"But Nature then was sovereign in my
And mighty forms seizing a youthful Fancy
Had given a charter to irregular hopes."
PART 1: DESERT DAWN
PART 2: CLOUD
PART 3: FIRE
PART 4: ASCENSION
PART 5: DESERT DUSK
PART ONE - DESERT DAWN
We're on the road to Jericho. Yes Alistair, at last we are going, to
the desert, to the mountains, although from where I'm sitting they look
more like hills than anything else. Desert, mountains, what's the difference?
They're all the same to me: just inanimate lumps of matter, the desert
dumb, the mountains mute. But not to you, eh Alistair?
I look down at my friend, my friend from school. An ordinary boy in
those days, no reason to suppose that in just a few years he would become
nothing less than a bona fide teenage mystic.
"More coffee, sir?"
It is Omar, standing over me with a silver tray and jug. I check my
watch. Twenty minutes. In twenty minutes I'll be on the bus that runs
between Jerusalem and Jericho, the bus that will take me out to the
desert, Alistair's desert, Alistair's mountains.
"Just the bill, please."
As Omar crosses the terrace is al fresco, I look across to the Dome
of the Rock. A large group of men, mostly wearing slacks and shirts,
some sporting the black and white keffiyeh, rise and fall as a single
organism outside the al-Aqsa mosque, while beneath them, at the foot
of the Wailing Wall, black coated, black_hatted men stand before the
huge blocks of cream stone, rocking back and forth like metronomes.
Both groups, Muslim and Jewish, are praying to God. You always denied
you had anything in common with these collective acts of worship, insisting
upon your supreme individuality. That may have been so, Alistair, but
as far as I'm concerned you too were praying before your own wall, maybe
to a God known only to yourself, but a God all the same, and like some
kind of mystic pinball you bounced back and forth in worship between
East and West, writing letters from the East like an inspired prophet,
before returning to the West and sinking into a melancholic monomania.
Having no grasp of the ordinary world, you needed help for the simplest
things, finding it easier getting round in the Himalaya than the High
Street, never mastering the concepts of mortgage or marriage, yet able
to rant for hours about madness and mysticism. In social settings like
a pub you could be an embarrassment, the sort of friend you hoped would
just sit there and say nothing. And most of the time you would. But
let you ever hear a word like 'travel' - even if the speaker was referring
to a travelcard - or 'East' - even if the speaker was referring to East
London - and you would burst into a torrent of personal experiences
that the rest of us had neither sought nor known. It was moments like
these that pushed away your never numerous friends, and it was moments
like these, I confess, that rendered me unable to let you go.
You see, Alistair, you inspired me, and after a few pints your evocations
of that unreal world would fill me with a longing to see it for myself,
your unconventional existence daring me to quit my boring desk job and
do the same as you. Yet by the time I reached home and saw my girlfriend
lying in bed, I knew that it would take something extraordinary for
me to do it, and even then I knew I would never see what you were seeing.
To be honest, Nature bores me. Always has. Mute and dumb. But in the
end I did go. Yes, I went to your mountains, and now, at last, I'm going
to your desert.
"Your bill, sir."
Omar hands me a folded slip of paper.
I look east across the Dome of the Rock, across the Mount of Olives,
and beyond that, to the desert. The rolling hills of Judaea. That's
where I'm going. That's where I'm taking Alistair. Now. But as I rise
from the table and pick up my daysack, its weight reminds me of the
four exercise books inside, the four green exercise books I found only
a week ago, the four green exercise books that must contain your last
mortal thoughts. I'm supposed to be taking them back to your parents
in England, and so far, from respect and fear, I've resisted opening
them. But as I look out into the summer bleached desert the same question
plays over and over in my mind: what happened, Alistair? What on earth
I sit back down. I take out the books and gaze at their identical covers:
a black and white photo of a mountain, the mountain I saw barely a week
ago, a sinuous glacier leading up to its base. No humans. No life. No
nothing. Then, opening Book 1, I see a vision before me: there, on opposite
pages, are two colour photographs, like reflections in a mirror. Your
last mirror, Alistair? So it would seem, for on the left is the image
of a solitary figure crossing a dune under a pure blue sky; on the right,
another solitary figure crossing a dune under a pure blue sky. The same
photo duplicated? Yes. And no. Where one dune is gold, the other is
white; where one is sand, the other is snow; where one is desert, the
other is mountain; and while the lonely desert figure on the left is
walking upwards to the right, the lonely mountain figure on the right
is walking upwards to the left. The figure, of course, is Alistair.
I guess these two figures, these two worlds, finally met somewhere in
the middle, where 'desert Alistair' and 'mountain Alistair' merged and
became One. Or Nothing. Or both. Or neither.
"Sir?" It is Omar. "Sir. The bill, if you please."
I look at my watch. The bus leaves in five minutes. I look out to the
desert. I look down at the books.
"Actually, I'll have another coffee."
Omar shrugs and returns to the bar. I'm going to miss the bus, but there
will be plenty more, and my flight back to London isn't 'till ten tonight.
"Your coffee, sir."
Omar places the steaming cup of black liquid next to my friend, and
as he walks away I find myself unable to resist turning to the first
page of Book 1.
It's early evening, and I'm shivering in my sleeping
bag in a grubby guesthouse in the nearest village to Peak 15. From here
on there are no more roads, no more machines, just me and the mountain.
Looking out the broken window I can see all the way up the treeless
valley to its glowing, pink summit. Still can't believe I'm here. This
time last week I was down on the plains in Haridwar, launching a burning
leaf-boat into the Ganga, the gurgling river goddess singing images
of Peak 15 as I prayed to Her to let me ascend. I can still picture
that massive, middle aged American in the hotel, dressed in purple pyjamas
like something from the Arabian Nights. I spent a couple of hours with
him looking out over the river, and in all that time all I said was
that I was going to the mountains, and all he said was that he was going
to the river. We both left the next morning, me for the mountains, him
for the river.
