When Nights were Cold

by Susanna Jones

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One day I’d like to gather some friends together and take them to the refugio de Crestellina. When I’m on my own and heading for a walk my favourite route is up to the refugio from the village. I’ve never actually seen it open. I suppose, as a refugio it’s pretty close to civilisation. There are piles of branches beside the open air barbecue but the door is firmly shut. I was actually surprised to see on a local website that the place can be rented out, because it doesn’t look like the doors have been opened in years.

Apart from when there are groups of hikers taking advantage of the picnic tables it’s a very peaceful place.

I just have this image in my head of a rag tag gang of friends, backpacks full of food, the steep hike up and then picnic heaven, Maybe if we did get the keys and stay the night we could walk up to the viewing point and watch the sunset. The mirador here is one of the most amazing views of anywhere I know. To the south you have the Mediterranean, Gibraltar and behind it Jebel Musa the spectacular mountain rising out of the mists. To the west you gaze out over the Alcornales, to the north Sierra Crestellina of Casares, to the east Sierra Bermeja towering over Estepona. And just below you is the pueblo of Casares. As my sister said, if you took away the urbanizacion where you live it would be picture perfect.

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I like hiking, I wish I was just more motivated to do it on my own, or I could find some people to latch on to. Or that I could skip the years of practice and head out with my husband on his epic Sunday cycles.

My parents brought us hiking from a young age. We went on summer holidays in West Cork for a number of years until I was 12, when we went to the Alps for the first time. We went to Wengen in the Jungfrau valley and fell in love with the place. Two summers in the Austrian Alps did not compete in my mind. We returned the summer I was 15 and I told my parents I was going to come back and work in my summers when I was a student. I did work a summer by the Thunersee, but it was winter when I returned to Wengen, I had travelled 14 hours by train (reading material used up much earlier) and while on the last leg of the cog rail from Lauterbrunnen I was anxious. I’d just had a few emails and I’d had to borrow the train money from another student as my wages hadn’t come through. Also a few other students had left for Switzerland the week before and we hadn’t heard anything from them.

As I stepped off the train the snow began to fall and I watched a father pull his kid along on a sled. It was like a scene from a fairytale. There are no cars in the town, so one of the porters had an electric car for luggage and I trudged through the snow with the passengers.

Back then I had the same mini obsession with Switzerland that judging by my reading material I seem to be having for Ukraine at the moment. I ended up writing my first dissertation about Switzerland and couldn’t understand why my tutor assumed I must have a boyfriend there, the same way that years later everyone assumed I had left behind a boyfriend in Belarus. Why do people always assume there has to be a guy at the centre of all of these decisions?

That was 14 years ago and I haven’t been back to the Swiss mountains since then. I’ve been back to Switzerland twice in the last few years but just to Zurich on business. It’s a nice city but for me Switzerland is not about its cities, it’s the mountains that make it.

Reading this book really made me yearn to return to Switzerland. I missed out on the last business trip to Zurich, but I did not really mind, it would have been just another city trip. I want to see the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau again in all their majesty. And of course the Matterhorn. I went to Zermatt just once with an Inghams rep I’d met in Merligen. We met a Zermatt based rep that day and I remember at some stage having a conversation about young versus old people (let’s face it, hiking is quite popular with older people) and at the time my 19 year old self found it funny that the 38 year old rep was including himself in the ‘young’. Ah, youth!

Grace Farringdon was a similar age when she first went to the Alps. It wasn’t the Alps she’d been dreaming of though, but the Antarctic. As a young girl she followed Shackleton’s adventures and in the opening pages we read a letter volunteering her service and that of two friends. After this the Rebecca-esque opening line:

‘Last Night I tried to climb the Matterhorn again’

what starts out as a relatively straightforward coming of age story becomes more and more claustrophobic and you wonder about how truthful any narrative ever is, when it’s told from one person’s point of view.

In the early part of the book I found myself cringing at the views of Grace’s father, who does not believe his daughters should go to college. Catherine, the older, does not have the strength of character of Grace and submits to his will, a fact which eventually leaves her slightly unhinged, as her talents are left to rot. Or is that just how Grace sees it?

Her father later regrets playing out the Antarctic voyages and planting adventurous ideas in Grace’s mind. He himself loves reading about adventures to the coldest parts of earth, the highest mountains, the poles. He writes to the Times when he is not happy about something.

The headmistress in her school encourages further education but she herself is held up as an example of what might befall girls who wish to devote themselves to learning.

The Jungfrau railway is being built. Her father sees them as being a mutilation of Nature ‘we must protect the sublimity the mountain’. When asked about the Matterhorn ‘if they get away with building a railway to the top that’ll be the end of it as a proper mountain. You can take your wife up to the top and bring her down again half an hour later’.

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In a way I see his point. So many places are now accessible to so many people, whereas before it was God, nature and a few brave souls. However on the other hand, I have been to Jungfraujoch and delighted in the journey. It was also my first time skiing, aged 15 in shorts and Tshirt, fighting with the lifts on the way back up. This was the highest train station in Europe, but not the World, as that was one in Peru. That piece of information was tucked away and forgotten about until I started planning my trip to South America and decided I needed to do it, to go to Huancayo. It was interesting, but not one of the highlights of our trip. Especially since it is no longer the highest. That is now somewhere in China. Who knows, maybe I’ll get there some day. 

