Look at any of them for too long and you’ll find yourself tracing the lines of famous routes on their northern aspects. The 1938 route and the Directissima on the Eiger, The Lauper, Haston-Eistrup and The Nollen on the Monch and the North East ridge and Silberhorn (to the north and often included in an ascent of the Jungfrau from the northern side) on the Jungfrau.
On the drive back from Fribourg this morning, just after sunrise, with the glow of the early light illuminating the famous trio against an overcast sky, I found myself doing just that.
The Nollen is a strikingly obvious line up the North West rib of the Monch. From Kleine Scheidegg, you can easily see the line up to the Guggihütte
(where most parties overnight on their ascent) and on up to the Monchplateau, and so to the Nollen itself. From there it climbs the ice field to the meeting point with the South West ridge and on to the summit.
Technically, it’s not an overly demanding route. In good conditions the summit can be reached in as little as 4.15 minutes from Grindelwald (if your name is Ueli Steck). That said, in lean conditions, the ice can be a bit of a nightmare and unconsolidated snow can make for slow progress too.
It’s funny, I’ve always known that I’m capable of climbing these things, but having the confidence to actual set off, to say, ‘right I’ll be back tomorrow night, I’m heading up the ….’ is something that I have struggled with for a while now. When I was younger, to commit to a head-point was something I seemed able to do, despite the consequences of it going wrong being potentially disastrous. Perhaps it was the follies of youth? Or perhaps it was a mind free of shackles?
Having being diagnosed with anxiety just under 18 months ago, I was forced into some soul searching, it became apparent that I hadn’t really been listening to what my mind and body wanted. A little bit preoccupied with earning money in a morally corrupt industry and charging around trying to have fun, I basically burned out. My brain decided that enough was enough and for all intents and purposes, blew a fuse. Panic attacks were huge and frequent. The sense of impending doom was a feeling I cant even begin to describe except to say that it was so all consuming, my sanity was definitely tested. I became frightened of caffeine or alcohol, fearing that they could tip me over the edge. I struggled with social scenes, (I have never been a fan of big groups of people but this was now the least of my worries) meeting people became so stressful that often I would fumble my words even with close friends. I’d find reasons to not have to stay places or even go in the first place. Conversely, spending time on my own was time at the hands of my biggest tormentor. Something needed to change.
Having recently taken up photography, I found that this was one of the few things that I could do. It’s absorbing, perhaps even cathartic. Certainly it allowed me to enjoy something and not to worry, if only for a few minutes whilst I was doing it. I am drawn to landscape photography, perhaps because it’s potentially the easiest of the different genres, or perhaps (as I like to think) because it helps me to realize the beauty around us. It helps me to look at my surroundings and to become immersed in them.
I set off for the Guggihütte at around 10.30 am from Kleine Scheidegg and used the full 3.5 hours to get there, stopping to take in the view, take pictures and work out where routes on the north face went. By the time I reached the hut, the snow was fully in the sun and becoming heavy. So I moved a bit quicker over the last 20 mins to get across the snow slope before any slumps hit me.
The rest of the afternoon was spent indulging in what I can only describe as mindfulness. Fully absorbed and in the moment in all I did.
Just me. Sharpening my axe and crampon points, lying in the sun watching birds circle, collecting snow to melt for water, boiling water on the wood burning stove, taking pictures, watching the sunset, drinking more brews than I care to remember and genuinely enjoying spending time on my own for the first time in a very long time.
A restless night ended with the 4.00am alarm. It was time to get some noodles and tea inside me before questing off in search of some ice fun. Although the snow was in better condition that the previous afternoon, it was really unconsolidated and forced me to take a wandering line to the Monchplateau. Unsure of the best line up the Nollen, I decided to wait for first light so got back in my sleeping back for 20 minutes.
More steep, unconsolidated, knee-deep powder had me at the base of the Nollen. From here on it was névé followed by a 60° section of bullet ice, before the angle eased. With the easing of the angle came the return of unconsolidated snow. From the top of the Nollen to the base of the next ice slope took around an hour and sapped a lot of energy. By the time I reached the next ice section I was in no mood for the ice that awaited. Around 300m of 60° bullet hard ice followed, my calves burned and my energy levels were taking a kicking, as was my water. Managing to escape out right, I found the going a little easier, winding my way through the frozen jumble of rocks. At last I met the summit ridge where I feasted on my remaining sweets, a Powergel and half of my remaining 400ml of water. Now the war of attrition began. In the full heat of the midday sun I trudged upwards, wary of the cornice to my right and the crevassed ground to my left. After an hour, I made it. I was at the summit. But now I had to get down to make sure I made the train. No problem it’s only a
little over 2 hours descent. Oh how wrong I was. The ridge was in terrible condition. With the south side having been blasted by the sun for the morning and the north a jumble of cornices, hard ice and areas of unconsolidated powder. The route along the ridge swapped sides frequently and as well as being physically demanding, it was definitely devouring my already depleted mental reserves.
Once at the end of the summit ridge, it was a case of down-climbing, abseiling, sliding and swimming my way to the sanctuary of the track back to the Jungfraujoch.
I knew I was pushing it close to catch the last train, but I’d neglected to take into account the change in season timetables and thus arrived to find that I’d missed the train by 45 mins. I’d given pretty much all I had to give on the stagger back to the Jungfraujoch, so when the steward in the station took pity on me and plied me with chocolate and iced tea I felt that maybe my luck wasn’t completely out. In fact, as luck would have it, a chopper making a scenic flight in 1 hour’s time would have one spare seat down to the valley. For the same cost as a night in the Monchjochshütte winter room and a ticket back down on the train, I was on the valley floor and heading home to some beers and good company quicker than if I’d made the earlier train.
So, as I smiled on the drive back to Bern this morning, I felt happy. I wasn’t smiling so much for the fact that I’d climbed what most would consider a pretty steady route up a big hill, it was much more than that. I was smiling because I’d managed to have the confidence to do something that I had wanted to do for a while. That I had managed to enjoy my own company and truly live in the moment. I’d been calm, awestruck, content, stressed, exhausted and elated. I’d experienced all these emotions on my own and it made my personal victory all the sweeter.
People talk a lot about mindfulness and the importance of it for good mental health. It’s taken me a long time to be able to distill what mindfulness is to me or at least how I can achieve it. For me it is absolutely the quiet, stillness of the mountains. It’s their beauty and their raw power as they release avalanches. It’s watching the birds play and it’s tracing the history etched into the mountain faces. It’s all of those things and nothing else in that moment. Mindfulness is subjective and I think the reason I struggled with it for a while is that I tried conventional, prescribed methods of achieving it instead of looking for the thing that brings me calm. What is true for everyone though is that in a world with an ever quickening pace of life, the willingness and ability to slow down, take time out from an increasingly materialistic world and see and be part of the beauty around can only be healthy.
I feel I’ve gained a little confidence from that trip; I’ve regained my spark for the mountains and the drive to push myself physically and mentally. More importantly, I’ve learned through this and BASE jumping, not to compare myself to others, but to look inwardly for the reasons for challenging myself. I think in that way lies my road to recovery. So now it’s back to guidebooks and planning my next solo adventure.
I’m grateful to have an amazing bunch of friends and family around me who provide me with support and encouragement and words of wisdom and comfort through the dark times. It’s truly amazing to see the work of the myriad of charities and support groups out there. It seems that things are moving in the right direction and that mental health issues are becoming less stigmatized and something that we are all more aware of.