After Haridwar I headed up to Nepal, passing through Kat on the way
to the border. I couldn't help thinking of Parvati and Annapurna, and
it was only three days ago, after rising onto the plateau and returning
to the world of high altitude, that I felt OK. Up here it's not desert
and it's not mountain, it's desert-mountain and a pure blue sky - Trans-Himalaya.
I finally spotted Peak 15 a few hours out of the village. I could see
everything: the Col, the silver saddle that links the satellite peak
on the right to Peak 15 on the left; the Ridge, its smooth north rib
rising to join the jagged northeast shoulder; the Yellow Band, the limestone
frontier that marks entry into the Zone; and the summit itself, snorting
streams of cloud and fire. I could already see myself up there.
I arrived in the village just after midday. Except for the dogs, no
one made a fuss, which was just as well: with no climbing permit the
last thing I want is either the monastery or the police station hearing
about me. Anyway, after getting out of the Land Cruiser I made for a
wooden hut with silver pots boiling at the front, an old man standing
over them. I greeted him, but he ignored me, just stirring his chai.
Inside were a few chairs, tables and villagers, on the walls posters
of Hollywood stars, Bollywood stars and a couple of the Dalai Lama looking
Then a boy in an expedition T-shirt from last year came up to me.
The boy said, "mister?"
Chai Boy said, "tea?"
Chai Boy nodded and turned to Chai Man. "Chai!"
Chai Man grunted, picked up a ladle and started scooping out my drink.
Chai Man called "chai!", banging a glass on the wooden counter. Chai
Boy brought it to me.
"Yeah. Chai." I picked it up and slurped on it. Then, just as I'd expected,
the two villagers at the next table came over and sat down either side
of me. All they did was stare, until the one on my right, a brown scarf
tied round his head and a dark blue shawl wrapped round his thin body,
tapped me on the shoulder.
"What is your name?"
Chai Boy and Chai Man also came over, the four of them staring at me.
There was no point in ignoring them: like me, they had all the time
in the world.
Shawl Man said, "Mister Alistair, what is your job?"
I didn't know what to say, so I told him, "surveyor."
Shawl Man said, "what is?"
"Eh, I like to get high."
Chai Boy said, "chai?"
The man on my left, a smoking bidi in his hand, said, "why you come
here, Mister Alistair?"
"Bigger trigger. Need a bigger trigger."
I pointed up at Peak 15. "Come to climb mount'n."
"Ah. Mountain climber. Good. Please Mister Alistair, you have friend?"
I laughed. "Oh yeah. Friend."
"You friend, he climb mountain?"
I laughed again, slurping on my chai. "Yeah. My friend. He climb mountain."
Bidi Man seemed to approve, taking out his pack of bidis and offering
them to Shawl Man, Chai Man - who refused - and me.
Shawl Man spoke to Bidi Man, then tapped me on the shoulder again.
"Mister Alistair, you have 'quipment?"
I pointed at the rucksack leaning against the table. "Yeah, 'quipment."
"You no more 'quipment?"
"No more 'quipment."
I studied Shawl Man's puzzled face. He was beginning to see the problem.
He turned to Bidi Man, then they both looked out at the Land Cruiser.
This time Bidi Man tapped me on the shoulder.
"Mister Alistair, where you friend?"
Looking from one to the other I grinned real wide, slowly raised my
right hand and tapped the index finger against my temple.
"In here, boys, right in here."
They nodded, trying to smile.
Shawl Man said, "Mister Alistair, you no friend. You go mountain, you
I shook my head. "I go mountain. I go Zone. I live."
"Please, Mister Alistair. You good man. One person no go mountain. You
go, you take guide."
"Oh yeah. I take guide. This is gonna be a guided ascent!"
Bidi Man said, "where you guide?"
I thought they would have learnt by now, so I grinned again and tapped
my temple just like before.
Bidi Man said, "OK Mister Alistair, you have friend. You have guide.
You go mountain. No problem. But please, you, you friend, you guide,
you take porters."
"You, friend, guide, you take porters."
I smiled to myself. Maybe. Then Shawl Man tapped me on the shoulder.
"Porters, no problem. No porters, problem."
I shrugged. "OK. I take porters."
Bidi Man, slapping me on the back and offering me another smoke, said,
I said, "so where porters?"
Then it was their turn, and grinning at me they tapped their temples.
"We you porters, Mister Alistair! We you porters!"
Chai Man said, "no porters! No friends! No mountains!"
This time my new porters barked back at him, and soon after Chai Boy
served us three plates of momos and a jug of mountain water.
So that's it. I'm starting the job tomorrow. Never thought the day would
come. I've just checked the altimeter. Good news: I'm at five thousand
metres already, more than half way to the Zone.
Base Camp. Night. I'm lying in my sleeping bag on the
warm rocks of a temple floor. Outside it's freezing, the wind blowing
hard off Peak 15. We set off from the village before sunrise, Shawl
Man carrying the tents and cooking equipment, Bidi Man the supplies.
Soon we were climbing the steep, grey valley under a cloudy sky, the
track clear of snow at first, just odd lumps of dirty ice lying on the
After a couple of hours, though, the track had disappeared beneath metres-deep
snow, our feet sinking with every step, often having to pick our way
over fields of snow boulders thrown down by avalanches. I didn't see
Peak 15 all day, cloud had built up around it, and by late afternoon
it had started to snow, a strong wind blowing stinging crystals in our
faces. With my lack of condition and the altitude, I was exhausted by
now, just placing my feet in the porters' tracks, too tired to look
around. Then Shawl Man pointed out a settlement of multi-coloured tents
about one K ahead. It was Base Camp, in the middle of the desiccated
valley, flanked by never-ending ridges of rock, the invisible Peak 15
still some thirteen K away, at the head of the glacier.
