Outside Magazine, August 1994
WE CHECKED OUT OF THE hut and were on the Kander firn Glacier by eight-myself and my rwo sons, Andre and Nick, and their school buddies Jerome and Alex. The snow was still frozen as we traversed beneath the long, jagged ridge of the Tschingelhorn, a bloom of sunlight projecting over us onto the rock walls across the glacier, five miles away. The air was clean and smelled of wood smoke.
After 45 minutes we reached the Petersgrat, a 10,OOO-foot-high spine of pure snow with a sweeping view of the southern Alps. There they were: the Weisshorn, the Matterhorn, the Zinal Rothorn, Mont Blanc. Our plan was to descend intO the Lorschental, the valley that gaped thousands of feet before us. The way down wasn’t exactly clear; whatever tracks there might have been to follow had been erased by wind. But I didn’t think it was going to be a problem, because I’d made this descent rwice before: in 1961, when I was a teenager myself, with my dad and brother, and 20 years ago, honey mooning with my long-gone first wife. She was an ocean person, it turned out.
There are actually three routes from the Petersgrat down intO the Lotschental, but we weren’t able to find any of them. We ended up going too far down the Talgletscher, between two ribs known as the Chrindelspitzen and the Tellispitzen.- The snow gave way to corn ice laced with small crevasses that dropped off to a small lake maybe 700 feet below. This was definitely not the way. But it was only a short traverse to some rocks and then another down to the lake, below which we could see a trail. We could have climbed back up and descended the Chrindelspitzen, but we decided to take our chances on the rock.
If we had had crampons, I wouldn’t have had to chop steps. My fault: I was trying to keep everybody’s weight to a minimum, and I didn’t think we were going to need crampons on this rwoweek trek in Switzerland’s Bernese Oberland, which wasn’t supposed to involve anything hairy or technical.
The object was simply to revisit some of my childhood haunts, to take my boys to the high mountains that had once fed my imagination, in hopes that I might pass along the legacy of those days and this place.
At least we had ice axes and a rope, and I remembered how to tie a bowline on a coil. We roped up, and I made a loop for each of the boys to slip his ax-shaft into and showed them how to plunge the pick into the ice and belay in case one of us slipped-which, I added, was absolutely verboten. Reminding myself that Alex’s dad was a successful personal-injury lawyer, I diligently hacked bigfoot steps that sent shards of ice skipping down to the lake, and the boys, belaying each other from above, followed one at a time.
Suddenly, from close by, there was a thunderous roar, and an avalanche of blue ice that had broken off the glacier came crashing down a gully just beyond the rocks-right where I had planned for us to descend. Chastened, if not a bit paranoid, we picked our way nimbly down an outcrop until the last 20 feet, where there were no holds to be found. Heaving our packs to a snow patch below, we slid on our butts to a bed of crystals, landing next to each other. In some way, our proximity to disaster only heightened the moment-its beauty and dimension. If the boys hadn’t understood the mountain’s dichotomous moods- its sudden flashes of violence giving way to majestic calm -they were humbled by rhem now.
IN 1951, WHEN I WAS FOUR AND MY brother was eight, my parents left us for two months in a camp in Gstaad, where we were fined ten centimes for every word of English we spoke. My roommate was the crown prince of Afghanistan, who was later assassinated. Our hiking boots had hobnails-the Vibram sole was still a few years in the future-and in them we scaled the surrounding sawtoothed summits.
My parents fell in love with the Alps. We began to spend summers in Gstaad, and then we rented a chalet in nearby Gsteig, which was less glitzy but boasted a thundering waterfall (since siphoned off by a hydroelectric plant). In 1958 we discovered Kandersteg, a low-key resort, deep in rhe Bemese Oberland, catering mainly to the British middle class. Twenty years now since my last visit, the village, sprawled out along the Kander River, is unchanged. The hotel dining rooms are still filled with Brits taking their meals in silence.
Our plan, hatched several months earlier after poring over maps and books in my parems’ home, was to spend a week hut-hopping around Kandersteg, then to hike over a series of passes to Grindelwald, and from there to push on to Meiringen, best known as the birthplace of meringue and the place where Professor Moriarty pushed Sherlock Holmes into Reichenbach Falls. We would then return by train to Geneva. My parents are now in their midseventies, and alpine research is their spiritual practice. Their last major expedition was to the Pamirs, in central Asia, more than ten years ago. Since then Mom’s health has declined, and their outings are limited to a daily walk in the local woods. So the boys and I would be doing this trip partly for them, too.
