Visions – uninvited guests

This time I am alone on the Eiger. This is a few years before our climb on the Mitteleggi ridge (on which occasion, breaking a habit of a lifetime, we were successful in reaching the summit). I am a third of the way up the western flank of the mountain. I had read that it was the easy way up and, never having climbed a mountain before, all that I might consider possible for myself in my attempt to reach the summit. My plan is to get as high as I can in an evening, sleep on a ledge – or something – and continue the next day. This is because I am not fit and doing the whole thing from the bottom in one go looked as though it might be a bit too much for me.

The idea of climbing to the top of the Eiger by whatever route feasible had come to me the previous winter, when I had been on a family winter holiday in the Jura hills above Neuchatel in western Switzerland.  Although in my early years my father had instilled in me a passion for tales of exploration and stories of the Antarctic and other wild places, in my later teens I had forgotten all about it and followed an arty life as a painter and print maker, smoking and drinking in London pubs for exercise. My father was an anarchic and eccentric man (although he seemed perfectly normal to me as a child – only with the distance of time do I realize what a one-off original he was). He was a man who, while not being at all politically engaged, held deeply felt views on politicians, royalty and people of the church, especially the Roman Catholic Church and especially the Pope. They were all bastards. I once heard him call the Pope a ‘layabout ponce’. My mother, on the other hand, had been brought up a Catholic and, even though not only lapsed but excommunicated for marrying my father, crossed herself furiously whenever he launched any of his short but cutting outbursts at His Holiness. ‘You’ll go to hell, Teddy Kennard’ she’d say, and giggle nervously the while. His attitude to royalty was no less robust. So it was with some astonishment to me that one of my earliest memories is of being given orders, on coronation day 1953, to charge around the square in front of our council flat in north London, waving union flags. “It’s not for those scrounging bastards’ he said (a reference to their incipient majesties). ‘They’ve climbed Everest!’. So off we went shouting ‘Everest climbed! Everest climbed!’ at the tops of our voices, not having the faintest idea what Everest was nor why anyone had bothered climb up it. It was my father, then, who put the idea of adventurous exploration, and some knowledge of its history, into my mind.

So it was with some arrogance that, when it was suggested by friends over breakfast during my stay in the Jura, that we could actually drive over to Grindlewald and see the Eiger, that I pooh-poohed the idea. ‘Not possible – you need Sherpas and tons of gear to get anywhere near it’. ‘No – that’s the Himalayas. This is the Alps and I promise you we can drive there in a couple of hours and you can look at it’. I sat in a stunned silence for a moment. ‘Right then, no question – we go! – Now!’ I had to see this.

A day or so later I was standing with my friends at the Kleine Scheidegg station, below the Eiger, in the Bernese Alps. We had taken the train up carrying skis. I had skied once before on a misguided trip to Austria, which was spent mostly in a bar. I did, however, learn how to put skis on and how to fall over on snow without doing too much damage, so the idea of skiing down to Grindelwald was not so extraordinarily ill conceived. But our plan to gaze in wonder at the north face of the Eiger had been stymied by the clouds that, when we arrived at the village, were hovering just above the rooftops and had drawn a veil over the magnificent views which were, I was told, in front of us.

We arrived at the ski station in deep mist. Not wanting to hang around in this we started off down through the pine trees at once. Almost immediately I became separated from my companions and, although an occasional skier appeared from the grey shrouded trees, and as quickly disappeared again into the fog, I was left alone in a muffled, befuddling world. I stopped and took off my snow goggles. How wonderful was the silence. I stood listening to the faintest whisper of breeze and was enchanted by the straight pine trees and the way they vanished in stages into the mist. I dared not breath loudly nor make any sound at all for fear of dispelling the delicate and fragile atmosphere. But there was a change happening. The mists began to swirl gently and lifted and parted several times. Each lift sent the cloud higher than before and each swirl took away more of the fog. I looked up.

Directly above me, as if hanging in the sky, was the north face of the Eiger. I could see to the top, or near enough from that angle. It was vast, giant, a thing out of a dream, of unimaginable weight, yet suspended in the air. Covered ice and buttressed with rock forms of a scale so beyond my experience that my perceptions reeled, uncomprehending. My stomach seemed to fall away. I was overwhelmed with – with what? An unprecedented, unnameable feeling. I fell to my knees in a wonder. And it was not just a thing of the scale. There was something about the very form which took me away from all thought and threw me into a new world of perception.

