Every location woven into the fabric of my destiny has had a harbinger: a book, a movie, an accidental stop, or a rendezvous. That initial note may first sound strange and distant, but by the time of the heralded event itself it has always grown into a whole symphony so that the event presents itself as nothing more than a logical manifestation of this energy.
What was that initial note appealing to me that first summer in Verbier? Mountains had entered my life. And mountains had never tempted me before. My idea of paradise was to lounge on a comfortable chaise-long in the French Riviera, enjoy the landscape of the Côte d’Azur and occasionally dip into the turquoise waters to cool off. For me, mountains seemed to irritatingly obscure the horizon and the deep shadows cast by them tended to quickly throw me into melancholy. I remember writing to a friend: “Bergen is a really cool city with a good art programme, and I would love it if not for the mountains all around it…” But now the path of my destiny had taken me to Verbier, a village perched 1,500 m above the far end of Lake Geneva, and confronted me with a dormant part of my personality. Thomas Mann said that the sea accepts us as we are, but in the mountains we prove our vitality, and – indeed – I experienced a new joy of living here. I had left behind an exhausting relationship with a narcissistic man and was gradually beginning to acknowledge my own strength. This place was home to an event that triggered my rebirth.
At the beginning of August, I visited Roger, a Verbier-based Latvian writer and playwright and my friend. He had invited me to a creative session linked to a novel he was in the process of writing. He was certain that my characteristically analytic questions (a leftover trait from my career in journalism) would help him clarify the structure of the story and refine the characters. Day in and day out we would wander the mountain trails for hours – just like Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel’s heroes in Paolo Sorrentino’s film Youth we were reasoning about literature, discussing the meaning of life and sharing our dreams. Roger admitted that he wanted to leave his mark on the younger generation. Just like in the film, Rachel Weisz’s heroine overcomes the fear of height in the strong grip of a Swiss mountaineer, the thoroughness of Roger’s friendship encouraged me to trust people, man and myself again.
One evening while browsing through the Instagram account of the Verbier Art Summit I noticed that in the mountains very close to Verbier there was the location of an impressive piece by the famous land art artist Michael Heizer. Honestly, reading about it, I could hardly believe my eyes: how could it be that Michael Heizer, this unique pioneer of land art, would have created an object of such magnificence, so typical of him, in such a remote corner of the Bagnes Valley, and I had not heard of it? I was deeply intrigued, not to say thrilled. The next morning a mere minute after the opening of the tourist office, I was there to find out more. “Yes, there is an object of art by Michael Heizer at the Mauvoisin Dam,” the girl at the tourist centre pleasantly confirmed. “Oh, and by the way, there is a free train with a guide on it heading there and departing from Le Chable in 10 minutes. It runs but once a week. ” In 10 minutes! It would take just that to get down to the town of Le Chable. I looked at Roger: “Let’s run!” He never got a chance to reply and in no time we were already halfway to the ski-lift station. “You are crazy!” he exhaled as we both collapsed on the seats in a gondola and started sliding down through the absolute silence of the Alps. From the gondola we watched a gingerly painted train stationed not far away waiting for us. We hurried there. The guide was just allocating the seats. “Indeed, there are still exactly two places left,” she replied in a delightfully French accent, smiling. Overjoyed, we could hardly believe our luck.
The two hours we spent on our way to Mauvoisin almost deserve a separate story: that train ride would be a dream journey for every inhabitant on this planet and it would be rather cruel to relate it to those for whom this adventure is still ahead. Val des Bagnes is one of the wildest parts of the Swiss Alps and here the harsh rigidity of the Norwegian cliffs is mollified by the charm of Italy lying just behind the mountain. The mountain road, waterfalls, picturesque villages where we were treated to local cheese and wine, the museums, the hydroelectric station and, above all, the summer sun. How the conductor managed to safely lead this sleek wobbly snake of many cars up the narrow serpentines of the mountain road could probably serve as a subject for a gravity-defying science research. All I know is that I felt just as happy as I had felt at the age of six on my first ride in a children’s train at a funfair.
After a slow, but cheerful ascent we finally reached Mauvoisin, located at 1900 m asl. Casting a quick look over the two central buildings – a hotel that seemed to have stepped right out of an Agatha Christie’s crime novel featuring English tourists in Switzerland and a small chapel carved into a block of rock – I hurried towards the square behind the hotel where I could already glimpse the steel lines of Michael Heizer’s sculpture in the ground.
