Tuesday, February 26, 2019

The rock of discovery

Arnold Lunn on the mountaineer's quest for the unattainable

I have just been reading a tale which comes down to us from the dawn of mountain adventure, a true story which may serve as a parable to interpret our mountain pilgrimage.

Monte Rosa from the Gornergrat
(Photo by Alpine Light & Structure)

Long ago, before the peace of the snow-ways had been troubled, and before the remoter glens had been disturbed, men believed that a magic vale lay hidden among the glaciers of Monte Rosa, a vale where flowers blossomed in winter and where the happy cattle were never driven from their pastures by the snow.

On a Sunday morning in August 1788, an eager company of explorers set out from Gressoney to discover this Happy Valley. They climbed for hour after hour and at last reached the sky-line. The pass where they stood is called to-day the Lysjoch, and the rock where they rested still bears the name they gave it – the Rock of Discovery.

But the Rock was not happily named, for these men of Gressoney did not find what they were seeking. They looked down not on the Happy Valley of their hopes, but on the valley now known as Zermatt, which is no more and no less happy than that from which they came. The Happy Valley had eluded them just as it eludes us to-day.

"The foundation of the true mountaineer's creed," writes Mr Stutfield, “like that of the mystic, is the belief that the essence of life lies in exploration. He has in greater or lesser degree the dim consciousness of the beyond."

The beyond remains dim. We never find the crock of gold. We never set foot in the Happy Valley. Sometimes we seem to tremble on the brink of discovery, but the curtain is never drawn aside from the hidden battlements of Eternity. Those shaken mists a space unsettle and then round the half-glimpsed turrets slowly wash again.

And because the turrets are only half glimpsed, men will climb long after the last mountain has been cairned and charted. For no map will disclose the secret of the Happy Valley, and Beauty and Romance will not wholly perish from the earth so long as our children's children are still haunted by the mystery which baffled the men of Gressoney.


Arnold Lunn, Mountains of Youth, Oxford University Press, 1925.

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