We signed Tim Howell to the Jöttnar Pro Team because he is pushing our understanding of mountaineering, combining classic North Face ascents with wingsuit BASE jumping 'descents.' But his philosophical outlook has found a home with us too. In his debut essay for Legend Tim reflects on light, and how something so ubiquitous and taken for granted can generate such diversity of emotion in a climber.
Light in the mountains can have many connotations. Natural lights, stars and the moon promise a settled night, ideal for a unplanned bivi halfway up a route. While the lights of a mountain refuge can give you reassurance after long days on a route. Sometimes, the lights from bedrooms, street lamps and porches give me entirely different thoughts.
We sit on a bivi ledge 1500 metres above the valley floor, exposed and committed for the night. The sky is clear and crisp in a calming way, but we are still on the north face of the Eiger, effectively trapped with only hard climbing above us to get us off the mountain. I’ve been in this situation before and it always makes my mind wonder. With our backs against the wall, we sit in our sleeping bags, in a bucket seat made of snow looking down a thousand metres to the town below. I imagine a family in a chalet, unable to comprehend the position we have put ourselves in. They tuck into a warm dessert and share wine around the table. We cling to an icy ledge with a sachet of soup to share. We are masochistic. We seek these experiences again and again but in this moment, although I love this environment, there is a small part of me that would prefer to be in that chalet with the wood burner roaring and a whisky in hand.
But light also gives a sense of comfort, a direction to go, and indications of safety. Planned day trips can easily turn into night, headtorches should be packed no-matter how long you plan to be out. Darkness falls quickly and you soon become reliant on a light to get you down safely.
I was in Italy, abseiling off a route after climbing 300 metres up a limestone tower. Avoiding the midday heat we’d started late and the blanket of darkness fell quickly. Fatigue, thirst and hunger started to set in. Our headtorches set to full beam scanning the rock, we were looking for the glistening of bolts. Dave was hanging in space at the end of 60 metres of rope. We needed the next anchor to thread the rope and repeat the process three more times until we were back on solid ground. Dave shouted up, he’d found the bolts 10m to his right. I looked down and could only see a light from his headtorch, swinging from side to side until he’d gained enough momentum to run across the wall to reach the next bolts. Sometimes climbing at night is unplanned but necessary, while other times its planned but unnecessary…
The experience of climbing in the dark focusses my concentration. The light creates a sphere of fixation, only what you see matters. The floor sits 200 metres below but I can’t see it. I can’t see the next anchors, the next crux or the next pitch, only the next few holds in front of me. The light keeps you in the present, the sphere of light on the wall only gives away your next few holds and nothing more. Shadows dancing around the holds reveal the location of the smallest crimps.
Back down in Chamonix valley on the last day of my trip, I’m staying on a couch at my friends house. I can’t sleep. I sit upright and look through the balcony doors up to the Midi, the light of the summit station clearly visible. It’s 2am and I want to be up there on some uncomfortable ledge. I wonder if someone is shivering in their bivi looking down, wishing to exchange positions.