Friday 26 September 2014

Walking in Nietzche's footsteps

The last time we were in Nice – last September – a summer-long celebration of Matisse was just drawing to a close, so we spent a lot of time in galleries. This time was different: armed with John and Pat Underwood’s sublimely-titled Walk and Eat around Nice we spent a good part of our stay taking advantage of the excellent public transport system, travelling out of the city to experience some of the Underwood’s recommended walks.

The first walk we embarked on began at the hilltop town of La Turbie, followed the north side of the Grande Corniche crest with superb views of the snow-clad Mercantour mountains before crossing the shoulder and heading for the medieval hilltop town of Eze. From there we dropped down to the sea, following an old mule track known as the Nietzsche Trail.  There were magnificent coastal views and a profusion of springtime wild flowers.

La Turbie is a bustling place, a working town as much a tourist stop-off, with the old village rising up the hillside that is topped by the large Roman monument, the Trophy of Augustus, erected by Augustus to celebrate his victory over the Ligurian tribes of the area.  The old village is partly built with old stones from the ruins of the Trophy and is mentioned in Dante’s Divine Comedy (at the time the village was ruled by Genoa and was the western limit of the city republic). Now partly-restored, the Trophy monument dominated the skyline behind us as we left La Turbie following the gently-rising path onto the ridge.

With one exception, we found the Underwoood’s directions clear and easy to follow.  Unfortunately the one exception came right at the start of this walk.  Instructions to turn left ‘at a square reservoir’ led me to look for an English-style stretch of open water.  Not seeing one, we forged on through increasingly dense maquis shrubland, following a track that soon petered out.  Retracing our steps after about 20 minutes, I realised my mistake: ‘reservoir’ hereabouts refers to an enclosed water tank, rather like a second world war pillbox.  Oh well, after that there were no more misunderstandings about what the guide meant.

The path continued through scrubland ablaze with all kinds of wild flowers, many of which I can’t put names to: purple, rose-like papery ones with leaves like sage; a sort of dandelion with a dense black centre; brilliant blue, star-like flowers; delicate pink convolvulus, rosemary and thyme, and red spikes of Valerian.

At times it seemed as if we were surrounded by carefully-planted scree gardens: dense arrangements of grasses, herbs and pillows of wild flowers. Soon we arrived at a place where a large basin had formed when underground caves, carved out by water percolating through the limestone rock, had collapsed.  Nearby was a small geological museum and picnic tables with stunning views down towards Eze village perched dramatically on a crag overlooking the sea, with Cap Ferrat beyond.

Now began the steep descent to Eze, a village occupied since prehistoric times and dominated by the ruins of a 12th-century castle. Romans, Moors, and the House of Savoy have ruled this place in the past.  After the steep descent we caught our breath over a drink in the main square.  Then it was onwards, to make our final descent to the sea, following the trail now named after Nietzsche.

One of Friedrich Nietzsche’s more intelligible remarks, I think.  It’s a thought he might have had while walking what has become known as the Nietzsche Trail, an old mule track that ascends from sea level to the mediaeval village of Eze perched on a rocky outcrop some 1400 feet above.

In the early 1880s Nietzsche lived for a while in Eze Bord de Mer, east along the coast from Nice, and would apparently walk up the steep mule path to Eze every day – an undertaking described by Nietzsche himself as ‘a most onerous ascent’.  It was during these rigorous ascents that he found the inspiration for the third part of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, much of which was composed in his head while scrambling up the precipitous path (at least that’s how the story goes).

What possessed Nietzsche to make this ascent every day is unclear. He was always regarded as eccentric, a little odd, even crazy. He was afflicted with numerous physical ailments: splitting headaches, near-blindness, constipation, feelings of general paralysis, and complete blackouts.  To further complicate matters he was a regular abuser of drugs, including hashish, opium, potassium bromide, chloral hydrate, and a mysterious ‘Javanese’ preparation.  All of which might explain the mysterious and impenetrable ramblings of Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

But maybe we shouldn’t be too harsh or judgemental: he was ill, and perhaps liked the challenge of the arduous ascent in the fresh air, filled with the scents of the Mediterranean.  Later, he recalled the time spent here: ‘I slept well, I laughed a lot, and I found a marvellous vigour and patience’.  What more to ask?

