Mont Blanc Hallelujah

(Click the video to play while reading the blog entry)

 I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do you?
It goes like this
The fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah
Hallelujah

As many of those who have followed my climbs before know, I often find the experience of climbing on a rope team to be meditative.  A few days ago, en route to the summit of Mont Blanc, was no exception.  The practice of keeping the team’s rope the exact tension requires constant mindfulness with small interruptions to look up at the route ahead or take in a stunning view.  This is extra challenging in the rarified air of high altitude where the mind slows and coordination falters but it critical for both individual and collective safety.  The rope can be a lifeline in case of a fall into a crevasse or from a ridge.

Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you
She tied you to a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah

When climbing at altitude, it is often helpful to step and breathe in a rhythm and my mind often turns to a song for the basis of such a beat.  On Denali, my first super hard climbing expedition, the songs I used to pace myself ranged from childhood nursery rhymes to pop rock.  My stable of climbing songs grows with every climb and has supported me up hundreds of thousands of metres of elevation gain (Yes, that sentence was labourious…just like taking a step at altitude). Usually the song changes when the terrain changes: slower songs on steeper parts, faster ones on descent, Buddhist mantras when I feel the urge to quit.

Baby I have been here before
I know this room, I’ve walked this floor
I used to live alone before I knew you.
I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch
Love is not a victory march
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah

I haven’t been terribly subtle about the song that was in my mind on Mont Blanc.  Unusually, it was only one and you likely have already surmised which it was.  I’m playing it now repeatedly as I type and I would ask that you click the various links I’ve embedded in this entry to have it playing aloud while you are reading.  I want to share its pace and depth and effect on my experience/mind/climb (Are those really any different?)

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

Perhaps it was in my mind on the climb because we closed the conference banquet in Denmark last week with a sing-a-long and it was powerful to hear the lyrics belted out in the accented English of 16 countries.  Perhaps it was the perfect pace.  Perhaps it was a reminder that climbing is not a victory march.  Perhaps it expresses the almost indescribable transcendent religiousness of placing one foot in front of another in almost perfect harmony with two other beings for nearly thirteen hours…or perhaps it is one of the greatest songs of all time.

There was a time you let me know
What’s really going on below
But now you never show it to me, do you?
And remember when I moved in with you
The holy dove was moving too
And every breath we drew was Hallelujah

We climbed to the Tette Rousse Hut the afternoon before in a mist so thick we had no idea of the terrain we were traversing.  Once we broke through the clouds, the setting sun sculpted the Grand Couloir, our first deadly obstacle, into a textured mess of rock that was the “marble arch” of our entry into/onto the higher and snow covered part of the mountain.

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

Two people died earlier in the week when rocks pummeled them from above as they crossed.  It’s safer in the early morning when most of the rocks are safely cemented in place by the overnight ice.  More of a luck-dependent crap shoot later in the day when rocks ping down the gulley like basketball ball sized pin balls.  The instructions were simple at 5:00 AM: “Move as fast as you can, don’t trip, don’t fall, and don’t stop.”  The “other side” is truly Hallelujah.

Maybe there’s a God above
But all I’ve ever learned from love
Was how to shoot at someone who outdrew you
It’s not a cry you can hear at night
It’s not somebody who has seen the light
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah

We scrambled 600 meters along the rocky spine topping at the Goutier Hut two hours after crossing the “Death Coulour.”  We (teammate Mike and guide Miles and I) took a quick pit stop for some coffee, applied sunscreen, threw down some last real food.  Mike and I had been taking each step in unison all week so I was grateful to be sharing the summit push with him.  Our other rope team was ahead as we began the long, slow slog to the Goutier Dome.  The gentle sunlight of early morn was warming, not yet intimidating.  The song continued to play in my head.

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

Step. Breathe. Step. Breathe.
You say I took the name in vain

Step. Breathe. Step. Breathe.
I don’t even know the name

Check the rope.  Check the view.
But if I did, well really, what’s it to you?

Step. Breathe. Step. Breathe.
There’s a blaze of light in every word

Step. Breathe. Step. Breathe.
It doesn’t matter which you heard

Check the rope.  Check the view. Shouldn’t have looked.  Haven’t gained much yet.
The holy or the broken Hallelujah

Step. Breathe. Step. Breathe.

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

Two hours of stepping and breathing revealed both the top of the dome and the rest of the route.  The other team had passed us on their way down–April was suffering altitude sickness and needed to descend.  (We laughed after all getting down safely that April’s altitude impairment has caused her to ask her guide, while pointing at Mont Blanc, “What mountain is that?”)  They wished us luck and we got back to our rhythm.   We were climbing strongly and confidently.  We paused at the top of the dome (4200 metres) to catch our collective breath, soak in the magnificent views, and contemplate the summit, finally into view.

I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

In the toughest of mountaineering ironies, we had to give up a chunk of that hard earned elevation as we descended the ridge to the base of the steep climb to the Vallee Refuge.  We paused at the lowest part of the ridge, out of the wind, to layer and psych up.  Time to climb to 4200 meters for the second time that morning.

Step. Breathe. Step. Breathe.

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Step. Breathe. Step. Breathe.

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Step. Breathe. Step. Breathe.

