11 The Sharp End: These Winter Palaces

Posted on: April 25, 2014


[Photo] Emily Polar

AUGUST 1869: For hours in the quiet dark, the Irish scientist John Tyndall and his guide marched over the surface of an icefield that cracked and shimmered like shards of glass beneath their boots. Slowly, the moon set over the Swiss Alps, casting long bright rays and deep black shadows between the silvered outlines of ghostly peaks. They were far away, now, from the gaslights and the smog of cities. The night sky was ablaze with multicolored stars.

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At last, the guide spoke: "Es tagt!"

Dawn unfolded like the petals of a yellow flower. The pyramid of the Aletschhorn lit up in orange and gold: an otherworldly architecture of hanging glaciers and crystalline facets. "I know nothing which can compare in point of glory with these winter places of the mountaineer," Tyndall recalled. "Like light falling upon the polished plate of the photographer, the glory of Nature, to be felt, must descend upon a soul prepared to receive its image and superscription" (Hours of Exercise in the Alps, 1871).

By 1869, Tyndall had been climbing in the Alps for more than a decade, peering through opera glasses at the mountains and the sky, marveling at how the ice and snow built fleeting forms of minarets, obelisks and bastions; how a blizzard might fall in a shower of white blossoms and six-pointed stars. One winter evening on the Mer de Glace, he stood surrounded by shining blue walls, watching the sun ignite distant summits in a row of dark crimson flames. For an instant, he forgot his research, and instead he imagined himself inside a "crystal cave," part of a magical world once more (Mountaineering in 1861).

COLD PLACES HAVE CAPTURED IMAGINATIONS ever since the beginnings of modern alpinism. Many Victorians were riveted by tales of the vast "blank spaces" of the polar regions and the "upper ice-world" of the Alps, where nature's mysteries still appeared undimmed, beyond the edge of human civilization, knowledge or control. Shadows of old terrors mixed with new visions: the fading myths of dragons that once haunted summits, the histories of glacial surges that threatened mountain villages, the rise of Romanticism that merged the wonderful and the terrifying into the sublime. Tyndall and other scientists examined the contours of mountain regions and the striation of rocks, reading the traces of a great Ice Age. And as writers dreamed of immense, prehistoric, bygone glaciers, they envisioned future apocalypses burying cities, railroads and factories under soundless, endless drifts of snow (Robert Macfarlane, Mountains of the Mind, 2003; Francis Spufford, I May Be Some Time, 1997).

But Tyndall also strove to understand the "wondrous factory" of light and air that surrounded the heights. Taking measurements with his spectrometer, he demonstrated that water vapor and carbon dioxide stopped heat from escaping into space: early evidence of the "greenhouse effect." He wasn't yet aware of how much the spread of industrialization would increase levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Or how much his grand ice realms would, one day, begin to warm (Mark Bowen, Thin Ice, 2005).

SINCE THE VICTORIAN AGE, images of both frightening and alluring cold have sifted through the decades, glimmering in layers of winter tales. Snowfall transmutes even the most familiar peaks into terra incognita, hinting at pathways to the edges of the human spirit. Often, cold places appear as testing grounds for endurance or as portals to some hoped-for, almost-mystical transcendence. Similar repeating motifs refract across individual imaginations into new angles and forms. Landscapes freeze, crumble and reshape in changing cornices, flutings, frozen waterfalls. Metaphors alter like the colors of light through prismatic ice crystals. Words spark and vanish.

In his account of the 1933 British Everest expedition, Frank Smythe described, with equal curiosity, seracs that glowed like phantoms in the starlight, ice pinnacles that glittered like diamond forests, and climbers' fingers that turned quickly numb in the unfamiliar thin air. At night, the clouds disappeared, "exposing the world to an intense cold, which seemed almost to flow down like some deadly liquid from the uttermost depths of space." By battling with such cold, he thought, men might perceive, in stark clarity, the strengths and weaknesses of their inner selves (Camp Six, 1937).

Forty-seven years later, during the first winter ascent of the peak, the Polish mountaineer Marek Brniak recalled a darkness that fell with the north winds, sweeping snow from the slopes to reveal dim rock and hardened ice, bringing a suffering that went beyond speech. From the summit, Leszek Cichy and Kryzstof Wielicki radioed to base camp: "It is unimaginably cold." Wielicki later told the historian Bernadette McDonald, "To experience pleasure when you have everything against you, you must have some kind of warrior philosophy" (Freedom Climbers, 2011).

For some, the experience of deep cold represents a kind of spiritual journey through a void. In 2007, during the first winter solo of Mt. Foraker, the Japanese climber Masatoshi Kuriaki huddled in a snow cave without a sleeping bag. Outside, the wind chill dropped to -100F. Far away, the orange lights of Anchorage glimmered with an illusion of warmth. He imagined survival as a passage from "darkness toward light" or "death toward life." Guiding in Antarctica, the Canadian alpinist Margo Talbot found an inner stillness, free from the excess and noise of cities. In deserts of ice and snow, she says, "you must deal not only with the absence of external stimuli, but also the absence of heat.... The human imagination is refueled in such landscapes; our spiritual connection renewed."

