He sat in his wheel chair, my old Swiss climbing guide, grumbling in a predictable show of annoyance as his wife eased him into their apartment on the fourth floor of a home for the aging. They live in the village of Zermatt beneath the Matterhorn, which he had climbed hundreds of times, five of them with me.
He is a man with that Teutonic stoicism that seemed genetically planted in his generation of Swiss mountain guides. A recent head injury in a fall affected his sense of balance. But his mind seemed clear and his fondness undiminished for the local Fendant white I brought for the family wine bins. I offered a hug and he extended an arm and a smile before attempting one more apology for the wheel chair. I shrugged it off. I told him the only superman I ever met was in the movies and couldn’t pass up a telephone booth. Which was not exactly a revelation to him. He had suffered fractures, been caught in avalanches, rescued dozens of stranded climbers as a volunteer and led me on the Matterhorn one day when the visibility in the clouds fell to zero and the mountain was otherwise deserted.
I told him I was in Switzerland as the escort for a tour group from Minnesota. This was in October, still more than a month away from the jammed ski slopes and raclette parties in the Zermatt bistros and hotel cellars. Which meant ceding the hiking slopes and the cable trollies to the prairie and lake dwellers from the American north.
I also wanted to tell Gottlieb how much he had mattered in my life and expanded it, not so much with thrills but as a tutor in exploring the high country in its mysteries and its magic, and doing it sensibly. He had also done it with safety, demanding that you abided some of its homeliest rules and axioms—that pride truly does come before a fall, that there are old climbers and bold climbers, but not many old and bold climbers.
“Do you still climb?” he asked.
“No,” I said.” I’m in that age group we call octogenarian, and I don’t know many of that type who are strong enough or loopy enough to go high as a climber. But I love the mountains still, hike in them, camp in them, and remember the sensations and the discovery, and guys like you who opened that world to people like me.
“What do you remember?,” he asked. He spoke with a warmth I had not felt in our 30 years together on the rope.
“ I remember the day we reached the top of the Matterhorn at the very moment the rays of the sun reached the Monte Rosa to the east and then the Michabel massif and the west wind was stirring, and at that moment there was no one else on the mountain. I sucked in the air and looked across to the Italian side of the summit ridge, the cross on it and I swear I could hear the pealing of the church bells two miles below us in Zermatt.”
So what had the mountains, and therefore Gottlieb, brought into my life?
They have been mountains of a kind to reward our dreams. We had been with them long enough to understand the illogic of imparting personal qualities to inanimate stone and ice, personal qualities dear to the poet: Mountains could be rash or vindictive.
We know that rock, snow and ice cannot be emperically kind or restless, punitive or rewarding. So it is said. The scientists and the meteorologists know this. But we also know that sometimes, especially on a windless morning when the sun leaps above the ridges and spills its flaming orange over the snowfields, the poets were right and the scientists, at least once, were wrong.
And so have the mountain years been rewarding, in the effort and search they demand, the bonding and the overcoming of a natural fear.
Oh my, yes. They have, and for those drawn to physically engage them, this becomes the most profound gift of the mountain world: The humility and gratitude it imparts to those who find themselves in the presence of a nature so mighty and beautiful, and in those most intimate times, so full of grace.
About Jim Klobuchar:
In 45 years of daily journalism, Jim Klobuchar’s coverage ranged from presidential campaigns to a trash collector’s ball. He has written from the floor of a tent in the middle of Alaska, from helicopters, from the Alps and from the edge of a sand trap. He was invited to lunch by royalty and to a fist fight by the late Minnesota Viking football coach, Norm Van Brocklin. He wrote a popular column for the Minneapolis Star Tribune for 30 years and has authored 23 books. Retiring as a columnist in 1996, he contributes to Ecumen’s “Changing Aging” blog, MinnPost.com and the Christian Science Monitor. He also leads trips around the world and an annual bike trip across Northern Minnesota. He’s climbed the Matterhorn in the Alps 8 times and has ridden his bike around Lake Superior. He’s also the proud father of two daughters, including Minnesota’s senior U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar.