Skip to main content
Original Issue


Someone with a queasy stomach would do better to gallop on a raging bull camel across a desert than to stand stone still on a glacier. A glacier, in its own slow way, has done more bucking, heaving, rambling, rocking and rolling than any creature on earth. To step onto a glacier is to step onto pure, concentrated momentum; no foothold is more exhilarating, more uncertain. A glacier can sweep through a person's mind, freezing out essential points of reference—time, space, your own name. There's nothing too big or heavy for a glacier to carry. Last August I climbed two of them high in the Swiss Alps. The first one, at 3,000 meters, prepared me for the second one. The second one, at 4,000 meters, resculpted my interior landscape.

I had forgotten all about dinosaurs, the Ice Age, Adam and Eve and glaciers until I went to visit my old summer camp, the International Teen Camp at the Ecole Nouvelle in Chailly, Lausanne. Though I hadn't been there for 10 years, I popped in for a quick hello; within a week I found myself all the way up there, twice, on two different glaciers, up in that part of the sky where they make the blue, where clouds sweep by and knock you off balance. Some camps, when you go back to visit, make you dress up in a sheet and sing your own poems out at the end of the dock. At ITC, a camp that offers every adventure any plucky adolescent could ever yearn for, they tie a rope around your waist, hand you an ice pick and point the way up.

To climb a Swiss glacier a person has to spend the night before up on the mountain in a cabin, sometimes with a bunch of Belgian Boy Scouts whose counselors make them sing non-stop, in English, songs like When the Saints Go Marching In or We Shall Overcome, which doesn't make it any easier to get up at 4 a.m., as glacier climbers in Switzerland do. But the sleeplessness is worth it. A glacier won't let you down, if you're careful.

"Do you know how Trotsky died?" a handsome lad from Mexico asked me in the parking lot even before I'd gotten used to the fact that the dirty laundry in my traveling pack had already been replaced by pears, bread, jam and chocolate for the hike up the Wildhorn, an average-sized Alp of 3,247 meters in the canton of Valais.

"No," I said, staring down with pleasure at the red laces of a borrowed pair of hiking boots.

"Like this. Yaa!" and he swung his ice pick down hard at the ground. The ends of my red laces jumped two feet. "See, Trotsky was writing at his desk and a guy came up behind him and...zappo!" The boy handed me the pick and I put it over my shoulder to get the feel of it.

Any tool that can get a grip on a glacier could slip through a human body in minus three seconds and come out clean. A pick seems to carry a hand up the mountain and not the other way around.

"I'm the only Egyptian Alpinist in existence," said Hanni, one of the counselors, as we started up the path. "At least as far as I know."

There were four counselors on this hike: Hanni; Maria, a social scientist from Cyprus; Andreas, a law student from West Germany; and Patricia, a math student from France. The 14 campers were from Great Britain, Belgium, Italy, Sweden (two of the Swedes were of Korean extraction), Germany, Mexico and the U.S.—there were almost as many nationalities as there were kinds of wild-flowers shooting pockets of bright color up through the grass.

The walk to the cabin where we'd stay the night was fairly easygoing on a gently meandering path, but when a foot is packed deep inside a mountain-climbing boot, each step becomes an event. A person who has walked through Topeka, Kans. in hiking boots has seen a different city from someone who has walked across it in sneakers; the person in boots has been somewhere. The sole of a sneaker would only skim the surface of a mountain path; the sole of a boot goes deeper, joining the calf muscle to the heart of the mountain.

"Salut les moutons!" someone yelled to a troop of sheep.

The path crossed back and forth through a wide, shallow river that we drank from. Glacier water is to tap water as English beer is to diet soda; it's full of food, depth, anecdotes. When you swallow it, you wait a second to see if something will happen inside. I sipped it at every opportunity—and splashed it on my face and down my back, which was sweating under my pack. After about two hours we reached a glacial lake whose extraordinary aquamarine color was disturbing to look at because the color was so vibrant, almost garish, next to the green grass. A few of us took a quick dip 4 in it; it was like swimming in three elements: water, green and cold.

"Nice cow," Hanni said while drying off and patting the forehead of one of the cows sedately munching buttercups near the lake.

The cabin, the Wildhornhütte, 1929, is perched at the end of a narrow rocky valley. It's a square stone building with shutters painted red and white, matching the colors of the Swiss flag that's planted at every shelter in the mountains. It's a comforting patch of cloth that can tame the most bizarre landscape. Because of mist, we couldn't see the craggy peaks we'd be climbing early in the morning to get up to the glacier. We knew they were there, the same way a person buying a paper or admiring a pigeon on the sidewalk at 34th Street and Fifth Avenue knows that the Empire State Building is there.