The trail starts off paved, but soon becomes a mixture of steps and rough path, winding steeply between dramatic rock formations.
About half- way down the path descends through a steep,V-shaped valley called the Vallon du Duc.  Geologically, it’s a calanque - a deep valley ending in the sea, sometimes called a Mediterranean fjord.

Along the way there were occasional reminders of the man who gave his name to the path: plaques with quotations from Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, such as this one in which animals give voice to the philosopher’s concept of ‘eternal return':

O Zarathustra, for those who think like us, all things dance : they come and offer a hand and laugh and flee – and return. Everything goes, everything returns; the wheel of existence turns eternally. Everything dies, everything is reborn; the cycle of existence goes on eternally.Everything breaks, everything reforms again; the same structure of existence is created eternally. All things separate, all things greet one another anew; the ring of existence remains eternally true to itself.

Oddly, this idea was fresh in my mind, having just watchedTrue Detective, in which detective Rustin Cohle often gives voice to it with thoughts such as: 
This is a world where nothing is solved. Someone once told me, ‘Time is a flat circle.’ Everything we’ve ever done or will do, we’re gonna do over and over and over again.

 To return again and again to this walk would be no bad thing: it’s a great experience (at least going downhill), descending through banks of wild flowers, honeysuckle and pines, breathing in the scents of the Mediterranean, the azure sea spread below.

Indeed, this must be what drew Nietzsche repeatedly to this path, as a quotation from the philosopher, displayed another trailside plaque, suggests:
The next winter, under the halcyon sky of Nizza [Nice] , which then shone into my life for the first time, I found Zarathustra III—and was finished. Scarcely a year for the whole of it. Many concealed spots and heights in the landscape around Nizza are hallowed for me by unforgettable moments; that decisive passage which bears the title ‘On Old and New Tablets’ was composed on the most onerous ascent from the station to the marvellous Moorish aerie, Eza.

"The suppleness of my muscles has always been greatest when my creative energies were flowing most abundantly. The body is inspired: let us keep the ‘soul’ out of it … Often one could have seen me dance; in those days I could walk in the mountains for seven or eight hours without a trace of weariness. I slept well, I laughed much; my vigour and patience were perfect.'
Gerry Cordon (words and photos) 2014 First published on 'That's How the Light Gets In'

Friday 12 September 2014

Gauri Sankar....Final Choice

Photo: The Peace Flag Project

That evening John was quiet and monosyllabic  with disappointment. It was awkward to discuss the route tactfully in front of him. We studied photographs showing how the ridge joined the West Face. There would be some difficult climbing, but it was not easy to calculate how much. However, there was not much packing to do. After some disagreement, We decided not to take sleeping bags but to take a stove and pan. We would try to be up and back within a day - if necessary completing the climb in moonlight. Tim and I would leave first, followed after two hours by Pemba and Guy.

As long as we felt our intimate way up the mountain, accidents could be averted. Yet, within, fear built up unashamedly. When controlled, fear can bring strength. But unleashed fear made us cling to the mountain in a tight panic. In some ancient cultures ‘to clutch the mountain’ was a euphemism for ‘to die’. When I reached the big cornice that I had led across two days before, the fixed rope was once again snagged around icicles. Tim had evidently been unable to release it, for he was now moving amid the snow towers higher up, having soloed across the pitch. I tried flicking it around, then pulling it - without success. ‘He could have waited, ’ I thought. ‘We might have sorted something out together; now I’ll have to solo it.’

I made two moves up the ice and stopped. An internal warning bell was ringing urgently in my head. It was as important a statement as had ever been made to me and I knew it had to be obeyed. The sun was stifling me in my down suit, and I felt hot and clumsy. The memory of the cornice was etched too deeply. I was hanging on too hard. I could not control the dread inside me sufficiently to force myself upwards; I could not summon a hard, brittle shell of will to protect me from the mountain and it threatened to overwhelm me. Death was too near for me to resign myself to the risk. It was an absolute necessity that I should survive and return. He had been prepared to solo it, but I was not. To hell with my pride and the waste of time. I yelled up to Tim for him to come down and help. A distant curse, and the figure descended. The older gunfighter had backed out of the final shoot-out.

