In Search of the Unknown: My Night on a Glacier

It’s the expanse that gets you – the complete lack of markers on the horizon. There is no obvious way to gauge progress, distance travelled, or what lies ahead. Looking back is as pointless as looking forward. Nothing remains but this moment in time. 

The glacier stretches out, vast shining white surface, cradled between the mountains, both endless yet transient at the same time. It’s as if distance, and even time itself, exist on another scale in the Alps, one beyond the cities and villages down below.

I lift my eyes, and all I can see is the whiteness scintillating in the sun. Beneath the snow are crevasses, some cracked open and gaping out, others hidden underneath a thin layer of powder. All that matters is to keep walking, to avoid dwelling on the ifs and the maybes, to suspend thoughts of danger, as well as pain. The summit is far, far up front, slightly to my right. I see rocks in the distance, jutting out of the glacier, stretching out towards the sky. I keep walking. My shoes are heavy, bright yellow, almost two kilos, strapped to metal crampons. I carry a backpack filled with gear, clothes, and protein bars. A harness is tightly strapped around my waist and legs, and a bright-green, heavy mountain rope rests coiled around my neck, firmly secured with a knot. I know my body, its strength, its rhythm. I sense my endurance weaken. I try not to think about it. I just keep walking. 

The mountain has a will of its own.

At times, thunder rips through the air, and for a second I am confused, because it is morning and the sky is clear and blue. And then, I remember: this is the sound of rocks falling, cascading down the cliffs. The thing about them is that you just don’t know when they will come crashing down. There is no sign or warning of the impending danger. They simply and suddenly burst out of their hold and fall through the void, taking with them whatever lies in their way. There is nothing you can do. The mountain has a will of its own.

The mountain is alive. The glacier could shift at any moment, crevasses forming, regions of ice collapsing and others disintegrating. Yet, from down below, the mountains seem static. They exist as a backdrop, part of a world that is little more than a substrate on which we live, a stage for our stories. In truth, the mountains are well and truly alive, breathing and moving, living a life on a span far greater than our own. In the morning sun, I walk with the mountain.  

Photo: Courtesy of Nairi Gaspari

Vorder Tierberg, 3091m, is a sweet first summit. I had spent the previous night at the Tierbergli, a remote hut atop some rocks overlooking the glacier. We had arrived after a day spent hiking on the ice, followed by a climb up some rocks. Drinks followed dinner and more drinks, as we all sat around a little table. I asked the mountain guide about the Eiger, mythical mountain from the Alps, whose famed vertical northern face had claimed so many lives. “You see, it’s not just the technicality of the Eiger that makes it difficult. It’s the sheerness of the face, the height as you climb and look down.” We spoke of the famed ’38 route, the one I had so read about as a child, the tales of the mountaineers who had tried and failed and tried again in their ascent. It seemed that, to climb such a mountain, one must know it, not just the rock itself but the ever-shifting weather conditions, the avalanche risks, the living breathing-ness of it all. The ’38.

That night, I couldn’t sleep. Perhaps it was the altitude or all the people snoring in the dormitory. In the middle of the night, a group got up and left, heading towards their own ascent. I wondered what it would be like to walk in the pitch black, with the moon reflecting on the ice. I wondered at us all, leaving the world down below, strangers huddled together, sharing more than just a room or a meal. Soon, it was time to rise. Breakfast in the dark, clothes thrown on, sleeping bags rapidly stuffed into backpacks. I headed out onto the glacier as the night’s sky started to fade away. 

And so I lead. Up front, roped up to the group, heading straight up. As I walk, I place my right foot on what looks like ice. In reality, it is a thin layer of snow covering a crevasse. I fall through. The rope catches me, and so I clamber out of the gaping earth. Adrenaline rushes through my body. I breathe as the others ask me whether my legs are okay. I breathe in exhilaration. 

Such a fall offers the lived experience of safety in the face of danger. It becomes an encouragement to take further risk, a call to go beyond one’s mental limitations, to embrace unlimited freedom. I walk forward. 

Every step is a success. Every step is an occasion to rejoice. I move forward.

I stare at the glacier stretching out, and a part of me is overwhelmed. I wonder whether I can make it, whether perhaps it is not too hard. And I know that the answer to this question is to simply look down and focus on the task at hand. I stare at my feet. Every step is a success. Every step is an occasion to rejoice. I move forward. I don’t have to think of where I am going; I know I am on the right route. I can trust that I will make it. All I have to do is to simply keep moving and lose myself in the expanse of the present moment. Not anticipating the summit, nor the steep route that lays ahead. I maintain my rhythm and, thus, I advance. 

Suddenly, the glacier ends. I look up and realize that I have reached the top of the iced ascent. Rocks jut out of the earth, stretching up above. I turn around, the expanse now behind me. I have no idea how long I have been walking for; it could be minutes or hours, I wouldn’t know. I unhook my crampons from my shoes and throw them on the ground, then secure my ice axe to my rucksack and loosen the rope. It is time to climb. I throw myself on the rock, the heavy shoes making it difficult for my feet to catch a hold, but there is no choice, no solution, other than to simply go ahead. I climb and climb until I reach a safe spot and, once there, belay the rest of the group up. And so we continue, from one level to the next, until finally we reach the top. We search for the rocks at the highest vantage point, and I clamber up, resting in between two stones, safe in the summit, nestled within the Earth. We share chocolate and wonder at the view: the mountains on the horizon, the jagged edges in the morning light, the sunshine streaming all around us. I watch us, the mountain, all of it. Alive.

Naïri Gaspari is a writer living in London and driven by questioning the world within and around us.