My dad’s hazy accounts of his time in the mountains remain among the defining stories of my childhood. The first time it left an indelible mark was when flicking through a junk box full of projector slides taken circa summer 1970, when he and two friends completed a previously untried route up the notoriously dangerous North Face of the Eiger (3,970m) in Switzerland’s Bernese Oberland. At the time, he was 27 and to scale the final 1,829m North Pillar wall on the way to the summit was unthinkable. The extreme highs and lows were not easy for him to recount. Along the way, he suffered frostbite, dealt with unexpectedly bad weather and bivouacked night after night in sodden climbing gear on treacherous, ice-coated vertical slabs. Afterwards, he was quoted by The Herald newspaper, the expedition’s sponsor, saying: “I’ll never set foot on that bloody mountain again in my life.”
What I’d always seen as an unhealthy obsession with the mountains revealed itself to be a bond I never knew we had
Still today, it’s almost inconceivable for me to comprehend.
In those days, there were other equally spellbinding tales, most of which took him to the Chamonix valley. He summited the Grandes Jorasses (4,208m) in blinding sunshine. He scaled the ice walls of the Aiguille du Chardonnet (3,824m). Hell, on one occasion, he even posed atop the remarkable Aiguille du Grépon (3,482m), a fist of angular rock crafted like a church spire – an exploit that would test the mettle of even the most carefree climber. To an eight-year-old boy, these were unforgettable adventures, shaping my travel perceptions in years to come.
That was now more than half his lifetime ago. And, yet, here we were, marching side by side around the Mont Blanc massif, tracing an invisible route with our fingers over the same harsh and elemental summits he’d conquered long ago. What I’d always seen as an unhealthy obsession with the mountains revealed itself to be a bond I never knew we had.