Monte Velino - Apennines. 14 AscentsWell, I have not lost count of the number of times that I climbed Velino, only that I lost count of the number of times I tried. They told me there were some hills around - I had an assignment in the Apennines. Hills! As arrived in the dark to a lonely 2 star Hotel, and crashed into bed wondering what the morrow would bring - the new Customer, the machines. I'm great at my work. So lucky, in fact. But I was born for it.
I lay in a dark room, though now spiked with a single light ray filtering through a gap in the shutters. The dust sparkling as each particle passed across the beam, only to be gone again. The signal that it was now light outside and I could lie there no longer for want of knowing what the daylight would render, and I flung open the shutters. No, not hills! Whoever thought that, but the magnificent sight of the Velino Range filling my eyeballs, 10 miles away but straight in my face. Delicious, delicious. So powerful. Awesome. I had come to Italy for my job, and perhaps somewhere along the way, find passion. Though my life's other passion was reawakened, as in an instant, I craved to be there up in the heights again. And so began a turbulent love affair, where over a period of six years I frequented Abruzzo and totally engaged myself. Though not just the outside me, but my mind, the "me", the "I" inside - that part which I sometimes saw and felt in the shroud of my jacket hood - that person there, reflected back at me in the confines of the inner thoughts amongst the challenge of an open, wild and bitter mountainside in a sometimes battle of wills born of my desire to be someone. But not to someone else. No need for anyone to see. No need for anyone to know. I needn't always tell. It was all about being alone. No one to talk to up there, no one to rely on, no one to need, no one else to screw up. I tired of someone falling on me. I never fell. It's not me. But all the time I know that it could happen. That's the whole point. Got to push the envelope. It's all so simple really.
I don't do big technical stuff, no big walls, all that gear. My axe has hardly the pick required, but it has that long shaft, good all round, good for stopping with. It won't dig in and catapult me backwards. And the crampons. None. Don't use. Don't need. Don't want. I rely on me - the skills that I am born with. They are good. People called me crazy. That, I am not. Only that I totally know my skills. Right down to the very core. That I was born with them, is a gift. Though I nurtured them as a kid and gained the trust of my mentors when at the age of thirteen they took me into peril on mountainsides of sheet ice with but only an axe. And there I learned to stay the perils of ice with feet that became as tactile as my own hands as I splayed myself across the moves. Though I was already inspired - it is that photo of Tenzing at Everest's Summit, the inscribed names that adorn the ceiling of the bar in North Wales, where they all first came together though I had never seen or met. Now silhouettes and shadows, but indelibly imprinted into my psyche.
And as I spent the winters in this icy playground, I learned all about myself - but not just the me, the I, but that counterpart - the elementary basis of the subconscious mind - the id. As I climbed this wonderful mountain those fourteen times. Many times I nearly came unstuck as I teetered on slim steps cut with the axe, up through the steep S-gulley, hard and crusted, where it once slumped and I span, though I turned in an instant and stopped myself. And on another day where the failures were mounting - no, it was time to push it, as I made an irreversible move in a gully corner - the ice slab on the wall peeling as I loaded it with the pick, my boot in an icy niche that I had cut and somehow holding there without the spikes - poised on the moment of commitment, both needing to do it and knowing that I shouldn't. The whole craziness of just being there. And in that moment, how alive I felt - so in contact with the me, the I inside, and the companionable, though opposing force of survival that didn't like the whole idea. The counterpart, this internal competition - the emergent thoughts from that other part inside - the id. Its interest lies in keeping itself alive by keeping the "you" alive. That's where the fear comes from - it creates it. It's simple. It's the reason I came here - to do battle, to settle the score of who should be in charge. Yet over the aeons of ancestry, was it the bold who survived or perished. I am here, so it is the bold. The timid were eaten. But it's a fine edge - easy to err, easy to die in the jaws if you get too close.
So I made it over the move, and then onto the Ramp and beneath the high rock band and across a glistening traverse, but I had to retreat, reversing my steps as it became a game, not of skill and boldness, but one of Russian Roulette. I won't play that game, but I was down to the last chamber that time. And I nearly choked. I'd burned the bridge. But perhaps there already was a way around it - the snow chute was there all the time - perhaps the id saw it and didn't let me know - just so that I wouldn't go and it wouldn't have to. The inner battle of wills ordained by existence itself. It would all be so mundane without the battles.
Return I must, as another venture led me onto the glassy summit ridge under pristine conditions, but where I ran out of time and retreated again, disconsolate. Only to return, as I paused in contemplation in the mist of the summit ridge, and standing on a prow like the bow of the Titanic - should I go on or retreat once more as I stood in a state of loneliness, angst and pride - each emotion bearing down on me or shining with the exigence of the moment. An experience quite unlike any other. And I continued. My legs were quivering through the fear of the exposure and isolation, and a slip would be my last where sheet ice lay all around me. You're crazy, I thought. Though I was never more sane. And even amidst that fear, how engaged I was - pushing myself, to defy what would otherwise stop me, despite that I respected the need to have it. Such a paradox it was.
And I stood at the summit, savouring the timeless moments, each possessing time but together spanning no time at all. That summit time as I sat cold and quite alone and now pondering the peril of the descent. But then a Griffin Eagle soared in like a guardian. How inspiring. Such a reward. Be careful now, it said, as I prepared to leave the summit. Then the haggard thoughts of decent emerged. Summit time was over, and so began the peril - a near epic where I faced outwards, back against the demonic-shaped pinnacles - and how I stayed attached almost defies me. And I emerged from out of the mist in moments where I nearly cracked, as the broad winged Eagle swooped in once more and showed me the way. My method made it all the more the greater. And how in such moments of peril, one can really live.
At the base of the mountain, on the track, the great bird left me a foot-long wing feather - the tool of the Ahwaneechee people - the feather, the most sacred. I had not conquered the mountain, but only the fear. And the great bird - perhaps it was my spirit.