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Deuxième partie : Voyages horizontaux et voyages verticaux

Dream Journeys

Kev Reynolds
p. 111-117

Editor's notes

Keynote Speech at the Conference on "The Mountain in Image and Word in the English-Speaking World: The Landscape Figured and Disfigured", Université de Toulouse-Le Mirail, 4-7 October 2007.

Full text

1All who love mountains are incurable dreamers. Were it not so, a first encounter would suffice; there would be no quickening of the heart with anticipation, no yearning or planning, no catching sight of a bank of cumulus that changes before your eyes into the shape of a cherished snowpeak far off and calling...

2Dreamers are what we are, unashamed and unapologetic. As I say, incurable.

3But what value are dreams (especially the dreams of waking hours) unless they inspire action? Dreams need to be given substance, to be transformed into reality, else they lose meaning. So when it comes to mountains, some dreamers choose a vertical arena and risk all to overcome its challenge—a 500 metre rock face, perhaps, a delicate wall of ice, or an obelisk created by nature in a playful mood. Others may visualise a corniced ridge tapering to a sought-after peak; they collect summits, tick lists, add classic routes to their CV.

4Then there are those of us for whom a multi-day journey through a wild landscape is the very bread of existence, leavened by the yeast of dreams; we who echo the words of W.H. Tilman, the great explorer-mountaineer who just happened to be one of the finest of all travel writers whose books sparkle with wry humour and perceptive insights. It was he who summed up the appeal of what David Roberts called "sunny vagabondage" when he wrote: "I felt I could go on like this for ever, that life had little better to offer than to march day after day in an unknown country to an unattainable goal".

5That’s it precisely—to march day after day in an unknown country to an unattainable goal. Unattainable goals—they are the best, for their status remains unchanged, no matter who has been before us, nor who may come after. Those goals cannot be collected, bagged or devalued because they’re never static, always shifting. Imagine if you will what that means in practice. You spend many hours—or better still, days—working a route towards a pass, a gap or a saddle in a far-distant ridge that has in itself more seduction than the most inviting of summits. And when at last that col is gained you look back at the land you’ve journeyed through to taste the briefest sense of achievement (what is past is past, yet it can be drawn at any time from the well of memory); then you look ahead to a fresh revelation of another unknown country, another promised land rimmed by an horizon full of mystery. That horizon is unattainable; it keeps moving, renewing, reshaping. It’s like the elusive pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, and it tells you one irrefutable truth: it’s what you discover on the journey that matters. There are no prizes to be collected when the journey is over, just a sack full of memories and another dream for tomorrow.

6Between those memories and dreams lies the reality of NOW. What is so compelling about this journey through an unknown country, is the immediacy of existence. On the trail (as the late Hugh Swift once said), life is instantaneous. There is no past nor future, for all that matters is the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other. That can be achieved without conscious thought, if all is going well, or it can be the most difficult or painful act imaginable if the way is rough or you’re dogged by illness or injury. On the trail when things go well, the days expand and every moment is cause for celebration; the journey itself becomes intoxicating, life enhancing. It is a great escape. Not, as some might suggest, an escape from reality, but an escape into reality, an opportunity to divest oneself of the restraints and clutter of "normal" existence, and be cleansed by an awareness of what little it takes to survive and live well—if only for a few short weeks in a year.

7Tilman’s partner on many of his expeditions was Eric Shipton—another explorer-mountaineer who could bring a landscape alive by his descriptive prose. Though generally perceived in the public eye as a mountaineer, he too found more satisfaction in making a journey of exploration, whether private or officially sanctioned, than devoting many weeks in an attempt to climb a virgin summit—even a summit as alluring as that of Everest to which he went no less than five times. The opening lines of his "Blank upon the Map" are very telling in this respect:

A fascinating way of spending a few hours of leisure is to sit down with a paper and pencil and work out in minute detail the preparations for an expedition into unexplored country. The fact that there is very little chance of carrying out the project matters little. These dream expeditions can be staged in any corner of the world. I have imagined them in the forbidden mountains of Nepal, and in the wind-swept ice peaks of Tierra del Fuego, and across the Antarctic continent (Shipton 161).