My best friend in Kandersteg 30 years ago was a young mountain guide named Christian KUnzi. The Kunzis had been leading people through the high country for generations. Among the local guides listed for Kandersteg in the 1922 Baedeker’s Switzerland are Joh., Peter, Gottfr., and Fritz Kunzi. Christian’s father, Hermann, had guided roo, bur by the rime I knew him he had retired and was running a mountain inn above town. Christian and I did some memorable climbing in the early sixties. Now he was 51, and he was running rhe Hotel Steinbock.
The hotel, open from May to October, is in the Gastemtal, one of the five high valleys above Kandersteg. The road to the valley is cut out of a limestone cliff. To the left, the Kander River smashes through boulders, and then you come our on the valley floor. It’s like arriving in Shangri-la. On either side, cascades stream down thousands of feet of nearly vertical rock from snow peaks above. In several places warerfalls spurt right out of the rock. One winter Christian followed the frozen duct of one of these falls for half a mile into the bowels of the Balmhom, across rhe valley from the horel.
When I saw him again afrer so many years, Christian had grown a mustache and married an Englishwoman named Ann; they had two children. He had basically stayed put, while I had traveled almost incessantly (in search of what, I no longer knew) and was in my third marriage. Despite these differences, the bond we had formed years ago was still there. Hermann Kunzi was 81 and still going strong. I found him milking his cows on the ground floor of his chalet, behind the horel. He recognized me right away, even rhough I was bearded and, as he pur it, “a bit dicker” -a remark that he punctuated with an explosion of laughter and a poke at my broadening waist. I introduced my sons. Andre had heard Hermann’s laugh before and eventually connected it to another mountain man he knew, Warren Ashe, who delivers propane in the Adirondack village where I live. A lot of things here reminded us of home. The plants had a strong family resemblance to our flora. It was as if the Adirondacks were the Alps minus the top stories.
HERMANN AND I REMINISCED about an afternoon we’d spent together back in the midsixties. I’d been sraying at the inn for a couple of weeks, helping with chores. Hermann had shouldered a chain saw with a four-foot blade and handed me a bark peeler and a cant hook, and we’d climbed up to a wooded slope maybe 1,500 feet above the valley floor. There Hermann had dropped a huge larch, over a hundred feet rail, peeled it, and muscled the slippery pole down a streambed, over waterfalls, down scree, until at last it lay on the road in front of the hotel. I had really just tagged along, marveling at the spectacle, for the man, already in his fifties, made poetry out of collecting firewood.
The boys were eager to get up to the snow, so late in the morning we set out for the Lotschengletscher, which spreads between the Balmhorn and the Hockenhorn, the next peak up the valley. In ancient times this notch was an important pass. The Romans used it while subduing the Helvetii, the local branch of the Celts, and in 1419 there was a pitched battle here berween the Valaisians and the Bernese.
We climbed through a forest of birch, Arolla pine, and mountain ash loud with the rollicking, wrenlike song of chaffinches. It was the third week of August, and summer was already winding down. The flowerslobelias, gentians, buttercups, Queen Anne’s lace, mimulus-were slightly past, and the butterflies were faded and tattered. This is where I am at 46, I mused as we drank tea and Coke at a trailside chalet: Summer is ending, the warranty has run out, and the knees are going, but the gut is here to stay.
We crossed the torrent coming down from the glacier and made our way up a boulder field to the old Roman route through the pass, which had been hacked out of a cliff and ascended in switchbacks. At the top of the cliff, above the snowline now, two chamois bucks stood silhouetted against the sky. I pointed out a stubby little mountain at the far end of the glacier-the 9,428-foot Mutthorn-tomorrow’s destination. Then we turned back. The boys tore down the trail to Christian’s like mountain goats, reminding me of my brother and myself in the fifties, leaving our parents in the dust. I proceeded slowly, testing the strength of joint and sinew, literally picking my way down, popping raspberries andjohannisbeeren, black currants. Firing up a Swiss cheroot on a bench beside a waterfall, I told myself I was going to have to make more time for the mountains. Like the British climber and poet Geoffrey Wmthrop Young, I had forgotten what they did for me.