Bidi Man said "temple!", pointing to a small white building just to
the right of the tents, its grooved spire supporting the sun and the
moon. We set off, and despite the falling snow I could make out clouds
of steam rising from somewhere near the temple. After crossing the last
dune we waded knee-deep in snow past the tents, hearing climbers inside
laughing and singing.
The porters wanted to pray, so we went up to the temple entrance, but
it was locked. Then Bidi Man told us to follow him, leading us towards
the clouds of vapour. It turned out to be a hot springs, covered by
a sloping metal roof, the surface around the pool made up of large slabs
of damp, brown stone, heat rising from beneath. Floating in the pool
was a bald, middle-aged man, water bubbling round him.
He didn't take any notice of us, but after the porters had talked at
him for some time he got out. He was very thin, and after pulling his
red robe over his head he walked up to me, staring at the Circle and
He said, "do you speak English?"
"Good. I like to practise. I studied it for several years. Please, follow
me." Without waiting, he set off barefoot into the snow, leading us
back to the temple.
It too was geothermal, and as we entered the smoky, candle twilight
I saw a large bronze Buddha looking down on us from the altar. After
sitting down on his mat, the priest signalled me to join him, leaving
the porters to pray.
He said, "the men tell me you're another member of the mountain worshipping
sect from the West?"
I didn't know what he was talking about.
He smiled. "You've come to climb the mountain, yes?"
I nodded. "Yes, I have."
"Do you have a permit?"
I shook my head. "No, I haven't."
"Well, you're very lucky to have made it this far. But you did, and
I'm not going to report you. The authorities are no friends of ours."
I didn't respond, so he said, "they also say you don't have much equipment."
I said, "I have a tent."
"Yes. Good. But you'll need more than that. What about rope? Have you
He sighed. "You have climbed a mountain before, haven't you?"
"This is my first climb."
"What?! Do you expect them to carry you up?", he said, turning to Shawl
Man and Bidi Man, who were still praying. "They've already told me they
won't go on, and without them I doubt you'll even make it up the glacier."
I said nothing. The priest's fluency was making me nervous, and as I
sat there in silence he produced a torch and shone it on the wall to
my left. It was a mural. It was Peak 15, its upper section cloaked in
whitest snow, its summit snorting cloud and fire, its granite rock face
depicting a group of white and brown figures, climbers and porters,
all being pitchforked down the mountain by dark-hooved devils, sent
spinning into a great pit of swirling blizzards instead of flames, bodies
freezing instead of melting, the pit spiked with towering spears of
ice, frozen incisors that had impaled several bodies, vaporous clouds
rising from ground.
Then he switched off the torch and turned back to me. "That's what can
happen to men who've been climbing all their lives. You've never climbed
before. You have no equipment, and you've got no-one to go with you.
How do you think you'll do it?"
But I didn't want to think anymore. I just wanted to go.
"I'm warning you. You'll never climb the mountain alone. If you try,
you might die. Go and speak to the climbers outside if you don't believe
He waited for me to respond, but I didn't, so he spoke to the porters
for a few minutes before saying, "they'll take you back down to the
village in the morning. You can stay here tonight."
I just sat there. The priest had disappointed me. I thought he at least
would understand. But he's just like all the rest: no faith. It's too
bad about the porters, but anyway, I always meant to go alone. I'll
set off tomorrow. Soon I'll be up there. In the Zone. I can't wait.
Eyes terrible. Throat dry and sore. Head splitting.
Screaming inside tent. Screaming outside tent. Wind roaring. Snow storming.
A blizzard. Can't move. No air. Stuck. Stuck in pit. Where am I? Where
am I going?
Leaving Base Camp three days ago everything was so different. Went something
Outside temple under pure blue sky and blazing sun. Peak 15 towering
over me, its three thousand metre, snow smeared granite face looming
like a frozen volcano. At that point thought I'd be climbing it in a
Shawl Man said, "Mister Alistair, we you friend."
Bidi Man said, "friend."
Shawl Man said, "Mister Alistair, you no go mountain. Mountain too much
bad. You, we, go village."
I said, "I go mount'n. You wait."
They looked down at their feet, so I took out some money and gave it
to them. They looked up, smiling.
"You go! We wait!"
Strapped on rucksack and walked down temple steps. Then priest came
"So, you're going back?"
"No, I'm going on."
Looked like he wanted to argue, but just said, "God be with you," and
set off for hot springs.
Arrived at snout of glacier after a couple of hours. No problems, felt
good. Passed a few climbers on way down from mountain, but they ignored
me. Snout was great block of dark blue ice, in the middle a cave shaped
like a cow's mouth. Flanking glacier were steep black slopes of lateral
moraine. In centre was deep trench, strips of medial moraine creating
a furrowed sea of seracs, jagged ice-spires shooting up from floor,
rolling in waves to horizon. It was pit, pit from temple mural, winding
its way upwards like a highway, ending in a vast wall of ice half a
Began by crossing upper section of glacier, trying to follow lateral
moraine. After a few minutes was struggling to breathe, every step laboured.
Wasn't enjoying it. But had only to stop to regain breath, to calm pounding
heart, to look up at Peak 15, to know I must go on.
Couple of hours later lateral moraine gave way to an endless ice cliff.
