Friday, January 04, 2008


Update 15th Jan: It turns out that the Photo Friday subject this week is 'Mountain'. Any of the photos in this post would be appropriate, but if I have to choose one for my entry, it's the last one. Scroll down if you're visiting from Photo Friday, maybe pausing at the others along the way...

I’ve been reading books about mountaineering pretty much as long as I’ve been reading books; in fact, stories about those early Himalayan conquests were quite possibly the first ‘grown up’ books I read. I still have one of those, Frank Smythe’s “The Kanchenjunga Adventure”. At that age (8? 9?) I had no first-hand experience that could give me any kind of real understanding of what those pioneers faced, and consequently much of the detail was lost on me. Bergschrunds? Seracs? I had no idea what they were, except that they were hazards which had to be overcome by skill and daring tempered with a shrewd assessment of risk. No matter; in spite of those huge gaps in my knowledge of the practicalities on the ground, I seemed to see past the gaps and understand something of what was in the minds of those adventurers – especially when reading books by mountaineers, rather than merely about mountaineers. Of course, many use their writing as a way of making a living out of their climbing – nevertheless it’s curious just how many great mountaineers are also talented writers. Smythe, Bonnington, Buhl, Simpson, Harrer, Herzog, Messner, Venables…

Many of those books had no photos at all, and those that did were almost exclusively in black and white, so I grew up with a set of mental images of snow-covered mountains that existed entirely in greyscale. Of course, that wasn’t altogether inappropriate – often the only colour in that environment came from the sky, and when that was hidden, all that was left was shades of gray. I remember a picture from one of those few books which had colour photos which showed a bright yellow tent as though it had been painted onto a black and white mountainscape.

All these thoughts were sparked by picture spotted by chance on the web. I thought it would be fun to recreate those mental impressions by playing with some of the photos from our holiday in Switzerland the year before last. These were taken from Jungfraujochthe col between the Jungfrau and the Monch reached by cog railway which tunnels through the very heart of the mountain.

Imagine that this ridge isn’t in the Alps but is at 6,000 metres in the Himalayas, and you’re in a roped party taking step by laborious oxygen-starved step to the summit.

Or that you’re ascending this corniced ridge from the far side and can’t see the danger ahead of you.

Or suppose that you had to scale this rock pillar direct, instead of taking the lift which now runs up the centre to the (cloned out) observatory perched atop the very summit.

It felt utterly strange to be in that environment, once the preserve only of the mountaineering elite, but now surrounded by people in high-street casual wear and trainers.

Seeing it again now in black and white it feels as though this is the first time I’ve seen the real mountain. It’s a pity there isn’t such a thing as greyscale filtered spectacles. Perhaps if there were we could give them to all the visitors so that they could take a trip into history too. The mountains look so much more primitive and elemental that way.

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