I stayed for a while and watched as the clouds began to drift across the face again and, gradually covered it once more from my sight. I got up in a strange mood. Not thinking of anything in particular I started down. As if mentally winded I arrived among my friends and all, slowly, became ordinary again.

I had to do something about this. But – now then – I’m was a painter, an expressive artist. I could handle this. Tremendous visions of giant canvases filled with living forms of rock and ice and the unnamable mystery of the world. I could do that.

But I could not. It was not possible to recreate the sensation and, even if I could, why should I? The thing was out there. One only had to go back and touch it.

I phoned my friend Mark. Fitter and a bit younger than me, he also had never climbed anything in his life. He picked up.

‘Hi Mark, it’s Garry. Do you want to climb the Eiger?’

‘Sure. When do we go?’

He wasn’t joking. It was as easy as that. And all my mountain experiences stemmed from that one phone call.

That summer I was back in Switzerland on another family holiday and decided, seeing I happened to be near Grindelwald again, that I should try a solo ascent of the mountain. Within a few days of arrival I therefore found myself stranded high on the west flank of the mountain.

The Mountain

I am alone and it’s getting dark. There is a sullen, depressing feel to the situation. From my broad ledge, where I have laid out my sleeping mat and bag, I can see over to the glaciers heaving in their infinitely slow way down off the Monch. Way below I can see the little station, the one before the train enters the Jungfraujoch tunnel. Beyond that, the valley, now growing grey-green and misty. When I look up, I see clouds beginning to obscure the tops.

It’s not silent. Rushing water, the occasional crump of small avalanches pealing off the nearby glaciers and a constant phewing of the evening winds. I am surrounded by rubble and snow banks. No clear rock here, just a shambles of scree and shards of sharp rock in piles all around me. It’s like settling down on a slagheap. The light lowers. I eat some chocolate and drink cold tea. It’s time to get into the bag.

I am very lonely. I have never done anything like this before. It’s the result of the mad idea to climb the Eiger by fair means or foul and it has landed me in this desolate place and made me miserable. I am on a reconnaissance. The excitement and drama of what I am doing has drifted away with the appalling slog up here.  It’s too late to go down, so I must make the best of it. I take off my boots, do some probably ineffective rope work to prevent myself rolling down the mountain during the night and struggle, fully clothed, into the sleeping bag. It takes ages and I am exhausted when I am finally settled. There is still some light but the clouds are down lower and it’s misty and damp.  The glaciers on the Monch opposite seem to glow faintly in the dark grey light. It is a scene of utter desolation and one which seems utterly unfriendly, or rather totally indifferent to my being there. I feel rejected and forlorn and in deep misery.

After some undefined time I hear voices coming up from below, approaching my ledge. People, maybe a group of three or four, coming up towards me. They sound cheerful and chatty. I can’t make out any specific words and even the language is indefinable. The sound of their voices drifts in and out of the wind and water noises around me, now rising, now obscured and it cheers me. Why don’t they arrive? I have to get out and see what’s going on. Perhaps I can flash my torch at them if they are lost.

The struggle to get out of the bag is worse than getting in. I flounder about, getting tangled in the rope and finally emerge panting onto the rubble. In the faint light I move across to where I can see down the slopes more or less all the way to the bottom. There’s no one there. It’s impossible. Perhaps they have stopped behind an outcrop of rock. I am not sure I can hear them now. The rushing waters and wind seem to be obscuring them. It’s a mystery and after puzzling on the matter for some time I face the effort of getting into the sack again. It’s another immense struggle, but I do it and settle down, forgetting the voices for the moment.

But they don’t stop. I sit up again. There are definitely people chatting nearby. Definitely. Nothing for it. I must see them. So the struggle begins again. Exhausted once more with the effort I now scan the surrounding rock with my torchlight. It is very dark now. I call in a polite, slightly embarrassed, very English manner. ‘Hello there? Can you see my light?’. Nothing but the water sounds, quieter now, as their source, the snow above, melting during the warmth of the day, is freezing once more as night descends. I am exasperated and disturbed by the non-appearing companions. The lengthy performance of getting back into the sleeping bag is gone through once again.

I go through this pantomime twice more. I am so utterly convinced of the reality of this presence, and so hoping it would salve my utter loneliness. Even so, eventually, having regained the chrysalis of the bag once more, I drop off to sleep.