Had to descend. But before reaching safety of medial moraine in pit
had to cross glacier. So slid down moraine. Then was on ice. Could feel
glacier moving, creeping, groaning, and with no crampons, and with boots
not being as useful as I'd hoped, kept on slipping. Decided to crawl
and fell straight into crevasse. So carved out steps with boots and
hands. Hands bled, but managed to climb out. Breathless. Exhausted.
Head and heart pounding, could hear blood struggling to pump oxygen
Finally reached pit. Had no rope, so slid down ice slope and crashed
into serac. Made me dizzy, and when I stood up no longer knew where
I was. Looked round. Lost in a forest of fluted, blue-green seracs,
ten, twenty, thirty metres high. Shivered. But it wasn't cold. It was
hot, ultra-violet rays beating down on me. Air was stagnant. Vapours
rising from pit. Already was exhausted, suffering from glacier lassitude
and altitude sickness. Wanted to turn back, and wanted to go on.
Tried to spot Peak 15 for position. But down here it was hidden. So
walked. Slowly. Head and legs aching. Sometimes pressed hot face against
a serac, but made me cold. Sometimes had to cross over a snowdrift,
and without crampons, axe or rope, climbed very slowly. Wanted to move
quickly but had no energy. So took one step. Stop. Another step. Stop.
Pack felt twice as heavy as before, and started to feel sick. Didn't
want to move, and wanted to make progress. Finally could go no further.
Was lost in icy labyrinth, unsure if I was heading towards or away from
Peak 15. Set up tent beneath an ice pinnacle for shade, but as soon
as I crawled inside I was cold. Took out small camping stove. Had bought
several packs of noodles in village, but was too tired to cook. Started
to snow in early evening. Felt lonely. And lost.
Next day went on. Or back. Still snowing. Still lost. Still exhausted.
Pit was endless. Could hardly breathe. One step. Stop. One step. Stop.
Wanted to climb out of glacier. Better to have fresh air than fetid
vapours. Better to chance a cravasse on glacier. But too weak to climb.
Sometimes would crawl along, panting, coughing, wretching. At one point
checked altimeter. It said six thousand metres. Was going the right
way, was getting higher, but by early afternoon didn't care about any
of it. Couldn't move. Set up tent beneath serac. Starving, but couldn't
face cooking. Wanted to write in diary, but had no energy. Slept instead.
Snowing even harder this morning. After taking an hour to boil some
snow to drink, pushed on. Knew I had to reach ice wall today to climb
up to Col tomorrow. But stopped after a hundred metres. Couldn't go
on. Couldn't go back. Blizzard. White out. Somehow managed to put up
Am starving, but too tired even to eat snow. Feel lonelier, more depressed
than ever before. Wanted to be up here, and now that I am, want to be
back in room. Somehow have found energy to open diary, and though shivering
so much with cold can barely hold pen, keep asking myself, WHAT AM I
THE PILLARS OF CLOUD AND FIRE: A DESERT
for Rina - the other player in the Game of Love
"The contemplative act is accomplished more in receiving
than in seeking. To contemplate is to see and the manner of our seeing
varies with the state of our souls. It is the intuition of our true
selfhood, which is neither a prisoner in the body nor a captive in the
cage of passing thoughts and fleeting passions, but a free universal
spirit. These memorable moments of our life reveal to us the truth that
we are, though we soon lapse from them into the familiar life of body,
sense and mind; and yet these moments of our divine existence continue
to guide us the rest of our lives as 'pillars of cloud by day, pillars
of fire by night'."
Eastern Religion and Western Thought
The above quotation is fine, as far as it goes, but
there is an aspect to these moments which Mister Radhakrishnan fails
to identify, an aspect which creates for the unhappy subject not a divine
but a diabolical existence; for just as these moments guide, so too
do they haunt us the rest of our lives.
For years I was guided by such a moment, I sought it; then I was haunted
by it, I fled from it. Now, at last, there is neither guiding nor haunting,
seeking nor fleeing. I have found an escape from the fatal Game of Love,
have discovered a power in reality to equal, and so annul, the pressure
of my master, Memory.
But the finding of this escape has come at great cost, and so I say:
here my last story, all you seekers of the Blue Dune, and beware the
Pillars of Cloud and Fire.
PART ONE - DESERT DAWN
"But it pre-eminently as the deepest layer of my mental
soil, as the firm ground on which I still stand, that I regard the Meseglise
and Guermantes ways."
The Road to Jericho - Fragments from Visitation
The alarm clock. Morning. Shabbath.
"Where ya' headin'?"
"I'm going to the desert."
Hangover from the night before. Red grapes from the Galilee splitting
his head. Sounds of the club still playing in his ears. He gets up and
walks out into the chilly, early February air. Beer bottles on the grass
outside. Back in his room he looks out the window to the Mount of Olives.
"Never seen a desert before."
"The desert can be dangerous. If you're not careful."
(from Survey of Palestine's Map of Triangulation: triangle comprising
Jebal Kuruntul (Mount of Temptation), el Muntar (Tower of Eudocia),
Ho. on Olivet (Mount of Olives))
Section A. Orography.
The car drives at a cool cruising speed out of Damascus
Gate up to the Mount of Olives, the hills fertile on the western slope.
As they cross the frontier, no-man's land, the eastern slope discards
its skimpy green layers, exposing its hard, naked, desert-white skin.
Now they're desert descending, driving northeast into the limestone
hills of Judaea, tyres rolling smoothly over the slithering black road,
the road to Jericho. Old pilgrimage road. Tala'at ad-Dumm. The Ascent
of Blood. It's real hot now, the sun's rays penetrating the tin roof.
He sweats beads of Galilee red, a salty union of water and wine forming
a liquid crown on his brow. He winds down the windows and the wind breathes
over him, blowing back his hair. The driver switches on the radio, it
crackles and the desert silence is filled with rock 'n roll.
