The Old Man and the Mountain

HE was stopping at the climber's well for a cold drink in the dawn. I was surprised to see him as I came out of the hut to yawn, after a night of sleeping in a stall of public mattresses in the climber's hut in the meadow just below the mountain peaks.The old man had a cane with ivory on the handle and a sharp iron point, the kind they like in those regions, and he was quite alone. After a good-humored nod, he went off swinging his cane this way and that. He was heading for the "walk up," a peak you could master without austere technical ability. But the fact was, the old man must have walked all night to get there. I had no great passion for the tip-top heights, except to admire them from meadows where cowbells filled the hours and the gongs of church bells echoed from below. But Les Dents du Midi were advertised as a passage safe for walkers who had the strength and stomach for a few nasty precipices. After the climb, one could stand on a peak, throw arms up to heaven, and feel the drama of the heights. Real mountaineers were in the hut overnight with us. They were Scots going up some other face of the French Teeth. They were up when I went back into the hut, after watching the man go off in the unearthly silence of the high-ground dawn. The Scots were repacking their ropes and paraphernalia. They ate, sopping up bacon grease with bread after cooking eggs in it; they were true sportsmen - nothing was wasted, their funds spent on gear and third-class travel. It was the mountain they conserved for. My walking friend knew mountain-types, their world view hardly contained girlfriends or sleek jobs, but heights and terrain and snow pack, and winter meetings planning in small foreign villages for trips - the big one, the next one, always the next. The old man I had glanced at was a no-gear conservationist: a small boy's pack, a stick, and his walking rhythms - not even sleep in the night. After breakfast, the four big climbers, like workhorses on a belly full of oats, passed us on the trail; they smiled and waved indifferently, their eyes now on the lighted rocks, the nasty teeth where sun was flaring their imagined route. We said, "Good luck" as they were going to do something more difficult and mathematical than our simple attempt to do a tidy nature walk up the marked precipices. We came along upon the old man, steadily swinging his cane; he didn't seem to mind our staying by him a little. "You are going up?" I asked, passing stones and wildflowers, the fine fresh air putting a ruddy sheen on our faces. "Once more I shall go," he said, less indifferent-seeming than the Scots. We waited as he seemed to have something to tell us, perhaps a point of philosophy. But perhaps he would be silent too: Facing the lower parts of the Teeth, it was a place people were prone to be exactly silent or say something better than a courtesy. "I awoke in the night and I knew I would come up here," he said, seeming amused at himself, swinging a cane with so vast a mountaintop ahead. "I left a note for my daughter. They can't chase me up here, always worrying about Grandpa's care and doing silly things. They won't come to look for me up here," he said looking back, quickly. "You know the route?" my friend asked, looking now at the lower caverns. "I know this mountain like my backyard. And several others too." He said it angrily, as if he could not bear to let the mountain stand without him. "You have food? It's a long climb. The day will be hot." "I have enough. I don't eat much at my age. Sleep neither. I once said, 'Sleep when you are old,' when I ran round like you boys. But memories feed me now. I don't need much sleep." He looked at us. "I know you young ones get hungry. Can I offer you some little cheese? Bread?" "No," we said, in unison, looking at his little pack. Then he said, "Go. Pass." It was a dismissal, as if he wanted to be alone. So we went ahead, out of respect for a man who gets up in the night and decides to spend the day alone in the heights. I would keep my eye on him. He caught us napping after lunch. Steady as a man blind to all but his mission, he came up the trail. He was long past the monkey ladders where you had to pull yourself up a 100-foot drop and an ice-bridge marked only by flapping ropes. This time he looked more amused at our stares. He pointed upward with keen eyes till we saw them too, the four dots each like a piece of dirt in a pure snowflake, coming over the cornice with ropes on the top. The Scots. He seemed satisfied. He went on, nonchalantly, not wishing to share our lunch or company, but not unfriendly. We asked the Scots, when they came down to the hut, if they'd seen the old man. They were in a hurry going down the pass to make contact with some other rocks, as if the mountain would move away with the sun. They nodded, they had seen someone up there - where we had found no one. Just the windy peak and the drop, straight down, for miles. Had he fallen? I began repenting my thoughts. Had the old man thrown himself off the peak? Perhaps to die in a place where he had been blissful as a youth? This old man who had offered us food and a point of philosophy in a fine meadow? Had I been there, and he had stepped near the edge - would I have held him back or let him go, in dignity and valor, having come so far? I dared not mention such a thing to my friend. But being my friend he read my thoughts. "We'll look for him. I hope I am like that when I am old." At the bottom where we were to celebrate our expedition, I repented being so concerned about getting down by dark. I kept saying to my friend, "But he was alone. He wanted to be alone." There was a restaurant at the trail head and I went in to make the call. I asked the restaurateur where I should call to report the old man lost. Disappeared. I described him, swinging his cane. The owner's ears jumped back and he smiled, "Ah, Charlo! Why he knows a hundred ways up and down that mountain. You know, once he was very great." "Well, he's lost." "No. Not Charlo. He always comes back." "He's alone out there." "Attend. Look I heard a cry from one of the outdoor tables, where the cars were parked. "Papa. Papa!" A woman jumped up from the table running to the trail we'd come from. There he was, still muttering and swinging his cane in the same rhythm as he had in the morning dew. "I just went for a walk - a petite promenade There were the outstretched arms of Grandpa, cane dangling, to receive her. His eyes closed in the embrace and all we could see was the braided head of his daughter. He opened his eyes, then he keenly recognized us and smiled that same little amused smile. Suddenly his face lit up, brighter than when he had seen the Scottish climbers, or in the meadow at dawn, or at seeing the woman. A little boy was tugging at his knee, by his mother's skirts. "You bad boy, Grandpa!" He looked down and laughed. He tried to lift the boy into his arms. But that was a bit too much for him, and he set him down. The boy smiled admiringly at his grandpa, waiting. This man wasn't going to fall off any mountain on purpose. He had had a little fun and he had been good enough to return to his family before dark.

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