8Shipton turned his dreams into reality, for years after he wrote those prescient words, he explored the mountains of Nepal and discovered the route up Everest that would be followed by Hillary and Tenzing in 1953, and later on made expeditions to Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego which he described in Land of Tempest. Only the Antarctic continent remained for him an unfulfilled dream.

9"Blank upon the Map", however, is for the mountain wanderer one of Shipton’s most riveting books, for it is the stirring account of his 1937 expedition to the Karakoram, made along with Tilman, Spender and Auden (the last two being brothers of famous poets). It was his most fulfilling expedition, for the party explored and surveyed more than 4,600 square kilometres of one of the most difficult mountain regions in the world. During that expedition, on the eve of his journey in search of the Aghil Pass, Shipton’s excitement oozes from the page:

That evening was for me one of the greatest moments of the expedition.... East and west of us stretched an unexplored section, eighty miles long, of the greatest watershed in the world. To the north, close at hand, across the Shaksgam river, was the Aghil range, with its romantic associations and unknown peaks and valleys. To share all this, I had with me three companions as keen as myself, supported by seven of the most stout-hearted retainers in the world. We had food enough to keep us alive for three months in this place of my dreams, and the health and experience to meet the opportunity. I wanted nothing more (Shipton 210).

10A result of that expedition was the publication of a map that seemed to Shipton to be ridiculously small in relation to the months of exploration involved in its survey. In a later book, Mountains of Tartary, he confessed that "there is much to be said for a simple mountain journey, whose object, unencumbered with the burden of detailed map-making or scientific observation, is just to get from one place to another" (Shipton 462).

11The simple mountain journey was perhaps an understatement, for both Shipton and Tilman were masters of the minimalist approach, preferring to live off the land wherever they could, and taking nothing with them that could be considered non-essential. For their five months of exploration in the Karakoram, for example, Shipton decided that two shirts would suffice. Tilman thought this excessive, and took only one!

12In the 1920s, an American couple, Robert and Katherine Barrett, spent a year trekking from Kashmir to Ladakh and Baltistan. During this journey they visited the Baltoro Glacier, made a winter camp above Leh, and stayed by the Pangong lake in Tibet before returning to what was then still British India. Minimalist they were not, for they slept in handsome embroidered tents, travelled with eight servants to look after their needs, and had no less than 20 ponies and a team of porters to carry their baggage and supplies.

13The Barretts were well-versed in Tibetan lore and experienced in mountain travel, for twenty years earlier Robert had trekked with Rasul Galwan, generally recognised as the best sirdar of his day, and he was given the job of outfitting their year-long expedition. As a result they lacked nothing.

14But the comparative extravagance of their outfit did not detract from the wonders the Barretts daily experienced on the trail—a pilgrimage is what they called it—and the book they wrote at its conclusion is treasured today as a little-known classic. Told through a series of letters, the account of their travels reads as a romantic celebration of wild country. "It is our pilgrinage to Mecca, this Himalayan journey, wrote Katherine. We go about in a sort of rapture".

15The Himalayan Letters of Gypsy Davy and Lady Ba captures the magic of a dream journey and paints a picture of cultures as well as landscapes. With the rambling sub-title: Written on Pilgrimage to the High Quiet Places among the Simple People of an Old Folk Tale, Himalayan Letters makes joyful reading. In one letter, Robert Barrett, or Gypsy Davy as he calls himself, describes a new vista in prose that implies more than the words actually say:

Of a sudden we topped a rise, and there at our feet lay a bright sapphire lake, and behind it, looking across the lake and across a little pass, we saw a great snow mountain, gleaming white with the morning sun full on it, and behind the mountain there was deep blue sky. We thought it must surely be the highest and most beautiful mountain in the world (7).

16I guess most of us have at one time or another had our breath taken by the vision of what appeared to be the highest and most beautiful mountain in the world. In reality it may have been a relatively minor summit glimpsed from an unusual angle, or a peak caught floating on a raft of mist, its base discarded in some unguessed valley. To mind comes the memory of one such occasion when what I gazed upon was hard to grasp, almost impossible to believe.

