Doing Yoga With The Grim Reaper ~ Chris Kiran Aarya
“Your vision will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.” – Carl Jung
I was once asked when yoga overtook climbing mountains as my primary passion in life and I knew the answer right away; August 2005 while climbing in the French Alps.
Yoga had been with me for so long but it had always seemed to be more of an adjunct to my life rather than taking a more central role. Yoga was something I did to calm my mind and connect me to my body and breath. Yoga helped me to deal with the chaos and pressure of a job that was eroding my self worth and happiness, even though it paid me very well.
The mountains were the place where I’d cleanse my soul of the garbage I let life and society throw onto me and after a week or two in the heights, I always returned feeling “clean. ” Despite all this, I was still looking outside for validation, love and growth, not within. So, climbing was also my main source of external validation.
All of that changed after climbing the Contamine-Mazeaud route on the northeast ridge of Mont Blanc du Tacul in the French Alps. The route is 350 meters of mixed rock and ice climbing before easing back for another 450 meters into a steep snow ascent to the summit at 4248m. While not considered an especially hard route, at least not by any “serious” mountaineers, I had always been drawn aesthetically to this route on the Triangle du Tacul, at least that’s what I told myself.
Wherever I was living in Zurich, Brussels, Mainz, or Rome, I took every chance I could to drive to the Chamonix valley and fling myself up into the peaks of the Mont Blanc massif. My soul always felt at home in Chamonix, perhaps because some of my ancestors came from a village not too far away in the Rhône-Alpes. I loved the feel of it, the locals, the clean air, and the oceans of granite and ice. But my relationship with the mountains was transforming.
I’d been wanting to wind down my climbing career and spend more time on my yoga practice (and start teaching), since it served me so much better. Climbing and being in the mountains had been such a big part of my life and so much of my identity was wrapped up in it that it was hard to let go completely. This trip back to Chamonix would allow me to see if the mountains would finally let me go –or if I could let them go.
None of my usual partners were available so I engaged a local guide, Phillipe, whom I got along with instantly. We looked at the route and discussed an approaching weather system but figured if we moved fast enough, we could be up and down before the nasty stuff arrived. Like any weekend climber desperate to taste the heights, I had an agenda.
I woke in the campground, did some sun salutations, twists and hip openers, got my gear and and went to meet with Phillipe at the telepherique to take us up the Aiguille du Midi, which provides an amazing level of access to some breathtaking climbs. As I had done so many times before, we stepped out of the ice tunnel and into another world – one of snow, ice, and granite. From there, it was a quick 40 minute jaunt down and over to the base of the route.
I had always told myself that my yoga and climbing were one in the same but on this day, I would realize how much I’d been fooling myself.
We had started out early since we knew weather was coming so we had to move fast. We roped up, grabbed our ice tools, and starting climbing straight up a 150 foot wall to the belay where the ice narrowed to a notch on the rock. The ice was firm and welcomed my axes like an old friend. I felt like a monkey quickly rising up the blue ice as we quickly passed a Canadian pair who had taken a pause halfway up the pitch.
It was a glorious morning on the ice and rock as I got to enjoy one of my favorite smells; fresh high mountain air mixed with granite dust. Pitch after pitch we climbed the ice and rock. The moving meditation lasted a few hours but it flew by as I felt connected to the mountain…and so alive!
The last bits of the route were easy but loose so we were stepping carefully when we felt the wind pick up as we left the protection of the Tacul’s northeast face. We topped out into winds so strong they nearly knocked us over. We were heading to the summit a few hundred meters away, then we saw it…the storm we’d been trying to beat.
The storm was just starting to touch the western side of the massif and you could see the air bend over the contours of the ridge as it approached. It looked like a giant black wing of death – heading straight for us. We both knew we were now in for a more “sporty” day than we had planned for.
I’d previously had some close calls in the mountains, including an epic picking the wrong rappel route down the Elysian Buttress (near Flagstaff, AZ) in the dark and in freezing temperatures. There was also the time in 1998 when I hung from my tools and crampons on an ice wall on the side of Mount Rainier while the entire glacier next to me was avalanching, with ice blocks the size of single family homes tumbling by. On that day, I was truly thankful for pranayama, but I digress.
So, Phillipe and I quickly decided to forget the summit and start heading down as soon as we could via the snowy northwest face. Although it was the easiest route on the mountain, it still had its fair share of objective dangers…numerous crevasses hundreds of meters deep, frequent avalanches, and the constant danger of seracs falling from the ridge above. We weren’t even one hundred meters down from the ridge when the storm arrived, and with it a freezing and blinding snow-filled wind.
Suddenly, our escape route was no longer easy as a bright day quickly turned to a freezing dusk. So, we bundled up further, shortened our rope between us down to just 2-3 meters, and continued. We were picking our way down with less than a meter of visibility and each step that Phillipe made in the snow was filled in and wiped away by the time I got to it. It was so cold I could feel my flesh freezing. Since I’d already mildly frostbitten my hands once before, they were more susceptible to a full blown case of frostbite. That of course could possibly make it harder to do arm balances, but at least I’d finally have an excuse for why I’m so crappy at playing the guitar.
Without a word, we both knew that this was one of those situations where one or both of us could die if we made the wrong move or got lost in the freezing whiteout.
To sit down to rest could mean death if you get too cold and can’t get back up. To get injured while blindly picking your way through the ice could mean your partner would need to leave you, lest he stay and freeze to death too. And we both knew that the storm and high winds could easily let loose one or more seracs (ice blocks the size of a Taco Bell), wiping us from the side of the Tacul. All we could do was keep moving downward.
