Running Waters

Posted on: August 26, 2021


[This story originally appeared in Alpinist 75, which is now available on some newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Alpinist.com. Be sure to pick up Alpinist 75 for all the goodness!—Ed.]

The Brenva Spur at night, Mont Blanc. [Photo] Tim OliverThe Brenva Spur at night, Mont Blanc. [Photo] Tim Oliver

Twilight drifted over us—first pink, then grey—as my friend Sarah Audsley and I climbed a final pitch of ice and vanished into the darkness and the evergreens on the flanks of Mozodepowadso (Mt. Mansfield), in northern Vermont. Without tracks or moonlight to find our way, I peered into a sea of shadows, trying to imagine where the entrance to the descent gully might be. Of the two of us, I was the only one who had been here before. And as we plunged through the drifts, I knew I was getting us more and more lost.

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Below, in the dark, stretched a vast, invisible tangle of woods and cliffs. A precipice appeared at the edge of my headlamp beam: a void that seemed fathomless, its ending concealed by night, swelling to something as cold and infinite as space. Large rocks, domed with snow, loomed like glowing planets. Ice bulges flared into methane blues. Sarah suggested that we pick one of the many drainages and follow its course to the base of the notch. As we descended, images flowed like fragments of dreams: a slender birch that flashed silver, an ice slab that glimmered beneath a dusting of powder, rabbit tracks that dotted the banks of a little stream, the trickle of running water that flowed, dark and crystalline through gaps in its frozen surface.

I began to feel as if we'd somehow passed through another entrance, and we were traveling along a secret path that only the rabbits knew—into the heart of the mountain.

AT THE START of a 1906 adventure novel called Running Water by A.E.W. Mason, a young woman reads the Alpine Journal while riding a train to Chamonix. Immersed in the account of a first ascent, Sylvia Thesiger wishes she were one of the protagonists. When she arrives in the Alps, she makes her way up the Aiguille d'Argentiere, her first mountain, accompanied by guides and another climber. Gusts whirl broken icicles and spindrift like clouds of glass across a sheer ice slope. The place where no slip must be made, she thinks, yet she feels at home: her knowledge of technical alpinism seems as strangely intuitive as her recurring dreams of running water. Afterward, she sets out on a quest to meet her absent father and, perhaps, to find the origins of her dreams. "I felt something had happened to me which I had to recognize—a new thing," she explains. "Climbing that mountain...it was just like hearing very beautiful music.... All the vague longings which had ever stirred within me, longings for something beyond, and beyond."

Some years later, a real British alpinist, T. Graham Brown, marveled at Mason's intricate description of a ridge along the Brenva Face of Mont Blanc, "a line without breadth of cold blue ice."Brown opened a map and tried to trace the Brenva Spur, an actual 1865 climb that he later learned had inspired the topography of the novel. Confused by the fictitious version, Brown misidentified the location, but his gaze became drawn to the tight contour lines and blue shading that suggested a giant alpine face nearby. On the frontlines of World War I, Brown kept fantasizing about his imagined wall. Night after night, in his dreams, he climbed over a cliff and crossed a lush meadow into a wonderland of crags and peaks, where the Brenva Face arose amid a sheen of white summits. The place seemed so "vivid," he recalled in his memoir, Brenva, "that a map might be made of the country."

Years after the war ended, Brown realized his topographic errors. But as he examined the real Brenva Face firsthand, he noticed three potential routes through its steep wildwood of stone and ice. From 1927 to 1933, he and his partners made their first ascents one by one. As he hiked out after completing the last line, the reflections of a candle flame flickered in a glacial stream, moonlight poured between the trees like running water, and all his memories of the wall swelled into a kind of music. What if he hadn't read that novel and misread that map? he wondered. Would he have ever dreamed of the face—one that most alpinists had dismissed as unclimbable? He turned to gaze at the wall one last time: the real lines he'd traced now vanished under a shadow cast by the moon. The dream and its country persist, he mused. In his sleep, he continued to climb the unreal version of the Brenva Face, its mysteries still unresolved.

IN SETTING FOOT ON THE SHORES OF CONNEMARA, British artist and mapmaker Tim Robinson wrote of "that mysterious and neglected fourth dimension of cartography which extends deep into the self of the cartographer." Since that night that Sarah and I erred our way down to the notch, those long, surreal corridors of snow and ice, of cast shadows and reflected stars, of frozen and running water, linger in my mind like the dark passageways of my own dreams. And I, too, have found myself thinking of forces that shape our interior mountains—and of what it means to explore them.

Sylvia Thesiger doesn't get to join the attempt on the Brenva Spur during the climatic scenes of Running Water. Instead, she must wait below for her father and other men to return. The expectations of the book's genre appear, on a superficial level, to be fulfilled: the apparent mystery of the plot is solved, a would-be murderer is thwarted, the hero and the heroine are married. But the explanation for Sylvia's dreams (once the author provides it) seems far too literal, leaving a sense of an abrupt chasm where deeper mysteries and untold adventures remain. I've wondered what might happen if Sylvia could stray from the narrative path that was written for her, if she could escape from the book and the society that confine her. What routes of her own might she trace in the mountains and in her life? Where is the rest of her story?

Where is the rest of yours?

[This story originally appeared in Alpinist 75, which is now available on some newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Alpinist.com. Be sure to pick up Alpinist 75 for all the goodness!—Ed.]

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