"Every day it's-a-gettin' closer, goin' faster than a roller coaster..."
Up and down, the rock 'n roll echoes in the baked canyons and scorched
wadis of the pale wilderness. "This is unreal," says a girl next to
him, but he doesn't hear her, he's just looking out the window into
this world of vibrant death. The desert seems hostile, waiting to prey
upon an unlucky wanderer who doesn't know any better. He knows pilgrims
have been here before: Amos, Jeremiah, Jokanaan, Yehoshua, Byzantine
eremites, all of them prospecting, mining, digging for fool's gold in
the bottom of the canyons, in the caves of the cliffs, beneath the thirsty
Deeper they drive, hotter, drier, dropping below sea level into Paneremos,
the Utter Desert, the Great Vacancy, into Devastation, into the Mountain,
into the Lower Cretaceous era, 135,000,000 years ago, the road winding,
spiralling, round 'n down, the hills breathing over them, watching them.
It's getting closer now. The car pulls over at the bottom of a hill
that leads up to a Wadi called Kelt. The rock 'n roll fades out and
there's just the sizzling silence of the desert.
"This is where it starts," says the driver. They get out. So hot. No
wind. Still. He stretches his arms and legs, yawns and almost falls
over, still unsteady from the Galilee red.
Section B. Orogenesis (Nunc Stans)
The hike began at the bottom of the hill. They must
ascend. The surface proved to be slippery, the ground giving beneath
him with every step. It called for caution, yet he felt an irrepressible
urge to run up, his anticipation mounting the higher he climbed. He
tripped several times on the ascent. He seemed to be possessed. He was
no longer thinking. Breathing heavily, he reached the
SUMMIT - DESERT - AH!
He gasped. Stopped dead in his tracks. Paralysed. Dumb.
Devoid of thought. But recognition. He had been here before. He wanted
to cry. A stream of fear ran through his being, as if a force were entering
him over which he had no control.
Frozen waves. A sea of pale white, conical hills stretching
to the horizon. White dunes. To the north. To the east. To the south.
To the west. And a pure blue sky. White. Blue. Formless. The blue and
the dune. And the horizon. The blue and the dune meeting at the horizon.
He had been here before. Not in the blue. Not in the dune. But in the
He shivers. He shudders. He had not moved in those moments, and he was
"You planning to stand there all day?" shouts the guy with gun.
He sees the others descending into the wadi that runs all the way down
to the shimmering Dead Sea. One of the party, slower than the rest,
reaches the top of the hill. She stands next to him.
"What is it? What can you see?"
He looks to the horizon. To the blue. To the dune. They are silent and
"Everything," he says.
She laughs. "Alistair, how much wine did you have last night? Come on,
you don't want to get stuck out here on your own, do you?"
So he descends, and as they hike through the wadi, beneath the white
washed, blue domed monastery of St George and the honeycomb of hermit's
caves above, he makes a pact with himself.
The pact was this: on the road to Jericho I regained
the knowledge and the vision I had lost. And so I vowed never to forget
what I had known, what I had seen, what I had been; and by never forgetting,
I vowed to find it again, wherever it may lead.
Thats what I'm doing here. I'm trying to find it.
And I'm gonna find it up there. In the Zone. Somehow must...
...go on...Outside it had stopped snowing. The wind
had died down. Breaking camp he set off once again, and after a couple
of hours he emerged from the trough and saw before him a huge wall of
ice, the hanging glacier. At its crest was the Col, above the Col, the
upper slopes of the mountain leading all the way to the Summit. He must
After slipping and sliding his way across the head of the glacier he
stood on the first snow slopes of the icefall. From the slopes to the
crest was a distance of five hundred metres, five hundred vertical metres
of crevasses and ice-cliffs. To his left the cliffs were unclimbable;
ahead was a smooth snow slope, steep but climbable, but beyond, another
sheer ice-cliff, and always, the danger of avalanche; to his right,
however, he thought he saw a way. Unlike the other sections, this had
a huge, horizontal crevasse on its upper slopes, one which appeared
to be wide enough to trap any avalanche that might come crashing down.
On the upper side of that crevasse he would only be some thirty metres
below the crest of the Col, and though another ice-cliff presented itself,
he thought he could make out a chimney that would take him almost to
So he went to the right and started up the snow slopes. Breathing was
difficult, and just as in the pit, he had to stop every few metres to
rest. The sun was blinding. But he pushed on, kicking ice steps with
his boots. Then he had to traverse to the left. After reaching a ledge
he looked up. A couloir would take him to the giant crevasse. He climbed
it slowly and with great difficulty, but finally he was looking down
into the dark chasm. There seemed no end to it. Then he saw an ice-bridge.
But he couldn't tell if it would hold. He looked up. If only he
could cross the crevasse, the Col would be his. But the bridge might
Suddenly an ice prism appeared at the crest, just above the chimney,
a shimmering, scintillating pillar of ice crystals, a luminous pillar
of cloud. And a voice said, "Come Alistair. Set your heart upon Ascent."
He looked around. No-one was there. He was frightened.
Then the ice prism vanished. He placed his foot on the bridge and pressed
down. It held. Another foot forward. It held. Slowly, very slowly, he
crossed the bridge. He looked up. Just the ice chimney and he was there.
Somehow he climbed the chimney. He had done it. He was only metres below
the Col, just a steep snow slope, some seracs and small crevasses to
negotiate. Then he would be on the mountain. But he was exhausted. He
must rest. So he put up his tent on a snow ledge. He checked his altimeter.
Seven thousand metres. Good. Very good. Lying in his tent at the top
of the ice wall, just below the Col, he could feel the height. His body
was changing, his thoughts altering. He was approaching the Zone.