At some awful, desolate hour I wake and look around. There is barely any light. All is muffled and damp. I lie for an hour or so as it gets lighter. To a mixture of feelings – both relief and disappointment – I see that the dawn has revealed thick freezing fog. I can see only a few feet in front of me. It starts to snow, then rain sleet. My misery of last night has not lifted. On top of this I feel a fool. A complete amateur and an incompetent arsehole. In my chagrin I get out of the sack, pack up the gear, lift my rucksack onto my back and start down, stumbling on the loose rock and patches of snow. There is no joy in this. A vague worry of losing my way is assuaged by the knowledge that all I have to do is head downwards and, eventually, I will arrive at the Eiger Gletscher station. This I eventually do. I make my way along the railway line to Kleine Scheidegg where I buy a cup of coffee at the deserted but thankfully just opened station cafe.

The thought of those who arrived last night on the mountain drifts in and out of my mind, worrying and disturbing me. My confidence in my relationship with the world has been undermined. The unbalancing effect of a subtle earthquake has turned surety into doubt. The world looks more mysterious this morning and some small fear has entered the pit of my stomach. As I stumble down to my tent in the valley, this fear blossoms into wonder and a wild excitement. The world was not only a mystery, it was an ongoing drama and I was there, here, on stage, taking part.

Visitors from within

Many climbers have experienced hallucinations while isolated at great heights. In 1933 the British climber Frank Smythe, although alone and heading for his camp at around 8300 metres on the north side of Mount Everest, felt that he had another man tied to his rope and tried to share his mint cake with him. Reinhold Messner, often making solo climbs on the worlds great mountains, talked of not feeling lonely because of ‘that partner within myself’. Stephen Venables high and alone on Mount Everest after completing a difficult new climb, told of an old man who accompanied him on his descent but disappeared when he caught sight on the lower camp.

The crucial matter here is that none of these experiences was asked for.  Smythe would have got down to camp six and Venables and Messner would almost certainly have completed their climbs without the help of these uninvited guests. The circumstances of their extreme situations seems to have pricked the brain’s mechanisms into making a decision for them, presented an alteration in their experience of consciousness and altered the feel of what they may have previously thought of as the solid reality of the material world. Dreams and the world whirling together, becoming so intermingled as to be one thing. Phantoms taking tea with one another in a presumed teashop.

A patient of the great neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran sat in front of him in his office in La Jolla, California. Five years before the interview the patient, Larry, had been involved in a terrible road accident, his head being smashed through the car windscreen causing considerable brain damage. When, after two weeks, he came out of the ensuing coma he reported that the world was full of hallucinations. ‘I couldn’t distinguish what was real from what was fake. Doctors and nurses standing next to my bed were surrounded by football players and Hawaiian dancers. Voices came at me from everywhere and I couldn’t tell who was talking.’

When questioned Larry reported that not only did he still have, after all this time, many hallucinations, but that he was having them right then and there, in Ramachandran’s office. He reported that he could see a monkey sitting on the doctor’s lap, as real as life.

‘But how do you know you are hallucinating?’ asked Ramachandran.

‘I don’t know’ said Larry, ‘but it’s unlikely that there would be a professor here with a monkey in his lap, so I think there probably isn’t one’.

Charles Bonnet syndrome – a neurological condition which involves the extraordinary capacity of the brain to fill in bits of information it takes to be missing from a bigger picture. We all do this to a certain extent by virtue of the ‘blind spot’ in our eyes. This is the part of the retina where the optic nerve leaves the eye. At this point there are no light-sensitive neurons, so the brain cannot register the light falling there. Instead of leaving a blank in our vision, the brain invents a ‘best fit’ estimate as to what it deems should be in the area of the missing information.

In Charles Bonnet syndrome, however, this can be taken to marvelous extremes where, owing to disease or accident, a part of the visual system (in the eye or the brain) is damaged. This leaves gaps in the stream of information travelling to the brain coming from the light of the material world. So what does the brain do? In its wisdom it can fill in from a whole gallery of brain stored images and fit them seamlessly into the sufferer’s perceptions.

Larry survived his partly unreal existence by ‘testing’. He knew from experience and from other peoples’ reactions that what he was seeing was likely to be a true image of the material world. Elderly people isolated for long periods with little social interaction often experience hallucinations. Surveys have shown that a great many of them do not report these experiences for fear of being seen as crazy or fear that their faculties were deserting them. If they could continually ‘test’ their experiences against those of companions, the visions would be easier to handle. Without the ability to test the filling-in by the brain against a common shared reality, hallucinations can run without check through the perceptions of the isolated individual.

