Call It Dreaming

Posted on: April 17, 2021

[This story originally appeared in the Climbing Life section of Alpinist 73, 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 Be sure to pick up Alpinist 73 for all the goodness!—Ed.]

Suzana EL Massri in Scotland with Slovenian climbers Sara Jaklic (pictured) and Marija Jeglic (photographer). [Photo] Marija JeglicSuzana EL Massri in Scotland with Slovenian climbers Sara Jaklic (pictured) and Marija Jeglic (photographer). "Mountains bringing me to my knees," writes Massri. [Photo] Marija Jeglic

UK 2018

Are you scared?
But you are having fun still?
OK, just let me know when the fear changes from excitement to "I want to go home"?

MY FRIEND JANE ASKED ME those questions in a calm voice. I answered with a strict yes or no. It was obvious that I was getting nervous. Hanging on a rope, I could see a chair, a table and some clothes arranged in an alcove in the wall of the mineshaft, lit up in the beam of my headlamp. Jane had warned me about this joke, created by fellow explorers: a fake crime scene, set up so it looks as if you're about to play the role of the next victim. I forced a laugh and carried on rappelling.


That week, I'd left my home in the Alps to go climbing with Jane in Cornwall. The rule I'd adopted for my life was simple then: I'd do anything that made my head dizzy with enthusiasm about the universe. When the skies turned murky, Jane proposed going down an abandoned mine for a rest day activity. Now, as I sank deeper into the inky dark, I wasn't sure this was going to be a relaxing experience. I looked up: Jane's silhouette appeared small against a hazy, distant square of light. I glanced at the steep walls. They would be impossible to climb. The only way back was up the rope. My imagination grew wild in the musty silence. I started to expect monsters to jump out from the thick shadows.

Once Jane joined me, I felt comforted by her presence. She nodded rhythmically while she looked around as if to assure me that she approved of our surroundings. I followed her into a maze. Some corridors had support beams of rotted wood that she told me not to touch. We had to squeeze into one narrow opening feet first. "Watch out, there's a deep elevator shaft on the other side, flooded with water," Jane said.

As I looked at the dim water, I tried to muster the courage to shine the light deeper into the void. I didn't know what I was afraid that I might see: Was it a mirror to something inside of me? How far into this heart-clutching past did I want to look? What was I trying to find out?

"I know, this one freaks me out a bit too," Jane said. "Let's go." She was standing beside me, and her voice pulled me out of my downward spiraling thoughts. Soon, I stood at the threshold of a long corridor filled with thick, bright yellow mud. Jane was already plunging ahead. "If you smell bad gas," she said, "just come back to the last chamber where the air was fresh." With a sigh, I kept going. Squelch. Squelch.

Jane admires some stalactites and stalagmites in the mine during her trip to Cornwall, England, with the author. [Photo] Suzana EL MassriJane admires some stalactites and stalagmites in the mine during her trip to Cornwall, England, with the author. [Photo] Suzana EL Massri

Jane told me that she'd never been this far before, since the area was normally flooded. "Just try to feel in the mud, so you don't step into a shaft or something," she said. I knew my life was completely in Jane's hands. We didn't even have a map. So, I was glad when we turned around, and she brought us quickly back to the exit shaft. The rope was still there. I jumared toward the light. As Jane had promised, I'd lost my sense of time down here. Several hours had passed. The overcast sky that once seemed dull now looked bright and inviting. Soon, I'd regain the open space and firm ground, where I could walk in any direction without worry. Yet from above I could hear a woman's voice growing louder and more anxious. "There is a car with an empty bottle of alcohol," she said. "We are worried." She seemed to be talking on the phone.

"We're fine," I shouted. "I like drinking fizzy juices in glass bottles. They are alcohol-free."

The woman laughed. "Oh good," she said to me. "We thought someone was trying to kill themselves." She nodded toward her partner who looked surprised to see a woman crawling out of a mineshaft in muddy coveralls. The couple was out for an afternoon stroll with their two dogs. They were your normal-looking, Sunday-walk-in-the-park type of people.

