Not only is the North Face of the Grandes Jorasses my favourite place to climb in the Alps it also has my favourite approach.
After 45 minutes of skinning up through the hustle and bustle of the Mer de Glace we fork off left onto the Leschaux glacier and suddenly we are in our own world. The glacier slopes only slightly up hill so allows rapid movement through the spectacular mountain landscape. But without excessive exertion so the mind can be allowed to wander. Sometimes I like engage in conversation on long walk ins and sometimes I like to plod along on my own to allow myself to reflect and contemplate as well as quietly appreciate my surroundings, so I let Tom skin ahead a few hundred metres.
I guess I’m a bit of a thinker in many ways. Not a fast thinker, but a slow deep thinker. One thing I spend a lot of time thinking about is my motivation to do the things I do. I think it’s important to have deep understanding of why we do what we do because if we can understand how are motivations work and where they come from it can helps us make better judgements about whether they are good things to do or not. Meta-motivation I guess you could call in.
I am great believer that in order to be contented, satisfied and nourished as humans we need to appease what we have evolved to become. That is, we need to satisfy the requirements for happiness that have been engrained in us by millions a years of evolution.
As I skin up the Leschaux glacier at the forefront of my mind I relflect on the weekend just gone… A few days earlier I had been in a very different world. I’d spent the weekend at techno festival with 30 or so my best friends. Which, upon reflection had probably been one of the best weekends of my life. Some might see such activities as mindless debauchery. But as I skin up the glacier I think about how engrained our need for mutual appreciation of music is in us, as humans. It has deeply engrained through millions of years of evolution. And how it is such an important part of how we can gain feelings of satisfaction and nourishment. For me techno in particular seems to nourish these primal, deeply engrained needs. Being simplistic, yet subtly complex and extremely structurally satisfying. I guess also as it also the logical advancement of the most basic rhythmical music of our ancestors. And at 5am on the previous Sunday morning Jeff Mills and his Rolland TR-909 drum machine had smashed in these primal, deeply engrained needs with savage effect.
But now as I turn the corner in the Leschaux glacier, the mighty north face of the Grandes Jorasses comes into view and I am reminded of the very different, but equally as important primal, deeply engrained need that I have come to satisfy. The need for struggle.
For many I think this need is so often easily overlooked. But for me I have come to see in as one of the most important primal needs of all. When I first got drawn to alpine climbing I didn’t really know what is was the motivated me to do it. But over the years I have come to recognise my basic deeply engrained need for battle and struggle. And that I am not a product of the modern sanitised world, but a product of millions of years of humans who had to struggle for there success and there survival. And I have come to the Grandes Jorasses to artificially impose struggle upon myself, so I can feel contented, satisfied and nourish as a human animal.
Even though I know my motivations for alpinism it doesn’t mean that I don’t constantly question why I’m doing it because in front of my primal need to struggle is are my much more immediate desires for comfort, warms and security.
As we ski up the final powdery slopes below the face darkness falls and the bitter cold night draws in. I start to seriously question what I am doing. We have chosen to be here, when we could be comfortable and warm and safe. But for the next few days we are going to leave those things behind. And just like a heroin addict is addict to smack. Everyone is addicted comfort, warmth and safety. But for the next few days we have chosen to go cold turkey.
We dig out a bivi ledge in the snow and as we brew up and eat dinner Tom asks me,
“So what’s your motivation to climb routes like this?”
“For the babes, he asks?”
“Yeah man, for the babes.” I am too tired to give him a proper answer.
After 4 hours of sleep the alarm goes off we brew up, shovel down some porridge and commit ourselves upwards to a world of struggle.
Over the following days we get cold, get scared and go hungry. But at the same time we are in awe of the natural beauty of our surroundings and find joy in the situations and the technicality of the climbing. At many times I hate what we are doing, I hate the cold, the fear, the discomfort and I even hate myself for taking me into this situation. But deep down I know and keep trying to remind myself of my motivations for alpine climbing and my need for struggle. I tell myself that the pain now is only superficial and think about the journey as a whole. But still it hurts.
After 3 and a half full days alone on the Grandes Jorasses we have summited and descended to the point where we are out of the glaciated mountain environment. I feel relief in knowing that we have only safe downhill walking till our adventure is over.
We set off down breaking fresh tracks down to Val Ferret. I’ve never been here in winter before and I am struck by solitude and remoteness of our situation. Tom turns to me:
“I don’t know if it’s because I’m pretty fucked, but this is pretty special isn’t it?”
“Yes, it’s definitely pretty special, I answer.”
Being outstandingly fit Tom storms off down the hill and I’m left alone again to contemplate: The journey is almost over and now I can start to appreciate what I have been through, start to soak up the bliss of having nourished my deepest needs as a human animal. I know I could choose to live a life that is easy, comfortable, warm and safe. But I know that if I were to do that I wouldn’t feel nourished as a human. And I also feel lucky that I have been given a chance to be a conscious being and I want to use that consciousness to experience as many deep experiences as I possibly can. Even if these experiences can be difficult. Anything else would be a waste.