Land Art artists, these grandeur-obsessed machos who liked to play God in the United States in the 1960s, subjecting deserts, lakes, mountains to their visions! In the decline of the industrial era, Richard Long, Robert Smithson and others continued working on the subject of merging the nature and the environment into art. Michael Heizer stood out among them, characterised by even more grandeur. Commenced in 1972, his City, a colossal Egyptian pyramid-like structure in the middle of the Nevada desert, was scheduled to open in 2020.
Heizer proclaimed this city his magnum opus claiming that it will “survive humanity”. For almost fifty years, every single day 20 excavators have been polishing its surfaces so that this city that no eye has yet seen does not succumb to the entropy power of the desert winds. Ironically, just at the moment when the king was about to add the finishing touch to his perfect crowning glory, the nature itself interfered with his plans, forcing him to postpone the opening to a date yet unknown. All of Land Art artists, and Heizer in particular, have been criticized for making choices that are unfriendly to nature and not sustainable: imagine the cost incurred to the DIA Art Foundation for employing 20 mega bulldozers every day for years! Seeing the objects created by the Land Art artists is like visiting an exhibition of paleontology: in modern ecology, organisms of such size are no longer viable. That should explain my enthusiasm to get to Mauvoisin – I desired to touch history!
In Switzerland, Heizer had recreated a 1972 sketch of his from Nevada, where he formed three circles in the desert sand with a bicycle. Here he had carved the circles into a rock plateau and cast them into steel. The line forms a trench where one can step in to walk through it. Some will notice similarities with Heizer’s 1969 work “Double Negative” in America, where he displaced 244,000 t of rock to create two deep trenches that, when viewed from above, form two lines in the Nevada desert. The ‘content’ of the work is the void, hence the ‘negative’, a term often used in the title of his works. In Verbier children frequently run inside the steel ‘negative’, adults walk thoughtfully around it, only some making up their mind to step down into it.
Heizer’s ‘incisions’ in the landscape are so precise (he comes from a family of archaeologists), his ‘negative’ space so impregnated with the questions about meaning that he has managed to successfully subjugate Switzerland’s highest mountain range with all of the adjoining Mont Blanc. Just as the “hero” of Kant’s philosophy subjects menacing natural phenomena by means of an aesthetic gaze, the rings drawn by Heizer in rusty steel with a precision of a divider tend to synchronize the rugged mountain ridges under the control of the reason of a Renaissance man. At times, it gives you the shivers imagining the sheer power of the human will, but sometimes you cannot help but burst into a smile at the infinite vanity of man. And that is exactly the range of motion of the Land Art pendulum. In the summer, children dash around the rings happily, tourists, uninhibited by the Swiss prices, walk past them following their mountain trails, the art elite gathers admiring them, but during the winter months the sculpture is under the snow, the road is often impassable and the mountains see people perish regularly in the harsh conditions.
The reason for the private foundation Air & Art to install Heizer’s work in Mauvoisin in 2012 was the fact that there is another engineering miracle nearby – the Mauvoisin Dam. At 2100 m asl, it is the fifth highest hydroelectric dam in the world and produces one billion kilowatts annually. It was built from 1951 to 1958 by curbing the glaciers that had endangered the people of the Val des Bagnes for centuries. It caused a tsunami in June 1818, which leveled the villages to the far end of the valley, killed 44 people and countless animals.After Heizer, I was not too tempted to see the achievements of engineering, but since the dam was considered important in the creation of this site-specific work, it could not be missed. After climbing a bit more than 200 m and almost losing our breath altogether, we came to the dam structure that encompassed the whole Lake Mauvoisin. The landscape here is mind-boggling. The water in the giant lake is bright green, on either side of the lake there are streams gushing out of the cliff rumbling like the Victoria waterfalls, and all of this set in the background of majestically towering mountains. I felt like in a sci-fi movie tasked with discovering liquid on a distant and strange planet. I was not at all in a hurry to take pictures, because I sensed quite intuitively that I would return.
On the way back, both me and Roger kept silent. The day had been distinctly memorable. “Your impulses can be trusted,” Roger concluded. I felt a wave of the former vitality and courage wash over me again. Were these but memories? Or was I undergoing a transformation again? At the dinner table, I studied the map of the Mauvoisin Dam. I noted that the dam had a trail around it. We solemnly promised each other to walk it the next summer.
A year passed by. My connection to Switzerland grew stronger and stronger due to the positive psychology and art projects carried out by me. In the middle of the summer, I was planning to be in Verbier again to present a workshop at Les Elfes – a youth and children’s camp. A week before departing I was sitting at the hairdresser’s salon and for nothing better to do opened a map of Lake Mauvoisin on my phone. All at once I started researching the trails, the nearest base stations, read the notes of other hikers. The more I read, the more I geared myself up for it.
