As I descended the corniced summit ridge, I saw a climber coming up the same path. I hacked out a small ledge in the snow on the uphill side of the path and waved for him to come up and pass. There’s not much room for two people, and a fall to either side of the ridge wouldn’t stop for 1,000 feet or more.
The Mönch, by most definitions, is a pretty casual climb in the Alps: After a train ride to about 11,300 feet, you walk a snowcat track to the base of a ridge, scramble and climb snow on an exposed ridge to the summit at 13,474 feet. It’s not exactly a walk in the park (people have died on it), but it’s no Eiger North Face, for sure. You can order a coffee before you start up the ridge, and walk into an Indian restaurant 15 minutes after you take your crampons off. But the view as you climb up is amazing: jagged, snow-covered peaks as far as you can see to the south, the largest glacier in the Alps starting its weaving, 14-mile descent 5,000 feet below.
As the man approached, he slowed and stopped right in front of me, smiling. I gave him a thumbs up, gestured to the mountains and said, “beautiful, amazing,” hoping he might recognize one English word. He nodded, smiled bigger, and said, “Czech Republic,” and I said, “USA.” He slowly pronounced “voon-dah-bah,” looking around, and we had one German word in common, two guys in helmets and hoods on a knife-edge ridge having a moment together, a little in disbelief that something could be so beautiful. I laughed and nodded. He held his hand up, started to move his feet to continue upward, hand still in the air, and then he did a slight bow as he grabbed my arm and gently squeezed, like he had been climbing all day waiting for someone to share the view with.
I watched him walk away for a second, stepped back into the trench and continued down, unable to remove the shit-eating grin from my face for several minutes, sure that that was the best thing that had happened to me during my entire year of climbing, maybe ever.
One day when I got back, a friend asked on Facebook, “Has the word “adventure” become cliché?” And I thought about that, and yes, Yvon Choiunard says it’s overused, and plenty of people agree with him. And I thought about all the e-mails in my inbox from friends or acquaintances who have climbed The Nose in a day, soloed remote big walls in faraway countries, and gone on proper “expeditions,” where they get dropped off on glaciers for weeks at a time so they can climb or ski mountains nearby, and how I may never get on something worthy of National Geographic, or a Goal Zero sponsorship. Sometimes I wonder if I waste too much time comparing my own adventures to those of my friends or peers, in that ridiculous way someone compares their lawn to their neighbors’ lawn, or their new car to their co-worker’s car.
Then I remember that I grew up in a small town in Iowa in the 1990s, and not so long ago, my definition of “adventure” was going to a bar in a different state to get shitfaced. So that’s a little perspective.
I interviewed my dad a few years ago for a Dirtbag Diaries episode, and the best thing he said during our talk was this: “I grew up poor, and had nothing. Everything I did in my life was an adventure.”
That guy from the Czech Republic, on the summit ridge of the Mönch, had probably traveled even less than me to get there. It’s a 12-hour train ride or an 8-hour drive from Prague. He must have been in his mid- to late 50s, and lived most of his life that close to the Alps. But he was so excited to be there.
And I think maybe it’s all about gratitude. Is this an adventure, or is that an adventure? If my dad says so, I think it is.