PROLOGUE: AN ALPINE BOUNCE
The Bernese Oberland, Switzerland
ON THE SECOND day of June, 1993, I fell down a mountain. It was a spectacularly unpleasant thing to do. As an experience it isn’t something I’d recommend, but for the way it changed my approach to life I remain eternally grateful.
The accident took place in the Bernese Oberland, a mountain range on the northern edge of the Swiss Alps. Rearing 10,000 feet from gentler country, the range forms a startling wall of snow, rock and ice. In the Oberland there are sharp pointed peaks, mighty glaciers, sheer-sided chasms, and soaring rock precipices. There are shadowy forests and sunlit meadows, sparkling rivers and deep blue lakes. The Oberland is a landscape as unlike my suburban home as any place could be, and that was why I went.
At twenty-three, I lived for mountains, and for long journeys on foot through them. Ordinary life didn’t compare. How could waking indoors in the same bedroom each morning compare with waking in a tent somewhere new and wild? How could catching the same cattle-truck commuter train each day compare with striding off alone into the wilderness? How could the same view through the same office window compare with a panorama never before seen from a summit never before visited? Ordinary life was predictable, comfortable, limited by rules; mountain life was mysterious, challenging, unshackled. London was where I lived, but the high places were where I went to live. In the mountains life could be everything I felt, deep down, it was supposed to be all the time, and so I escaped to them as often as work allowed.
The plan for this escape was to walk for seven days beneath the Oberland’s highest peaks, crossing several passes, camping high and wild. In summer thousands of hikers followed the route I’d chosen, but I wasn’t going in summer. I wanted to escape my own species and choose my own path. Most of all I wanted adventure—an experience not possible for me following a crowd.
To begin with, the journey was exactly what I wanted: uncluttered, wild and free. For three idyllic days I wandered through wildflower meadows and forests scented with pine, and slept in glorious solitude beneath glacier-capped peaks. But on the third night a storm erupted with idyll-shattering violence: clouds clashed, lightning flashed, and rain pummelled my tiny one-man tent. Sleep was impossible. All I could do was cower and hope for the best. Some mountain nights last longer than others, and that night lasted longer than most.
Weary from it, I slept later than planned the following morning and didn’t strike camp until noon. Ahead were the highest miles of the week’s route: the lofty Hohtürli Pass, the kind of Big Mountain Pass one shouldn’t treat lightly. Its crossing demands a good night’s sleep, an early start, a full day’s labour, and perfect conditions underfoot. I had none of these things.
I set out beneath a fierce sun and sweat came streaming within minutes. Tatters of cloud hung about the walls and glaciers of surrounding mountains, revealing and then hiding the scenery I’d come so far to see. The summits weren’t often in view, but when they appeared they were impossibly white and pristine, more like fantasy peaks than real mountains. Such glaciated giants were clearly beyond my solitary reach, but I still wondered which I could climb. I ached to stand upon them.
Although it was the first day of June, snow still lay deep above 6,000 feet. The snow was why I was here and other hikers weren’t. It made progress harder, the high places higher, the wild places wilder, which was how I wanted it. Of course, it might also make the pass impassable, but not knowing the outcome wasn’t a bad thing.
Progress above snowline was slow. I wallowed, sunk, gasped. My shirt clung to my back and my legs quivered. Thoughts weren’t focused on the banalities and stresses of everyday existence, on bills unpaid, chores not yet done, on other people and the demands they made. Instead, my thoughts were fixed entirely on the present moment, on the sensations of it: the burning sun on the back of my neck, the sugary taste of snow scooped into my mouth, the heaviness of legs pushed to their limit. This wasn’t like my job, repetitive and tedious; or like my home life, easy and bland; this was new, engrossing, difficult, thrilling. I dug a thigh-deep trench-trail upwards through unbroken snow and celebrated every challenging step.