17Leading a trek towards Kangchenjunga two years ago, I came with my party to a high point on the ridge that divides Nepal from West Bengal. Directly ahead, and about a week’s march away, the World’s third highest mountain dominated the landscape with its five lofty summits, its gleaming snowfields and glaciers, and its shapely attendant peaks. But this was not all, for the ragged Himalayan crest spread like a shrinking arctic wall far to the west, far, far beyond Makalu, Lhotse and Everest, far beyond the Jugal and imagined Langtang Himals until the white line scatched its arc against the sky and disappeared. Then to the east of Kanch were mountains of Sikkim. I recognised Pandim and several others before Tibetan peaks took over and filtered into Bhutan, where Chomolhari marked the border. One summit led to another and then another in a confusion of snowglare and shadow, until that eastern line narrowed like its counter-balance in the west, and faded in the oblivion of distance. From the limit of sight in the west, to the blurred horizon in the east, we gazed upon hundreds of mountains in the broadest panoramic view any of us had ever witnessed. Even the Sherpas fell silent.

18I have a friend who was losing his sight. In the mountains he would use a small telescope, and with one eye that still had a flicker of life, he would slowly build a picture of the scene that you and I would capture in a moment’s glance. At last that sight went completely, and one day he confessed that his only real regret was that he never managed to visit the Himalaya. "Then we will go," I told him, and together with a couple of friends and a crew of Sherpas and porters, we made a 24-day journey across the Manaslu foothills, up and over the Ganesh Himal, into the Langtang Himal and across high passes before descending through Helambu down to the Kathmandu Valley; a journey of revelation and inspiration.

19It was not only my friend, but:/who learnt much from that journey—most importantly, I discovered that sight can make you blind.

20What do I mean by this? Well, if you are blessed with sight, you use it almost to the exclusion of your other senses. You see only with your eyes, but what you really see is an incomplete picture.

21My friend Ray saw much on our 24-day journey, even though he was blind of eye. He saw with a refined sense of hearing. I would notice how his head would suddenly cock to one side, as he become alert to a sound that I would otherwise miss. The call of a distant bird, a stone clattering down a gully, a leaf brushing against another... His sense of smell told him more than my searching eyes could gather; his tongue would taste the breeze, or a feathery grass sucked through his teeth. His hands brushed against vegetation; in forests he would stop to embrace a tree and embed his fingers into the damp moss that clung to a west-facing trunk.

22It was springtime and our route led through a rhododendron forest. Beams of sunlight shafted between the trees, reminiscent of medieval religious paintings. Blossoms of every hue blazed from each tree, but Ray was only aware of walking through Venetian blinds of light and dark. Then Maila, the Sherpa employed to hold onto Ray to make sure he fell down no crevasses, had a bright idea and commanded him to stay still for a moment. He, Maila, quickly gathered several rhododendron blossoms and emptied the nectar from each one into Ray’s cupped hands. "Now drink," he told him. As he did, tears of joy ran down his cheeks.

23The great Himalayan chain, with its countless high summits, deep valleys and unfathomable cultures, is only the most obvious mountain range in which to make dream journeys. But highest is not necessarily best, and we in Europe have no shortage of exciting and visually dramatic mountains among which to exercise our passion, both within the continent and easily accessible from it. Morocco, for example, is sometimes referred to as Europe’s nearest exotic neighbour, and with the chain of the Atlas Mountains stretching virtually from one end of the country to the other, some wonderful journeys can be made in districts rarely visited by outsiders—other than a few aficionados, that is. One such is Scotsman Hamish Brown who has been making regular journeys there for over four decades, who knows the Atlas as well as his own Scottish Highlands, and who in 1995 undertook a 96day trek from one end to the other (1440 kilometres!) and wrote about it in Atlas Traverse – Afoot from Taza to Tamri. In his book he says "The nomad lies in all of us and the sin of civilisation so called is that so few make the break and divest its soiled garment for the simplicity of long travel, taken at the speed of creation, on foot or with beasts, or dancing with the wind" (8).

24More than forty years ago these were the mountains that changed my life. Without climbing a few of their crumbling summits, then crossing high passes and wandering through their valleys at the speed of creation—my soul dancing with the wind— might today be a broken man, spending Monday to Friday looking forward to Saturday. As it was, the Atlas Mountains, their sand-blasted canyons and Berber villages hanging like swallows’ nests on precipitous slopes, showed me that life could be an adventure, that what I experienced there was so profound as to make convention something to avoid.

