The Way Up: A Vertical Journey on the Monviso
A group of climbers are already on the wall. Their headlamps gleam somewhere above us. It’s 4:30 a.m., and the three of us have just left the hut. The air is crisp and our breath freezes in the biting cold before dawn. We look at the stars, still glowing over the ridges, and glimpse another group in the distance: more people, more headlamps, more gleaming. The lights look like tiny jewels nestled in the immense 3,810-metre-high rock. But they are moving.
We set off. For now there is still a trail, running alongside a lake, invisible in the dark. Grass and rocks are covered in dew, which intermittently shines and disappears under the beams of our headlamps.
We keep a steady pace: my father always told me, consistency is more important than speed when climbing a mountain. Within half an hour we reach the first bulwarks. The sun has not yet risen and the world is asleep. The only sound is the inhale and exhale of breath from our lungs.
It’s time to tie into the rope: from now on we rely only on each other. If one falls, the others must hold them. Trust and responsibility are imperative in mountaineering.
The sky is slowly brightening; a new day is about to begin, and there is a deep sense of beauty starting it in such a majestic place. We proceed with steady, cautious steps, our fingers groping for handholds and cracks in the rock. We feel like beetles crawling up a sleeping giant.
We pause for a moment, turn our backs to the wall and watch the Eastern hemisphere catch fire and drive away the night. The stars slowly dissolve, one after the other, as if they were mere mirages.
All of a sudden, it’s daylight. Still very cold, but at least we can turn off our headlamps. As we reach a pass at 3000 metres, a merciless, freezing wind lashes against our faces. I take a moment to reflect on how far we’ve come, having set off for the climb a day before, following a well-marked, yet endless trail across wet prairies and misty lakes. I marvel at the journey thus far — and what awaits.
By late afternoon, we reach a hut at 2600 meters. Amidst the fog, the great building appears out of nowhere. It seems deserted in the surrounding cocoon-like environment.
But appearances can be deceiving. As we open the door, we are welcomed by the loud clamour and shouting of a few dozen climbers. This is an outpost of human life in the mineral solitude of the peaks. We close the door and lock the solemn silence of the mountains outside.
The ceilings are low, the furniture made of wood, the air smells of meat and potatoes. I look at the guests’ faces: sun burnt, unshaven and rugged. Even still, they look joyful in their environment – a mountain hut full of mountaineers.
My father knows almost everyone. He’s a mountain guide and once held a record on one of the walls of the mountain we’re climbing. Space is tight, so we sit shoulder to shoulder during dinner. Everyone eats the same thing at the same time and there is only one type of wine. This is no place for being fussy – you eat and drink what you’re served. The group speaks exclusively of their recent climbs: fascinating stories of man and nature, struggle and conquest. We’re in bed by 10pm. After all, wake-up call is 3:50 a.m. and breakfast is served at 4.
We sit down for breakfast and I cast a sidelong glance: the mood in the hut has changed from the night before. Everyone sips their coffee and herbal tea in reclusive silence, focusing on the impending climb. Reaching the hut was a matter of physical strength, but conquering the summit will be a matter of technique. Minds must be cleared from bad thoughts or secular worries.
Without a word, everyone gears up meticulously in their helmets and harnesses; the only sound is the snapping of carabiners and the jingling of crampons and icepicks. Our boots pound on the wooden floor as we walk outside. Within minutes, the hut is just a fading light behind our backs.
Now it’s just us and him, the giant.
The cold wind stops as we cross the pass and enter a solitary and silent valley covered in boulders. Some snow here and there. The environment has changed; while we could spot villages far down in the plain on the eastern slope, here, facing south, we only see uninterrupted mountain ranges. No trace of animal or floral life, simply rocks and solitude.
It is as if we had walked onto another planet. This sort of confrontation, between the mind and the “nothing”, can be challenging for a climber. But the sun smooths it a bit, caressing the mountain tops with its rays and warming the temperature.
Soon we reach the second wall, the longest of the two. Less a wall, it is a series of long, blade-sharp ridges converging towards the summit. The climb becomes vertiginous.
It’s the most difficult part of the climb, and I start to feel the thin air of the altitude. But the headache soon fades. The higher we go, the more stunning it gets. 2500 metre high mountains look more like hills beneath us.
We approach the summit and the excitement kicks in. It’s great to be here, it’s great to be alive.
As we turn a corner, there it is, the 3810 metre high summit, the long awaited goal. There are other alpinists, one of whom is a priest, celebrating a Holy Mass. It is not a matter of whether or not you believe; the stunning landscape surrounding us makes you feel grateful and overwhelmed by the idea of just experiencing it. This seems better suited for prayer than any of the magnificent cathedrals I’ve visited before.
The view leaves one speechless. Cordilleras of mountains as far as the eye can see. And us, towering above all of it.
Climbing a mountain is, in the end, a journey, both external and internal. It teaches you about who you are, it tests your limit. You learn to be consistent, to search the path, to observe your surroundings, not to fear solitude, and to be humble and courageous.
Climbing is about looking inside yourself and getting to the core of things, discerning what matters and what doesn’t, which path is the right way and which leads to a cliff. I owe these life lessons to a 3,810-metre-high mountain called the Monviso and to my 60-year-old father, without whom, this climb would have never been possible.
Have you climbed a mountain summit before? Which mountain? Let us know in the comments below!
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