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ski mountaineering: my journey

What happened to me on the mountain in 2017 didn’t only nearly kill me, it also triggered an obsessive worry I’ve battled with all my life, writes Simon Akam. My next climb is about putting those ghosts to rest

From top: Mount Elbrus, the highest and most prominent peak in Russia and Europe. Simon Akam's party of skiers ascends the upper reaches of Mount Elbrus, 2017. After the avalanche on Elbrus, 2017. Mr. Akam with face bandaged after the rockfall incident on Elbrus, 2017. Mr. Akam on the summit of Mount Elbrus. Mr. Akam cross country skiing as an 11-year old in Chandolin, Christmas 1996. Photo illustration by The Globe and Mail. Source: Photos courtesy of Simon Akam

Six years ago I nearly died on a mountain in Russia. Now I am going back above the snow line.

In late spring 2017 I was accompanying – as a journalist – a commercial ski mountaineering expedition to Elbrus, the 5,642-metre twin-topped volcano in the Caucasus mountains that is, depending on where the boundaries of the continent are drawn, the highest peak in Europe.

I had a long-standing relationship with the mountains. As a teenager I had spent a winter in the European Alps, and had fallen – headlong and deeply – in love with ski mountaineering, the use of specially adapted equipment to ski uphill as well as down and to traverse otherwise impassable winter terrain. I had continued ski mountaineering at university, but later, in my 20s, that passion went fallow. I worked abroad in West Africa, establishing my career as a journalist, in sultry climates where frozen precipitation was unthinkable. I did not have the money to go to the mountains either.

But in 2017, the year I was turning 32, I had been in contact once again with my teenage love affair. I was writing about backcountry skiing in Scotland for a major media outlet. I ran up a World Cup downhill ski run in Switzerland as part of a masochistic event called Vertical Up. And then I got a call to report on skiing up Elbrus, a peak that is not technical but still 800 metres higher than anything in Western Europe. Of course I said yes.

I was physically fit, and, equally importantly, I was feeling psychologically grounded.

By 2017 I felt I had established my life in a broader sense. My first book had sold at auction to a major British publisher, and I was deeply engaged in that project. My magazine career was booming – that February, while in the U.S. for a writers’ residency, I had done the rounds of editors in New York. I felt, high in glass-walled Manhattan skyscrapers, the intoxicating thrill of, if not being wholly accepted, at least taken seriously.

Since childhood I had struggled periodically with my mental health – in particular with a toxic capacity for obsessive and intrusive worry. But, having worked extensively with a therapist for a number of years, by my early 30s I could manage that tendency a great deal better. When I boarded a plane at Heathrow bound for Moscow six years ago – skis in the Aeroflot hold, and body fat lower than 12 per cent from the extensive training I completed – I was profoundly happy with my life.

However, that year, in southern Russia, up well over 3,000 metres, as my adult career as a writer and my old passion for the mountains collided, I discovered that the hold I had on my head was less secure than I had imagined. I nearly got killed, my mind went to pieces, and it took a long time to put myself back together again. This new project that I am embarking on now is an attempt to put all those ghosts to rest.

Upon that mountain

The southern flank of Mount Elbrus is pockmarked with infrastructure – cable cars and chairlifts run to around 3,800 metres. Our party, though, was approaching from the wilder north, where the entire 3000-plus metre ascent from the roadhead must be made by human power.

That meant using “skins” – strips that were once animal hide but are now synthetic. When stretched along the base of a ski, their one-way nap provides traction against snow. In parallel, specialized boot bindings release at the heel to allow ski mountaineers to trek uphill.

Preparation for time at altitude is a pendulum – you climb high in the day before descending to sleep lower. That first day, the party, led by one British and one Russian guide, ascended through a region of small gullies to an outcrop at 3,200 m known as the Mushroom Rocks. To the north, the dun-coloured plateaus of southern Russia stretched to the horizon.

Here, an American skier announced he was unwell. He descended with the British guide, and the remainder of the party skinned up a shallow shoulder with the Russian. We reached a prominent boulder at 3,450 metres before stripping the skins from our skis and turning to our first descent.