I have to go! I did promise myself. Plus, it will be my birthday that week. I have to experience something extraordinary. Roger is in Paris this summer and cannot accompany me. But maybe one of my friends in Verbier might consider joining me?
This time in Verbier I have a ‘barter’ with Kate, an American acquaintance: I offer her positive psychology coaching and in return she takes me in. Kate’s apartment is spacious, with several terraces opening up to three directions. We agree to set off for a hike in the mountains above Verbier some day soon, but the rest of the week is free for my leisure. Kate has been living here for 15 years, and has now been single for a while, but she seems to love her solitude. She works hard for her tourism company and admits to be a workaholic. In fact, that is the reason why she has expressed an interest in the positive psychology coaching – to learn to see more meaning in her life.
Right from the first meeting I notice that Kate exerts a major influence here in Verbier. All I have to do is add “Kate said…” in a conversation with anyone and whatever I say gains much more weight. As per Kate’s recommendation, the luxury hotel W Verbier (Marriott group) hires me to hold a positive psychology seminar for the hotel management team, no questions asked. Even in this luxury paradise everyone seems to be overworked.
When asked how she has managed to earn such respect from this conservative society, she laughs me off: “There is no secret. I just go and talk to people. Openness is the American advantage.”
The fact that in such small communities a lot tends to be determined by a couple of influential people is nothing new to me. In Monaco, too, everything depends on the prince’s blessing. Should the prince mention something to the media or happen to drop in on a certain event, the word gets out and local community perceives that as a green light; consequently in no time things start to happen.
Next morning, humming to myself, I set off for the walk to the camp of Les Elfes (the camp of the elves – from the French) and stride happily along the sunlit roads of Verbier. I photograph the buildings, the light and myself. Before nine o’ clock the village is still quiet and empty. In summer, the atmosphere here is much calmer compared to wintertime when the whole of the sportive elite of the Western Europe storms in, with the representatives of almost all the royal families in the limelight. Although there is no shortage of all kinds of mountaineers here in the summer, the region is mostly flooded with more senior visitors, especially in late July and early August, when the village hosts the prestigious Verbier Classical Music Festival. I, too, have a ticket to this festival in my pocket.
As I approach the Les Elfes complex, I hear a loud hustle and bustle. Everyone has finished their breakfast and is now in the course of finding their spot of activity: some gather up for a water sporting tour to Lake Geneva, some will plant trees in the mountains, others will learn French here on site. Camp manager Adam talks to me, simultaneously also passing out instructions to a colleague and answering questions from the children. I have worked with them for a year now and there has always been creative chaos around here, but the place must be functioning successfully enough for the cream of the global society to keep sending their children here for more than 30 years. I happen to notice a Latvian name on a list on Adam’s table: a daughter of a famous Latvian hockey player is to come to the camp this summer. “Indeed, the whole world is represented here,” Adam has noticed my curious gaze. Most of the instructors and support staff are British. Today I am to work with them.
The next, equally sunny day brings a much more challenging task: I have to handle a group of almost 30 unruly teenagers from all over the world (no exaggeration): girls from Brazil, Venezuela and Egypt bursting with energy, shy and timid guys from Saudi Arabia and India, and the list goes on. Throughout the day a real passion for the tasks alternates with chaos that can only be ruled in by the authoritative voice of instructor Ben sent to help me out. Having finished with yelling, showing off and tricking me, the children calm down during the second half of the day, and now a genuine conversation can take place. Les Elfes has planned this session as an opportunity for the little participants to reflect on and put into words their experience of the past month in the camp.
During the lunch break a couple of Ukrainian girls come up to me to confide that they have long since wanted to return home. But later on when during a group exercise they hear others list their best qualities, the girls light up and start showing much more enthusiasm for the activities. Upon receiving a wave of compliments from the others, even the inert Saudi boy slips out of the corner where he had settled until then. I feel very satisfied with my job. After the session, I treat myself to a cool glass of white wine right in the nearby outdoor cafe of the Verbier Festival. While lounging there, I receive the final feedback. An Egyptian girl who had been the loudest throughout the class approaches me to confess “I want to be like you. Everybody likes you!” I smile at her and have a sensation of finding myself in an American TV series. These rascals have recharged my batteries and there is no doubt that I simply have to go to Mauvoisin tomorrow.