...Have just woken up. Dreamt I was climbing. Almost
made it to top of ice wall. Wish I had. Instead I'm freezing here in
pit. Can no longer feel fingers or toes. Need to eat, but still too
tired to cook, and am sick of eating snow. Have been in pit three days
now. Have got nowhere. If I want to go on, must get out; if I want to
go up, must get down.
I'm back in the temple at Base Camp. I've been back
three weeks now. Somehow I managed the descent from the pit. Limping,
always exhausted, I set off just after midday. I would have left earlier,
but it took four hours just to put on my boots. By then the blizzard
had passed and the day was windless. But it made no difference. I couldn't
go on. I had to get back. I spent two more days in the pit before getting
back up onto the glacier on the third day.
It was just as difficult going down as going up. Constantly losing my
footing, I tried glissading but kept sliding out of control. Eventually
I reached the left bank of lateral moraine. Although it was night now,
there was a full moon and the going should have been easy, but I was
so tired, my legs so weak, my sight so poor, that several times I stumbled
and could do nothing but let myself go, rolling down the steep bank,
over and over, until hitting a rock. Each time I had to crawl back up
Finally, at about ten pm, I saw the sun and the moon glistening on the
temple spire, and after one last climb I was looking down on Base Camp.
I rolled down the slope, crying, groaning. No one heard me. I could
have lain there all night, except that Shawl Man came outside for a
piss and saw my prostrate body in the moonlight. He raced over to me.
I couldn't speak.
"You back! You back!"
Then he ran away. I wanted to call him, but I was too weak. Finally
he returned with Bidi Man, who gave me a hug, before the two of them
carried me into the temple. I was snow-blind and frostbitten. I had
a terrible cough, a sprained ankle and a half paralyzed right arm. But
I was alive. The porters cooked me a meal, but I didn't have the energy
to eat. As they rubbed my numb fingers and toes, Shawl Man said, "Mister
Alistair, what happen? Why you so long?"
I croaked, "blizzard. So lonely. Couldn't move."
"But now you back, Mister Alistair. You back!"
Bidi Man said, "no more mountain! You mountain finish!"
"Me. Mountain..." Then I lost consciousness and slept for thirty-six
I woke up to see the priest sitting by my side.
"So you return to us. Welcome back."
I whispered, "eat. Drink." My whole body ached, and despite the warm
rock floor, I still felt frozen.
The priest said, "here, take this," giving me a plate of momos. I started
He said, "you're very lucky to have survived. I hope you've learnt your
I grunted. "Next time - more supplies."
This made him angry. "There must not be a next time. You must not tempt
the benevolence of the mountain. It has let you go once, but it may
not do so again. Once you're better the two porters will take you back
down to the village."
Too tired to argue, I just nodded, then went to sleep for another thirty-six
hours. Even after that I was still too weak to get up or move about,
but whenever the priest left the temple to do whatever he had to do
in a snow-bound settlement at five thousand one hundred and fifty metres,
I would work on Shawl Man and Bidi Man. But neither of them could believe
I wanted to go back, and nothing could sway them to go on - until I
offered them more money than they'd ever seen before, so that on the
fourth day they descended to the village, returning a day later with
more supplies and equipment.
On the fifth day I managed to get out of my sleeping bag. I was shaky,
but I could walk. Over the last couple of weeks I've almost regained
full strength, scrambling on trivial peaks nearby, and I now feel fully
acclimated and for anything. I've persuaded the porters to go as far
as the foot of the ice wall and wait for me there, while I make a dash
for the summit.
Tonight the priest gave me a final warning.
"I ask you again not to go. If you try to climb the mountain you will
I just smiled, and after that he left me alone. In any event we're off
tomorrow, come what may. Shall be glad to get the job over.
I look across the Old City to the desert. It is darkening,
late afternoon merging into early evening. God knows how many buses
to Jericho I've missed, and if I don't leave soon I'll miss my flight
too. The terrace is empty except for myself and Omar, who is standing
over by the counter, wiping glasses, cutlery and plates, preparing to
lay the tables for dinner.
It's just gone six. That means I've been reading for four hours. I was
only going to read for a few minutes, but as soon as I started the book
I knew I had to finish it, and despite its inconsiderable length, at
some point in every part, every page, damn it, every passage, I had
to stop and look away, sometimes to laugh, sometimes to light another
cigarette or order another coffee, but above all, to allow myself the
time to absorb yet another staggering instance of my friend's behaviour.
What did you think you were doing, Alistair? Or had you stopped thinking?
Had the desert finally made you dumb, the mountains mute?
Your consciousness had by then almost wholly turned in upon itself,
so that although you were still able to project yourself lucidly onto
the page, you were barely able to deal with people, struggling to utter
single words or express the simplest thoughts. All the same, what did
you mean by 'ek chai'? Why were you speaking Hindi to a village boy
in Tibet? And why on earth did you describe yourself to the porters
as a 'surveyor'? Yes, I know why, but they wouldn't have. And what about
tapping your temple and telling them you had a friend in your head?
At that point I had to put the book down for some time, burying my head
in my hands, Omar even asking me if anything was wrong. But there was
nothing he could do. Nothing anyone could do. I just needed time to
deal with what I'd read. Of course, that was not the first instance
of your confessing to having cephalic companions, but in the past it
had only been to me, not perfect strangers. Clearly by the time you
reached Tibet you couldn't contain it any longer. But who was this friend?
Was it one of the spirits you claimed haunted you in your life? Siva?
