Speak Now

Margaret Wheeler taking in the views of the Aiguille de Bionassay.

The old man teetered up the ridge toward us, a ski pole in either hand, his jeans tucked into big wool socks , his hiking boots shifting disconcertingly in his crampons. At 14,000 on the Gouter ridge of Mont Blanc, a fall to either side of the ridge would be fatal.We'd passed him and his younger partner earlier, and now we were heading down from the sunny, windswept summit. His partner was also walking with ski poles, though he had two ice axes strapped to his pack.  They had no rope. I stepped out of the track to let them pass; I made eye contact with the old man and he lurched toward me, his feet suddenly forgotten. I steadied him and turned to watch them go.  Then I was relieved to hear myself speaking.

It's difficult sometimes to speak up in the mountains, perhaps especially so for guides. I find myself irrationally afraid of offending people, of being taken for overbearing or arrogant.  I hesitate to invite rancor and conflict into the beautiful mountain experience for which my client has hired me. But I'm even more afraid of how I would feel if an accident happened and I had been silent. It's the same principle that would make me act if I saw a drunk person sitting down behind the wheel. Maybe, too, the same principle that urges me to say the most important things I have to say to the ones I love: what if this is my last chance to say anything at all. 

Heading down from the Gouter Ridge after a summer storm. 

"I think it is a good idea for you to turn around now," I said. The man tilted his head back and grimaced appraisingly at the ridge ahead. His partner said, "We will use the ice axes from here." I said, "Your friend is very, very tired, and it is a long way down. If he stumbles again the way he just did, he could fall and die." I told him again--please turn around.

We kept walking down the ice carapace that hovers above the busy valleys of Savoie. A rip curl of cloud rose up over the summit from the Italian side--the weather would change soon. We piled into the Gouter hut and ate pasta, tea, cookies. We collapsed into our bunks.

I was relieved to see the old man in the hallway that evening. Judging from the time, I guessed maybe they made it to the summit. I felt too embarrassed to approach him and ask. Of course I had not reason to be embarrassed. It was not wrong to speak up--reaching the summit did not change that he had been in real danger when I spoke. They had merely managed to stretch a little bit of luck a very long way.  

But their luck ran out. In the morning we watched the gendarmes pick the old man's body off the mountainside. We tried to focus on our own descent down off the Gouter ridge. It had snowed over night, dusting the rock and obscuring the most beaten path. He probably fell shortly after beginning the descent. He came to rest in the Grand Couloir, the famous funnel of rockfall one must cross to gain the route. His limbs drooped at the wrong angles as the helicopter lifted him through the air; they came back for the young partner a little later. Someone said it was his son. 

In the same way that their summit didn't prove me wrong, their accident didn't prove me right. I find myself looking to these events for reassurance, for evidence that I am doing things the right way in the mountains, that I am safe.  But the only conclusion I can fairly draw is that we don't step out of society when we go to the mountains. Especially on popular, crowded routes, I have all the responsibilities of a citizen. 

I more committed than ever to speak up. And why wouldn't I want to bring my best, my most human self to the places I love?


Sunset on Mont Blanc from downtown Chamonix.