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.
I have been following Eliud Kichoge’s bid to be the first human to run a marathon in less than 2 hours. He succeeded on Saturday with a time of 1 hour 59 mins and 40 seconds. This is an absolutely extraordinary achievement. It was not an official world record, because of the use of rotating pacemakers and because Kipchoge was handed his drinks from a bike, but it is still the fastest marathon ever run. After he finished, Kipchoge said that he had wanted to send a message to the world that no human is limited.
This made me think about a number of extraordinary feats that I’ve seen achieved in recent years and I decided to make a list of my top 10 most extraordinary human achievements in the realm of extreme feats that broke barriers and went beyond perceived limits of mind and body. Quite a few of these feats involve non-ordinary states of consciousness that need total engagement in the here-now, unity of mind and body, and transcendence of distracting thoughts and emotions. States known as “being in the zone” or “flow” to athletes, as “immovable mind” to the samurai and as samadhi to Zen practitioners.
I also decided arbitrarily to restrict my list to feats achieved in the last 20 years, or in other words, in the 21st century (counting the year 2000 as part of this century). This is an idiosyncratic list that reflects my interests and the level of amazement and awe that watching (or in one case reading an account of) the event inspired in me. You may well have a very different list, though I think at least the ones towards the top should be on most lists.
Below are some photos from a trip to the Monte Rosa – Matterhorn region of the Alps in late September 2011. Our plan was to climb the main Dufourspitze peak of Monte Rosa. At 4,634 metres (15,203 ft)，Dufourspitze is the highest peak completely inside Switzerland. Our start was delayed three days by bad weather, with heavy snowfalls and we no longer had enough time for this trip. So instead we set out to climb Pollux, which involved around 5 km travel on a glacier at close to 4,000 m.
On a clear day, I can see Mont Blanc on the skyline from my office window, and many is the day in winter where I watch the sun rise almost directly over the summit. Mont Blanc looms over the skyline in many places around Geneva and the “frontalier” France to the west. So I had long had an ambition to climb Mont Blanc, the highest peak in (Western) Europe at 4808m, and succeeded on my first attempt in September 2010.
My second Alpine trip this summer was a short but intense day near the Aiguille du Midi in the Mont Blanc region. The cable car from Chamonix remains the highest vertical ascent cable car in the world, from 1,035 m to 3842 m, an altitude gain of over 2,800 m in 20 minutes. The Aiguille du Midi is the starting point for the ski trip down the Vallée Blanche which I did some years ago, 17 km and over 2,000 m descent. It is also the starting point for various climbs nearby and for access to the Cosmiques Hut, at the beginning of the Three Mont Blancs route to the summit of Mont Blanc.
In July 2010, a friend and I set out to climb Gran Paradiso as a training climb before attempting Mont Blanc. Gran Paradiso is the only 4,000 metre peak that is entirely within Italian territory. The Italian-French border runs along the Alps and over the Mont Blanc summit, so there are a number of higher mountains “in Italy”. Unfortunately, my friend had some altitude sickness at around 3,700 metres and, on the advice of our guide, we turned and headed back down. So in the summer of 2014, I decided to complete the climb. Here is a photo, taken from the internet, of the summit ridge of Gran Paradiso (4,061m) in fine weather.
After many years since I had last been climbing on high mountains (Mt Kenya long ago, plus some easy peaks in Britain, Norway and Italy), I decided in 2007 I should do an alpine trip seeing as I was living here in Switzerland. So I contacted a guide and he suggested we climb Weissmies. At 4023 m, Weissmeis is the western-most 4000m peak of its range near Saas Fe (not far from Zermatt).