Bhairav? Tiforeth? Or was it the being behind these many masks, your
master, Memory? Reading all this angered me, because you seemed to be
making fun of these people - although probably you weren't, probably
you were only saying as much as your introverted consciousness would
And all the time I somehow hoped that you'd never really climb the mountain,
that at some point I would read that you had decided to return to London;
but there you were, on your way to Base Camp with the two porters, the
same two porters who led me to you only a week ago. Then, gazing at
him with your disturbing Third Eye, the Circle and the Dot, you told
the priest of your desire to climb Peak 15 and enter the 'Zone', words
I first heard you say just weeks ago, innocuous sounding words I shall
never forget, and whose proper names I still cannot bring myself to
pronounce. And as you spoke to him, again I found myself praying that
the priest would somehow persuade you to turn back. Of course, he didn't.
He couldn't. No one could. Not by that stage.
The journey up the hellish glacier saddened me. The further you went
the more you seemed to lose your mind, your identity disappearing in
the blinding gusts of the blizzard. At times, though, I laughed out
loud at your amateur efforts to cross the glacier. With no experience,
what did you expect? But perhaps you knew all too well what to expect,
and that was even more frightening.
But all this was as nothing compared to what came next, when, trapped
in the pit by the blizzard blasting down the glacier, you tore some
pages from another book and inserted them after that unanswerable, existential
"The Pillars of Cloud and Fire". Your desert aesthetics,
your fourth and final work, the work you alluded to in your last period
in London, whose title you told me but whose contents - for reasons
I am already beginning to suspect - you would never reveal. No matter,
in those six sounds - sounds as explosive as the other six you uttered
barely two months ago - I can see the clouds of dense, smoky gas and
flashes of blue, liquid fire swirling and burning in the final inferno
of your mind. Cloud and Fire. Elemental. Yes, that was you Alistair,
you embodied your book, had only to open your mouth for its contents
to be revealed. I should have guessed back then, should have guessed
that during your last days on earth you could do nothing else but return
to the land of your birth. I wonder, was the time in-between the 'Game
of Love'? And who else could you have dedicated this last testament
to other than Rina, the third and final woman in your life, the woman
who mirrored your own suicidal soul? And what else could better represent
your desert inspired obsession than the numinous pillars of Exodus,
leading you on a lonely journey across your own private Sinai, alternately
guiding and haunting you by day and night?
And then. Desert Dawn. A return to the source. A return
to Visitation, your first work. I recognized the text,
but not as I remember reading it. You've condensed the book to its essence,
reducing it from two hundred pages to a series of fragments, using the
Survey of Palestine as a new structure - a structure I am already sure
was suggested to you at the very end of your life, after your textual
reacquaintance with that other Survey far to the East - so transforming
it that it is like reading a completely new book, yet one in which you
have made an imaginative return to the desert in a last effort to understand
what happened out there.
Its over ten years now, and I still remember well your leaving
for that dry and dusty land. But then, how could I forget? I was supposed
to have gone with you. Yes, thats the truth, a truth I can now
only regret. Towards the end of Upper Sixth, while everyone else was
filling out their UCCA forms, you and I discovered a mutual desire to
do something different. We werent like the rest. We would go travelling
for a year. Wed start in Israel, then head into the countries
around it. At first the decision made me feel strong, even brave, but
then, as months became weeks became days before our flight, I found
myself becoming increasingly anxious about it. Finally, just six days
before we were due to board the plane, I pulled out. That was the day
I told you I wasnt coming. At the time I said it was because I
didnt have the money, but the truth is, my friend, I was just
plain scared. No, it wasnt the fear of bombs or bullets, or even
of losing a partner, but that of being left behind. Life is a race,
and I couldnt afford to drop out of it for the sake of a glorified
holiday, not while everyone else was going straight on to university.
It was too risky to do something different. But now, now that I know
to what end your journey would lead, I cannot help thinking that had
I gone with you, I might have provided the one link you needed with
the real world to save you from yourself, to save a Gap Year becoming
a Gap Life. But I didnt go. I stayed behind.
You were disappointed, I merely relieved, but it caused no hard feelings
between us, and I can still picture that drink in Hammersmith, down
on the river, the night before your departure. A group of us was there,
one that had formed in Upper Sixth. You had always been on its periphery,
but that night you were happy to be part of it. Everyone got completely
wrecked, both because you were leaving, and because it was your nineteenth
birthday. In fact, that was the last birthday you were to celebrate,
insisting that your true birth had been not on the day of your emergence
into the world, but that of your entry into the wilderness, an entry
whose anniversary would ever after see you either in bed or abroad.
That night, however, the last night of January, no one, least of all
you, could have remotely suspected what was to come.
After the first week you sent a postcard. The picture on the front was
much like the view I've got now: the Dome of the Rock, the Mount of
Olives, bla bla bla. You were having a good time, you had been to Bethlehem,
had walked around the Old City, and you had met up with some people
in a hostel, spending a few days with them in the clubs of Jerusalem.
Then, right at the bottom, just below your signature, a postscript.
It said: "Tomorrow we're off to the desert." Could ever a line have
been so innocent and unwitting? Could ever a line have been so ominous
Then, about a week later, another card. This time there were none of
the tourist's banalities, instead, it was mostly covered in crossed
out lines, all that was legible a series of disjointed phrases:
"Saturday 9...Best day to date...Visited Jericho and
s...in the West Bank area...was breathtaking...we walked...tried to...finally
This is the only contemporary record of the event.
But what happened, Alistair, what on earth happened? In 'The Pillars
of Cloud and Fire' it would seem you finally tried to work it
out before your departure for Peak 15, and in 'Desert Dawn'
you take us back to that primal moment in Judaea.
