John Harlin III’s father died on the Matterhorn in 1966. Harlin junior had lived until that time in Switzerland and expected to do so for the rest of his life. But his father died, his mother took him back the states. That move and the separation from the mountains, and the trauma of his father’s death forged an obsession in him to climb the Matterhorn on the same route that had killed his father. He climbed it in 2005. Lionel Daudet, 45, is a climbing legend. His has twice been awarded the golden ice axe of the Piolet d’Or for his achievements as a solo climber who does not use communication and carries all he needs on his back.
The two are linked by a love of mountains but also be a weird coincidence of projects. In 2011-12, John Harlin set out on a Swiss Border project which he recounted here as the Swiss Border Stories. Lionel Daudet set out on a French Border project which he recounted here as the Dod Tour. Neither knew that the other was doing the project. As one writer described the experience, this was experimental mountaineering of a new and challenging kind:
The self-imposed constraints thus provided them with the basis for a new type of mountaineering, one which involved not only confronting the complex mountainous terrain followed by the borders in Switzerland and France but also practising a variety of outdoor sporting activities: we suggest referring to this challenge as ‘experimental mountaineering’. These projects undoubtedly mark an important change in the practice of mountain sports, where the mountain tour, or circular route, is in the process of earning its place alongside the more traditional summit climbs and mountain crossings. In putting their bodies to the test in following the border, these two men have shown how the idea of the “mobile” border is able to express itself in the form of a constantly renegotiated juxtaposition of spatial characteristics generated by the presence of a limit.
The two had to cycle between climbs and took differing views of the “purity” of their approach to staying close to or on the border at all times but the essence of their experimental mountaineering was the same. Harlin set out in 2010 and finished in 2011, 100 days in total on the road. Dod took 465 days to complete his project. Harlin became diverted from the original mission of cycling, walking and climbing the exact route of the borders because it was less the peaks that began to interest him as it was the villages and towns. Dod kept closer to this original mission but was also distracted by some human elements. The intriguing question is why did they do this? What does it tell us about the times in which we live and the future of this experimental mountaineering?
A great climber like Dod came to this idea by a different route to a commercial climber like Harlin, but they came to the idea at the same time in the history of Europe – 2010-2011 and their experiment still resonates because borders are the sites of the major crises of European civilisation: the movement of people. The Swiss border has long played a role in the history of Europe. During the Nazis era, it was the goal to cross and to escape into a neutral land in which you might survive if you were Jewish or get home if you were an escaped prisoner of war. The French border has long been the main site of war in Europe, it is the crossing of this border that signals the many wars between France and Germany which were finally settled by the peace and reconstruction of the postwar period and the formation of the European Union. It is now the borders of that Union that are “protected” from the waves of migrants escaping poverty and war in Africa and the Middle East to try to find new lives in the prosperity of the EU. And in the UK, the borders between Northern Ireland and the Republic, have become the central issue that has slowed down and might even still stop the Brexit process. For so much of the 19th century the Concert of Europe and the unification of nation-states, defined by borders, shaped the wars, and the geopolitics of the continent. For a short time as Europe seemed to unify, these questions seemed settled. Then with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the independence of Central and Eastern European states, the question of borders came back to the forefront. It has remained there ever since, with cycles of dispute.
So, for these experimental mountaineers, the choice of borders was not so strange and the idea forces us to look again at what it means to be a nation-state and perhaps also, what it means to be a climber.