He said nothing and I did not explain. At the end of the ropes Tim retrieved the piton I had placed the previous day, and climbed over the crest. He slipped around and beneath the cornice on the north side, turning the frozen wave by the same route a surfer would have used on its fluid, rolling counterparts in the Pacific. The rope bit a deep notch through the eaves of the cornice, and I lowered him into the gap. The ridge now rose up in a four-hundred-foot arrowhead of ice androck that leant against the wall beneath the South Summit’s ice cliffs.

Tim started working his way methodically up the lower and steepest section. His crampons and picks splintered the friable ice, and chunks clattered down into, the abyss, leaving thousands of smaller particles suspended around his rope through the air.  Pemba joined me at the gap. “Best to take cornices on the left side, like chortens, for good luck,” I said. He grinned. He was impressed with the ridge and the distance from the camp. It was the most difficult climb he had ever done, he said. Then he pointed at the South Summit. Five eagles were circling around it, their wings golden brown in the sunshine. I tried to take a picture, but the film in the camera was finished. I fumbled to insert another. But the eagles were gone.

Guy slid into the gap. We all looked up the dangling rope at the soles of Tim’s cramponed boots, a hundred feet above our heads. Tim was fixing a belay.“You could count the number of pitches with runners on this route on the fingers of one hand,” I said. “Will you follow him Guy?”
We followed Tim up the rope. Pemba was ever eager to gain height and he hung close on my heels, unnerving me, as if he were trying to read over my shoulder. The blade of the Arrowhead leant back to fifty-five-degree snow that dripped in great icicles over a thirty-foot overhang below our feet. This rock overhang blocked our view downwards of the main South Face of the South Summit. There was nothing between us and the glacier five thousand feet below. For a while our talk was bold.

“Not long to top, Sir,’ what do you think?” said Pemba. “There’s no way I’m going to spend the night on the plateau,” said Tim. After three unprotected pitches, Tim was tired and Guy took over the lead. There were no more concealed gaps, and for the first time the way was clear. A hundred-and-fifty-foot knife-edge of snow stopped abruptly in the rock and ice wall of the South Summit Plateau. The western flying buttress of Gauri Sankar sank into the mountain without trace. “I’m not stopping here,” shouted Guy when he reached the meeting point. “I’ve put an ice screw in but it’s no good. Can you tie another rope on?”

A narrow diagonal ramp of rock thinly coated in ice leant backabove him at sixty five degrees. As soon as he stepped leftwards off the ridge, Guy was balanced above the West Face, the top five hundred feet of which cut away in an overhanging wall beneath him. Guy’s long body stalked sideways across the wall with the patient stealth of a hunting spider. He devised a cunning protection bythreading thin nylon slings through linked bubbles in the ice. No one uttered the thought that he should hurry, for we all knew it was a long and difficult lead. Talk of the summit died for the day was ending. We had only tine rope left. I tried to memorise the ground above him, as he moved up a groove and attached himself and the rope to a rock spike.

High on the left was a gap in the sérac wall. Two huge, grotesque horns of ice signposted a gateway to the plateau. I tied off the rope to the ice threads as I followed him. If one of them should break, I would swing, perhaps irretrievably, like a pendulum into the darkening abyss. The thought obstructed a job to be done, and I chased it from my mind. I was heady with altitude and the exposure, and the risk was not painful. The irregularities of the earth below were lost beneath a gently undulating swell of fluffy grey-blue clouds. The last rays of sun picked out the thin white line of rope looping above the last crest of the ridge and the little red figure of Tim, clinging to the ice.

I hid my emotion behind the detached eye of my camera. Firelight glowed across rock and ice, and then faded. Soon the cold would arrive. “Looks like it’s my turn,” I said to Guy. He nodded, smiling. The effort was to be shared. I kicked my crampons into the frozen snow, climbing as quickly as possible in the twilight. I was soon panting in the thin air. Ribs of snow concealed dead ground; the ice horns were farther away than I had thought. Night was rushing in, filling me with the fresh energy and balance of urgency. The front points of my crampons skittered. I had reached the ice of the sérac wall; it was brittle and, as I turned in an ice screw, large dinner-plates flaked off. Eventually one sank in and I tied off the rope for the others to follow.

Like a blind man learning Braille, I felt my way across the ice, feeling the surface for a more forgiving texture. I smashed with my ice picks and ice tinkled away down the slope and into the darkness. It took three or four blows to clear the debris and implant the serrated edges enough for confidence. In the blackness gravity lost meaning, and angles were indecipherable. There were no guidelines for balance. Two ice-screw running belays helped me relax. I squeezed around a bulge of ice and saw the outline of the col between the two horns against the night sky. “It’s not far now!” I shouted.