After a few hundred metres our passage triggered an avalanche. This is the classic hazard of ski mountaineering. Avoiding avalanches requires a mixture of technical knowledge and experience. In retrospect, I believe we had partially turned off our brains, as is easily done when you are being guided. We ended up on a roughly 35-degree slope in the hottest part of the day – classic conditions for a slide.

The snow on the slope ruptured across maybe seventy metres horizontally, creating an unearthly rumble. The avalanche, which continued for some hundreds of metres, carried away two of the group, one on the surface, one underneath, before spitting both out alive and unharmed. The previously smooth slope was now a tessellation of flat-topped snow blocks flanked by white slurry.

The image seared into my memory is a salvo of falling rocks. None of us were wearing helmets, but they would have made little difference. These were killer rocks.

That night, stony-faced, the British guide debriefed us at base camp. At this point I still felt emotionally put-together. No one had been hurt. And there was perhaps, too, a little bit of excitement at what had taken place. It would be a story to tell back at home.

The next day though, on our second acclimatization trip, another incident occurred, and one that for me was much more dangerous. After crossing a broad plateau, scorching under pitiless sun, we took another valley. When the ground steepened, we avoided the central slope to minimize avalanche danger. However, our decision to ascend under a prow of loose volcanic rock brought consequences.

The headwall was steep, and I was last man.

At 3,350 metres, the sky collapsed.

The image seared into my memory is a salvo of falling rocks. The sun had melted ice that bonded the outcrop together. From my position, looking up, the rocks appeared the size of kettlebells. The others who were above me later told me they saw four to six, each the dimensions of a wheelbarrow, plunge narrowly past me. None of us were wearing helmets, but they would have made little difference. These were killer boulders.

The event took a few seconds.

When I reached for my face I felt dampness against my glove. Emerging over the crest, my bloodied face alarmed the others. In fact physical damage was trivial – my lip was cut but my teeth were not smashed. A neurosurgeon in the party completed a running repair with Steri-strips. We trudged on up the glacier.

We descended to base camp that night. There I remember packing and repacking my kit as though in some kind of ritual. We moved our sleeping position up to an austere cabin on a glacial moraine at 3,760 metres and waited for a weather window for the summit. Eventually, we made a midnight start and skinned uphill, and by morning we were at the saddle between the two peaks. From 4,800 metres on, I felt nauseous, but we made the summit. There I made the old Tenzing Norgay on Everest gesture, ice axe aloft as though for purchase on the sky.

On the way down, we experienced all that is glorious about ski mountaineering, swooping down a gently inclined, highway-width glacier, overlooked by ice cliffs. We were back at the hut by lunchtime.

Then, with the immediate pressure off, my mind went to pieces.

Two states of mind

My experience of periodic obsessive, intrusive worry runs back to childhood. The first time I remember this experience – though I imagine there may have been other episodes earlier – was, I believe, in 1995. I was 10, and an episode of the BBC children’s program Blue Peter on the atomic bombings of Japan triggered an obsessive fear of nuclear war.

As I grew older, fear of Hiroshima was substituted with more adult terrors, often hypochondriacal – a notion, usually with a tenuous-at-best connection to reality, that there was something wrong with me.

These states could endure for months, years even, and they were binary. My mind either functioned normally or I experienced a carousel of intrusive thought, like being hit 30 times a minute over the head with the worst idea in the world. In time, in honour of its ruminative nature and debilitating effect, I privately christened this condition the “rumothorax.” (A pneumothorax is a collapsed lung.)

On Elbrus I’d become badly sunburnt. This was a passing condition, but, combined with the shock of a near-death experience, looking at my face in a crude mirror affixed to the outside of the high mountain hut triggered an immediate switch. My mind, literally in a second, went from State A, normal function, to State B, obsessive intrusive fears, this time of a skin infection.

My mind either functioned normally or I experienced a carousel of intrusive thought, like being hit 30 times a minute over the head with the worst idea in the world.