25As a young man I made my unregretted decision, and when I returned to those same mountains many years later, I found that practically nothing had changed. Least of all my love of its stark terrain and the thrill of journeying through it. So, with a few muleteers, I made a rough circuit of the mountains, crossing a new pass each day, descending into valleys-some inhabited, others not; sleeping out beneath the stars with mules belching nearby through the hours of darkness, or on occasion spreading my sleeping bag on a flat rooftop and rising with the village as a fresh day rose above the walling peaks. Each day—each half-day—a new horizon and the thrill of the unknown luring me on.

26Today, beyond these city limits of Toulouse, across the agricultural land of the south, another chain of mountains forms a boundary wall. Its north side is green, abrupt, foreshortened. Its wooded foothills rumpled above a patchwork of pastureland, watered by streams that rush with all the unbridled enthusiasm of youth. On the south flank of that mountain wall there’s a very different landscape. Brushed with the warm dry breath of Africa, some of its middle-ranking hills are baked, barren, almost desert-like, with orange-roofed villages crumbling in the heat of summer. But a few remnant glaciers and shallow snowfields still linger on the highest peaks, and where the glaciers have departed, more than a thousand crystal lakes turn mountains on their heads and reflect their glory. The Pyrenees! My second homeland and inspiration for a lifetime of dreams.

27Of themselves the Pyrenees contain all a lover of mountains could wish, and the mountain journeyman above all is blessed with opportunity. Whether you have three days or three months in which to make your travels, the map (or best of all, the view from an unroaded pass) will stir the blood and conjure dreams that need never run dry.

28In days when my shoulders could carry more than they can today, I packed a rucksack with camping gear and food, and set out along the Pyrenean spine, left foot in France, right foot in Spain. In turn treading clouds and sun-inspired shadows, I and a friend or two walked and scrambled hundreds of kilometres and over countless summits heading east with no ambition to arrive anywhere. To wander was all. We cowered through storm, staggered delirious with thirst, and daily rejoiced in the limitless views that invariably bore no sign of man’s excesses.

29The Pyrenees continue to feed dreams, but the Alps have become through necessity my annual summer workplace, and each year for a couple of decades I have found an excuse to make a multi-day journey or two (sometimes more than two) across the ridges and mountains of Europe’s premier range. And should you think for one moment that the Alps are overcrowded and played out, then think again. For only a month ago my publisher and I spent many days with no other human being in sight as we travelled over high cols and plunged into valleys where the marmot called as the sun slipped of an evening off a bronze mountain wall into a scarlet lake at its feet. We tramped across hills scattered with autumn flowering crocus. We sat on lichen-cushioned rocks and listened to the blood coursing through our veins, and remarked on the savage grandeur of the world about us. The overcrowded Alps? Hardly.

30Corsica, Norway, the Caucasus of Russia, the bewitchingly beautiful Andes of South America, all these and more have repaid the dreams of a wanderer. The Andes in particular, with their extravagent flora, curious wildlife, and unbelievable ice formations, must surely count among the most rewarding of mountains to travel among. I went with a group of Quechua Indians and their burros, and learnt to love their musical voices and the quiet sound of laughter round a pit of roasting mutton, shadows chasing through the valley and up the ice-gleaming face of exquisite Alpamayo, voted some years ago as the world’s most beautiful mountain. Streams fled from the glaciers, but slowed their pace as night put its clamp on the land, and at first light all standing water was solid. As warmth slowly returned, so sounds resumed, breath no longer steamed and birds called to one another. The mountains themselves danced in the swirl of snow-dervishes whipped up by winds that never brushed our tents. And then the tents were collapsed, donkeys loaded, and another leg of the journey would begin. Everything beyond NOW had lost its meaning.

31They say that a trip to the Himalaya is the journey of a lifetime. I believe that to be wrong, for a first trip to the Himalaya is merely the first of many. The Himalaya becomes an insistent dream, invasive, compulsive, addictive.