I dine with my friend Vita that night. She runs one of W Verbier Hotel’s restaurants. Her Latvian sassiness and true love for work has let her earn the title of the employee of the year for a second time already. This time the award entails a prize – a fully paid stay in a luxury hotel in Monte Carlo. We lift our glasses of Aperol Spritz to toast our success. This has been a long day for both of us. Although there are fewer tourists in the summer, there is even more work, because the number of employees is reduced. Vita being the person responsible for everything has to take care of all the outstanding random tasks. We both feel well deserving of the rich servings at the restaurant Le Fer a Cheval. It has been a while since my appetite has been sufficient to devour all of their lasagna serving. I notice my ‘students’ from Saudi Arabia seated at one of the tables in the dining hall, while some of ‘my’ Egyptian girls pass by chatting cheerfully. These young people are one of Verbier’s main sources of livelihood in the summer. Most of them come from extremely wealthy families. Here they enjoy their liberty and do not hesitate to spend their generous allowances. During the class, I overheard phrases like “My father being a friend of the king” or “When my godfather travelled the Sahara on his plane…”
For dessert we move to Vita’s. She gets to live in a charming wooden chalet (so typical of the Swiss Alps) in exchange for looking after the property of its owner, an Englishman living in Singapore. He comes here with his family a couple of times a year, the rest of the time Vita lives here alone. We seat ourselves comfortably on one of the terraces. She pops open a bottle of white wine right out of the fridge, locates the dessert, and dims the lights. I feel so good that I even pick up one of Vita’s cigarillos. This is a French-speaking canton of Switzerland. Here people are familiar with joie de vivre. I impart to Vita my plan to go to Mauvoisin tomorrow. She herself loves hiking, but she does not know this route.
Together we pore over the hiking map and discover that it is a 22 kilometre route, rated at a medium degree of difficulty. I also learn that tomorrow afternoon there is a 40% chance of a thunderstorm. However, the probability of rain and thunder only increases later on in the week. Vita looks at me assessingly. To her, I seem an ethereal being who should rather stay away from major risks. Instead of Mauvoisin, she tries to persuade me to choose other, shorter routes that she has walked herself. She is unaware that the chance to explore this route before any of my friends in Verbier only adds to my determination to take it. I am faced with a real dilemma however: I really want to take this route, but undertaking such a long and unfamiliar trail high in the mountains with a probability of thunder sounds scary.
Vita sees my inner torment and makes me promise to drop her a message about my decision in the morning. In the mountains you have to look out for each other. On the way home, I decide to go up to the water dam in the morning, take a book with me, do some reading in a meadow, have lunch at that hotel that reminds of an Agatha Christie novel, and consider my day a success.
At seven in the morning I am at the post bus stop and hitch a ride down to Le Chable. Another half an hour’s wait for the bus. I grab a coffee. I have packed as little as possible in my cloth bag – a book, a small bottle of water, a sandwich, a banana, a bar of chocolate and a pair of shorts to change into when it gets hot. I have already generously applied sunscreen so that I would not have to carry the cream with me. I know that after a longer walk, every little extra item tends to weigh heavily on my shoulders.
It is only 20 kilometres to Mauvoisin, and I arrive there at an early hour. Upon entering the hotel, I see several groups of hikers apparently discussing the route having finished their breakfast. I overhear Swiss German. There are large, no-nonsense backpacks on their shoulders and their feet are neatly clad in proper hiking shoes in khaki or earth colour. I decide to have another coffee and a sandwich before the walk. This place can only be called a hotel through the lens of the 19th century. It is indeed the second oldest hotel in the canton of Valais: it celebrated its 150th anniversary two years ago. Long wooden tables, bracketed by roughly planed wooden benches. The waitress pours me coffee from the coffee machine’s jug. Milk is only available in small plastic containers.
There is a distinct smell coming from the kitchen and mixed with the aroma of the timber varnish it reminds me of the few times when I, as a child, wandered into the kitchen of a local Orthodox convent for women. Fish! It reeked of fish there! Here, too. Apart from me, in the stretched out room there is a couple of men at a retirement age. They also study the map over their coffee. I find the coffee too bitter and should ask for another packaging of milk, but the waitress stays absent. I notice a whole jar of them on the counter. I wonder why, suddenly, in the presence of these gentlemen I should feel ashamed to stand up and go take the milk myself. I wait for them to leave and then help myself to some.
By that time the sun has risen higher above the mountain ridge, pouring over the valley its clear morning light.
I squeak with joy quietly and reach for my phone and its camera. It serves as a reference point proving that this moment is real. If I get this urge to take photos, it means I am right here and right now.
I also have an urge to sing. I quickly glance around to make sure nobody is nearby and let my voice pick up a tune. I start climbing up to the dam, located 200 m above the Mauvoisin itself.
The harsh faces and massive statures of the men carved into the monument dedicated to the builders of the dam do not differ much from the representation of Soviet workers in stone at that time. The dam was built from 1951 to 1958, engaging more than 2,000 workers, mostly Italians. The colossal size of their work can be seen in an exhibition set up in one of the tunnels. The tunnel is dark, humid and also frightening because of the roaring water currents nearby. I exit from it onto the dam and am greeted by a mass of bright green water and the mountains. It is in moments like these that you realize that you are facing the wonder of the world. That noticeably improves my mood. Imagine – all this beauty just for me!