At 31, this was probably the fifth time in my life I’d experienced that sudden state change. I now knew enough of what was coming to be terrified. Off the mountain we visited the former home of Mikhail Lermontov, a Russian writer I loved. There were spring flowers outside and original furniture within, but my mind was in turmoil.

Back in London, I saw a doctor who noted nothing of concern, and then I sought out various medical tests, all of which were negative. In the past that step had been sufficient to snap me out of such mental loops, but this time they did not.

With this kind of obsessional worry, psychologists think the subject matter – what you are actually worrying about – is largely irrelevant. The pathology is the obsessive act of worry itself.

I have never written about this publicly before, and I do so with some trepidation. I think there is value in doing so. But I also fear that there is, truly, nothing as ridiculous, nothing as easily consigned to the obviously-not-true category, as someone else’s anxiety. But, by god, mine has been debilitating.

In the end it took three years, aided by professional help, a relationship, and medication to drag myself out of rumothorax. I am now, and have been for the last several years, back in State A. But I suspect I retain my capacity for State B.

The mental condition I brought down from Elbrus was undoubtedly as much to do with what I’d taken up that mountain as with anything that happened above the snow line. But the mountain was where the switch took place.

Eleven year-old Simon Akam (second from right) on a mountain in Chandolin, a village in Switzerland, during Christmas 1996. 'Ski mountaineering remains my first and best high-altitude love,' writes Akam.Simon Akam /Handout

Risk and reward

It was during my process of reassembly, when it seemed I had little control over my inner world, that the idea of going back to the mountains surfaced.

I appreciate that, as with the subject matter of my own pathological worries, this desire to return to the high country was also not fully rational; I had nearly died up there. But this landscape chimed with me on a profound aesthetic and personal level. And snow-covered peaks seemed also – paradoxically as I became acquainted with their caprices – places of safety. I did not want to lose that.

Ski mountaineering remains my first and best high-altitude love. To be a competent ski mountaineer requires the mastery of numerous subdisciplines, from technical skiing to uphill fitness, avalanche prediction, and ropework. (German speakers call ski mountaineering the Koenigsdisziplin, the royal or supreme discipline). It is also, unlike movement on foot, an activity where physical strength is not enough. The strongest individual flounders on skis unless their technique is right. That symbolizes a connection between mind and body closer to ballet or yoga than the thrashing of a conventional endurance sport.

It was in Germany with the British Army, in a year in the military between school and university, that I discovered the sport. There I found a magical, meditative and wholly seductive activity that retains the ability to routinely kill its participants. Why I fell so hard for ski mountaineering – and it really was a proper, adolescent, head-over-heels infatuation – is not straightforward to explain.

My love was not really about the descent. Instead, my love was about the way touring on skis allowed you to cross mountainous terrain, to ascend peaks and passes, and to be in an environment of utter stillness and quiet. Likewise the regular slide-slide of skinning uphill was profoundly soothing, a regularized activity that running or walking could never match. Here was a way to cross landscape that was wholly different, white and muffled and quiet and smooth. And, shoddy technique or not, you could harness gravity for the way down.

Snow is clean, snow is (sometimes) smooth, snow hides all the mess and unevenness of the world. But there are worse powders to become infatuated with.

Likewise, I just loved snow. There is, looking back, perhaps something in my veneration for snow that jibes with the obsessive traits that have caused me trouble at other times. Snow is clean, snow is (sometimes) smooth, snow hides all the mess and unevenness of the world. But there are worse powders to become infatuated with.

Eventually I determined that, despite my close shave with death, I would return, but this time I wanted to do it right – with the right training and preparation, but also the right philosophy. While I had undertaken many adventurous things on mountains before, it had usually been under the expertise of others, often professional guides. But I had seen, with the avalanche in Russia, how completely entrusting your safety to other people was not a good approach. I wanted to learn independence.

I had no desire – nor, to be frank, the ability – to break new records in mountaineering, or to push to the edge of human capability. But I wanted, within myself, to be the most competent that I could be. Learning how to operate in a wild environment in which risk was real might help me manage my inner world, where I had a tendency to obsess over things that were not.