I was truly in heaven or at least climbing towards it.  Never have I been treated to such gentle summit day temperatures.  The mix of blue sky and white snow burned itself into my memory with each rhythmic combination.  I was feeling strong.  I was hungry (always a good sign at altitude).  I was loving it.  Every step.  As we neared the Vallee Refuge, I noticed Mike was seeming a bit more clumsy that usual.  He’d caught the rope in his crampons a few times (something he hadn’t done all week).  A bit above the hut, Mike pulled up and said he was feeling a bit woozy.  Miles and I checked in with him…”Have you tried pressure breathing?  Are your steps and breathing coordinated?  Have you had enough to eat and drink?  Have you tried your rest step?”  We confirmed most of our questions and said he would try some pressure breathing to see if it would get better.

Step. Breathe. Step. Breathe.

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Step. Breathe. Step. Breathe.

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Step. Breathe. Step. Breathe.

We continued up with both Miles and I watching Mike like hawks (Miles, like most guides has eyes in the back of his head).  Up.  Up.  The ridge steeped dramatically as we neared the top of the first “boss.”  At that elevation (4500m), Mike began to weave.  Back and forth.  He stepped on the rope.  He was clumsy.  This was not a place to be clumsy.  Any misstep uncaught might take the three of us plunging to our demise (as happened to a climber last week).  At almost the same moment, Miles and I pulled up.  Miles turned to Mike and said, “We need to go down.  You are not safe to be up here–the altitude is affecting your coordination.”  Mike was shattered.  His words.  Shattered for himself–this was his second go–and only an hour ago had been so confident the summit was within reach.  Shattered for me for he knew I was climbing surely and strongly and with great confidence.   I, in that moment, ached for Mike.  Such a heartbreak for him and for him for me and I instantly tried to find the words to offer comfort.  This mountainous path has dished up helpings of disappointments such as this.  It took some convincing but we got him to turn his back of the summit.

Step down. Breathe. Step down. Breathe.

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Step down. Breathe. Step down. Breathe.

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Step down. Breathe. Step down. Breathe.

Getting Mike off the ridge has both Miles and I on high alert.  He was not himself.  We took a break at the refuge.  Miles looked around for another guide he knew that he could ask to add to their rope team but alas, that day, none of his trusted mates were in view.  I was okay–I’d had an amazing day out on the mountain–and was certain that I had the ability to climb to the summit had “the ten thousand hours of training met moments of luck.” I am convinced that every summit requires a bit of luck (or sometimes a bunch of luck).  I knew we had to get Mike down and I was coping fine.

Step down. Breathe. Step down. Breathe.

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Step down. Breathe. Step down. Breathe.

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Step down. Breathe. Step down. Breathe.

At every break, Mike expressed his regrets to me and I kept trying to offer consolation.  It wasn’t until we neared the Grand Couloir for the second time that Mike really became himself again.  Thank goodness.  We needed him all that for afternoon race against the falling rocks.  A two-foot chunk had just ricocheted down.  Crampons on.  Ice axes in hand.  Ready.  Go.  Made it.  Panting.  300 meters separated us from the summit of the mountain but the true summit was returning safe to climb another day.

Hallelujah

(Hallelujah lyrics by Leonard Cohen)

Thanks once again to the Newfoundland and Labrador Credit Union for their support of this climb and my community outreach efforts.

 

This entry was posted in Buddhism, Everest 3.0 and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Mont Blanc Hallelujah

  1. Heather Courage says:

    HI TA,
    Glad to hear you and your teammates are safe and off the mountain. It must have been very tough when you were so close. But to help your teammate is the most important thing when you are in that situation. Take care safe trip home.
    Heather
    Reader of Everest Books

  2. Shelagh Egar says:

    I am glad you had such a magnificent climb on Mont Blanc while singing a truly magnificent piece of music to yourself (it is one of my all-time favourites too). Also glad you and your team mates all descended safely…..always most important.

  3. Trudy Veitch says:

    Hi TA.. so glad you climbed Mont Blanc and came back well and safe. I have to say climbed because whether you reached the top or not has no bearing on the success of the trip. The courageous help you gave your fellow climber is to be commended. I did what you said and listened to the music as I read your post. Amazing feeling. ‘Hallelujah’ is my all-time favourite composition. The music awakens the deepest spiritual aspect of my soul. kd lang’s version is on the top of the list next to Leonard Cohen’s.

  4. Anonymous says:

    What a lovely reading! Being part of the story, funny it might be, I am especially touched!
    Even though the journey is what matters and not the end destination, I feel the same about disappointing a team-ate who is more capable and had to stop because of my dis-ability. For me, mountaineering is still too new to be meditative – my mind is still not at ease like I am in hiking. Perhaps, that is part of the lessons.
    Great to have met you and there is definitely no coincidence – many more lessons to be learned and grateful for your acquaintance and inspiration!
    Cheers,
    -April

    • TA Loeffler says:

      Hey-Great to have your comment…thanks for reading my version of the day…yes-some comfort comes with many mountains but each one is new as well…Glad to have shared the week with you and I was out hiking the East Coast Trail with my Students today and we saw so many whales…you’ll love it when you come check it out!

  5. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for giving me some insight into the climb! I was sitting in the UK worrying about him….. I’m SO glad I did not know about the Grand Couloir before.
    Sarah (Keith’s wife and April’s friend)

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