“Our vivid and daylong consciousness of the mountain, of each other, and of the drama which we and the mountain played out at length together cannot be faithfully reproduced,” Young wrote in 1928.
“The mountaineer returns to his hills because he remembers always that he has forgotten so much.”
Nothing worthwhile is accomplished unless there is a pain barrier to be broken through, I told Jerome and Alex, who were resting every ten feet as we climbed up to the Kanderfirn Glacier the next morning. Several tortoiseshell butterflies patrolled the glacier’s edge, which we didn’t reach until an hour and 15 minutes behind the estimated hiking time posted on a yellow sign we saw down in the valley. It had been a while since I was in a country where everything was so worked out. It kind of spoiled the fun.
This was the first time, apart from a few hundred yards on the Lotschengletscher, that any of the boys had been on a glacier. I told them about my first time-on the Aletsch Glacier, in 1957. Our guide, Hans Burgener, from Grindelwald, kept pointing down into crevasses and saying, Dart is! HefT So-and-So, sporlaus verschwunden. There is Mr. So-and-So, lost without a trace. One of the disappeared was Hans’s own father. The only trace that Hans found of him, decades after he plunged into a crevasse, was his gold watch, which had worked up to the surface. And it took more than 5,000 years for that Copper Age man to be regurgitated by a glacier in Austria a couple of years ago. There were mushrooms in his bag.
At the end of the moraine we found tracks in the slushy snow and followed them to the Mutthornhtitte, nestled at the base of the mountain in an alcove. The hut’s outhouses are as dramatic as those on the Hopi mesas, hundreds of feet above the Lauterbrunnental Valley. It was on a trip to these outhouses, during a freak August blizzard in 1961, that my mother heard 11 Boy Scouts and their scoutmaster from Birmingham, England, calling for help from below. We threw them a rope and pulled them up, one by one.
Near the top of the Mutthom, we roped up, and I reviewed with the boys the sitting belay and how to climb with three points on the rock at all times-no knees allowed. At their age I had been as fanatic about rock climbing as they were about snowboarding. After school, my buddies and I would repair to the worn Appalachian slabs of Indian Hill with mail-order pitons and carabiners and a manila rope bought at the local hardware store. I devoured Edward Whymper’s Scrambles Amongst the Alps, which recounted the first ascent of the Matterhorn: how, coming down from the summit, the young climber Douglas Hadow slipped, dragging half of his party to the glacier 5,000 feet below; how the survivors staggered down the mountain to Zermatt, dazed by what the mountain had wrought. Another seminal book was Heinrich Harrer’s The White Spidel; about the North Face of the Eiger. When I was 19, my father and brother and I attempted the Eiger’s West Ridge, but our guide had a problem with schnapps and overslept, so we got up late and had to turn back at a point 300 feet below the summit, where we met a young Austrian guide named Adi Mayr coming down with his Australian client. Yodeling as he glissaded, Mayr seemed in great spirits. A few days later he attempted the first solo climb of the North Face. A crowd at the telescopes in Kleine Scheidegg watched him climb confidently to the White Spider, a snow sheet high on the face, where he bivouacked. But when he started climbing the next morning he seemed to have lost his confidence, or his will to live, and he fell to his death after only 50 yards. The papers reported that he had just split up with his girlfriend and speculated that she may have broken his heart.
My obsession lasted through college. I couldn’t see a rock face, a road cut, or even a building without mentally picking a route up it. Never did I feel more alive than when poised on eighth-of~an-inch flakes of schist with a hundred feet of nothing beneath me. Rock climbing fostered the illusion of being in control.
The last pitch up the Mutthorn was easy but vertiginous. I realized as I led that this was one obsession I was cured of. I was so heavy I couldn’t retable-pull myself up to a ledge without the help of footholdsfor the life of me. Reaching the needle’s crest and looking down to the glacier 500 feet below, I, who at one time hadn’t been afraid of heights, felt a wave of nausea, the taste of fear in my mouth. What if I slipped? Could the boys hold me, or would we, like Whymper’s climbers, all go crashing down?
