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Experiment 7


page 35


At last I could climb alone. You might think that the sport of mountaineering opens up airy paths of liberty where you can defy both nature and the conventions in whatever dosage you care to prescribe for yourself, and with whatever frequency your particular complaint demands, but now you just try it - you'll soon find there are club committees, executive reports, notices of motion, pamphlets on safety, search and rescue organisations, guides, local police, relatives, newspapers and hosts of busybodies who'll want to know where you're going, when you're expected back, or where you've been, as if it were something that mattered.

If they catch you stepping outside the approved all-chums-together relationship they'll soon rope you back into the team and make you play according to the rules.

But one morning I managed to shake them all off and get to the bottom of the east ridge as daylight set the old earth carcase creaking. I mounted swiftly, excitedly. I began to perceive the landscapes with dream-like velocity and clarity. Without rope or companions I was able to bound from slab to slab with machine-like exactitude. My eyes scanned the rook surfaces with faultless accuracy, and I spurred my way forward, grasping each handhold as if it were the familiar flesh of a tamed animal, grinning to myself and grunting with pleasure each time I completed some unusually involved manoeuvre.

For I am good at this little game. I know when to whisper to the beast and caress it. I know also when it needs to be kicked, hammered, abused and intimidated. In this skill I even conform to socially approved patterns, because I have what is deferentially called "overseas experience." It is true that this experience is like many other facets of the European illusion; for, the lessons on firm, well-chartered Dolomite rock are almost worthless in the unstable, visibly-eroding New Zealand Alps where the huts are few, the weather is moody, loose stones slither at the scrape of hand or foot, and the flanks of the mountains dribble mud, stones, slush, ice and rook debris like running sores into river drains.

Balance, speed, luck are what you need; and you have to augment them with violence. On these ridge climbs it is often necessary to demolish whole quarry loads of tottering rubble in order to obtain a few substantial footholds on the somewhat cleaner surfaces below, which have not yet been shattered by frost and ice.

Sometimes just for pleasure I roll boulders over the side and watch them bounding thousands of feet down frozen couloirs page 36into the icefalls. As they descend they dislodge other loose material, so that what begins as a mere cartload of moving rock, ends as a destructive wave that slobbers out into the neve of the valley like an ugly food stain on a clean cloth. If I cannot dislodge a likely piece of rock with my direct strength I often persuade it into motion by using my ice axe as a lever.

When I release these bombardments I am a comic-strip god re-arranging the cardboard universe. But which way to shape it?

I send a hundredweight of stone skidding down the slopes. Now a broadside like that could do a lot of damage if it were skilfully directed. It could easily obliterate my money-spinning bosses for instance -- the fellows back in town who pension me in return for the regulation amount of subservience and futile work ...

Prize loose a tombstone flake that's lying here with the scabby fungus of some alpine plant festering on it. Maybe it will engulf the quarrelling, selfish family whose needs provide me with a formula for tolerating our stale comedy.

Who will I take next? Why stop at lesser individuals? I have always maintained that if you are going to be a thief, say, or a murderer, don't fiddle a few wretched pounds from the till -- you won't get much more jail if you're caught taking thousands, or blowing a bank or sticking up a millionaire. And you'll get the same ear bashing from the judge for having failed to appreciate the niceties of the deterrent system whatever mess you get yourself into, so why not make it a big one? Don't be content just to bat some undistinguished creature like a nagging wife or an unfaithful mistress over the head with the handiest blunt instrument — why not exercise your powers imaginatively and send off a few public nuisances? There are plenty of politicians, editors, lawyers, scientists, admirals, generals, bosses and bigwigs at your disposal.

I rise to the challenge. Steadily as I batter my way up the ridge I wipe out most of the organised human institutions within reach, and a long list of people I don't like. I start on governments and work my way down through churches, banks, police armed forces, law courts, monarchies and all the jabbering, regulation-quoting civil servants that prop this machinery up. I flatten cinemas, radio stations, the press, the Rugby Union, the Racing Conference, art galleries, breweries, museums, schools, universities, war memorials, brass bands, shops, offices, boards of direotors, trade union bosses, factories, suburbia — I make a clean sweep with rigorous impartiality.

page 37

Oh yes, I am impartial. The thought comes to me as I force myself with knee pressure and two violent hand pulls up a crack to the top of a buttress, that when I have finished my work there will very likely remain only myself clowning to the white walls of an empty arena.

When I first did this climb I was a sunburned boy of 17 with two clumsy adults to find the way. I was frightened yet quickened, by the scale of things at ten thousand feet. Now I am a man with much to regret. I find my own way, but I am still frightened.