The day before, I'd marveled at all the sunlit colors as Jane and I climbed gleaming yellow cliffs between green fields and an aquamarine sea. Jane had moved as quickly as a lizard up the dry rock. We'd found some pitches so delightful that we repeated them just so each of us could get a turn to lead. I felt as if I belonged here, high in the bright, salty air, amid the calls of birds and the splash of waves. Meanwhile, a priest found our backpacks at the top of the cliffs, and she thought a couple had thrown themselves from the precipice. "It's a beautiful place, you understand?" she later told us. I knew what she was talking about: I'd heard of people dying by suicide in scenic areas. Yet I refused to accept drawing any such conclusions. In darkness or in light, nowhere is a good place to take your life.

"Why do people think that we are doing this to kill ourselves?" Jane said to me. "It's the opposite."

Syria 1994

Dummar, Syria, where the author grew up. The hill in the background on the left is Mt. Qasioun and the one partially visible on the right is Mt. Mezzeh. [Photo] Suzana EL Massri family collectionDummar, Syria, where the author grew up. The hill in the background on the left is Mt. Qasioun and the one partially visible on the right is Mt. Mezzeh. [Photo] Suzana EL Massri family collection

EACH SUMMER during my childhood in Damascus, the intense sun bleached the earth, and dust settled on all the plants, blotting out the remaining hues of green. Most of the landscape looked the same: too bright for eyes to find any comfort. People took refuge in their homes and lowered the heavy roller shutters: "abat-jours" in French. When the Ottoman Empire collapsed after World War I, Syria had become a French League of Nations Mandate. Abat-jours are one of many French influences that remained after Syria gained independence in 1946. Abat means "kill"; jour signifies "daylight" or "day." Those window shades helped kill the days and leave the house dark and cool.

Amid the stillness of those summer days, the abat-jours occasionally shook. Sometimes there would be rumors of an airstrike near the border. Sometimes it was an earthquake, as though the land grew so angry it couldn't hold its silence anymore. I learned not to leave decorative glasses close to the edge of cabinet shelves where they could fall and shatter. Otherwise, as long as I didn't talk to anyone outside the house about Syria's oppressive political system, we felt safe. Years later, we were surprised by the scale of violence that exploded. Back then, it seemed, the only way to escape the present was to daydream of the rain that might come someday to wash away all that accumulated dust.

Already, in "peaceful" times, the military guarded territories all over Syria: sea cliffs, mountains, gorges, caves, even the smallest of Mediterranean forests. Basically, anywhere wild and interesting. You wander; you meet a soldier. My family lived in the Dummar district, a middle-class suburb. Every day on the bus home from elementary school, I'd ride through the Barada River gorge between the pale-yellow slopes of Mt. Qasioun, where the city crept toward the summit, and the inaccessible bulk of Mt. Mezzeh, where President Assad had built his huge marble castle across an entire plateau. I'd gaze up at the steep cliffs and fantasize about climbing them.

Rumors told of secret passages that led from the caves in Mt. Mezzeh all the way to the castle. The valley below them was full of stray dogs, said to have been left by Bedouins who used to live there before the president arrived. On windy nights, the dogs howled like a pack of wolves. During the days, vipers hid under rocks and patches of shade, or so the parents in our neighborhood believed.

Needless to say, the caves were forbidden. You'd think that no rational human being would dare to explore them? My friend Farah and I had just reached the mischievous age of ten, and we were dreaming up dangerous plots. We'd heard neighborhood boys argue about how far anyone could get before soldiers started shooting at them. Would they kill a kid? One day, a boy ran into the valley. We lay on the ground and watched the bullets hit the dirt close to his feet while he fled back to safety. Did they miss him because they were bluffing, or did they just have bad aim?

Massri when she was about 6 years old.  [Photo] Suzana EL Massri family collectionMassri when she was about 6 years old. [Photo] Suzana EL Massri family collection

Farah laid out our strategy. We'd run to the caves before dawn, have breakfast there and then come back through the boulders at first light, sneaking from shadow to shadow. To stop to have breakfast, now that would really prove that we weren't afraid! I don't remember what excuse we told our parents, but we probably said that we'd like to go for a morning run to see the sunrise. They were surprised by our sudden enthusiasm about exercising at such an hour. This would be my first "alpine start."