Four on one rope move slowly, and it was a long, cold wait, hanging from an ice screw in the darkness. When Guy arrived he belayed Pemba. We imagined the possibility of the sérac wall toppling over and down the South Face and made facetious comments. “It would be a long ride, ” said Guy. “Might make our descent easier if it falls over whilst we’re above it, ” I said. I took advantage of the security of the anchor and extricated my head torch from my rucksack. The light flooded the ice around us, but beyond it cut a feeble stroke until it was lost in the night. As soon as some slack rope became available, I raced eighty feet to the col, scrambling over the lip on my knees.

“Hey, lads. I’m there!”

Peter Boardman: Sacred Summits. 

Friday 5 September 2014

The Skye Ridge

The Yorkshire Ramblers in the early 195os had one or two very interesting Whitsuntide meets at Loch Coruisk on the Isle of Skye. The participants met at Mallaig, to be taken by boat to Loch Scavaig, and fetched back a week later. I joined George Spenceley for two of these trips. Our ambition was to make the celebrated traverse of the Cuillin Ridge, and in the early part of the week we made our plans and deposited bottles of water at two places on the route in preparation for the big day. On the eve of our attempt we turned in early in my small army pup tent intending to set off at one in the morning. On such occasions I need no alarm clock; I keep waking up every half hour or so.

When we looked out at one o’clock it was obvious the weather was changing. The wind was rising,the sky starless and overcast, and there was already a hint of rain in the air. We cancelled the trip and when in the next hour our predictions were confirmed and the tent began to be shaken by wind and rain we sank deeper into our sleeping bags and soon fast asleep. It was a rough night, and we were aware once or twice of movement about the camp, but we were snug enough and slept on.

We turned out next morning, however, to a rather hostile reception. Our companions, assuming we were battling it out on the hill, had conscientiously checked our tent during the night, replacing pegs where necessary, making sure it did not blow down. We had better luck the following year, and once again, the plan was to leave Coruisk at one in the morning. This time we were a party of three, as we had been joined by Crosby Fox, a sea captain by profession and a keen mountaineer.

Our first objective was the summit of Gars-Bheinn, and we reached it at 3am after a scramble straight up its flank. In the dark on the way up, something hissed loudly at us and we persuaded ourselves that it was a wild cat. By the time we got to the top, daylight had already arrived, and all around us, so it seemed, lay the sea, dotted with islands and headlands,an inspiring sight. There is nothing quite like being up the mountain at the dawning of the day. One feels not only favoured but virtuous, as though the pleasure one experiences is deserved, and not simply a gift from heaven. We had some breakfast and moved on quietly enough, conserving our energy, for we had much to do. We had brought a rope and a sling or two and plenty of food and drink. I had even brought a sleeping bag, not against the possibility of bivouacking on the ridge, but in preparation for our night out at the end.

We made good progress over Scurr a’ Choire, Sgurr nan Eag, Caisteal a’ Gharbh-Choire, Sgurr Dubh Beag, and  Dubhs, to the Thearlaich-Dubh gap, where we met our first bit of difficult rock, and roped up for it. We were pleased, we were doing well, and we were soon on the summit of Sgurr Alasdair, the highest summit in Skye. It lays off the main ridge, but we were soon back from it and over Sgurr Mhic Choinich and An Stac to our next obstacle, the Inaccessible Pinnacle, or ‘In Pin’ as we always called it. The long exposed scramble  along the top edge of this remarkable blade of rock brought us to an abrupt drop. A number of old furry slings marked the abseil point. Not one of them looked worth risking one’s life on, but taken together were reasonably safe. To avoid having to add to the collection, we arranged one our own slings in such a way that when we passed through them all, ours was too long to bear any weight, but was there ready in case the others gave way. The heavier members of our party then went down, and since the old slings bore their weight, I, the lightest, was able to take our own sling off and trust to the old ones.