And as all of these realizations came to me, my yoga became very simple; step, breathe, axe, breathe, step, breathe…climbing at altitude is always a vinyasa.
I remembered the previous August, when the indomitable Rahel Maria Liu froze to death less than a mile from where I was. She had succumbed after being caught in a freak snowstorm on the south face of Mont Blanc while she was attempting to climb the Innominata Spur route. I was supposed to link up with Rahel in Chamonix a week or so after that, but it was not to be. Word came out later that she had been able to speak to her parents on her cell phone before she died.
Step, breathe, axe, breathe, step, breathe…
I tried not to think about Rahel’s plight as I started to feel a number of visitors walking alongside me, the first among them being death, whom some call the Grim Reaper. Its one thing to have death say a little hello to you but its something completely different to have it hanging around, just waiting for you to slip, or give up, or get buried. I’d felt this presence before in very dangerous situations but this time, it felt intensely personal…like it was there just for me.
And soon after the Grim Reaper appeared, my witness conscious showed up – gently scolding my ego. “If it wasn’t for you, we wouldn’t be in this situation.” Now we’re going to fall or freeze to death on the side of a mountain. You dumb-ass, why didn’t we just stick to yoga and leave this climbing stuff behind?” I even felt my ego retort that since witness conscious was so pious and righteous, he should welcome death so my consciousness could be free to move on and keep growing. This debate ensued as the hours passed by.
Of course, the entire conversation was one my ego was having with itself, with my witness conscious watching from the stands. Meanwhile, my body was aching from the many post-holing steps into hip-deep snow on the way down and I was glad I did those hip openers in the morning. Yep, this was the all day yoga practice I’m always striving for!
Step, breathe, axe, breathe, step, breathe…stumble, get up, step, breathe, axe, breathe, step, breathe.
During the hours it took to descend (with my little crew in tow), I started to gain a new level of clarity. I remembered a quote from climber/writer Jon Krakauer about the day he realized that he was climbing Everest not for its own sake but to “have climbed” it. In other words, he wasn’t climbing it so much for the experience but rather to feed his ego. Never mind that I seldom spoke of my climbing achievements to anyone, I was still “collecting” them to fill my own bag of self-belief….but my yearning to fill that bag had been waning.
Perhaps this was why the lure of climbing big icy mountains was losing its power over me, and why I was just as happy hiking around them instead of scaling them. Sometime during those hours as we descended in the freezing and blinding snow, I realized that the mountains had lost their hold on my ego and the release felt amazing. Also, thanks to my ever-present witness conscious, I also lost much of my fear of the Grim Reaper who had been my shadow during the descent.
After a few hours, I finally felt the presence of death leaving as we jumped over a few gaps and arrived in the windy flats of the Col du Midi. My legs felt like Jello and the winds were still whipping and burning, but we were on much friendlier ground now. Through the whiteout, Phillipe and I could make out each other’s huge smiles as we knew we’d make it now. Still, our practice was not yet complete..
Step, breathe, axe, breathe, step, breathe…I think I had this sequence dialed in by now.
As Phillipe and I crossed the Col du Midi, we linked up with a few other parties seeking to escape the storm and I remember hoping that we could get everyone off the mountain. Part of me knew that someone could die that day (a common occurrence in the Chamonix area), you could just feel it. So, each rope party we encountered and linked up with brought joy as we knew it was two fewer people who could be lost in the storm that day. I kept looking for the Canadian pair we saw earlier in the day but did not spot them. It was too cold and windy to speak to anyone, much less make any introductions but we felt a sense of unity as we moved together to get off the mountain.
Once across the col, our conga line of climbers from all over the world started a freezing ascent back up the “easy” side of the Aiguille du Midi on legs so cold and tired that each step was a challenge. Any crease or fold in your outer clothing meant you’d feel the freezing cold wind burn right through onto your skin. Before long, we started to see the dark shadow of the ice tunnel, safety, warmth, and life. The last few hundred meters it seemed the tunnel would never get closer but finally, it appeared in front of us as a black hole in the snow.
Once inside the tunnel, pairs of frost-covered climbers stumbled through the hallway into the Aiguille du Midi summit complex and started to remove their crampons, drink what water they had left, and exchange glances with each other. I finally spotted the Canadian pair coming through the tunnel sometime later as I sat in a daze sipping water.
I spent the next few days in the campground processing these experiences and realizing that my relationship with the mountains was changed forever. I still love getting into the mountains to hike, ski and sometimes climb, but there was no longer a burning ambition to achieve anything with them. Being in their presence was more than enough for me.
It also changed my relationship with yoga, which had always helped my soul to survive amid the pressure and chaos of a life that was not serving me. Now I wanted to thrive, not just survive.
So, I started to make moves to transform my life and my practice and now I’m happier and more content than I ever thought possible. Sure, life is still full of ups and downs, heartbreak, and challenges but being free of the need to climb every mountain I see gives me a little taste of santosha every day.
In the years since then, I’ve tried to apply this same mentality to my asana practice, trying not to become “ambitious” to do a certain challenging pose but rather to BE with a pose and let it unfold when its supposed to. This of course has meant that some parts of my practice have lagged behind others, but I’m not in a hurry. As I’m always telling my students; yoga is like filling a bucket one drop at a time. So be patient and steadfast in your practice, try not to look at the bucket, and before you know it, it will be overflowing.
This article was originally published in 2012 on Elephant Journal.