Respect for these huge rock constellations slowing me down is permeated by a growing sense of insurmountable curiosity driving me headlong into the tunnel – it is to take me deeper into the mountains. I still recall that feeling of my heart skipping a beat when I took the left turn in the tunnel – into the mountains. It feels as if I had chosen to break a taboo: to choose to see something that no one is allowed to see. I keep walking and the fear of the tunnel’s darkness mixes itself with a liberating sense of indulging myself. It is almost erotic. I have never experienced anything like this before. I am certain that even if I should go no further than the other end of the tunnel, this will be an experience to treasure forever.
There are no electric lights at this end of the tunnel, the only light penetrates from the few openings carved through the rock wall. Then, for a while, there is no light at all: I go using the flashlight from my phone. The floor of the tunnel is very wet, with frequent and large puddles, and there is water increasingly dripping on my nose. I start feeling uneasy. Was there really a sign allowing pedestrians to enter? Then suddenly I hear voices in the distance: I catch my breath again. Two cyclists pass by. It amazes me how well the Swiss embody precision and control over nature with complete subordination to its force.
After yet another turn in the tunnel, I hear a growingly roaring sound. I approach a place where a waterfall that looked so gracefully surrounded by rainbows from a distance reveals itself with all its threatening might crossing the tunnel at a tumultuous speed. The tunnel roars and trembles impacted by the force of the millions of cubic metres of water rushing through it. If not for those two cyclists, I would have turned back right here and now. The noise is scary indeed. I feel reminded of the African locals warning Livingstone not to approach the place where evil spirits rumble – the Victoria Falls. Although I am aware that this process is man-controlled, my imagination vividly revives all the scary characters from fairy tales right before my eyes. The water here is channelled into a small conduit with a metal pedestrian bridge thrown over. Whichever way I look at the stream, it makes me nauseous. I pull myself together to catch this sight on camera, but my legs are trembling. And then – away, away from this place!
Once past this critical point, the mountain seems to relax. With increasing frequency large openings in the tunnel wall offer amazing views of the lake. The morning sun from the other side of the lake illuminates this stone kingdom. A giant spider has woven its net almost covering one of the openings, and now contentedly basks in the July sun. Elsewhere, a small mountain waterfall crosses the tunnel. Its drops reflect the sun in a million small flickers on the wall. The sound of the rushing water is fun and soothing at the same time. And finally, the end of the tunnel! I exit into the realm of mountain meadows.
In this landscape untouched by agriculture, mountain flowers bloom, butterflies dance, cicadas sing. The glacial water, restrained, stretches below majestically. It is so bright green that it feels warm like in summer. In fact, it is probably so cold that upon touch you would turn into one of those ice sculptures from “Frozen”. As I take in the beauty of this fairy tale, someone out of nowhere addresses me: “Wandern Sie hier?” Before I manage to switch on my German skills, he has already paraphrased the question in French: “Vous partez en randonnée seul?” I recognize these two gentlemen from the Mauvoisin Hotel. They have now sat down to rest on one of the rocks next to the tunnel exit. I tell them that I am from Verbier and I intend to keep walking for a bit. We wish each other a good day, and I continue on my way.
The further I walk, the further I want to keep going. There is not even a thought in my mind of sitting down in the meadow to read. I look back to make sure that the gentlemen have not caught up with me and start singing again. A wooden information board advises me not to stay in the meadows, because they are home to mountain goats and marmots. Even if I were to sit down to read, the July sun has scorched the scarce grass to the extent that it would not be comfortable to sit on it. Midday is slowly approaching. With every minute I feel my shoulders getting more burnt by the sun. The mountain road is crossed by a magnificent waterfall, I step into its stream, submerge my hands in the cool water and let the water drip down to the elbow.
The sky is bright blue, not a single cloud in it, and the sun climbs higher and higher. The road has taken me high above the lake. The landscape is harsh. Just a couple of blocks of rock that, like Michael Heizer’s impressive mass of stone above the entrance to the Los Angeles Museum of Art, levitate in the air, making you wonder when they will roll down. On the following days, during the opening of a sculpture by artist Karsten Fodinger in the Verbier Sculpture Park, I get to learn that these rocks play an important role in the mountain ecosystem. They prevent mountain erosion and provide a safe cover for mountain plants and trees. In me, however, this landscape does not create any feeling of refuge: if there should be thunder, I would have nowhere to hide.