From where I sat belaying Jerome, I could just see the Breithorn, bathed in sunlight, peeking behind the Tschingelhorn, and the blinding whiteness of the Ebnefluh’s summit cone, slightly whorled like the tip of a Chinese fortune cookie. I admired the steely beauty of these peaks, and it occurred to me that I felt absolutely no need to climb them.
It was during the sixties, while caretaking an abandoned farm in New Hampshire and going for long, stoned walks in the woods with binoculars, that “nature hit me,” as my mother remarked. Rock climbing fell by the wayside. Suddenly I had a new obsession: birds. I began to learn their names and habits and to make small, detailed watercolors of them. The birds led me to the trees, the mushrooms, the wildflowers. I became a naturalist, following a six-generation line of naturalists going back to Russia in the 1830s. Returning to my hometown, I became the director of a local wildlife sanctuary and started to write about nature. In 1976 I spent nine months in the Amazon researching a book. Then I started going to Africa. I had parlayed a love of nature, begun in the Alps, into a career.
When I was 13, my father and brother and I climbed Wyoming’s Grand Teton. I was the youngest person, we were told, to have done the Exum Ridge. (It’s probably since been scaled by a six-year-old.) One day we visited the naturalist Olaus Murie, who had written Field Guide to the Animal Tracks and lived with his wife in a simple cabin on the valley floor. Murie was an old man, and he seemed like St. Francis. He had a spiritual radiance that I assumed came from being close to nature, though in the decades that followed I would meet very few people like him. Another was a Yanomami shaman named Leonca who seemed to be one with all the other forms of life in the rainforest, even the leaf-cutter ants. This was an important discovery-to learn that such people actually existed.
But then there were others, living in step with nature yet clearly tormented. Dian Fossey, who spent 18 years trying to save the mountain gorillas of Rwanda, would whip the testicles ofTwa Pygmies with stinging nettles, punishment for setting antelope snares that her gorillas occasionally stepped into. The original human inhabitants of Rwanda, the Twa were as endangered and as deserving of protection as the gorillas, but Fossey’s web of compassion, like that of a surprising number of nature lovers, didn’t extend to her own kind. I didn’t find much compassion among sociobiologists, many of whom seemed to believe that all behavior has a single, underlying motive-to maximize reproductive success-or among environmentalists, who often didn’t consider indigenous people in their conservation strategies. Looking at my own anger and darkness as well, I was forced to conclude that proximity to nature doesn’t necessarily make a better person. The Glaus Muries and the Leon~as of this world are few and far between.
AFTER A NIGHT SPENT AT THE TOP OF Lotschenpass with hosts who seemed to pride themselves on overcharging their guests and then kicking them out by 8 A.M., we scrambled up the 10,866-foot Hockenhorn. By evening we were back at the Ktinzis’, where Christian quickly restored my love of the Swiss by serving his specialty, raclette prepared the old-fashioned way: putting a flame under half a round of alpine cheese and, as it melted, scraping slabs of it onto small boiled potatoes on our plates.
Next afternoon we said our good-byes to the Ktinzis and took a bus in the rain down to the foot of the valley. There we headed up into the Gurnigel gorge, which is said to be spectacular, but we couldn’t see a thing. There being no distractions, I concentrated on the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other, on getting in touch with myancestral bipedality. I recalled the theory that Bruce Chatwin advanced in his penultimate book, The Song/ines: that walking is what makes us human, that the best prescription for physical, spiritual, and mental health is simply to take a walk. The theory has been growing on me. The first artifacts are footpaths. Like water making its way downhill, finding the fastest, easiest way over terrain, there is a logic to their randomness.
We eventually came upon an open valley of pasture and rock bisected by a narrow dirt road. A longhaired Swiss hippie gave us a ride in his farm truck to Spittelmatte, where a wasted lot of young escapees from Zurich, Berne, and Brussels was tending cows for the summer. They were taking a break from the “evilization” below, a s!1ock-haired girl explained. “The culture is only money,” she said. We accepted a kilo of fresh mountain cheese and continued up the gorge.
It felt like there were rocks in my pack, which was indeed the case. The boys had slipped some in as a joke. We came to a plaque that said R.I.P. and listed six names. On September 5, .1895, the Altels Glacier broke off and 4.5 million cubic meters of snow, ice, and stone fell on Spittelmatte, burying these six farmers who had stayed behind to separate cheese. One day earlier and many more would have been killed; a day later and nobody would have been there.
