Thursday, March 30, 2017

A mountain called Freedom (1)

Investigating the links between life, liberty and climbing literature

Preoccupied with the abseils, we took our crag’s name on trust. The last rappel slid us out of a stone-raked slot and away into free air. While the ropes untwisted and our boot-tips described a slow downward spiral, the corrugations of Switzerland’s Alpstein massif scrolled by, viewed as if from a well-sited revolving restaurant. Then the wide-screen panorama cut to a close-up of an ice-choked recess in the cliff we were descending. To my relief, I touched down on the rubble glacis below our wall before another rotation could start. “Ropes free,” I called up to Allan. And so we arrived at the foot of Freiheit Südwand.

Pendant: abseiling into the Freiheit Südwand

The crag’s name had leapt out at me from an old book. Surfing a second-hand shop in Tokyo’s Kanda district a few years before, I’d lit on a copy of Im schwerem Fels (On hard rock), a compendium of alpine climbs by Walter Pause. Opening it, I happened on a dramatic black-and-white photo of a limestone wall, somewhere in eastern Switzerland. Freiheit! The idea of a mountain called freedom somehow resonated.

The Freiheit and Hundstein cliffs (photo from Im schwerem Fels)

After I moved to Zurich, Allan dropped by on a world tour. We’d already climbed together in the Alps of Japan and New Zealand; now it was time to sample the grand originals. I showed my visitor the topo in Pause’s book – Grade III/IV, yep, we should be able to manage that – and without ado, we drove down Switzerland’s A3 autobahn and up a forest track. Leaving the weatherbeaten Subaru at the end of the road, we walked over a pass and down to a guesthouse at the end of a lake. The valley reminded us of a Norwegian fjord, its walls soaring up at an alarming pitch.

Fjordland: or the Fählensee one summer morning
When you think about it, this part of the Alps is where you’d expect to find a mountain called Freiheit. Mountains are the “house of freedom God hath built for us,” says William Tell in the play by Friedrich von Schiller (1759-1805). Granted, Tell lived in another canton, if he ever existed, which the savants say he didn’t, and Schiller intended his play for a German audience. Still, the myth has taken root. Every year, at Interlaken, an extravagant open-air production of this play perpetuates Tell’s memory.

Montesquieu (Wikipedia)
As for the mountains, serious scholars have attributed Switzerland’s unique brand of democracy to them. Liberty, says Montesquieu (1689-1755), “reigns, therefore, more in mountainous and rugged countries than in those which nature seems to have most favoured”.

And this seems convincing until you look over the border at, say, Austria, whose political culture has developed quite differently. Take, for example, the late Jörg Haider, a controversial politician with a liking for Lederhosen. Worryingly, the right-wing party he used to lead bears exactly the same name as the mountain we now planned to climb.

Was it for some victory of the Swiss confederation, perhaps against those less democratic neighbours, that our Freiheit was named? This wasn’t the moment to speculate. The abseil had landed us on a slanting terrace of limestone fragments – and more of this stuff, it seemed, might come shattering down at any moment. Let’s admit it; we were impressed with our surroundings. Far below, as if seen from a BASE jumper’s perspective, the green waters of the Fählensee glittered; above beetled the cliff we’d come to climb. We edged carefully across the stony ramp to the start of our route.

One thing was clear; the only way out was up.


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