Although we didn't carry any flashlights, our small, skinny bodies moved swiftly and quietly as cats through the dark, letting the shape of the valley guide us. When we reached the caves, we were hit by cold, musty, goat-smelling air. There was no time to waste. We sat down, had a bite of a strained yoghurt sandwich, and considered the mission done. For a moment, I looked around: the hues of the blue hour cast a sheen across the cave wall behind Farah's back. Compared to the rough and crumbly exterior, the rock inside looked polished, and the place seemed almost cozy. Farah and I glanced at each other—wide- eyed, out of breath, faintly smiling. As the first orange tints appeared in the sky, we ran back between the boulders, trying to make as little sound as possible. To our surprise, our method worked: no one fired our way. We could tell nobody, yet we felt thrilled by our secret little victory over the neighborhood boys.

I guess it's always a good day when you don't get shot!

Poland 2004

TEN YEARS LATER, on a sunny day, I was sitting on a bench. Spring had just started. A gentle warmth filled Krakow, and after a long bitter Polish winter, everything emerged back into light: the city of kings and queens, the fairytale castle on a riverside cliff, and the streets of cobbled stone, which had started filling up with tourists, students and doves again. As I stared into nothingness, I realized that the drunken man nearby was talking to me, "Jesus! Kid, you need to relax."

At the time, I was simultaneously studying two fields, geophysics and applied computer science. I had a scholarship that I was investing in additional language courses. I was sleeping less and less. A few days before, I'd locked myself in one of the university bathrooms and taken a nap there so I wouldn't have to waste time going home between classes. On that particular day, as I walked out of one class, I realized that I didn't know where I was going. I couldn't remember what day it was or what duties I had next. I'd sat down on that bench only because I thought it ridiculous to be standing in the middle of the street.

I started walking again. No one was rushing indoors to escape the cold anymore. The crowds seemed as relaxed as a body under a hot shower after a long and tiring night. Who decided what we should be doing with our time on earth and when? I wondered. My parents had made me believe that I could do anything in life if I worked hard. To them, success was a necessity, not an option. My dad was from a traditional Syrian countryside family, and he used to guard sheep at night as a little boy. He was the only one of his siblings to finish school, and he went as far as to complete a PhD in food technology in Poland and a postdoc in Texas. My Polish mom had been raised by her loving but strict uncle and aunt. She'd studied to be a nurse, but then she dedicated all her time to taking care of five children, three of her own and two from my dad's previous marriage.

Massri with her parents, returning from a family holiday by the sea in Syria. She writes: From what we remember, the picture is by the Krac des Chevaliers fortress. I am about 2.5 years old. [Photo] Suzana EL Massri family collectionMassri with her parents, returning from a family holiday by the sea in Syria. She writes: "From what we remember, the picture is by the Krac des Chevaliers fortress. I am about 2.5 years old." [Photo] Suzana EL Massri family collectionx

In the Middle East, it was no secret that a degree from a European university would lead to good job opportunities. So, one by one, we went to Europe to study. Almost all my siblings had set themselves up in life. One brother was a doctor, a second an economist. My stepsister was a journalist. I was the last, and I, too, was trying to tick the necessary boxes. Almost all of us did, except my stepbrother. He just stopped living. They told me he died in an accident. I was only eight then. Too little to be told anything else. No one later found the right moment to share the truth. I'd learned it from a sister-in-law a week before I sat on this sunny bench.

Snatches of memories came back. My stepbrother had gone to study in Poland before I was born, and I'd mainly seen him during summer holidays with my grandma in the countryside. It was not much fun to be taking care of a baby sister when everyone else was busy with fruit picking. My stepbrother, somehow, had that extra patience. He always smiled around me. But I didn't understand why he locked himself so long in the bathroom and came out smelling of alcohol. To this day, whenever I am standing at a chilly belay on an ice climb, I tell my friends, "This is nothing compared to waiting for the bus as a poorly dressed student in Poland." Was it the cold after all those years of Syrian heat that made him shatter? Was it his extreme sensitivity? The weight of his addiction? He was just a ghost, now, a distant memory blurred by a fog of unspoken thoughts and unasked questions.

