In August 1980 Reinhold Messner stood on the summit of Mt Everest for the second time. He was the first person to climb the mountain alone, and without the use of supplementary oxygen. Messner
wrote a book of his experiences on Everest titled ‘The Crystal Horizon’, which was a term that defined the outermost limits of his physical and mental state.
Messner has a strong affinity and respect for the early pioneers of Alpine climbing: George Mallory, Maurice Wilson and F.S. Smythe, among others. These climbers basically did not use supplementary oxygen, and approached the mountains in a purist, Alpinist style, that is characterized by light, fast and minimal ascents.
My reading about Messner and other high altitude Alpinists revealed an aspect of mountaineering that is perhaps rather less well known: this was the experiences of many climbers at high altitude of hallucinations of various kinds. Without supplementary oxygen hypoxia sets in. In addition, all climbers experience extreme fatigue, sleep deprivation and other stressful situations which can trigger hallucinatory visions, feelings or sounds. I became fascinated that many of the worlds top mountaineers have experienced altered states of consciousness on the tops of the highest mountains.
A good example is this written account of visual hallucination recounted by Frank Smythe during a descent from just below the summit of Mt. Everest in 1933:
“"I was making my way back towards Camp Six when chancing to look up, I saw two dark objects floating in the blue sky. In shape they resembled kite balloons, except that one appeared to possess short squat wings. As they hovered motionless, they seemed to pulsate in and out as though they were breathing. I gazed at them dumbfounded and intensely interested. It seemed to me that my brain was working normally, but to test myself I looked away. The objects did not follow my gaze but were still there when I looked back. So I looked away again, but this time identified by name various details of the landscape by way of a mental test. Yet, when I again looked back, the objects were still visible. A minute or two later, a mist drifted across the north-east shoulder of Everest above which they were poised. As this thickened the objects gradually disappeared behind it and were lost to sight. A few minutes later the mist blew away. I looked again, expecting to see them, but they had vanished as mysteriously as they had appeared. If it was an optical illusion it was a very strange one. But it is possible that fatigue magnified out of all proportion something capable of a perfectly ordinary and rational explanation. That is all I can say about the matter and it rests there.”
There is a small but solid medical literature on the effects of high altitude climbing on the human body and mind. Several studies and books have focused exclusively on the psychological manifestation of hallucinations. They have outlined a wide array of experiences on mountains, from hearing voices, seeing elaborate scenes, sensations of the body becoming bigger or separated, and, commonly, what is called ‘The Third Man Factor’, the feeling that one is being followed or that there is a presence nearby.
There are many examples of phantom companions reported by climbers at high altitude: Jerzy Kukuczka felt that he was cooking for other people, Doug Scott felt that there were more people on the mountain than were actually there, Ed Webster saw a Buddhist ceremony being held, Jean Troillet saw and heard a marching band and skiers, and Reinhold Messner felt an invisible companion who asked him to cook.
In 1909 Pablo Picasso painted a cubist picture titled ‘Nude’, now in the collection of The Pola Museum of Art, Japan. It shows a nude woman, perhaps a Goddess, emerging from a tall mountain which we see in the background. The distinction between her body and the mountain is minimal, carved and pulsating within a complex Cubist pictorial grammar. It is as if this Goddess figure has temporarily descended into the realm of human culture and assumed some kind of legible form - but it is a form that remains unstable and mesmerizing. High up in the domain of the mountains, I wonder if she dissolves to become water, mist, wind and ice? I wonder if Picasso is painting here an archetypal memory?
High mountains are the realm of Gods and Goddesses. They are today also places fully navigated and exposed to the networks of capital (Samsung sponsored climber Kenton Cool in 2011 to use the Galaxy S2 mobile telephone from the summit of Everest) but also places where the human mind and body begin to see visions and slowly die. At high altitudes it seems that the modern, consumer body slowly dissipates and re-enters a world of dreams, instability and transition. The high mountains are perhaps the perfect counterpart to the deep caves where our ancestors painted the first pictures. To paraphrase Georges Bataille, they are places where human beings are “suspended over the abyss of death, yet full of virile force”.