I was in Bavaria last week with a school group and met a very interesting chap. His name is Frank. He has a surname too but I don´t know what it is. Frank taught our students how to rock climb on a climbing wall outside the hostel. Frank is no spring chicken. We guessed his age at something greater than 60, maybe a good bit more, but he was fit as a fiddle and there wasn´t an ounce of fat on his wiry frame.

When the kids were done climbing I got to chatting with him and he told me about some of his experiences in a lifetime of climbing. He spoke about ascending a cliff 450 metres wide and two kilometres high, a task that on a good day would take several hours. It is hard to imagine being pressed to a vertical rock face searching out the dips and recesses that will accommodate the tip of climbing boots or offer a finger hold. He told me that being pressed so close to the rock masks much of the surrounding face in the way a swimmer´s vision of the horizon is limited by the closeness of the eye to the surface. As a result, a route visible from a distance can be impossible to make out when climbing and climbers can spend much time and energy following directions that prove to be dead ends.

At one point on this enormous cliff, Frank moved around 50 metres laterally to find some structure that would allow him to continue upwards only to discover he was moving into a cul de sac. As he and his climbing buddies were retracing their steps and seeking out alternatives routes, they realised that time was running out on them. It became clear that they would have to spend the night on the cliff face. So they secured themselves with a rope and passed a sleepless night with the silence periodically interrupted by the whizzing sound of a rock falling from above.

Frank struck me as a guy who had looked death in the face many times but that it had not made him cower. He was not a risk taker but realised that his was potentially a very risky business and that the danger could only be reduced by calculation and experience.

He told me that there exists in climbing a sensation which he could not find elsewhere: a shrinking of the world into the immediacy of the moment. Nothing existed for him beyond the cliff, the wind, the sounds of birds and all of these things were experienced with the greatest intensity. To him climbing was a kind of spiritual thing although “spiritual” is a word that I have used and not him. He was, and he needed to be, pragmatic, smart and brave.

Frank told me that he had climbed Mont Blanc, Europe´s highest mountain, “by accident”.

The story goes like this:

When he was 19 he hitched to France to see Mont Blanc. That´s all he had intended to do – just look at the thing. When he arrived at the foot of the mountain he saw some people climbing the lower part by following an easy path. And so he decided he would do that too and soon he was making his way upwards. The weather was good and, having arrived at the level that most of the walkers had intended to reach, he continued to look upwards and could make out a string of people making their way up towards a distant climber´s cabin. He decided to follow them up. Finally he reached the hut and spent the night in it. It was cold but he had his rucksack with him and so he put on his pyjamas along with his clothes and slept on the floor. At daybreak he looked out and saw, widely spaced apart, a line of climbers. By looking at their position he plotted out a route to follow upwards and off he went. He had never really intended to climb the mountain but decided that he would go as far as he could.

The easy climbing stopped and he reached a cliff face. This would have been the time to turn around but he looked over the face carefully. He had had a lot of cliff climbing experience and figured that the climb seemed pretty straightforward. And so he went ahead and did it without any climbing gear whatsoever. Beyond the cliff section came a narrow path leading upwards with ice sloping away on either side. He figured he could follow that path as long as he kept clear of the edges. Things got harder and harder and every step became a challenge. It was as cold as hell too and so, at some point, he put his pyjamas back on. Anyone with half a brain would have turned around but Frank was young and dumb enough to perservere until, finally and quite “by accident” he found himself standing on the summit.

Everybody else up there was a hard-ass climber with crampons and axes and woolly hats and all stuff but Frank just stood there in whatever kit he had happened to carry when he decided, on the spur of the moment, that it might be nice to head off to the highest mountain in Europe – just to look at it.

 

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According to Wikipedia (where these images were pinched from) the Mont Blanc Massif has an average of 100 fatalities each year and between 6000 and 8000 in total (more than any other mountain). Frank climbed this thing without any climbing gear!