I strap on the crampons and begin the traverse of the dangerous arete. Shuffle one foot along the ice crest a step at a time, and keep the other one rasping over the rock slabs on the windward side just below. Then crouch for 300 feet at full knees bend until the muscles ache and the backside is rubbing against the neve. Belt each spike in, grind the whole foot in the face of the mountain, then kick the sugary crest off the top of the six-inch wide, curving rib and sidle along it. When the rib arcs too steeply for this progress, crampon just below it and bang the pick of the axe into the slope at each step to steady yourself.

Now it's time to start cutting. Each step must be six inches higher than the other and slightly forward so that the feet do not tangle as they cross. Fifteen to the right and an extra large step at the change of direction so that it is easier to turn and begin fifteen to the left. Zig-zag up the final pitch on to the dazzling skull.

I am high enough to examine all the peaks. The game has become more elaborate between these cunning old windmills and myself. Maybe I am not so lonely after all. See how they whirl from one skulking shape into another like bone-pointing Polynesian priests directing a prancing, heteramorphic retinue of beaks, snouts, muzzles, horns, wings and rumbling haunches.

I yell good-natured obscenities at them and they stop their dancing to provide a programme of agreeable fantasy in which women lust for me, multitudes applaud my wit, bravery and skill; my enemies are destroyed, all obstacles to success, happiness, wealth, leisure, dignity, prestige and all the other sweet rewards of the materialist gospel are trundled off stage, and I remain supremely installed at the centre of the Odyssean universe.

I enthrone myself on the summit. I hoist no national flags, mumble no prayers, click no Leicas and put out no candy-bar offerings to the Great Spirit, for I am God and mountain too, grafted here between ice-cap and sky.

page 38

To cement this triumphant union, and also to complete the project begun in the early stages of the ascent, I defecate (in a dignified way of course) gently and persistently. Soon a rich carpet smoothly improves the geography of Australasia. Out of it I intend to nourish the new order. Unfortunately I do not have time to inundate Europe and America as they deserve, but I make hasty provision — I leave a chain of tiny castles dotted strategically along their mountain ranges. Each smooth turret is a fertile repository for my divine plans and a fortress to which I can fly at any moment if things turn out badly here, or if some unusually desperate act of folly or tyranny in those discredited parts makes it necessary for me to speed up the grand offensive.

As I complete these arrangements I look around to see how my familiars are behaving. I encounter a most unwelcome sight — tooth upon tooth of the New Zealand Alps now grinds across the sky in dismal precision like a Chaplinesque array of so many wheels, pistons, gantries, boilers, conveyers, antennae, smoke stacks, poles, towers, computors, statistical charts, chutes, corridors, platforms, loudspeakers and assembly lines of detestable reality — all presided over by my urbane taskmasters with their nimble managerial diplomacy.

Threats, more obscenities, blasphemies, even offers of recantation and appeals to all the figureheads of all the religious faiths and philosophical systems I can think of, are useless. I remain shivering on the mountain with the wind rising and cloud piling in to the valleys until it shuts out everything from view but the mocking scene from which I have been trying so heroically to escape.

Very well, I have failed. But hear this you old rogues. If it's reality has to be faced, at least you can pay me the compliment of trundling off your Wagnerian repertoire of shoddy tricks. I am not taken in by your cheap European stage props. Flush them away in the next avalanche. If I am to confront you, let it be in terms that are true to these valleys.

With this demand the outlines of my urban detention centre fade. Chilly shapes loom in their place. They are the final, elusive oracles of this bitter country.

Old Douglas with his 90 pound swag, grinding out sardonic letters to the government, crouching in the moraines, waiting for the dog to bring him back a weka — O'Leary mumbling to himself in the bivouacs, fossicking, crazy-cunning in the grey torrent of the Arawata — Caples starving in the sub-alpine scrub — Brunner and Heaphy rationing off death with handfulls of fernroot, cursing the sciatica, crippled, desperate in the black birch forests — Whitcombe, a ragged skeleton, swept page 39 over the Teremakau bar and drowned — the bootleggers scheming amongst the sandflies on Bald Hill — the Far Downers cursing the weather and the English — the miners on the beach drinking — the bushmen muttering confusedly over the legends — the inheritors, baffled and disillusioned at Anzac, Paschaendale, Alamein, Cassino, and now fearful with the guilt of Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

I descend by the normal route on the western face. If they want to know where I've been I'll tell them I had to spend the day in the hut on account of something I ate.

There is nothing to do except go home and try once again.