With typical vanity, you begin with a quote from Proust, whose mnemonic
work you claimed helped make sense of your own experience - although
by then it was too late to prevent the final act of your life. Then,
the Road to Jericho, the road you equate with Proust's 'Meseglise' and
Guermantes' ways, the road that formed the deepest level of your own
mental soil, the road on which pilgrims once set out for the River Jordan
to be baptized. Well, wasn't this the site of your own baptism? And
didn't you become a pilgrim yourself, forever travelling along that
Naturally, in your self-important way, you were unable to resist referring
to former pilgrims who had also wandered along it: the prophets from
the Tanach, the Messiahs from the New Testament, the Desert Fathers
from the Byzantine Church. And how many times did you proudly tell me
the story of that other Frenchman, Flaubert, riding along the very same
road, feeling that he too was "losing my mind...under an ultrmarine,
lapis lazuli sky'? Yes Alistair, a grand tradition, but did any of them
end up like you? I don't think so.
Then comes your description of the moment itself, the moment on the
road to Jericho, above the southern cliffs of Wadi Kelt, above Choziba,
the monastery of St George (the first of several Byzantine eremites
you were to meet). Without question the most significant moment of your
divine and diabolical existence, the moment that some ten years later
has led me to be sitting here in the Old City of Jerusalem, looking
through desert space into the time of your youth.
You claim recognition, as if you had been there before, as if it were
reviving some memory. But a memory of what? This life? Another life?
A dream? What did you discover in the memory of the desert, where time
became a 'nunc stans', a stationary now, an eternal present? What was
revealed to you from the summit of the hill, in those Cretaceous layers
of chalk and limestone? You call it the Blue Dune, but what does that
mean? And why did you want to cry? You never claimed to have seen God,
but you must have seen something, and given your subsequent obsession
with mountains it seems more appropriate to describe what happened,
whatever happened, not as a mystical experience but as a peak experience.
Yet it was the final paragraph - one you wrote in the original version
- that astonished me more than anything else. The pact, the pact you
claim to have made with yourself, a vow never to let go of that moment
in the desert, a moment in which your mind, body and soul were desert-fried,
in which the limestone land left an indelible mark upon your being,
a metaphysical branding which, in India some years later, was to be
made incarnate in the 'Circle and the Dot', the 'Eye of Siva', the fiery
lens of your obsession. This fanatical pledge, this wedding to a memory,
was, I believe, as much responsible for your ending up at Peak 15 as
the moment itself.
You have inserted a map as well, a map from the Survey of Palestine,
in which the land has been reduced to a series of grids, nine rows by
four columns, the ancient land divided into thirty six rectangular boxes,
or 'Sheets', inside and across them a bewildering network of concatenated
triangles creating a geometric vision - Filistine gone fractal. But
you have made it into a mystic map, tracing over these sheets and triangles
the very first steps along the road to Peak 15, for of the thirty six
sheets only one is highlighted: Sheet 18. Fourth column. Seventh row.
Within this sheet you have also highlighted the precise area on the
road to Jericho where it happened, the area of triangulation comprising
three trig stations: Jebal Kuruntul in the north east, the last significant
height in the northern Judaean hills before they slope down to the Jericho
plain; el Muntar, some sixteen kilometres south of Kuruntul, the site
of the Tower of Eudocia, the first of the two towers in your life; and
the Mount of Olives, some eleven kilometres north west of el Muntar.
Is it merely coincidence that one of the trig stations should be Jebal
Kuruntul, the site of Douka monastery - another home to Byzantine eremites
- and the reputed Mount of Temptation? For did this desert land not
lead you into temptation? Into a futile quest to recapture the past?
Did you also borrow other vocabulary from the Survey? Vocabulary such
as 'orogenesis' and 'orography'? 'Oros', Greek for mountain. Mountain
birth. Mountain science. Certainly from that very first moment you were
initiated into the world of 'oros', becoming oroclined, oromaniacal
and finally, Orothanatos. Of course, I also remember you telling me
how the ancient Hebrews called the central range of Judaea 'the mountain'.
Yes, Alistair, that moment in the mountain, that moment in the desert,
on the road to Jericho, was the beginning of you and it was the end
of you. Could it be that you did see God? Did God see you? Or was it
all the red wine you had in the club the night before? Whatever it was,
and whether it made you a mystic or a misfit, dumb or divine, certain
things are in no doubt: it led to your needing to experience this moment
again and again; it led to your freezing to death in a tent at the foot
of Peak 15; it led to my collecting your body only seven days ago to
have it burnt in Haridwar; and it has led to my bringing your bottled
ashes back here to Jerusalem for scattering in the hills of Judaea.
And again I ask myself: what happened, Alistair, what on earth happened?
How could a peak experience in the depths of the earth, tens of metres
below sea level, result in a fatal experience on the roof of the earth,
thousands of metres above sea level? I need to know, my friend, I need
to know before I let you go.
"Sir, your taxi's here."
I look up. It is Omar.
"Sir, the taxi you booked this morning. To take you to Ben Gurion."
"I don't want it."
"I'm not going."
"Tell your boss I'm checking back in. I'll take the same room as before."
"I mean the room that looks over the desert."
Omar nods, remaining by the table.
I chuckle. "Yes. Dinner. That's just what I need. Please, the menu."
Omar leaves me to gaze into the fading chalk dunes of the Judaean desert.
The white, limestone dunes. The blue...Relax, relax. Just reading those
opening pages of my friend's diary and his final work have disturbed
me more than I could have imagined. I can't go home, not now, and I
can't face talking to anyone back home. I'll e-mail them instead. My
partner. My colleagues. I'll tell them that unforeseen circumstances
have necessitated the postponement of my return, a riot, a bomb, anything
so long as it gives me the time to do what I have to do. I am ready
Alistair, ready in your death to set out on the journey I never had
the courage for in your life, ready to make the pilgrimage with you
on the road to Jericho, from Sheet 18 all the way to Peak 15.
back to top