Neither does this seem to be the most popular route among hikers and cyclists. During the course of an hour and a half, the only thing I have seen is a dirty off-road jeep that looks like it might belong to the mountain patrol. I’m happy with my pace however, and in a few kilometres I should reach halfway of the trail marked by a bridge over the dam. At that place, the map shows the impressive reservoir shrinking to a size of a small river. I decide to go up to the bridge and then turn back.
The road begins to roll downhill, leading me along romantic curves. I start searching the horizon for signs of the bridge. There it is! Glad that the destination is within reach, I descend, humming to myself. I notice a herd of cows and a small shepherd’s hut on the other side of the dam. The cows look so tiny against the huge mass of the mountain. The mountains are so overwhelming! A bit like when curator Kaspars Vanags once claimed that one has to have a very high level of self-confidence not to be confused by the sheer size of the Art Basel art market, so the mountains can only be confronted in a psychologically stable state. And I have one. My life has been moving forward and upwards lately. Switzerland loves me. And I love Switzerland.
As I approach the bridge, I notice that it leads directly into the pasture area, but I do not see a road anywhere further up the hill. Neither is there any sign at the bridge. Could it be that there is another bridge further down the river? There is only one shown on the map. I stop, perplexed. I do not want to cross the wrong bridge and then wander in the mountains without a living soul around in search of a road. I decide to follow the road a bit further. Suddenly, a building appears on the bank of the dam with the same muddy truck stationed next to it. This seems mystical at this point somehow. Scenes from “Twin Peaks” flash before my eyes. The proximity of a human should create a sense security, but the lizard’s part of my brain cautions me to be careful. Just as well that there is nobody in the yard. The few times I met shepherds who had lived in the highlands isolated for months, I noticed that mountains can have a strange effect on people.
Walking forwards for a while, I notice another bridge. But then – what’s that!? There is aloud rumble coming from the mountains! The sound echoes so resoundingly that my legs wobble and I am close to peeing my pants. Thunder! This early! It has arrived and taken me by surprise! In a wave of panic, I turn back. I want to run, but my legs are almost limp from fear and I can but walk. I have read somewhere that thunder in the mountains is the worst experience of all. I seem to remember that there was a small tunnel a kilometre back, I could maybe hide in there. I burst into running with all the remnants of the strength that I can muster, and around the bend I literally run into the same Swiss gentlemen I encountered at the beginning of the hike. They have come this far, them as well! I am extremely happy to see them and ashamed to think that they may have noticed the signs of panic on my face. I ask them:
-Did you hear that?
– The thunder!
– Noway. There was no forecast of thunder today!
Oh, what a joy! I am ready to throw my arms around them for the good news. They are Swiss and thus locals, so they should know what they are talking about. The three of us arrive at the bridge. There are indicators of the distance travelled and information about the remaining climb to the base station. We each unpack our sandwiches and eat in silence. I ponder: if I could climb the mountain in an hour, I would still have half an hour left to rest and then – three hours to get back to Mauvoisin. The last bus leaves there at 5pm. The adrenaline of fear has left me pumped. I feel ready to climb this 600 m mountain.
I remember the last summer’s feeling of quiet envy watching all the mountain hikers at the Mont Fort base station.
With their walking sticks and stylish mountain boots, they looked so strong and brave, with access to a part of the world inaccessible to ordinary tourists. I also want to be one of them – an anointed one.
So when the gentlemen ask me if I intend to climb the mountain, I decisively reply “Yes!”
And you? – We, too!
The goal is to depart this point in the valley at 1841 m and reach the base station Cabane de Chanrion at an altitude of 2402 m. At first, the climb seems easy, I follow the path uphill in quite even steps, leaving the Swiss couple further and further behind. They take the smoothest road, I sometimes choose the steeper shortcuts on the trail. But soon, oh, how soon the climbing turns difficult! My legs are strong enough, but the heart is beating frantically. The heat is oppressive, and I try to use any shade provided by rocks. There are quite a few little streams with ice-cold water in them, but the heat is so strong that the cooling effect disappears in a minute. I start sitting down often, just under open sun, unable to always reach the shade of bigger stones.
I watch the mouth of a marmot cave in the ground and inspect fluffy worms reminding me of fireflies. There are so many of them here.
My consciousness turns into that state when a minute feels like an eternity.
I have enough time to delve into the nuances of this natural world and compose an Anda Kļaviņa’s own marmot-worm theory.