After packing in great quantities of soup, meat, rice, chocolate and tea, we retired to the sleeping quarters—dormitories where thin mattresses are laid out on long wood platforms. A Swiss mountain cabin is a wonderful place to go through the motions of sleeping without actually sleeping; there are few circumstances where such uncomfortable conditions are so comfortable. The air is thick with robust exhaustion, fitful snoring, the aroma of wool socks, muscles in the making. The pillowcases are red-checkered. The walls, exuding a wood scent, seem more adept than most walls at keeping the outside outside. If one actually does sleep, it doesn't feel like sleep; it's more a preliminary chairlift ride that transports some part of one's being up to the top of the mountain. It's not something passive, done at the end of a day; it's an activity done at the beginning of the next day.

That night there were wild thunderstorms, almost as loud as the Belgian Boy Scouts had been at dinner, loud enough to get past the foreign elbow that spent half the night in my ear. When we got up in the morning it was pitch black and raining so hard we thought we wouldn't be able to get up to the glacier. But after an hour spent drinking bowlfuls of hot tea and talking with the Wildhornhütte's cook, a Swiss named Peter Zenn, who works in an undershirt and an imposing hat made out of a folded newspaper, the weather cleared and we took off.

For two slow hours we climbed up a steep rocky slope, and then we reached the foot of the glacier. You couldn't miss it: Covered with snow, it was an immense sweep of dazzling white with little hillocks here and there swelling like dunes. We couldn't see the top. Finally we got to use the ropes. Ropes. I'd been wishing the whole day before that I could have had one tied around my waist—even in the bus—just for the feeling of security it would impart. (If a person wants a little more confidence during a job interview, she would do well to tie a rope around her waist.) People tie themselves to other people on a mountain in case somebody falls down a crevasse or off the mountain. Usually the ropemates can rescue the fallen person, but sometimes everybody falls. (A week before I went to ITC, I spent an evening in Zermatt watching along with other tourists as a helicopter transported something dangling at the end of a long cable; it turned out to be the body of one of four Japanese hikers who had fallen together down the north face of the Matterhorn. The locals don't even bother to look up, it happens so often.)

The three campers I was tied to, at distances of about 18 feet, were very friendly, and the middle two were in love; their frequent conferences made the total length of our rope often shorter than it should have been. But none of us fell down a crevasse. We saw crevasses—gaping blue-toothed fissures in the ice, awesome cracks that would undo a schizophrenic passerby. We may have stepped on a crevasse without knowing it; packed snow on the ice can conceal an fissure.

On a glacier each step you take is tentative, even if your path has been tested by someone in front of you. Walking on a glacier is like being seven and walking across someone's backyard where you're not supposed to be and the old geezer inside is rumored to have a shotgun. It's as delicate a journey as tiptoeing across somebody's mind—a sudden thought could snap through the ice and send you toppling. One result of having to look down so much at where you're stepping is that you don't tend to look around; you watch your boots schlomp, schlomp, schlomp, trudging through the snow, trying not to step on slack rope. You say little mantras to yourself; you make up jingles to help you forget the muscles that have turned into spiked iron balls in your thighs; you make wild promises to yourself ("O.K., one more step and you can have...") and suddenly you find you've arrived at the top. You look up and there's no more white, only blue; and you wonder why it's so blue, and then you realize you're inside the sky. You look down, out, over, across, around, and there—gathered up in countless white peaks out of reach of cable TV, divorce courts, PCBs, CIAs or IOUs, Flag Day, interest rates, canned meats, traffic jams or the Super Bowl—is the top of the world. You bring your Granny Smith apple up to your mouth to take a bite, but before you even touch the skin with your teeth, it's already spitting its seeds out.

"Do you know how thick this glacier is?" I asked a small convivial group of Swiss hikers who had welcomed us to the top by yodeling in four-part harmony.

"About a kilometer," said one.

"About 50 meters," said another.

"Maybe 20," said another.

"Well, how old is it?"

"Pretty old."

"Very old."

"Do you know why the ice is blue?" was my last question. I didn't ask them what was on the other side of the edge of the universe, or why the world was made, even though—now that I felt so close to the edge of the universe—I was wondering about both those questions.

