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Sur le Pas de Mohammed

Sur le Pas de Mohammed

Everyone knows that walking is controlled falling. In learning to walk we learn to overcome our fear of falling. We soon forget the bumps on the head and the bruises on the knees, but somewhere lurking around in the unconscious that primal fear is still there. I have just rediscovered it.


It’s like being inside a spin dryer but it’s not me that’s spinning. It’s the world outside which is turning round and round. So this is what vertigo is like.

I used to think I knew something about vertigo. Fear of falling is logical, quite reasonable. You stand on the edge of a precipice. Of course you’re afraid! Of course you feel dizzy! But I was wrong. Fear of falling is a phobia; it’s not vertigo.

This is the real thing. Horribly different. I feel sick. I can’t move at all. The alarm goes off and I wake up. I turn my head to look at the time and it starts whiring all over again. So I was dreaming, but the nightmare has become reality. I don’t even contemplate getting out of bed.

Later the doctor tells me that I have all the symptoms of Ménière’s disease, problems with my inner ear. He gives me some tablets, and tells me to use my eyes to correct my sense of balance. “You’ll have to learn to walk again,” he explains. A neighbour tells me that her husband had the same problem intermittently for over twenty years before he died. It only stopped when he fell off the roof.

So what’s climbing the Aneto going to be like this time? Just before the summit there is a knife-edge ridge: the Pas de Mohammed. I used to be able to persuade myself that my feet were glued to the ground by immense gravitational forces. I’m not sure the strategy it will work any more.

The trip to the Aneto with my walking club is scheduled for the summer. I’m organising it, so I can’t really back out. In any case, a week later I seem to be cured.

Fast forward


After a day and a half’s walking, climbing 2500m in the process, we finally get to the Pas de Mohammed. We take off our crampons and look up at the ridge. I’ve been here before so I have some idea what to expect, but it still seems abnormally steep and frighteningly sharp.

“I’ll take you up two by two,” says the guide. I am roped up with the most nervous member of the group, the one most likely to make a false move and project us into the void. Paradoxically this is the best thing that can happen to me: looking at his awkwardness I feel confident in comparison.

We circumnavigate a pyramid. The ends of my fingers are tingling. I concentrate. Look for holds. I have reduced my area of focus to a small zone around my hands and feet. Anything else is eliminated. I have created my bubble. As long as I can stay in it nothing can happen to me.

Don’t look down. Don’t listen to your inner ear. Shuffle along the ledge, sitting on it, one leg either side. Don’t look down. Clamber into the crevasse and out again. And that’s it. We slump down around the aluminium cross which adorns the summit, breathing heavily, smiling inanely. Now I can look around, way into the distance.

Why do I do this kind of thing? I know I’m going to be frightened, even though the Pas de Mohammed looks more dangerous than it really is and certainly isn’t considered rock climbing. Is it for the adrenalin rush? I hate it until it’s over; and then I want to do it again.

At the summit of the Aneto

At the summit of the Aneto


The way down is a repetition of the way up, but now I am beginning to believe I can do it. Then there is a long, fast, joyous romp in the snow straight down the steepest slope. Where the snow gives way to rock we take our crampons off again and stride off happily.

But, inexplicably, I start tripping over. Once, twice. I get out my walking pole. It’s not difficult terrain but I keep falling. Three, four, five times. Somebody gives me another pole and after that things go better. At the time I put it down to tiredness, but now I’m not so sure.

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