Hours passed. Rising heat gnawed at the snow, softening it horribly. Slowly, pleasure in the climb faded and concerns grew. Each step triggered small snow slides that accelerated towards the valley thousands of feet below. The situation soon seemed precarious: could the entire slope give way? It felt possible, and I paused many times, debating the wisdom of pushing on, but each time—rightly or wrongly—the desire to achieve what I’d set out to achieve kept me climbing. Soon, all I could think about was reaching the pass and descending safely from it. I could only hope the way down was going to be easier than the way up.
My relief at the top felt overwhelming, but it lasted seconds only, vanishing when I looked down the far side. The route fell away with intimidating steepness. It was so steep I couldn’t even see the first 500 feet. In summer, wooden steps and a rope handrail eased passage, but they were buried beneath snow. One look down was enough to confirm I wasn’t going that way—not with the snow so unstable. But neither could I safely head back the way I’d come.
Fortunately, this was Switzerland, not some vast northern wilderness. Standing a couple of hundred feet above the pass was an Alpine refuge, the Blüemlisalphütte. Although it wasn’t yet open for the summer it still offered basic shelter: a small unlocked winter room. I settled upon a new plan: I’d sleep there and tackle the descent the next morning when, hopefully, the snow would have frozen hard. In the meantime, I had my own magical kingdom to enjoy up there at 10,000 feet. By sunset, a fire-tinged cloud sea stretched away to the horizon with mountains breaking through like islands. Later, a full moon washed the glaciers with silver light, and once the clouds had dispersed village lights shone far below, flickering in the dark like distant constellations. It was almost worth what followed, seeing such extraordinary sights, feeling such extraordinary isolation.
I was underway the next morning long before first light hit the highest tops. A hard frost had killed off any avalanche risk, but as I picked my way back to the pass my stomach twisted with anxiety. I wasn’t sure I was doing the right thing.
I held an ice axe in one hand but didn’t strap on crampons. Although the snow had frozen hard, a line of bucket-sized steps led downwards; reassuring evidence that others had recently accomplished what I was now setting out to attempt. Crampons can be awkward in a tight space. They can catch and trip, and with boot-sized holes for my feet I judged they’d be more hindrance than help. Afterwards, of course, I wondered: if I’d worn them would I have fallen? Would my entire life have been different?
I peered over the crest and began down, facing into the mountain. I moved each foot with great deliberateness, and then each hand, holding the axe firmly, digging it into the snow, loving its bite. At my heels the slope fell away in great leaps and bounds, levelling off briefly 1,500 feet below like an oversized ski-jump before plunging into a void. How I wished my pack weighed less than 60 pounds; I could feel it tugging me backwards. And how I wished I were already down. I’d travelled to the Alps for adventure, but not this much adventure.
And then it happened.
From a small crag overhead came the clatter of falling stones. Instinctively, I looked up, but too swiftly; my feet slipped, I lost balance, and never got to see if the stones posed a threat. I landed on my back and momentum flipped me onto my front. Urgently, I stabbed my axe into iron-hard snow, throwing the weight of my shoulder onto it just the way I’d practised many times, but hit a bump at exactly the wrong moment and the axe flew from my hands. I saw it all in fine detail: the axe embedded in ice above me, the tiny scratches on its shaft, the hopeless reach of my fingers. I had time to think not good—an understatement—and then I was off.
It is true what they say: in such situations time slows. No, more than that: it stops, becomes irrelevant. I plunged into another time and existence altogether.
I bounced, spun, flew through the air, cast around like a rag doll on the way to oblivion. The ice slope, the sky overhead, the abyss below, the pass behind: the world around me became an incomprehensible blur. I hurtled downwards, towards the void, out of touch with time and reality, moving so impossibly fast, but with time available for a million thoughts. I thought it strange that I had time to think so much.
There was complete disbelief that this was happening, and embarrassment that it was happening to me. What, I cringed, would they say back home? And why haven’t I been knocked out? I could feel my head slamming into ice after every leap through the air, but oddly couldn’t feel any pain. Why is there no pain?
And I thought—with shock that I was even thinking it—so this is what it’s like to die.
