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Someone with a queasy stomach would do better to gallop on a raging bull camel across a desert than to stand stone still on a glacier. A glacier, in its own slow way, has done more bucking, heaving, rambling, rocking and rolling than any creature on earth. To step onto a glacier is to step onto pure, concentrated momentum; no foothold is more exhilarating, more uncertain. A glacier can sweep through a person's mind, freezing out essential points of reference—time, space, your own name. There's nothing too big or heavy for a glacier to carry. Last August I climbed two of them high in the Swiss Alps. The first one, at 3,000 meters, prepared me for the second one. The second one, at 4,000 meters, resculpted my interior landscape.
I had forgotten all about dinosaurs, the Ice Age, Adam and Eve and glaciers until I went to visit my old summer camp, the International Teen Camp at the Ecole Nouvelle in Chailly, Lausanne. Though I hadn't been there for 10 years, I popped in for a quick hello; within a week I found myself all the way up there, twice, on two different glaciers, up in that part of the sky where they make the blue, where clouds sweep by and knock you off balance. Some camps, when you go back to visit, make you dress up in a sheet and sing your own poems out at the end of the dock. At ITC, a camp that offers every adventure any plucky adolescent could ever yearn for, they tie a rope around your waist, hand you an ice pick and point the way up.
To climb a Swiss glacier a person has to spend the night before up on the mountain in a cabin, sometimes with a bunch of Belgian Boy Scouts whose counselors make them sing non-stop, in English, songs like When the Saints Go Marching In or We Shall Overcome, which doesn't make it any easier to get up at 4 a.m., as glacier climbers in Switzerland do. But the sleeplessness is worth it. A glacier won't let you down, if you're careful.
"Do you know how Trotsky died?" a handsome lad from Mexico asked me in the parking lot even before I'd gotten used to the fact that the dirty laundry in my traveling pack had already been replaced by pears, bread, jam and chocolate for the hike up the Wildhorn, an average-sized Alp of 3,247 meters in the canton of Valais.
"No," I said, staring down with pleasure at the red laces of a borrowed pair of hiking boots.
"Like this. Yaa!" and he swung his ice pick down hard at the ground. The ends of my red laces jumped two feet. "See, Trotsky was writing at his desk and a guy came up behind him and...zappo!" The boy handed me the pick and I put it over my shoulder to get the feel of it.
Any tool that can get a grip on a glacier could slip through a human body in minus three seconds and come out clean. A pick seems to carry a hand up the mountain and not the other way around.
"I'm the only Egyptian Alpinist in existence," said Hanni, one of the counselors, as we started up the path. "At least as far as I know."
There were four counselors on this hike: Hanni; Maria, a social scientist from Cyprus; Andreas, a law student from West Germany; and Patricia, a math student from France. The 14 campers were from Great Britain, Belgium, Italy, Sweden (two of the Swedes were of Korean extraction), Germany, Mexico and the U.S.—there were almost as many nationalities as there were kinds of wild-flowers shooting pockets of bright color up through the grass.
The walk to the cabin where we'd stay the night was fairly easygoing on a gently meandering path, but when a foot is packed deep inside a mountain-climbing boot, each step becomes an event. A person who has walked through Topeka, Kans. in hiking boots has seen a different city from someone who has walked across it in sneakers; the person in boots has been somewhere. The sole of a sneaker would only skim the surface of a mountain path; the sole of a boot goes deeper, joining the calf muscle to the heart of the mountain.