To be out on this splendid ridge, the rockiest of any in Britain, was rewarding on several counts. The panorama was magnificent with great hills standing out of the sea and going on, range after range, it seemed, into the far distance. The rock, gabbro, was as rough as sandpaper so that we stuck to it easily, and so steep as to convince us that these were on mountains, not hills. The day was hot and sunny; one might have been among the isles of Greece. It was good to be alive. Our way now led over Sgurr Dearg and the various tops of Sgurr na Banachdich, the smallpox peak, to Sgurr Thormaid and Sgurr a’ Ghradaidh, the peak of the mighty winds. It was midday now and we were still going well. George, a great believer in food as a means of combating fatigue, kept making sure were well stoked up. One item of food we’d brought was 11 raw eggs beaten up with sugar and carried in a glass jar. When it came to the pinch neither of my companions could face this delicious concoction, so I had it all to myself and I must say it slipped down easily and proved a highly efficient fuel.

It was about this time that we began coming across men stationed here and there along the ridge, not appearing to be going anywhere. We passed the day and went over Sgurr a’ Mhadaidh. Somewhere along the ridge, perhaps in the bealach by Harta Corrie, we stopped to chat with two such loiterers, and found that they were members of the Alpine Club on a meet at Sligachan Hotel, and that in recognition of his conquest of Everest, they were giving John Hunt a celebratory treat by enabling him and his wife to do an unencumbered traverse of the Cuillin Ridge. The pair were wearing espadrilles, and carrying no ropes, food, drink or spare clothing, as these were to be provided en route. This piece of gossip had an interesting effect upon our little group. By our steady and purposeful progress along the ridge we had made satisfactory time, had had no serious hold-ups, and were clearly going to make it to Sgurr nan Gillean quite comfortably.

We could now afford to slow up a little, take some of the pressure off, take full note of the incomparable rock scenery. But Crosby Fox became obsessively anxious not to be overtaken by the Hunts, and the fact that occasionally they could be discerned in the distance behind us gave a particular urgency to his fears. We were urged to step up the pace, and when we got to The Basteir Tooth and roped up for the rather intimidating pitch up from the little col, the presence of another Alpine Club man waiting there with a rope at the ready was like a goad to drive us on. I for my part, notwithstanding the 11 eggs, was getting tired having been on the go since 1.00 am in the morning, and I had little sympathy for the idea of this finishing spurt. But we made it and avoided the ignominy of being overtaken. On the way down across the moor to Sligachan in the heat of the afternoon we stopped at an inviting looking dub, stripped off and plunged into the peaty water.

We ordered dinner at the hotel. The idea was to sleep in the heather and set off at five in the morning so as to be up Glen Sligachan before the sun began to beat upon it, for the heat wave weather seemed certain to continue. My friends had been offered sleeping bags by two of the Alpine Club men we had spoken to on the ridge, and they thought it only civilised to take a shower before using them. For my part I went straight out into the heather, full of good food, got into my bag, and was blissfully asleep in minutes. George and Crosby fared less well. Livened up somewhat by the shower, they were pestered by midges and kept awake for hours. Consequently when I awoke at five, eager to get going, they were very difficult to rouse and very grumpy. It was for their own good, I pointed out, and in the end they had to admit it, for we got to Loch Athain in the cool of the morning and were up on Clach Glas by the time the full heat of the day struck us.

We were all fairly drowsy on this walk, but the interest of the rock scrambling kept us from nodding off, and we still felt. quite strong. As we went down the ridge of Blaven towards Camasunary an eagle lifted off a ledge just a few feet immediately below us, and sailed off leaving us in no doubt of its size and power. We continued on down, with the fine panorama of the sea before us and the jagged seven mile ridge of the Cuillin to our right. We still had the walk round to Loch Scavaig to do, but the hard work was over, and we felt well pleased with our two days of mountain travel.

When, a day or two later, the boat came and took us all back to Mallaig, I walked down the quay to see if I could get a herring or two for our supper. Some fishermen were unloading their catch into barrels. They were quite willing to let me take a few, but laughed when I tried to get hold of the slippery fish. “Put your hand like this,” one of them said, holding his own hand, palm up, with the fingers  out and bent up like claws, I did so and he hung a herring by its gills on each finger.

George and I, travelling in my open top Austin Tourer  pulled off the road at the white sands of Morar, and in the golden afternoon sunshine. We fried the herrings in butter over a driftwood fire, the air full of screaming  gulls clamouring for the guts and leftovers. What I remember about that delicious meal is how rich I felt....... and how favoured.

Tom Price : CCJ 1999