But NO, I screamed silently, raging inside, I was not going to let myself die. I had no control but could perhaps regain it. It was the pack, I reasoned, weighted with a week’s food, that was prolonging my fall. In desperation I tried to remove it, but my body was beyond my control, my fingers couldn’t reach the straps. And so I found optimism in the failure, positives even in the midst of the fall. The pack contained a metal frame, perhaps saving me from a broken back, although I couldn’t understand why my arms and legs hadn’t snapped long ago.
Onwards I skimmed, skipping down the ice-slope like a rock tossed from above. If I am about to die, I thought, shouldn’t my life be flashing before my eyes? But instead I saw rocks, evil black teeth, jagged and sharp, directly in my path. Pain approaching. But somehow I missed them, hit a bump and cartwheeled on, and then bounced again, and flew through the air for thirty, forty, maybe fifty feet. Will this never end? Do I even want to reach the end? But the questions were academic: the fall was now everything. There was no past anymore, no future. My life consisted of nothing but this mad, unstoppable fall.
But then suddenly, unexpectedly, incredibly, I found myself on my front, with my head higher than my feet, and for once not bouncing.
Instinctively, I spread myself like a star, feet up to stop myself flipping over again. In desperation I dug my fingers into the ice, tearing at the surface, shredding it, shredding flesh too, plucking several fingernails clean off, and slowly, wonderfully, miraculously I ground to a halt.
And there I was: stopped.
What a feeling!
I yelled at the top of my voice; an exultant, adrenaline-charged scream of sheer relief and raw emotion. It echoed about the valley, across the mountains. I was alive, ALIVE! I was living, breathing, moving, feeling. I could hardly believe my luck.
I sat for a minute, savouring my existence. My fingers were a bloody mess. My limbs were battered, grazed, bruised. One eye was swollen half shut, my clothes were torn, and my left ankle was fractured, although I didn’t then know it. But I felt no pain, just euphoria. Everything I experienced now was a bonus.
Soon it was time to move on. I wasn’t safe yet and couldn’t stay where I was. Days might pass before anyone chanced by, and I wouldn’t be missed for a week. I was entirely responsible for myself—a choice I’d consciously made, with consequences I now had to accept. Already I could feel my body stiffening. I had to move right away before I became incapable of moving at all.
In a few brief seconds I’d lost 1,000 feet of altitude, but another 2,000 still lay between me and easier ground. Much of it was exposed and treacherous, and I had no axe to steady myself or catch another fall. For a moment I succumbed to the idiotic idea of climbing back to retrieve the lost axe, but after taking a few steps up the slope I came to my senses and stopped. At least I still had crampons. I tried strapping them on, but my bleeding fingers couldn’t manage it. So I began the descent as I was. I kicked my way down frozen snow in slow motion, bringing more care and attention to the task than I’d brought to any task before. My legs quaked from imagining another fall, from the intense effort of avoiding it. At the steepest and most precarious section I eased off my unbalancing pack and pushed it down the slope ahead of me. It slid away, gathering speed, bouncing violently, and I shuddered at the sight. I wondered if I had looked like that.
It took five hours—a lifetime—to descend to safe ground, and the intensity remains etched in my mind. The mountains I’d travelled so far to see passed by entirely unseen. I left a trail of blood in the snow, and when I finally reached help I really had endured enough. An elderly man stood outside the first building I came to, a remote mountain restaurant. Tanned and heavily lined, with a wise-looking gaze accustomed to distant horizons, the man watched me calmly as I stumbled closer. Bloody and ragged, I finally stood before him. Suddenly, I couldn’t hold it together any longer. I burst into tears, and surrendered responsibility for myself to someone else. Speaking gentle words in German, the man clasped my elbow and guided me indoors. He gave me water to sip and a place to sit, then brought out a basin of warm saltwater for my torn hands. And then, avoiding every jarring pothole in the mountain road, he drove me carefully to hospital.
