Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Mountain of contentment

“It is not the ascent that separates the men from the boys but the descent… for it takes both courage and grace to stare down at the rocks at the bottom, to stare down death, and say, ‘I’ll take my time… you’ll have to wait.” These words were etched on a board hanging from a cross, next to a forest trail I was following that wound its way through the Alpine pastures and mountains and ended at the mouth of the Schwarzsee, the black lake at the foot of the Matterhorn… As I walked, the wind whistled and I listened…

When I returned to Zermatt, I drifted off towards a group of old timers exchanging stories at the steps of the local church. A short chap was regaling the audience while the others cheered and laughed. They were conversing in German so I couldn’t really figure out what they were saying but they were pointing repeatedly at two different spots on the church steps… I walked up to the short man and asked “Excuse me sir, what are these gentlemen pointing at?” The man whirled around “Hi, I’m Peter… curator of the local museum… these guys… oh… they’re just trying to figure out where Ulrich would sit most often…” and he turned and got back to their pointing game. “Oh..!” I wondered, “… where Ulrich would sit most often…” and I was supposed to know who Ulrich might be…? I let the group haggle for a while but curiosity got the better of me and I interrupted him again “But sir, who exactly is Ulrich… and (with measured trepidation) is he… er… around?” For a moment he looked like he had swallowed a mosquito by mistake. He blinked and after considering the question for a while, asked “Who? You mean Ulrich? Oh ho… ho… ho… you don’t know Ulrich? Ulrich Inderbinen?? He is almost as famous as the Matterhorn… the most famous guy in Zermatt… he is dead now, of course? Yes… yes… been dead for a while now… you have time? We could tell you his story… we’ve all seen him.”

I eased out of the backpack, set it down on the stairs and nodded and smiled. Peter spoke to the others in German and then pointed at me; the others looked at me and nodded, I nodded back, wished the old-timers and said hello. Then they all sat down and Peter asked me to sit on the steps too and he sat down next to me…

“Ulrich Inderbinen was born in the year 1900 (on 3rd December as I later found out) and died five years ago, in the year 2004 (on the 14th of June), nearly 104 years later… in many ways Ulrich Inderbinen represented this century (the others nodded in unison). At the beginning of the century, this wasn’t a very prosperous community, and Ulrich too had to work hard to make ends meet. From dawn to dusk, little Ulrich would help on the family farm, barely making enough to survive. Indeed, he was lucky to have survived his first few winters for Zermatt would get cut off by the snow and there were no doctors in town. Many of his siblings and others of his generation died of hunger and the bitter cold… He must’ve been pretty tough to have lived through all that in the first place… Until the time he was 20, he had never even ventured outside his village, but Ulrich realised that mountain-tourism was becoming popular in Zermatt and so he decided to become a mountain-guide. Now, to be accepted for the mountain-guide’s training programme, Ulrich needed to have climbing experience. So, what do you think young Ulrich happens to do?” I shake my head and stick out my lower lip…

“You’re not going to believe this… he decides to climb the Matterhorn… and not just by himself… he convinces his sister, her friend and her brother to come along for the climb. Astonishingly enough, without any equipment (and girls, reports say, wore long skirts), this group of four clambers to the top, and comes down safely without incident.” Now, those of you who might not have read a previous column and are not familiar with the Matterhorn, and might mistake it for a glorified molehill, here’s some insight on what it takes to climb the Matterhorn in the words of a certain Theodore Roosevelt... “(It is more) difficult than climbing the Jungfrau (amongst the tallest in Europe)… the Matterhorn has acquired a certain sombre interest (because of the deaths on it)… (climbing) it is like (going up the) stairs on one’s hands and knees for nine hours…” He wrote these words to his sister Anna after completing a successful ascent of the Horn. Anyway, back to Peter’s story… “So, young Ulrich acquired a reputation for climbing the mountains, and doing it safely… as though he had a guardian angel protecting him, and by extension, his clients all the time. He became very popular with mountaineers… especially the English ones… He climbed all the peaks around here (Peter pointed at the jagged giants that sprung all around us) but his greatest love was the Matterhorn. He called it the most beautiful mountain in the world and climbed it more than 370 times… in fact he climbed his last mountain at 97, the Breithorn…” Breithorn? I’d heard that name… ah yes… at the graveyard I remembered seeing the gravestone of a climber who died on the mountain with the words… “On the Breithorn I chose to climb…” So mind you, this wasn’t a walk in the park either…

Ulrich Inderbinen, like the town, wasn’t poor anymore. He was a celebrity, just like the mountains, and yet he never bought a phone or a car or a television… not even a cycle. He walked, or if the slopes allowed it, he skied. And in the evenings, he spent his time at the church square, sitting on the very steps where I was sitting. If somebody wanted the best guide in the mountains they couldn’t just dial a number… they had to come here and ask for Ulrich in person.
So how did he look? Peter took me to the museum across the road and pointed at a picture on the wall. Staring back at us, from behind sun shades and thick handle-bar moustaches was a sun-burnt face and an expression that said, “I will stop at nothing”… “Big guy?”, I asked. “Nah! Tiny fellow (takes his hand to his armpit) That short. But (points to his arm) strong, and even stronger here and here (points to his head and his heart).”

I didn’t get it. Every book I’d read about the mountains and mountaineering had said that climbing a mountain is like gambling… do it long enough and you lose… the mountain, like the casino, always wins…

“So, what was his secret? How could he cheat death so long and so well?” Peter looked up at the darkening sky and the church tower. And then he said “Ulrich used to say, ‘I live my life the way I climb a mountain… slow and deliberate, but steady and determined’. He didn’t climb the mountains for records or for fame. He climbed because he loved to climb and he loved the mountains, and the mountains loved him back.

He didn’t want much. He loved his family and his little village and the mountains. He didn’t seek fame or money and was happy with all he got. Everything he needed was here. This was his very own mountain of contentment and he was happy on it… and happy people live long”. I thanked Peter and left.

Next day, I left Zermatt for Geneva and after reaching the hotel, switched on the TV and heard of Michael Jackson’s death. As the young MJ in an Afro from long ago sang, “One day in your life… though you don’t need me now, I’ll stay in your heart…” I was stunned by the contrast between the two lives. Michael Jackson climbed his own great mountain but like on all mountains, maybe here too, it was the descent that was perilous… Perhaps he lost his nerve and his footing. Given a chance again though, maybe they both would’ve still lived their lives the way they did… One, free climbing, and the other, freefalling… guess, to each his own. RIP!


1 comment:

  1. Really liked this post. Its almost poetic comparing the mountains to michael's legendary music and the passion they both possessed in their fields. However their life on course would have been quite symobilically different. One determined respect throughout his life till his grave while the other was blodgeoned for his perilous acts on his descent.