Some people who have hallucinations of the Bonnet type report (as do those who have taken certain ‘mind altering’ drugs) that the images they experience are often ‘more real than real’. Larry himself said at the interview with Ramachandran ‘….there is something odd about the images – they often look too good to be true. The colours are vibrant, extraordinarily vivid, and the images actually look more real than real objects, if you see what I mean.’

It becomes apparent when reading accounts of these types of visual hallucinations that very few emotions are attached to the images experienced. It seems that this is because it is mostly obvious that the images perceived are seen by as being exactly what they are – illusions. However, when the protecting screen of this knowledge is not available the hallucinations can become overbearing and terrifying. Nightmares and visions in the dark night or evening, when the possibility that those phantoms of the mind may perhaps be of the material world can overpower us with fear and wonder. 

Many of us have childhood memories of waking, screaming, from dreams so appalling as to blank out the mind with horror and awe, the brain’s creations being too strong by far for the waking infant consciousness to cope with or even begin to understand. Was that not so for the waking of consciousness itself, long ago when one idea collided with another in our evolving brains? The ability to slide one image over another, to slip the lions head on to the body of a man and believe it just so; to see great figures in the night sky as if observing peering faces in wallpaper patterns and believe them just so?

They come, they come. These images co-mingle in our systems of perception and we experience them as in our sense of daily life, these unbidden visions and personages.  Without necessary clues to their true nature we see them as life, flawlessly as a part of the lived day. Their ability to slide into our perceptions of the material world must give us pause to question where exactly, and with what, we are experiencing the material world.

So – the visitors from deep within our brains come to us under circumstances of extremes – certain conditions allow these out-of-control denizens their moment in the sunlight of consciousness. And we have seen how these visions and hallucinations belong to the amoral wilderness of our neuronal forests. Coagulating from the brain’s chemical and electrical whirling, like stars from galactic stardust they emerge as moods and figures and are the stuff of our emotional apprehension of the material world. They show how we might be or how we might interact with the world had not societal, analytic consciousness taken a grip of our lives. But we need them, cannot, I maintain, exist nor find our way in the world without contact with these archetypes, and with the cauldron of their making – the limbic and other systems deep in the brain. This contact has been made problematic for us in many ways: social organization and societal conscious thought – analytical thought – has blurred and barred our connection to the emotional living of the world. We might seem now only to wave across an impassable void to the lords of misrule. Or so it would be if it were not for the demolitions of the barriers between them and consciousness, and the building of bridges across to them, by the destroying and creating arts.

The trees

The realization that our brains are creating, from various sources, our experience of the world, and that we are not looking out of windows in our heads to examine it, can come as a shock.

My own epiphany came thus.

Some years ago I found myself sitting in a vineyard in the hills of the Corbières region of southern France. I was there trying to draw of a stand of cypress trees. It wasn’t going well. I had no idea, nor any specific feeling to base my work on and felt lost as to how to approach the subject. In an attempt to break this dull spell, I started to form words in my head, words that would describe what I then thought were the characteristics of the trees. I started with the obvious – large, tall, dark, pointed, green. Then I moved into more emotional territory – powerful, portentous, foreboding, grim, and, carrying on, got to – disturbing, frightening, mysterious.

I stopped. In one moment I realised that the way I had been perceiving the material world in the past had been wrong. Or rather my description of my perceptions had been wrong. To neuroscientists, what I am about to describe is common knowledge. To me at the time it exploded in my head like a bomb going off.

The words are critical. Before I might have said ‘This tree is foreboding’. Now I had to say ‘This form of this tree gives rise in me a sense of foreboding’. The trees were nothing – or rather they were a mass of particles and energy doing what particles and energy do in given circumstances, what they cannot help doing. They were meaningless, indifferent. It was only by registering my brain-generated emotions in front of this mass of matter that I (my brain) gave them some ‘meaning’ or ‘identity’.

The image was entirely mine, happening in my brain. And the adjectives I attached to it gave it meaning, my meaning, a human meaning. The brain – my brain – ruled the world.

This simple idea led immediately to further questions – ‘How am I “seeing” and with what and where?’ ‘What is the nature of my relationship with the material world’ and ‘How can I explain the sense of “green”? The problems of consciousness had suddenly become conscious.

Anyone that day enjoying the view of these vineyards from a distance – the vibrant green rows of vines in vast fields set against blinding white limestone hillsides – would have seen something out of the ordinary that day. They would have seen a man, for no apparent reason, suddenly appear from the vines, jump up and down in a mad dance and shout ‘Of course! Of course! – OF COURSE!’