8 September 2023

In Sagarmatha National Park, Nepal.

“Oxygen Debt” (Zuurstofschuld), by Toine Heijmans, translated from Dutch (Netherlands) by Françoise Antoine, Belfond, 288 p., €22, digital €16.

A seasoned mountaineer, Walter Welzenbach tackles Everest alone. This final ascent constitutes the crest line of the novel by the Dutch writer Toine Heijmans, winner of the Medici Foreign Prize for At sea (Christian Bourgois, 2013). With each ordeal that climbing inflicts on Walter, memories arise, like shards torn from the icy walls. Throughout the chapters, designated by altitudes – from 3 meters to 8,848 meters, from The Hague to the summit of the Himalayas – he recalls his close friendship with Lenny, who introduced him to a passion that is ultimately became “nothing but darkness, rock, ice, snow, and death”.

In the Netherlands, the two young people climbed the arch of a bridge every day to train, learn the technique, « open(ert) roads “. They devoured the “books retracing two centuries of mountaineering, stained with fingerprints, all dusty with history”. From their first expeditions in the Alps, they climb together, “never with others, never without each other”. Everyone knows everything about their rope companion, guessing the gesture, anticipating the grip or confirming the trajectory on these walls where, to survive, they (have to) turn into a machine. They need each other “like the hands of a clock”force themselves to know the names of the peaks by heart, “cut out in order the fourteen peaks over 8,000 meters”and those of the mountaineers of yesteryear who “wore jacket and hat”.

Garbage and droppings

Today, “the major problem in the mountains is the crowds”Walter meditates, disillusioned, without his friend this time to face Everest, “became a rock of monkeys” ! A storm forces him to rope up for this last climb with another mountaineer, Monk, who publishes his exploits on YouTube, takes selfies and garners millions of views. “The mountains remain the same, but the world has changed”, observes Walter. The way of telling them is aligned with the modes of consumption of the public. Walter thinks nostalgically of the books of Maurice Herzog, Gaston Rébuffat, Alison Hargreaves, Reinhold Messner, those first “eyewitnesses to hell, the only continent that had never been mapped before”. Today they would cross “the mountain hotel staff”these Sherpas who carry on their backs, from the base camps, containers of garbage and excrement.

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