Hiking with Saint Elmo

Lauterbrunnen. The secluded dale that inspired Rivendell. The Holy Trinity of Leviathans. The storied Eiger. The beguiling Jungfrau. The strapping Monk. Highways and byways and advanced levels of brinkmanship. The Hidden Valley of the Falls. Ideally wingsuited to adrenaline-junkies– and the Japanese. Lo! The continuous citadel of rock, sheer and stupendous, rising up the view spectacular, ranging down into oblivion.

It’s a holy place to marvel and wonder at. The constant rush of mineralized mountain torrents, the color of beryl eyes. Alpine forests hushed green and marbled in the summer spray, creased against the towering slopes. Sound of Music-inflected meadows, dotted with bullshit and herbal treats, swaying to bell cranks and cosmic chimes. And way way above the sylvan tree line: blue ice and the rumble of silence.

Go visit Lauterbrunnen in Switzerland, the place of the clear springs. It’s a lot of things (expensive, for one), but neutral it ain’t.


Two people are hiking to a cabin, hidden in the fretful clouds. Their trek will last a good while, following the lazy ebb-flow of alpine ascent, but their boots keep pace, marching as one, and they are on the same page, completely.

When the two hikers reach the cabin at long last, they will have glimpsed the crowning glory of these higher spheres, partaken in the moveable feast that lines the skyward ridges. Fires and cairns have been built, trail stories passed back and forth like a Nalgene that won’t quit, cityless stars gazed upon, fugitive horizons conquered. Going up the rapturous mountain, they have faced the expensive thrills of sudden death, the righteous misstep and the momentary fall from grace, which inspires new and intoxicating lives everlasting at every turn and crossing – pure matter boggling breakaway minds, the astonishing high-wire act of becoming. Here is a real and secular deal, paid for in blood and blisters, but lived in full on the serrated edge of a Leatherman eager to cut away the cancer that eats away at lingering heels. This high up, high and mighty, there is no more fear or loathing, no more horizontals, no more of less. Out here, on the precipice of Creation, inside an ultimate experience, things look clearer, brighter, more challenging and exciting, the way they should have looked.  Out here, there is only pinnacle and climax.

Once they reach the cabin, though, the two hikers will only have one more hour to spend in each other’s company. One of them is sure to return to the safety of the vale. The other will hike on and climb another mountain. Having seen and shared so many epic and irrevocable things, having soared into the hazy stratosphere, how on earth – if at all – will they ever descend to middle ground and touch base again? How on earth – if at all – will they be able to bid farewell to this place, let alone each other?

One of the hikers knows he has neither the wit nor the words to convey the scope and splendor of what he has experienced and knows. No mountaineer can scale the depths of such a mountainous imagination. No writer has the means to recount a wealth that truly beggars description. No artist can picture a brush with the Absolute.

Giving this vexed question much thought, this one decides to tear a page from the book of literature, borrowing the voice of another, someone better, to communicate his feelings vicariously. He takes a pencil and  underlines the words and sentences that suggest the extraordinary power of the one he hiked with these many (how many?) miles, the one who can kindle entire universes from scratch. He adds only one thing to the printed words on the page: a crude sketch of something sacred, something that has stuck in his soul – will stick there forever ­– when he saw and felt it first. It is the outline of a cone-shaped mountain rearing itself in the light of early morning, with a perfect sunburst halo surging from its summit.

He will fold this page up, keep it safe in his pocket, and present it to the other as a goodbye gift, when their hour in the cabin is over.

The hour, of course, will never come to pass.

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