The mountain gets steeper and steeper. My pink running shoes are far from suitable for this climb. I often hold on to wisps of grass in the hope that my foot does not slip against the sun-burnt stones. It feels like climbing towards the sun. Here, on the lee-side from the wind the sun is literally scorching cruelly. When it seems that there should finally appear the trail to Chanrion, instead there is yet another turn and another 50 m to climb. My body is operating in an autopilot mode. It seems to have nothing to do with my willpower any more. Sometimes my gaze blurs and I have to stop to keep balance. The curves of the trail appear never-ending, each steeper than the previous one. Until finally, FINALLY, much, much later than I expected, I see a totem made of stones. I sit down next to it and gaze at it motionlessly; if I could, I would hug it. This is an ode to my feet, heart and lungs. Especially to my feet, I am truly grateful that they have brought me this high up. The view on both sides of the valley is magnificent.
At the top of the mountain, after crossing a wide plateau, I see a Swiss flag, raised high on the mast next to the Chanrion refuge. There are a lot of people around the building, I am curious as to where they all came from. I did not meet anyone in the course of all these 15 km. On this flat surface, my feet feel like two heavy poles . My mouth is dry, my throat – a little sore from heavy breathing. Jaggedly, just like Pinocchio, I walk into the wooden house with its primitive dining room and a couple of guest rooms on the second floor. I order a sandwich, a coffee and a bar of chocolate. I literally collapse on the wooden bench. I am waited on by a mother and a daughter. Judging from their manners and clothing, the mountains are their home. Even now, in the middle of summer, when this place is visited by travellers from all over the world every day, it seems very remote.
I wonder what it must be like here in winter when the only access is on skis or by helicopter. Or maybe once a week a group of skiers would arrive to lodge here. The large stove in the middle of the dining room is probably a vital heat source when the winter winds are howling outside. Switzerland is in the heart of Europe, Italy being just behind the mountain, but the mountains are a whole different kingdom, with different customs and laws. I am pleased to have climbed one of the wildest corners of the Alps.
While I’m working on my sustenance, I see my Swiss companions enter the cabin. “Du bist eine starke Läuferin,” one of them tells me. They unpack their sandwiches and offer some to me as well. I am not really hungry at all, I only eat because I know I have to walk the same distance back. But now the hardest part is behind us. All that remains is to “just” descend the mountain on this side of the lake. I exit the cabin to lounge a bit on a pull-out chair. Of course, I feel my legs, but the fatigue is not too overwhelming. I look ahead to where Italy is, and I fantasize that the next summer I could continue down the dam across the mountain to the nearest Italian city, Aosta.
After a while, the Swiss come out and wave at me before disappearing behind the house. I also get up. On the other side of the building, I see that the house has an access road behind it. Most likely several of the guests have arrived by car to walk in the highlands. I have already walked a while when I notice the road turn in the opposite direction. I grab for the map. This path is not what I need. I check the map, I check the landscape: suddenly I notice my Swiss friends far ahead on a different trail. To catch up with them, I have to first return to the base station and only then can I get onto the correct trail. I rush off. After a long run, I finally am following their footsteps. I can breathe out with relief.
Gradually the mountain trail ascends higher and higher. Crossing a hill, I come to a snow field. I grab a handful of snow and put some in my mouth – snow on July 25th! Crossing an even higher hill, I come to a valley, with a rapid waterfall racing down straight from a glacier. The realm of winter at the zenith of summer – the feeling is fabulous. I thank God for letting me experience this. Hill after hill, they are getting steeper and higher. I am so high now that the dam below is not even visible. The Swiss are still there in the distance – at least I’m on the right track. But I do not seem to be able to catch up with them. Because climbing is becoming more and more risky. Often the trail is in the middle of a deep ravine, the path is very narrow and the rocky surface – treacherously slippery.
While putting my foot over a ridge of a rock, I almost put it in the face of a man approaching from the other side of the ridge. He notes my running shoes and clothes more suitable for a Sunday walk in the park – shorts, a black shirt and a black cloth bag – and exclaims: “Mon Dieu! Vous escaladez la montagne dans ces chaussures! ” His misgivings are justified, but it is too late now to discuss the suitability of my “equipment”. His group of mountain climbers, of course, appear fully prepared for the mountains.
Another hill reveals a cliff to be climbed at almost 90 degrees. This side of the Mauvoisin Dam has surprised me with properly alpine climbing conditions. The rock trail is very narrow, covered in white dust that glitters in the sunlight hurting my eyes, and under the trail there is an abyss in which I force myself not to look. There are ropes attached, but only in some places, mostly I have to cling to the rock wall and pray for God to protect me. I move forward at a speed of a snail, not seeing more than half a meter ahead of me. And that is just fine, because looking ahead would mean seeing yet more steep parts to be overcome. The foot sometimes slips on the dusty surface, and at those moments my chest contracts with the stiffening fear of death.
