Conquest of the Wall of Death

Not far down the corridor from my office in WHO was a floor-to-ceiling bronze relief sculpture showing the struggle of Man against Death. It was a gift to WHO from the Vatican in 1966, and was located very appropriately, given that a major focus of my unit was to monitor trends and improvements in death rates and their causes.

The floor to ceiling sculpture occupies the wall of a corridor joining the two main office corridors on the 3rd floor of the WHO Headquarters in Geneva.It is approximately 5 metres wide and 3.5 metres tall.

The name of the sculptor is on a side panel. I could not work out the last part of his name (Enrico Man????) and did some googling of various possibilities without success.  But having primed Google that I was looking for Italian sculptors, it offered me an autocomplete that got me to the right person. Enrico Manfrini (1917-2004) was an Italian sculptor who did a large number of bronze statues, busts, rings and commemorative medals for the Vatican. He also produced sculptures for many cathedrals, including bronze doors for Cathedrals in Sienna, Troyes, Damascus and San Francisco. He was called the “sculptor to the Popes” because in his long career he did bronze busts of every Pope from Pius XII (1939-58) to John Paul II (1978-2005). The ring of the fisherman chosen by Pope Francis at the beginning of his pontificate is also Manfrini’s work. His designs look back to the early Renaissance, in particular the work of Donatello.

For some years, I had contemplated this sculpture and dreamed of finding a climbing route to traverse it. As I got closer to retirement, I decided to finally conquer the wall of death. The short video below records that historic achievement.

I did some more googling of WHO history and found that the reason for this gift was the visit of the WHO Director General Dr. Marcolino G. Candau, to the Vatican in February 1966 to meet with Pope Paul VI. Dr Candau (1911-1983) from Brazil was WHO’s second Director-General from 1953 to 1973.

During his term, WHO grew from an organization of 81 Member States to 138 Member States. On the public health front, Dr Candau is most remembered for leading the fight against smallpox, reducing the global tally of smallpox cases from 2.5 million to less than 200 000, leaving the disease endemic in only 7 countries by the time he left WHO.

And I can’t resist. The key to the elimination of a global scourge was the development of a vaccine. And during the 1950s and 60s, most countries required mandatory vaccination of travellers. As a five year old travelling from Australia to New York, I was vaccinated and still have the characteristic smallpox scar on my upper arm. It can be seen on many people my age and older. The fact that the doctor who gave the vaccination used the opportunity to wave the needle around for several minutes while he explained in detail to a group of interns how to do a vaccination led to a needle phobia that I did not shed until many years later. But that is another story.

New Year skiing in the Swiss Alps

Switzerland has kept its ski resorts open while all neighbouring countries closed. Hardly surprising that 4,200 British skiers turned up for the Christmas-New Year period just after the new faster spreading covid-19 virus took British new cases through the roof at exponential speed. The Swiss then imposed a retrospective quarantine on the British visitors after they arrived, and almost all of them snuck out during the night and left. Left a lot of anti-British feeling behind.

I and my boys are of like mind that it would be madness to go to one of the major resorts like Verbier, where many British go. Likely the people there are now incubating new infections. But my neighbours packed their car and head up to Verbier today, confident the virus left with the British. I’ve spent a number of New Years at Verbier, particularly back in the noughties (2000-2009) during part of which I rented a studio apartment in Verbier so I could go up for weekends and longer holidays whenever I wanted. Here are some photos from those days.

Two parapenters fly above the mountains at Verbier

View from the top of Mont Fort (3330 m). The three peaks on the horizon from l.to.r are Dent Blanche (4356 m), Matterhorn (4478 m in niddle) and Dent d’Hérens (4171 m)

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Christmas skiing in the Swiss Alps

Switzerland has angered neighboring countries by keeping the ski slopes open this winter, despite the risks associated with skiing and the coronavirus pandemic. However, national and cantonal restrictions apply, and Les Portes du Soleil where the boys and I have often skied has set a quota for the numbers of skiers allowed on the slopes. I’ve decided to avoid the ski resorts this winter, at least until the covid situation improves or we have been vaccinated.

Its snowing here on Christmas Day in Geneva, though not quite enough to ski on. I’ve  been skiing around the Christmas-New Year period quite a few of the years I’ve been in Geneva. Here are a few photos from two Christmas’s spent at Arosa in northeast Switzerland in 2001, 2005 and 2007. Good times.

Below left: looking down the Hörnli Express to the village of Arosa. Right: Hörnli 2511m.
 

 

 

 

Enjoying the winter sun on the piste in December 2001

Lamp post in the forest near our hotel. I think I must have gone out through the wardrobe.

View from the summit of Weisshorn (2653 m).

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Skiing in the French Alps

I have just spent a week skiing in the French Alps with my younger son. We stayed in a chalet above the village of Les Gets in Les Portes du Soleil ski doman (the Gates of the Sun). Normally the snow is down to the village, but this February is the warmest I have experienced since I have lived in Geneva and the snow did not extend much lower than our chalet. Fortunately it snowed quite a bit after we arrived, and there was plenty of fresh powder for skiing. And enough to ski back to our chalet at the end of the day.