At age 11, Akam (right) stayed with a Swiss family in Chandolin, Switzerland, which is one of the highest villages in Europe.Simon Akam/Handout

A journey both personal and physical

For my return, I needed an objective, something to pin my aspirations to. I found it in the Patrouille des Glaciers, the Glacier Patrol, a ski-mountaineering race that takes place every two years across the backbone of the Swiss Alps. The full course entails an alarming 57.5 horizontal kilometres, and over 4,000 metres of vertical climb. My hope is to take part next year. I do not know if this is a feasible objective, but I do know that I need something to aim for.

I have skied since childhood but, like many Brits, my technique is still flawed.

I have thus arranged to return to a tiny village in Switzerland, Chandolin, where I stayed when I was 11 with a Swiss family. Chandolin overlooks the Val d’Anniviers, a region much less developed than larger resorts. I’ll be in Chandolin in January then in February will move up the valley. I have briefed the local ski school that I need them to correct my défauts enracinés. My ingrained faults. That refers to ski technique, but it feels like I’ve charged these mountain people with a deeper task.

Chandolin, one of the highest villages in Europe, also has a rich cultural history. The Swiss travel writer Ella Maillart, who traversed China in 1935, lived there for part of every year for the last 50 years of her life. She died in March 1997, three months after my childhood visit. Other cultural figures, such as novelist Charles Ferdinand Ramuz – a face on Swiss banknotes – had an association with the village. And, in an outbreak of metafiction, last year I also discovered a graphic novel from the 1980s called À la Recherche de Peter Pan, which involves an English writer in the 1920s visiting an alpine valley with more than a passing resemblance to the Val d’Anniviers. Intrigue ensues.

Then in March and April I will apprentice myself to Bergpunkt, a German-speaking Swiss mountaineering school that appears to treat alpinism with the same fastidiousness their countrymen apply to watchmaking. Again, this will be a total linguistic immersion. When not in the mountains, I’ll live with the school’s director, though how my “High” German fairs with these dialect speakers we will have to see. In a series of training courses I will learn glacier travel, and use of ropes and ice axes, the basis of independent activity. Then we will conduct a series of ski tours across the Alps, including once more the classic Chamonix-Zermatt Haute Route.

As I train I am also going to unpack the history of the Haute Route, a 120-km ski traverse between the Chamonix valley and Zermatt that is the most famous ski mountaineering route in the world. I will be writing not only about athletes, but writers and artists whose lives interest me too.

Hopes and fear

My aim is that by the end of this winter I’ll be competent to operate independently in the mountains under snow, and that I will also have learned something about my inner state of mind. I will then have a year to get aggressively fit for the race. Along the way I will be writing a weekly column here, and posting regular updates on social media.

There is a lot that could go wrong. Injury is the most likely obstruction. I could break a leg next week. Less dramatically, over recent years, as I tamed my head, I have battled with the other end of my body: initially plantar fasciitis, pain in the sole of the foot, then Achilles tendinitis. With diligent physiotherapy I fixed the plantar and Achilles issues, only to tweak another tendon on right side of my ankle. Again I dutifully did my stretches, and I have just finished a specific ten-week ski mountaineering fitness training plan too. I am in the best shape I can be. But, as with my mind, I need to be gentle with my body.

The vagaries of weather and conditions lie beyond my ken too, though fortunately snow has now arrived in the Alps. Overall, I cannot fully predict what will happen. I appreciate readers of these pieces may come from a culture with a distinct but rich snowsport tradition, and I would love to hear insights and recommendations. But most importantly, I hope you will just join me on this journey, even if you find the idea of skiing uphill baffling – or, to choose a perhaps more apt wording – literally insane.

About the author:

Simon Akam is a British journalist and author. His first book, The Changing of the Guard – The British Army since 9/11, published in 2021, was a Times Literary Supplement book of the year and won the Templer First Book Prize. Simon can be found at @simonakam on Twitter, @simon.akam on Instagram.

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