I walked into one of Krakow's churches. It smelled musky, and the light was dim. On the stained-glass window, God Himself was squinting, blinded by the light of the sun. I did not feel sorry for Him. I stepped back outside into that luminosity. I was missing some lecture at the moment, forgoing the sleepy safety of being where I'm expected to be. Yet, the warmth of the sun seemed to be telling me that there was a different solace for me. I'd been longing for something bigger, something more. I didn't know what that might be, but maybe it was time to start dreaming again.

Mountains and Seas 2014

Massri climbing True Colours, Isle of the Skye, Scotland. [Photo] Nathan AdamMassri climbing True Colours, Isle of the Skye, Scotland. [Photo] Nathan Adam

WHEN I FINISHED MY DEGREE, I explained to my boyfriend that if I got a job offer that involved traveling, I was going to take it. I landed up in Scotland. My boyfriend stayed behind in Poland. I remembered my dad's advice when I was a teenager, "Boys might come and go, but life decisions will stay with you." In my new job as a geophysicist, I spent part of the time working offshore on boats. I stared at the reflections of birds in the silver mirror of the ocean, at the play of dolphins that swam past us and the colorful light shows of the aurora borealis. Sometimes I imagined myself on a different planet, where only oceans existed, or I pictured our boat as a spaceship, gliding across galaxies of sea foam. There was no stopping my fantasies then. But I still had to go back to an office in a dull industrial estate. I was still searching for something in my heart.

I went to visit my family in Poland for the summer and took a photography class, where I learned that most of the time we don't end up with the composition we wanted at the start; but afterward, we can marvel at the results as if they were someone else's work. Back in Scotland, I got coffee at the local skateboarding and climbing center. I liked watching people play against gravity and fantasizing about all the improbable things that I could still do, experiences that I didn't even know were out there to be lived.

One day, I decided to try Scottish winter climbing for myself. The cold was so intense the landscape looked almost white-hot. Around me, frost transformed the hills and cliffs into a lost world of a long-ago ice age. I could easily believe that ancient, undiscovered species still wandered these remote highlands. What else was out there to make me feel part of something supernatural? I started looking toward bigger mountains. On trips to the Alps, the dazzling glaciers and sharp air seemed as radiant as a new morning. As I focused on solving intricate puzzles of rock and ice, time appeared to slow, briefly, to a geologic pace, and a different dimension of reality opened where I could almost stop thinking. The other climbers I met often talked about seemingly unrealistic aspirations, and we shared daring hallucinations and dreams that felt better than sex.

Bivying on the Schreckhorn-Lauteraarhorn Traverse, Alps, Switzerland. [Photo] Suzana EL MassriBivying on the Schreckhorn-Lauteraarhorn ("Lauteraargrat") Traverse, Alps, Switzerland. [Photo] Suzana EL Massri

I don't remember a particular moment when I started dedicating most of my free time to training and to mountains until climbing consumed my life, just as my education once had. I quit my job in Scotland, became a freelancer and moved to Chamonix, France. Meanwhile in Syria, the civil war intensified. I'd lost touch with my childhood friends. Whose side were they now on? I didn't dare contact Farah or anyone else. I searched for forms of escape or atonement elsewhere. I eked my way up alpine routes that my partners found intimidating, but at night I woke up screaming. I climbed until I got ill and broke bones. On the Aiguille Savoie in Italy, I kept on leading, not listening to my friends' doubts. At the other end of the rope, I overhead one of them say quietly, "But she does not know where she is going." To which, the other replied, "Darling, no one knows where they are going exactly, but you have to try." Their words summed up those years better than I could: somewhere in my life, I'd lost my way.