At this point, I am driven on only by a survival instinct, ready to dig into the rock with my bare nails if necessary. Not even fully aware how, but I finally reach a point where the climb is over. I literally collapse on the stones. My Swiss gentlemen are already here, resting. Having overcome something like this together, we feel like we have bonded somehow. We start talking and telling each other about ourselves. Alois and Anton are retired teachers from the city of Brig – a school psychologist and a sports teacher. Both have a tradition to go on a hike together every year.
The weather has changed. The sun is no longer hot, the sky is covered with a light layer of clouds. In fact, it has gotten so cool that I need to wear my jacket for the first time during the hike. The road further leads through rocky fields, it seems – to infinity. I quickly bypass the Swiss again. I notice a romantic couple leaning against a large rock with bicycles next to them. I am fascinated – how they did they get here on bikes, – but even more intrigued by how they plan to cross the cliff crossing.
I notice a marmot standing up on one of the rocks. I start filming it, zooming in closer, closer… Suddenly a strike of lightning crosses the landscape! And just a moment later – thunder! Panic shakes my body. I look back at the Swiss – they are still far away. I look around for any signs of civilization. Nothing. A bare field of stones stretches all around for kilometres. Drawing my head down and in like an animal wanting to remain invisible, I move forward and desperately search the landscape through the corner of my eye for a place to hide and take refuge. Nothing. Just a couple of big stones.
Another peal of thunder! It has started to rain. Should I go back to the Swiss guys? But it would be no use. They are in the same situation as I. Besides, they have metal (!) walking sticks in their hands. Frightened, I move forward, silently asking God if this really is to be my destiny – to remain forever here in the mountains. Usually in life-threatening situations, I tend to promise God that if I survive, I will do this or that. But now I am too scared to even think of promising anything. In my mind, I estimate that I still have to walk at least another eight kilometres, and what if the thunderstorm rages on and on? I want to run, but that would not be clever. In this state of insanity and trembling at every clap of thunder, I walk on for several kilometres. It starts to rain harder and the thunder sits right there on the mountain top, but luckily does not get any stronger. Neither do I see further strikes of lightning.
When the size of the raindrops increases to that of a small ball, the mountain trail finally begins to go downhill. There is no more thunder, but I have heard that it can be cunning in the mountains. Maybe the thunder is just lurking behind the hill and when it gets on this side, you should still be prepared for the worse. Luckily, there are meadows ahead. The road, however, is suddenly blocked by an electric fence. I look around for another way, my eyes blurry with rain, but I cannot see any. I clamber over the wire and continue my way. A large flock of black cows appear in the distance. Most of them stand on the road. I have heard that they can be aggressive. But I have no choice: I just go straight towards them. Poor cattle jump aside in fear and clear my way. Having gone right through the herd, I laugh out loud, almost hysterically. Well, now indeed the worst must be behind me! I hide under the roof of a shepherd’s hut. Meanwhile, Alois and Anton catch up with me. We exchange a few words, but the survival experience has exhausted me so that there is no strength left to even speak. I let them go ahead and slowly drag myself behind them. They started off slower than me, but are now taking the lead. Just like in the fable about the hare and the turtle.
Walking the last kilometre along the dam feels wonderful. From this side of the lake the waterfall that scared me in the tunnel reveals itself in a different shade of green. The weather is cloudy and cool. At a cliff stream, the Swiss are waiting for me. They are in a noticeably good mood because of their achievement. Alois is 80 years old and especially proud of himself. I admit to them that this is a huge achievement for me as well. I had not known that I was so brave and resilient. They both praise me and say, “We had thought of going to the bridge and then turning back. But when we found out that you were going to climb the mountain alone, we said: if she, as a woman, is taking this route, why not us. ” So it turns out that we had unknowingly motivated and protected each other. We laugh and take photos.
We have hiked almost 30 kilometres. My iphone says I have walked 40,612 steps and climbed 242 stories. Alois and Anton invite me for a drink at the Mauvoisin Hotel. They go for a beer, I have a red wine. We toast to our achievement and the new friendship. I feel reborn into a new version of me. After this, nothing will be too difficult or scary for me. I can trust my gut feeling. As I get in the car, I notice the public bus arriving. I would have made it to the last bus!
The Swiss take me down to the town of Le Chable. I part emotionally with my mountain elves who were with me on this personal growth journey. I return to Verbier with the feeling of a well-celebrated birthday, ready for more life.
P.S. At Christmas, I receive greetings on Whatsapp from Anton and Alois. They will be waiting for me in the mountains in the summer of 2020.
The story was created with the support of the Ventspils International Writers’ and Translators’ House.