeeded to wedge myself in a rock ice chimney as I fell into the half a mile high ice gully below. It was the most unlikely piece of mountain luck/exploit I had ever heard about. To this day, I can’t believe what happened.

Not that I could gloat about my route. There were other collapses in the same area. A few years after this astounding success, the entire part of this mountain collapsed (the entire Bonatti pillar). 

Avalanches teach in mysterious ways. There was justice in all this: the mountain does not matter, the exploit doesn’t matter. What matters is knowing better this life we are lucky to have. We climb the mountains to get to know ourselves better. Another gift is that we show fate, that we too can play with, and master, the universe, as if there were values greater than life itself.

It is not that we are control freaks, it is that, sometimes, we human brains need to express ourselves fully the way we are: masters of our own fates, awed by none, imposing our own values to all and sundry [2]. 

And did I learn something directly from my quasi-death on the Drus? Yes, I learned how (much of) the hubris mechanism works. When one looks at history on the largest scale, one often sees leaders taking crazy, very dangerous decisions, as if they were invincible gods. Stalin and Hitler are examples, but also Castro, Che Guevara, the Khmer Rouge, or various juntas all over, Maduro, numerous fundamentalist religious groups, Saddam Hussein, etc. Many of these leaders have this in common: they were nearly killed at some point prior. But they survived. Yet, as survivors, they probably felt like cats with many lives. Lethal risk taking is habit forming, and a drug.  

It is not just that those who nearly died think they can get away with it one more time, or that the life they are presently enjoying is an after death experience. It is also that human neurology is made to take lethal risks, and fully expresses itself only when it does.

And this has a very practical consequence that strategists should keep in mind, when they ponder the possibility of war on a small planet.

War is not just the continuation of politics by other means, it is the continuation of domineering metaphysics by other means.    

Patrice Ayme


[1] Why more heating in glaciated mountains and regions? Because as the ice and snow decreases, the heat augments in the summer months, gets stored, released in winter, while the heating effect is augmented considerably by albedo decrease (if Greenland had no ice right now, it would not grow back). 

Tall mountains above the permafrost are cathedrals of ice. As the ice enters a cycle of thaw and freeze, not being permanently ice-strong all the time anymore, the cracks are continually pried ever more open, and the rock fails. The specialist Ludovic Ravanel, high Mountain Guide, Hut Guardian, and geomorphology researcher at CNRS says:

From 1855 until 1950, the situation stayed stable. Then in the second half of the XXth century the rock falls continually increased. During the two decades of 1990 and 2000, the warmest, “they exploded in frequency and volume”.

“The falls occur during the warmest periods or at the end of them”. 

“The permafrost is the triggering factor”. 

“The global warming +2 degrees Celsius in Chamonix since 1936 will increase the phenomenon”. 

“Most probably rock falls high in our mountains will occur more frequently and be bigger according to the increase of temperatures, even during the colder seasons”.


[2] All and sundry: This phrase dates from the 1300s and meant ‘one and all’, in the sense of both collectively and individually. The word ‘sundry‘ derives from the Old English syndrig, meaning ‘separate, exceptional or special’.

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