On Top of Grand Combin

It’s not all battles. For instance July 30 saw the first ascent, in 1859, of Grand Combin, which is one of the highest mountains in the Alps. Thus securing immortality for whosit, whatsisname, thingamy and some other guys.

I do know. It was Charles Sainte-Claire Deville along with three Balleys (Daniel, Emmanuel and Gaspard Balleys) and Basile Dorsaz. But I did have to look it up. Which might have you wishing I’d get back to the battles including that of the Crater and of Warsaw (which one, you might ask). But I’m sticking with Grand Combin, and not only because I personally never mountain climbed.

I didn’t. I rock climbed a bit, badly. But mountain climbing was always too dangerous for my taste. And I had the latest late 20th century gear, not the hemp ropes and hobnail boots with which European amateurs began scaling peaks in earnest in the 19th century just because they were there.

With Grand Combin, where that was was even a challenge. Mountains are always more topologically complex than they appear from a distance, as Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills warns. So it took rather a while and a few attempts just to figure out where the big peak and the big problem was. But then they did it.

It can’t have been easy. I presume the best part of climbing a mountain is stopping because you’re safely back down, though being on the peak is probably also exhilarating in a terrifying way. But maybe that’s because I never climbed them… or perhaps it’s why. The point is, it’s an amazing feat.

To climb mountains is to challenge the unknown, and to respect nature even while “conquering” it because if you don’t do it the mountain’s way, you die. Even if you do, you might die. Did I mention that it’s dangerous? And not everyone can be the first man on the moon (Neil Armstrong, as neither of us had to Google) or even the last (Eugene Cernan, possessor of an odd distinction) or the first man up Everest (Edmund Hillary, unless it was Tenzing Norgay (again, I didn’t have to Google). But you can still do something remarkable even if you say “I climbed Grand Combin” and they say “Huh?” And I’d rather people were climbing mountains than fighting battles except that regrettably many battles have to be fought whereas it’s not obvious that most mountains have to be climbed.

Thus there is one melancholy note. And that is that only one person or group can be the first up any given mountain, or on a celestial body, and afterward a little bit of the mystery is gone. I’m content that there should be some wild peaks on which the hand of man has not set foot. And I’m doing my bit. I’ve never pioneered the ascent of any mountain, nor indeed stood on the summit of anything that was a “real” mountain rather than just something named Mount Royal or what have you.