None of them had any idea about the blueness. They all just sat there and ate chocolate, confident that, whatever its history, the glacier would stay there for at least another couple of hours to hold them up. That's part of the appeal of a glacier; never is one more certain of what is above or less certain of what is below.

"Have you ever fallen down a crevasse?" I asked my Swiss friend Francine in a calm, controlled voice. It was five days later and I had boldly, if not stupidly, gone off with the hardiest group on the biggest camp hike—up the Bishorn, 4,159 meters high and one of the tallest Alps. Francine was busy in the dark trying to tie the mountain-climbing cord to my harness, a device looped round my legs, arms and chest, which she had just assured me would make my stay in a crevasse more comfortable if I should fall into one.

"Uh? Oh. Sure. Twice, I guess," she answered offhandedly, fumbling with the cord. It was hard to see. At four in the morning the only illumination came from the disc-shaped lights strapped to the foreheads of the Alpinists in other climbing parties who were preparing to begin their ascents in the darkness. If it hadn't been for what they were wearing below their foreheads (scarves, down parkas, corduroy knickers, wool socks, boots), they might have been a mini-convention of miners.

"Really? You have? What was it like?"

"I don't know," she shrugged. "I remember one time they kept dropping me little bits of chocolate tied to a string. Oh dear, I have to start again." She began the knot again. Clearly, being inside a glacier hadn't meant much to her. O.K. I would stop worrying about crevasses. I hadn't worried on the last glacier; why should I worry on this one just because it was at a greater altitude?

It was freezing. Even the stars, brighter than usual, looked cold. Hunched over, with their ice picks resting on their shoulders, the shadowy figures of the Alpinists looked like gnomes preparing to tromp down into the mines. Every now and then four or five of them would strike off tied together; way in the distance tiny strings of white lights flickered as they slowly climbed. It didn't seem as though anybody was doing any of this for fun; the atmosphere was solemn, almost religious. It made me nervous.

"Did I tell you they found my grandfather?" said Francine. "Ah, I've almost got it now."

"No. Was he lost?"

"Thirty-one years ago he fell into a crevasse; he'd always refused to use ropes. I was only one year old. They told my mother at the time that he'd probably turn up in 30 to 50 years, and, sure enough last month a guide found him on an expedition."

" was he?"



"Perfectly preserved. His body had sunk 1,000 meters and drifted 12 kilometers down the valley. They even found a metro ticket in his pocket, good from Ouchy to Lausanne." She laughed. "There! We're all set."

We were all set—except for that part of my mind which was tumbling down the new crevasse in my heart.

"Yeah, but Francine," I yelled up to her an hour later. It was still dark, and we had already crossed one formidable crevasse over a little footbridge of snow. "Weren't you at all surprised when they found your grandfather? I mean, don't you think that's pretty amazing after 31 years?"

"Mais non" she yelled back down. "C'est normal!" which is how the Swiss French describe anything that seems perfectly natural.

I didn't say anything. The puniness of my voice had alarmed me. Also, it occurred to me that a) she would have thought it strange if he hadn't turned up, and b) there were plenty of people back home who wouldn't consider hiking up a glacier at four in the morning normal.

We pressed onward and upward in the dark. The only sounds I heard were the crunching of my boots in the snow and the crunching of my headache in the raw bitter-cold wind. (I had been much too excited about climbing up to 4,000 meters to sleep at all.) The tip of my nose was dead. The hot tea I'd brought in my canteen had frozen solid. My feet ached in their new boots—we'd hiked six hours the day before to get up to the cabin. My unsettled stomach was getting more unsettled dreading the 3,800-meter altitude we would soon reach, the height where people—if they are going to get sick from the thin air and vomit or pass out—tend to get sick. My thigh muscles felt heavy enough to rip loose and drop like sand bags down through my feet through the mountain.

But all my aches and fears vanished the instant I turned around and noticed the sun coming up. Lord. If a mind that had spent 31 years suspended in the frozen grip of a glacier had suddenly been broiled awake and regained consciousness, it wouldn't have been more startled. All the sunrises I've ever seen in my life might as well have been made out of construction paper compared with that sunrise. And we were on top of it; we were on top of the morning. Suddenly I felt a pull around my waist. My ropemates, who had stopped to indulge my daydreaming, wanted to get going. With a renewed vigor, as if the sun were pushing me up from behind, I grabbed hold of the rope and started walking. I didn't worry anymore about what I was standing on; I knew that the top of this glacier, although it might be as treacherous as the middle of a frozen lake, would offer me a whole new world view.