Others feel that the mountains become more themselves in the cold. The Chilean climber Camilo Rada, who recently made the first winter ascent of Monte Sarmiento, calls winter "the spring of mountains, when they grow and flourish, when they dress in white leaves, erase the scars of summer and blossom." During one Patagonian winter storm, gusts of wind lifted his team, briefly, into the air. "In such conditions," he explains, "you are far from the 'conqueror' style of mountaineer.... It is the mountain who is in control.... [But] if you love ice, you become a cold hunter."

And the Polish mountaineer, Artur Malek, who participated in the 2013 first winter ascent of Broad Peak, declares, "There are in alpinism the 'final climbs in life.' The biggest, hardest, most demanding and committing lines are in the Karakoram in winter.... It is possible to glimpse 'ABSOLUTE ALPINISM,' even experience it.... Winter climbing is an allegory for what I want to get out of life.... You must love at 100%, create things at 100%, live at 100%."

ON MAY 28, 2008, FOR THE MOVIE CHASING ICE, Adam LeWinter and Jeff Orlowski filmed a giant calving of the Ilulissat Glacier in Greenland. Ice blocks, hundreds of feet high, fell like glass towers. A dark green arch rolled from the swelling ocean like the back of a giant sea monster, lustrous with black, white and emerald-colored scales. From 2000 to 2012, the glacier has retreated eleven miles.

Watching the footage, I think of Percy Bysshe Shelley's poem, "Mont Blanc," published in 1817: "Frost and the Sun in scorn of mortal power/ Have piled: dome, pyramid, and pinnacle,/ A city of death, distinct with many a tower/ And wall impregnable of beaming ice./ Yet not a city, but a flood of ruin." In a 2007 essay, Mark Carey notes that Victorian fantasies of advancing, "menacing" ice have given way to modern fears of catastrophic melting. Glaciers have become one of the most common symbols of climate change, portrayed as endangered, almost-living things (Environmental History, 12:3). As the historian Peter Hansen says, while the early alpinists were "vulnerable to a cold to be conquered, in a climate of global warming, the cold is now vulnerable to us."

A sense of fragility and loss emerges in some recent mountain tales: icefalls are replaced by wet, loose rock; rising snowlines expose bare slabs. The illusion of separation between the icy heights and human civilization fades. After decades of wandering the Himalaya, the Indian mountaineer Harish Kapadia writes of a landscape of "uncertainty," where the ecosystems of crops are shifting as weather patterns alter, and where local residents fear receding glaciers and growing glacial lakes. In June 2013, after days of early, heavy monsoon rain, a loud crack resounded near Kedarnath Peak (6940m), and the waters of Chorabari Lake burst free of its moraine dam, flooding villages downstream. Tiers of houses crumbled and fell, wall by wall, like the blocks of a giant glacier calving, the fragments swept into churning, muddy waves. And with them, roads, bridges, fields, animals, memories, and thousands of human lives were borne away in a brief and clouded sea.

EACH SPRING, I THINK OF MY FINAL ICE EXCURSIONS as a kind of yearly ritual, a temporary farewell to winter. Last April, as I started up Yale Gully on Mt. Washington, a mist of snow rose up behind me, obscuring the views of other climbers on other routes. Now and then, waves of spindrift washed down the bulges of blue ice, rippling around me in currents as soft and intricate as foam, and then swirling out into the spreading air.

Afterward, that day of scrambling joined so many other cold images in my mind, part of a glowing, invisible archive of dreams: the moonlight that burst in shafts of windblown snow down an alpine headwall; the sunset that transformed a rime mushroom into the enfolding wings of a great red bird; the way my first pair of crampons stuck to a mountainside during a childhood hike with my father, when the words minus 70 wind-chill factor sounded like the password to a magic domain, where a glaze of ice changed boulders into castles of glass and where frozen breath turned my red hair instantly to white—obscure volumes of personal memory that will vanish with me, some day.

Like Tyndall, I, too, have loved summits that are "snow-crested and star-gemmed," and I've wished that I could always remain there, in some perfect state of wonder and awe, my soul as clear as glass, mirroring only the falling light and the drifting snow. But amid the flowing patterns traced by sun, wind and cold, I now think of what we can strive to hold on to, and what we may lose. I think of the risks and unknowns that every inhabitant must face, separately and together, in an unpredictable, mutable world. In the end, the fragility of fierce, cold places recalls our own. For these winter palaces are not merely the realms of the mountaineer; they reflect us all.

[For readers who are interested in in-depth analyses of climate change science, mountain regions and the outdoor industry, see Mark Bowen's Thin Ice (2005) and Porter Fox's Deep (2013). Acknowledgements: Sarah Ives, Michael Reidy, Camilo Rada, Ed Douglas, Margo Talbot, Peter Hansen, Artur Malek, Ralf Dujmovits, Shaheen Baig, Simon Richardson, Daniele Nardi, David Fedman, Larry Hamilton, Harish Kapadia and Julia Pulwicki.—Ed.]

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