September 1, 2015

Something to Laugh About

by Mitko Grigorov
October 1, 2004

We human beings, as a species, have always thought that we should fight nature for our survival, that we should employ all our efforts in that battle and thus show who is in charge. It has always amazed me that we have never even questioned dominance over nature. We have always believed that we, as the highly evolved beings on this planet, are entitled to control. But is that so? Will humanity celebrate its dominance over the forces of nature in the end?

It was July 4, 1998. The date had not been of any significance to me until that particular day. That it was the same date as Independence Day in America was nothing more than mere coincidence. For me, July 4, 1998, started out as just another midsummer’s day, promising to be shiny and warm, even high in the mountains, where I was.

We started out early from the hut where we had spent the night. Our group consisted of about 40 people: 30 experienced mountaineers and we 10 teenagers. The route was not hard; in five hours, at around midday we reached another hut, laughing, happy and not in the least tired. We had our lunch, resting for half an hour before we continued on track. As always happens in the mountains, a thick fog came out of nowhere and a light rain began to caress our cheeks.

We entered the hut just when it started raining harder. The building was old and very small. There were only enough beds for no more than half of us; we had to move on to the next hut. It was about two and a half hours away via the path through the high peak, and no less than four hours if we decided to skirt it.

We waited for another hour and a half before we continued on the route. The weather got better; the fog had risen. Someone proposed staying at the hut because we, the teenagers, did not have much experience. It could be the lull before a storm, they said; and surely two or three persons to a bed would not be that bad. But there was something else – something that a person who has never been high in the mountains where no plants grow and the air is so thin one can hardly breathe – that we would never understand. It was something that everyone who has seen a peak in the sky and later felt under his feet knows the way he knows that the sun rises in the East. When you start following your feet up the hills, you reach a point at which you are no longer climbing the mountain; you are fighting it, fighting yourself, and conquering it, beyond a point at which you can no longer stop before the end, the point of no return.

We took the short path that goes directly up the slope. Soon the fog came again, but it was not mere fog anymore; it was the consistency of thick, evaporated milk. It clouded my eyes, and I could only see four feet ahead of me, at best. The man in front of me and the one behind were my only companions. We shouted to each other until the wind blowing from the North muffled all sound. In our summer clothes, we were blown about by the mighty mountain wind, and could no longer stay the course. My backpack weighed about 180 pounds, but I could not control my feet; the wind current was moving me constantly to the South, to what turned out to be an endless abyss. The joke that nature was making was very strange. We could not see each other; we could not see our own feet at times, but we could see precisely how majestic the chasm was. We held on to one another; we did not dare get scared because we knew that could mean the end for us all.

We walked, and time seemed to have stopped. I heard my friend behind me saying that he would not die that day. Of course he would not; nature could not be so remorseless on a midsummer’s day that had started so wonderfully. I started smiling, filled with hope. We were strong, and we were conquering nature. The sky opened at that very moment to pour out the most ruthless and powerful sleet ever. We had abandoned our harbor, our small but cozy shelter, to find ourselves standing in the middle of the tempest. Hope faded.

We then encountered a stone memorializing a hiker who had died on that very slope. No one spoke. Everyone was contemplating, looking back on his life. A second tombstone appeared with the same inscription, and I was certain that everyone was visualizing the epitaph under his own name. At the third gravestone, I no longer felt my heart beating. At the fourth, the side of my body that was turned to the North was frozen. At the fifth, a word came; the leader of our group had been the leader of a former group in which twelve people had died the year before on the same route. The sixth monument revealed itself; no one questioned the leader’s authority. He was following the right path in the fog, and strangely, the tombstones proved that sad fact. Seventh, I looked down at my feet and saw that my shoes were untied. My hands were frozen. I could no longer use my fingers. How was I supposed to tie my shoes? I started laughing; considering everything in the world, my shoes were what worried me most.

The eighth stone was larger than the others; twelve names were inscribed on it. The abyss was gone, the fog was rising, and the wind was no longer that strong. I felt cold. Tears started falling from rough male faces. I saw one of the men trying to light a cigarette. He had only one whole finger on his right hand. He had been with his brother on that fatal winter night the year before. His brother had become one with the dust of the mountain and so had this man’s fingers. Tears of bitterness washed faces and souls. Tears of grief substituted for the subsided sleet. Tears reflected the first ray of light we had seen for seven hours, the last ray of light for that day, July 4, 1998.

I once heard a legend about the ancient Vikings. When a fight was over, they would stand in the middle of the battlefield – a field soaked with blood and covered with the bones of their enemies, friends, and relatives – and they would laugh. The Vikings laughed not because they wanted to mourn their beloved or because they wanted to celebrate their victory. They laughed because death had once again spared them. They laughed because they knew that man could never win over the forces of nature, no matter how strong or how clever he was. No one could conquer something perfect; all that these mighty warriors could do was to stand tall and laugh because they could continue to share in and obey that perfection.

My friends, the old hikers, and I – we all survived that day, July 4, 1998. We hugged one another when we reached the hut; we had strength left for nothing else. Nature had shown us how fierce and calm – friendly sometimes and unpredictable at others – it could be; how little control over it we little, arrogant, ignorant humans had. I have known since that day that every time we thought we had conquered some part of nature, we had actually received a gift. For that reason, occasionally I remember that midsummer’s day; I know that on the fourth of July I have something to laugh about.