Later that night, while lying between clean hospital sheets, the euphoria returned. And what euphoria it was! It didn’t match the sterile hospital environment, the dimmed lights, the murmur of soft nurse voices down the ward. It was euphoria better suited for the great outdoors, for wide open spaces, for glorious sunrises, for rebirths. I wanted to scream with joy, laugh ceaselessly, beam at the world. I was alive! Life suddenly seemed outrageously fragile, and unfathomably precious. What a miracle it was; every breath of it a gift. I’d been given a second chance that I absolutely couldn’t waste.
I spent a sleepless night re-evaluating priorities, my perspectives changing. What did I want from life? Was it really what I had: a sheltered suburban existence, with days that were safe and comfortable, routines that felt deadening, and work that lacked purpose; where I’d finish with a pension after forty-plus years of hard graft but would be too worn out to do anything with it? Was it really the pursuit of money, possessions, stability, security? Was life all about achieving status, being what others thought I should be? Did I really have to fit in with the system, follow the path that almost everyone I knew appeared to follow without question: travel from school to college to full-time labour to marriage to kids to mortgaged servitude to annual vacations to retirement? Was that really living?
Suddenly, it all seemed wrong. It was desolate. Empty. No, worse: it was ridiculous, and just because it worked for others didn’t mean it had to work for me. I lived for mountains, for the simplicity of being in them, for the freedom they gave me to be myself, for other reasons I hadn’t yet figured out. Mountains were the only places I felt fully alive. Why limit my time in them to annual vacations and snatched weekends? Vacations were too short. Life itself was too short! Couldn’t there be another way?
What I yearned for flew in the face of everything I had been conditioned to from birth, went against all the advice I had ever been given, ran contrary to how everyone else appeared to live. No one had encouraged me to take risks. No one had suggested that following my dreams was an option. Quite the reverse. I was shy, a stammerer, and lacked self-belief. I was a product of a society that had taught me to do my bit, work hard, save for the future, fit in. And so my escape took weeks, months, half a year. It was a battle. There were doubts, fears. I made up my mind, then un-made it. The chains that bound me had been well set; the brainwashing went deep. But after the Hohtürli Pass there was no going back. I couldn’t forget the second chance I’d been given, couldn’t forget what had been revealed: that life was a gift not to be wasted, and finally, finally, I made my choice. No more the beaten path. I quit work, bought a replacement ice axe, pulled on my backpack, and set forth, leaving behind my suburban existence. It was the best decision I’d ever made. Afterwards, I wondered why it had taken so long. It was so clearly the right choice.
Decision made, I spent the summer of 1994 back in the Alps, walking 2,200 miles across the range from one end to the other, living the life I knew I was meant to live. After a winter of work back in London that now held real purpose—to fund the next adventure—I set out on a three-month walk through the Pyrenees the following summer. Once alone in the mountains I couldn’t imagine a better life, couldn’t picture one that taught more or gave so much back. I was glad I’d fallen from the pass. But it tormented me that the journeys had to end so soon.
Or did they?
Once home from the Pyrenees I began considering the possibility of something bigger. I wanted a journey I could lose myself in completely, something so long in distance and broad in scope it could become more than just a walk. I didn’t want a journey that ended with the summer.
What I wanted was a new way of life.
THE COPYRIGHTED TEXT above is taken directly from my book, The Earth Beneath My Feet. The book can be found on Amazon in the United States HERE, and in the United Kingdom HERE. For early reviews of the book, please see this blog post HERE.
The photos in the book are all black and white, and because of space are limited in number. But as an extra, here are several photos taken prior to events described above. For obvious reasons, I took no photos after my Alpine bounce!
As the Prologue of The Earth Beneath My Feet explains, the year after falling from the Hohtürli Pass I changed my life and spent six months walking the length of the Alps. In the middle of August, 1,200 miles into that walk, I returned to the pass to attempt to cross it a second time. It was a memorable return – for many reasons. I’ll share the story of it, and more photos, next week.
Thank you for reading!