Just as it was getting dark, we reached the old stone inn ofSchwarenbach, which guarded the enttance to a cliff-lined bowl. The cliffs were stteaked with the black manganese- and iron-oxide-rich drip known in the American Southwest as desert vamish. In my youth, Schwarenbach had been run by Otto and Dorli Stoller. Otto was a mountain guide and ran a climbing school. Now it was run by their son Peter and his wife, Trudi, who were delighted to play host to a new generation of Shoumatoffs and their friends.
Schwarenbach has had a distinguished cast of lodgers over the years. Picasso stayed here 40 years ago. Mark Twain wrote about his stay in A Tramp Abroad. Tolstoy was guided by Peter’s great-grandfather. Another Russian, the young Lenin, signed the register with his wife, Krupskaya, in 1905. The inn inspired short stories by Dumas and Maupassant, who wrote one called “L’Auberge” about two locals named Ulrich Kiinzi and Gustav Hari who decide to spend the winter there. One day old Hari goes off to hunt chamois and doesn’t come back. Alone, young Kiinzi is terrified. He hears moaning and scratching at the door and, thinking it’s Hari’s ghost, barricades himself and drinks all the schnapps. In the spring a rescue party breaks down the door to find Kiinzi whitehaired and stark raving mad. Outside the door lies the skeleton of Hari’s dog, which after days of unheeded moaning and scratching had finally starved to death.
The next moming we descended to Kandersteg and took a chairlift up the Oescheninsee, a teal-colored lake, and spent the night. Then we climbed up to the Hohtiirlie Pass, above the clouds. By dusk we reached the farmhouse inn of Marcus Lengacher, where I had stayed 30 years before. “America, eh?” asked Marcus, who didn’t remember me. “Dol1 war ich noch nicht. I’ve not been there yet.” Marcus’s matratzenlager; or communal bunkroom, was the best deal yet, only six francs a head, and he and his wife, Elizabeth, were warm, welcoming mountain people, friends of the Kiinzis, not surprisingly. After the boys had hit the sack, Marcus, Elizabeth, several local cowherders, and I stayed up drinking kirsch and kreuter made from wildflowers. When I commented on the beauty of their place, Marcus replied, “You like it? You can buy it-the inn, the restaurant, the farm, and 20 cows.”
“Our sons are all in Berne,” Elizabeth explained. “They’re not interested in the pastoral life. That’s the problem allover.”
There seemed to be two distinct cultures in Switzerland: the mountain culture and the money culture. Where did she think the money culture came from? “The culture of money comes from work,” she explained. “It’s in the body to work. If you don’t work, you get sick. But some work so hard they forget to appreciate nature. Some don’t even notice when there’s a beautiful flower by the road.”
The next day the cloud cover had risen over mountaintops, and the whole Oberland was socked in again. I had been looking forward to the view of the Eiger, Monch, and Jungfrau from the next pass, the Sefinenfurgge. As we started the climb, we saw an eagle and a chamois within 30 seconds of each other. The chamois stood on a spur, posing obligingly for several minutes before bounding down a nearly vertical series of cliffs and gullies.
It was raining in earnest when we got to the pass. We couldn’t see ten feet, so we hotfooted it down to the Rotstockhiitte, spreading ourselves out to reduce °the chance of being struck by the lightning flashing all around us. The hut had already been taken over by 20 members of a triathlon club from Cologne. We hung up our wet clothes with theirs. By evening the weather broke briefly, and we could see that the Sefinenfurgge was veiled in snow, as was the thicket of skyscraperlike towers graduating to the summit of the Schilthorn.
The morning brought heavy rain, so we decided to bailout and head to sunny Lake Como. We’d settle for postcards of Meirengen. We bombed down to Miirren, beating the yellow signs by 35 minutes. This was our last dash. For the first time my knees gave me no trouble. I felt in better shape than I’d been in for years. I demonstrated to the boys the lope I’d learned from the Yanomami. In the mountains again, the old man had gotten his second wind.
Alex Shoumatoff is the author of such books as The World Is Burning and African Madness. He is also a frequent contributor to the New Yorker and Esquire.