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Turning Around on a Mountain

A couple weeks ago, two friends and I went to Mote Rosa to try and climb the 4,600m Dufour peak. We had an amazing weekend high above the Zermatt valley on the Swiss Italian boarder.

On Friday, we took 3.5 hours to hike to the mountain refuge that became our home for 3 days, and on Monday we spent 3.5 hours hiking out. In between, we had a day to acclimatise and practice our rope skills on the glacier and a day to make our summit attempt.

We decided that Sunday was to be our summit day, and we got up at 2am to eat breakfast and set off in the dark to avoid both the heat of the day and the soft snow that would make the open crevasse field and snow bridges especially dangerous. I went to bed at 8pm, slept surprisingly well and woke up early. Thoughts of fear quickly filled my head about whether I was fast enough to make the summit and whether I’d hold back the others. I found an avalanche of other fears come pouring into my consciousness. It seemed as if the fear of the climb, particularly that early in the morning, was sparking off all sorts of otherwise unconscious processes.

At 2am, we got up, had a quick breakfast and got ready to start climbing in the dark. Quickly, we were out of the refuge and picking our way up the moraine – the pile of rubble and rocks left behind by an ancient glacier. After getting lost several times in the pitch black, we finally made it onto the glacier and sat down for a snack and to mount our crampons onto our boots.

Thirty minutes later we were crossing the open crevasse field in the dark. Jumping across gaping chasms in the ice, some of them hundreds of meters deep (and in the wrong place), as well as several meters across. We were roped up just in case someone fell in, but it didn’t help much with the sound of cracking and creaking beneath our feet. Once we started to cross this area we had to get out the other side quickly and without misjudging our steps in the dark.

Safely across, we started the long slog towards the summit, and the final piece of technical snow, rock and ice climbing. As we marched on the sky started to lighten, and around 6.30am the sun came up. The result was an astoundingly beautiful skyline of high mountain peaks, picked out by the yellowy glow of the rising sun. I tried to eat and drink as we continued, but I was finding it increasingly difficult to keep my energy up, and at 3,500m. I was already starting to suffer from the altitude, feeling nauseous and having a thumping headache.

It's said that some people acclimatise quickly, while others take much longer. As we approached 4,000m the views were becoming more and more magnificent, but I was suffering more and more. I started to feel non-human and decided at 4,000m to turn around. As we got to the 4,000m mark, we all took a rest. We could see the final ridge and climb, but it looked a world away. I told the others I was done, I couldn’t focus and I knew I would lose more focus and strength as we climbed higher. We agreed I’d descend on my own, and wait for a fast group to summit and descend so that I could join their rope to cross the most dangerous crevasse field near the bottom. The whole experience was both humbling and provided great learning. I felt bad for my team mates, who eventually had to turn back themselves, although much closer to the summit. I pondered the result of setting off to conquer the summit, only to turn around, and realised that it’s not always about the conquering, but about the experience and the living of life and the opportunities we are offered. Ultimately, I don’t think that high altitude mountaineering is for me, and it took a difficult experience like this to help me secure that knowledge and focus on the passions where I do want to spend my time and energy. It’s not always possible to know what an experience will bring, but making the time to take a chance and have a go can lead to so much unexpected learning!

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