On New Year's Eve, my friend broke another boy's heart. The bottle of champagne that he bought for her ended up as mine. I drank it all, curious about where the alcohol would lead my mind. That's when I remembered that I hadn't yet visited the graveyard to pay my respects to the alpinists buried there. I climbed over the big gate, tearing my trousers, and I stood in silence, trying to think about those who defied death. No rays from heaven shone down on me. In the darkness of the graveyard, I got cold, started hiccupping, felt silly and went home.

Scrambling on Ben Nevis. [Photo] Luca CelanoScrambling on Ben Nevis. [Photo] Luca Celano

Quarantine, France, 2020

IF FULFILLMENT DOESN'T LIE WAITING on some mountaintop, where do we find our motivation for all those thousands of repetitions as we train for it? Not long ago, I was climbing summits all over the globe. Then the virus came, and the world grew smaller again. We are all at home now! This is one of the most serious survival games I've played so far. If you or I give up, someone we love might die. We long to know when and how this will finish, but all we can do is face the fear and carry on trying to live.

My new boyfriend and I had arrived at the Ecrins National Park with big mountain plans. We expected to work hard for our objectives. We didn't expect to be stuck in our little rented apartment in the midst of a pandemic. Once more, I can see the mountains from the balcony, but they are forbidden—just like the caves from my childhood in Syria. The French flat even has the same abat-jours as my Damascus home. Out of sentiment, I lower them at the end of each day. I feel a similar illusion of fragile safety, ready to shatter by the evening's news.

The silence of uncertainty fills the town. In fact, how do we know that everyone around us is not dead already? I pick up my phone, searching, as so many people are, for some voice, some connection, some signs of life, and I see:

People like me who suddenly want to tell parts of their story. Just in case.

Toilet paper jokes. Dog-walking jokes.

Advice on how to kill time: Read a book. Bake a cake.

People posting pictures of everything they are doing, from bouldering on furniture to carrying out all sorts of DIY projects, some useful, some utterly useless.

I give everyone a "like." Who am I to judge? After all, I've just posted a picture of my feet, since that's the view I've been looking at this morning!

A few extreme animal or plant lovers seem to be wishing us all a well-deserved death. As guilty as we might be for the conditions that helped spread the virus, I prefer to believe we can still find a way to live in symbiosis with the planet. Though some like to think the pandemic is a punishment, I'm just not sure we're that special. No one is actively plotting against us. The universe doesn't give a toss.

Supercouloir on Mt Blanc du Tacul, Chamonix, France. [Photo] Tim ExleySupercouloir on Mt Blanc du Tacul, Chamonix, France. [Photo] Tim Exley

Often, we don't see the compositions in our lives until later. We can't create a meaningful story until we have lived all its elements. When I'm in the midst of the present moment, I can't know whether a pandemic has an end or whether we can live in peace with nature, whether a rock or ice line that I choose to climb won't lead to a dead end, and if it does, whether I will find a way around it, whether every dark cave has an exit that leads to the light and whether most soldiers will choose not to shoot innocent children. A multitude of decisions, chaos and chance forms our existence. Any sense to it is created by us, and it requires a daring belief in the future. We don't get to carry a map for every corridor we enter. Sometimes the close-up reality of attaining visions requires the repetition of simple tasks. Doing a lot of almost nothing until it becomes something. Until we make it into something more, something worth hoping for.

I train and write to create the feeling that there is a future still. The present moment is not what has interested me for most of my existence anyway. I like being absent, dangerously fantasizing. Thinking of things that happened before I existed and things that will happen after I disappear. What is going on under the sea and on mountaintops. What people are doing in far corners of the world. What is exploding on the peripherals of our universe. Call it dreaming. I call it life.

—Suzana EL Massri, Chamonix, France

The author pays a visit to a boat crew as part of her job as a data processing field office coordinator in Orkney Islands, Scotland. [Photo] Suzana EL Massri collectionThe author pays a visit to a boat crew as part of her job as a data processing field office coordinator in Orkney Islands, Scotland. [Photo] Suzana EL Massri collection

[This story originally appeared in the Climbing Life section of Alpinist 73, 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 Be sure to pick up Alpinist 73 for all the goodness!—Ed.]

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