 

Grace goes to university and discovers cocoa parties the type of which I dreamed of when reading the Anne books. She idolises Shackleton and longs to go on an Antarctica adventure with him. She sees him speaking one day and on a whim steals his glove.

As the older Grace is telling the story from the time of the second world war we are told pretty early on that she is the only surviving member of her Antarctic exploration group, in fact, no spoiler alert needed, the back of the book tells us that too. I can understand the desire to visit the Antarctic. I really wanted to take a ship from Ushuaia, but economics got in the way. Another one for the list…

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The three others in her group are Lucy, a spirited actress who loves theatres in everyday life, Cecily Parr, an oddball who encourages the group to take up climbing and has some strong anti-suffrage beliefs and Winnie, who doesn’t want to push any boundaries but is just passing time until her fiancé finishes his studies.

There are plenty of clashes within the small group and Grace tries to keep everybody together. Cecily is the one who guides the group to active adventure rather than simply retelling the adventures of men.

We originally meet Frank as a bland figure in the background, a suitor of Catherine who fades ever further away when Catherine fails to stand up to her father. Grace meets him again in Wales, when the society goes on their first climbing expedition. To us, the readers, he seems like a different person, a romantic hero and we start to root for him and Grace but Catherine unwittingly comes between them. He notes ‘you’ve got so much more spirit than your sister’. And because of the original connection it seems that this romance is doomed from the start.

 

Cecily Parr takes effective control of the group’s mission and all year they are leading towards conquest of the Matterhorn. Even Winifred is on board, after she has been able to convince her fiancé that climbing is not unwomanly activity.

Random sentence I loved: ‘A Glacier was not always the jewelled floor of beauty I had imagined but something that moved from  brown to grey, was harsh with pleats, whorls and ugly growths that looked like tongues and fingers.’

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It does not end well, and Grace does not go back to university. Before the trip her father had died. Her small inheritance had funded the trip, but Catherine stayed in the house to look after her mother. Now Catherine felt it was her turn to be ‘free’. 

Frank turns up again, a new grown up, cynical man, not the idealistic artist he used to be.

I feel like I am just summarising a simple story here and it’s not a simple story. After the Switzerland trip Grace is changed, unsurprisingly, but for us the readers, she’s not somebody we can get behind and admire as easily any more. Everything, everybody is against her, but as we read, we begin to wonder how much of the craziness we encounter is Grace’s and how much everybody else.

I’ve never been a climber so I haven’t had the same brushes with death as the ladies in this book. I do remember one climb to a peak on the Thunersee. When I came back and told my boss where I had been she admonished me for going there without letting anybody know. Another day I was doing the loop Wengen-Männlichen-Kleine Scheidegg-Wengen when there was some terrifying thunder and lightning. I hurried up as much as I could (which is not very much in some people’s eyes I know) and was relieved when I was able to get back on the train and safely back to the motel. The owner was watching the TV in the breakfast room. ‘Any news?’ I said, not expecting anything interesting. But there was…and it was bad. During the storm a group had been caught in a canyoning accident and bodies were turning up in the Brienzersee. I couldn’t believe it, that this was happening further down the valley as I was trembling at the lightning. A total of 21 people died that day, a reminder that no matter how much we tame the mountains, there are always risks. 

This week we’ve read about the Sherpas who died in the avalanche on Everest, a harsh reminder that the mountains can be temporarily conquered, but that will not make it easier for the next.

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It’s been months since I started writing this piece and this May Day I’m back at the refugio. It’s closed and empty as usual. The birds are singing all around me. The sky is blue above, a blanket of fog is below. I’m going to miss this.

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I’m now in Zahara de la Sierra enjoying a cold beer after canyoning the Gargante Verde with a group from El Puerto de Santa Maria. It was amazing. It was just one of those times when going in nature out of touch from the ordinary life and feel so so so alive! Why do I bother getting manicures or facials or silly things like that (ok been some time, but even so) when I could just spend my time doing this. Why watch TV?

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I do love a stereotypical writer’s block. I’ve returned this morning to the end of yesterday’s barranquisimo. The icily cold water is spurting out of the canyon and while yesterday at this stage I was happy to splash about in it (being in the sun felt much mwarmer after the pools deep in the canyon). Today I’ve paddled a little before taking out my book. I do think the Sierra de Grazalema is one of my favourite parts of Andalucia and while Zahara and Grazalema are both beautiful villages, Grazalema tends to be a little bit overrun. 

I’m going to head back up now to meet D and hopefully find a slightly warmer swimming spot on the lake.

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Maybe I can then persuade him to drive back the way we came yesterday. I was too stressed about being late then to appreciate it. You know, I’ve got so many of these blogposts nearly ready, just needing to be finalised but I’ve realised today that it doesn’t matter. There will be plenty of rainy days in the future when I can do that.

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