View from our chalet

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Fresh powder snow at Verbier

Its starting to turn cold in Geneva, and my thoughts turn towards skiing in the coming winter. I was cleaning up my photo library the other day, and came across some photos from January 2003 of skiing in deep fresh powder snow at Verbier in the Swiss Alps. Verbier is a bit under two hours drive from Geneva and is a renowned ski resort with spectacular scenery and skiing, with many difficult “black” pistes, and extensive off-piste skiing.  In the first few years I was in Geneva, Verbier was my regular ski destination, and for a couple of years I rented a small studio apartment there so I could go up for weekends and longer periods when possible. The following photos were all taken in the main ski domain around Atelas (2727 m), La Chaux (2260 m), Fontanet (2485 m), Col des Gentianes (2950 m).

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Coming unstuck on a free solo

This is my last free solo story. Engraved in my memory like it was yesterday, though I am not sure what year it happened. Was around 1975 I think, though possibly a bit later. In those days, I was hanging around with a bunch of rock climbers and following them up easier climbs. I didn’t think of myself as a rock climber though, because I was content to follow as a second, belaying the lead climber leading the pitches. I occasionally led a pitch if I felt comfortable, particularly if it was a chimney or a good solid crack where I felt pretty comfortable that I could glue myself to the rock. Much less so on slabs where it was all about balance and using friction on tiny ledges and bumps in the rock.

Climbers on Hermes, Booroomba, ACT.

This particular trip was to Booroomba Rocks, not far to the south of Canberra.This has spectacular climbs on granite, and the main cliff line is up to 140 metres high.The photo above shows two friends climbing Hermes (Grade 16, 50 m high), one is visible climbing the crack in the middle of the photo and the other is belaying from a ledge below him. The climb continues up the crack just in the shadow and then towards the right under a big overhang .Someone died around 1971 attempting to free solo Hermes, He fell from near the overhang.

We camped in the valley below the cliffs and walked up to do various climbs. It may have been the trip on which the photo below was taken in 1975.One of the climbers decided to spend a few hours scrambling around on a lower cliff line doing some unroped free climbing. I foolishly decided to go with him.

Myself (middle holding book) with friends at Booroomba, 1975

Initially, we were doing little more than scrambling up some steep gullies and small easy climbs. Then we came to a larger face that was probably about 20 metres high with a well defined crack running up it. My friend assured me that it was a very easy climb and within my capabilities, so I followed him up the crack. However, the crack ended a few metres below the top of cliff, and the final stretch was on close to vertical rock with small holds. My friend was just above me, and we were climbing together. I moved up onto the small holds, and realized that I had got out of my depth and  no longer had the strength in my fingers to continue up the last couple of metres, and no possibility to retreat either as my strength was going. So I told my friend and said to him that I was going to come off the wall in the next 30 seconds. He said to hold on, and he moved up a few inches and grabbed a small tree trunk at the top of the cliffline with both hands, and then said “Grab hold of my ankles”. At that moment, I lost my grip on the small holds I had and as I came off the cliff I grabbed his ankles with both hands and swung free below him. I was probaby close to 20 metres from the base of the climb and would have probably died if I fell.  I climbed up his body and over the cliff edge. If this had happened even a metre lower on the climb, where my friend would have had no strong holds to use, I would have fallen. Utter stupidity on my part to attempt to free solo a climb of that height without ever having done it before to know what it involved. One of a few occasions  around that period of my life where pure chance saved me from my own risk taking. In retrospect, I was incredibly lucky.

A “free solo” ascent of Federation Peak

Seeing Free Solo (mountainsrivers.com/free-solo-inspiring-and-disturbing/) reminded me of my “free solo” on Federation Peak years ago. Barely a rock climb, but the exposure was similar to that on El Cap. In Dec 1980- Jan1981, I did a three week traverse of the Eastern and Western Arthur Range in southern Tasmania with my then wife. One of our objectives was to climb Federation Peak (1,224 metres or 4,016 ft), whose spectacular summit rises like a spike in the middle of the Eastern Arthur Range (see photo below).

Looking towards Federation Peak from the Four Peaks.

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Free Solo – inspiring and disturbing

Last week I took my boys to see Free Solo. In case you haven’t heard of it, it is a documentary about Alex Honnold’s attempt to become the first person to climb the 3000 foot cliff of El Capitan without any ropes or other protective equipment. One slip or missed hold and he would die. The documentary not only looks at Honnold the climber, his mindset and attitudes, his preparations and the actual climb itself, but also has two other main threads, the process of filming the feat and the moral dilemmas the filmmakers faced, and the very substantial stresses his loved ones have to deal with.

Alex Honnold free soloing El Capitan. Photo credit: National Geographic documentary Free Solo.

I had actually put the DVD in my shopping trolley at Amazon because it did not seem to be screening anywhere in Geneva, when a friend let me know there was a one night showing at Pathe Balexert. So I deleted my draft purchase and took the boys to see it. If you have a chance to see it, I highly recommend it. It is a gripping account of one of the greatest athletic feats of all time, but is also very thought-provoking. It won an Oscar this year for Best Documentary, and has a critics rating of 99% on Rotten Tomatoes.

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