32In his wonderful autobiographical The Evidence of Things Not Seen, the mountaineer, explorer and writer, W.H. Murray tells of how he and three friends yearned to make their first Himalayan expedition, but were hesitant to turn their dreams into reality. "Dearly we wanted to go, yet we wondered: Could we raise the money" (210)? Dared we jeopardise our jobs? Did we know enough about Himalayan conditions? Despite their belief that dreams are for action, they dithered and delayed. But once with sudden resolve they put down their money and booked a passage to India, all else fell into place. Murray and his friends had made their commitment:

Until one is committed there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative and creation, there is one elementary truth, ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one commits oneself, then Providence moves too (278).

33Although Murray was a climber, he too discovered that journeys of exploration were far more satisfying than reaching a summit. And this belief was reinforced by his friend, the Himalayan explorer Tom Longstaff, who wrote to him about the importance of "living in the present": "...just forget all before and after and soak the moment in so that it will never come out. Just travel is the thing. Number your red-letter days by camps, not by summits... Enjoy and for always, as you can through concentration" (279).

34Probably Murray’s greatest journey of exploration was of the Api Massif in the far west of Nepal in 1953. Almost fifty years later I too made a journey in the Api Massif, along with my Sherpa friend Kirken and five of his lads who opted to come as porters. Murray concentrated mostly on Api’s northern side. Kirken and I chose the southern flank, from which we worked our way eastward towards Saipal, and then beyond to Ra-Ra Lake and Jumla.

35After a week or more we worked our way along a ridge as snow began to fall. Light was fading, so we called a halt, dug our tents into the snowfield just below the ridge and prayed for an improvement next day. It snowed heavily all night but eased with morning. About midmorning the clouds had thinned sufficiently to warn us that further progress along the ridge was impossible, but by scanning the valley to the south through my binoculars we could see the promise of open meadows with streams running. We fought our way down to the valley, and after two or three hours came to a confluence of streams. Dwarf trees were pink with blossom. Flowers studded the grass, and a small village of half a dozen houses clung to a cliff face with a pathway winding down to the river where we stopped to light a fire and make a brew.

36Two old men hobbled down from the village to study the newcomers. We gave them tea, sat around the fire and listened to each other’s breath. Then Kirken asked them the name of their village. They gave it. The name of the river? They gave that too, although it meant little to us as we had no map. And where does the river go? A shrug of the shoulders. Then one of the old men offered a priceless piece of information. If we followed the river downstream for one day, we would come to another village.

37So we did.

38Arriving at the second village—a village three times the size of the first—we again sat below the houses, lit a fire and brewed a drink. Before long we were visited by the village headmen who squatted by the fire with us and accepted our offer of ginger tea. Then Kirken asked the name of their village, and the name of the river, to which we were given answers. But in response to our question about where the river went, they shrugged their ignorance. But they were able to give us one piece of useful information.

39If we travelled back upvalley for one day, we would come to another village!

40Those of us who love mountains are incurable dreamers. And blissful ignorance can sometimes add more than smiles.

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BARRETT, Robert & Katherine. The Himalayan Letters of Gypsy Davy and Lady Ba. Cambridge: W. Heffer & Sons, date unknown.

BROWN, Hamish. Atlas Traverse—Afoot from Taza to Tamri. Fife: Pettycur Publishing, 2001.

MURRAY, W.H. The Evidence of Things Not Seen. London: Bâton Wicks, 2002.

SHIPTON, Eric. Blank Upon the Map. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1938.

SHIPTON, Eric. Land of Tempest, London: Hodder & Stoughton. 1963.

SHIPTON, Eric. Mountains of Tartary, London: Hodder & Stoughton. 1950.

TILMAN, W.H. Nepal Himalaya. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1952.

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Bibliographical reference

Kev Reynolds, « Dream Journeys », Caliban, 23 | 2008, 111-117.

Electronic reference

Kev Reynolds, « Dream Journeys », Caliban [Online], 23 | 2008, Online since 13 December 2016, connection on 25 February 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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About the author

Kev Reynolds

English mountain-climber and writer, Kent. Kev Reynolds est un alpiniste anglais qui a parcouru toutes les montagnes du globe et en a rapporté des ouvrages destinés à guider d’autres randonneurs et alpinistes. Il a écrit sur toutes les montagnes du monde et a publié uns quarantaine de livres parmi lesquels Everest, Alpine Points of View, A Collection of Images of the Alps ainsi que Mountains of the Pyrenees

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Licence Creative Commons
Caliban – French Journal of English Studies est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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