I wake up in a hut in the Swiss Alps, excited. It is April 2011 and my partner Erhard and I are about to complete a 10-day trek to celebrate his birthday. He is turning 52 today.
The ascent is not particularly challenging, but it is long. We set out before sunrise to ensure we reach the Grünhorn’s 4,000m summit with time to enjoy views of the Aletsch glacier, the largest in the Alps. As we adjust our head torches in the dark outside the hut, I notice, for the first time, the skull and crossbones stitched on to Erhard’s woollen hat. He sees me staring and chuckles, joking that, when the time comes for the final journey, everyone should be prepared.
We cover the first part of the climb on back-country skis, which have skins glued to the bottom to create a strong grip on the soft snow. Once the slope gets steeper and icier and the wind picks up, we swap the skis for crampons, tie ourselves together at the waist with rope and start to use our ice picks. We walk slowly along the ridge that leads to the summit, and I try to follow Erhard’s footsteps more closely. As always when we climb, Erhard is leading.
Then our rope is jumping around wildly, and the blue walls of my childhood bedroom surround me. I can see huge black rocks below. “Darling, it’s over,” I say. “I hope it won’t hurt too much.” The words are clear, but there is no sound.
When I open my eyes, I’m lying down. Everything is white. I don’t feel scared, just incredibly tired. I know that falling asleep might lead to fatal hypothermia, but I close my eyes. It is peaceful and very quiet. I no longer feel my body, because I’m no longer a physical person, just a floating spirit bathed in sweet, white light.
We have fallen more than 200m, after I slipped on the ice, hurling my partner into the void with me. Did he do something at the last minute to ensure he would hit the jagged cliff wall and that I would, instead, bounce off a snow patch? Did he even have time to think before our tether violently yanked him off his feet? All I know for sure is that this accident begins a miraculous new chapter of my life.
One of these miracles is the mountain guide who has been following our footsteps to the summit. He makes an emergency call as soon as he realises the tracks have abruptly disappeared close to the cliff’s edge. I spend at least five hours unconscious in the deep snow amassed by the wind at the bottom of the cliff before a rescue helicopter flies me to a hospital in the city of Sion, 40 miles away.
I come close to freezing to death, but the doctors are amazed by how little damage my body suffers from the fall. No vital organ has been injured. My legs are unbroken, my skull intact. The diagnosis is a broken wrist, a broken vertebra and several broken ribs. Erhard is dead. The helicopter also transported the body of the man I loved. He was found lying in the snow next to me, still tied to my waist. I never realised that he had been right there, within touching distance.
It is not the last time I will fall.
Erhard Loretan was one of the world’s most acclaimed climbers, the third man to summit all of the planet’s 14 peaks more than 8,000m in altitude, after the Italian Reinhold Messner and Jerzy Kukuczka, a Pole. Erhard never used bottled oxygen and was admired among fellow mountaineers for pioneering the so-called “night-naked” style, carrying as little equipment as possible to climb faster, including through the night hours. In 1986, Erhard and another Swiss climber reached the top of Everest and back in only 43 hours, without rope and taking just half a litre of water each and a few chocolate bars, before sliding back down on their bottoms to base camp. Messner called their Everest climb a work of genius. In its obituary, The Daily Telegraph quoted Peter Hillary, the son of Everest’s first conqueror, comparing Erhard’s approach to mountaineering to somebody climbing the outside of a skyscraper by “following grooves in the concrete and glass”.
As much as he loved pushing the boundaries, Erhard struggled with the attention his exploits generated, particularly in his native, mountaineering-obsessed Switzerland. Once he got too old to set new records, he returned to regular mountain guiding and kept a low profile. In private, he would sometimes express disdain for unprepared mountain tourists, who he viewed as dangerous to their guides and other climbers, as well as harmful to the environment.
I was very much one of these tourists, compensating for my lack of technique with endurance and determination. Since my teenage years, I’ve always tried to see how quickly I could go from zero to advanced, whether practising a new sport, such as climbing, or learning a complicated language, such as Russian or Arabic. And when I find a guide or a teacher inspiring, then I really develop the belief that I will succeed.
I begin mountaineering in earnest in 2008 and immediately catch the bug. Having long loved horse riding, I swap afternoons galloping bareback across the countryside outside Geneva, where I work as a judge, for weekends climbing the Alps. Each climbing season, I manage longer and more complicated ascents with the help and encouragement of a handful of professionals.
The first time I climb with Erhard, who steps in to replace one of my regular guides, he offers none of the usual words of support. Instead, we walk for nine hours in near-total silence. Erhard never stops or turns around to check on me. Once I understand the marching order, I decide to follow him and keep my mouth shut, however unpleasant it feels not to even get a toilet break. I think I win his admiration, even if he never admits it. Within a few months, the challenge of keeping up with him turns into love. I now spend my weekends in his mountain chalet in Gruyère, his home region, or in the camper van Erhard uses to criss-cross the Alps.
We are in love, but there is a distance. Erhard often keeps to himself and rarely speaks about his past. I respect his privacy, well aware of the tragedy that occurred almost a decade earlier. One evening Erhard was alone with his and his then-partner’s seven-month-old son, Ewan. Upset by the infant’s crying, Erhard shook him violently and put him back in his cot to settle down. Ewan died the next day, on Christmas Eve. In 2003, Erhard received a suspended prison sentence of four months for negligent manslaughter. His trial shocked Swiss society, while also raising public awareness of shaken baby syndrome, the type of brain injury that can be fatal in babies and toddlers.
On one of the rare occasions when we talk about Ewan’s death, Erhard tells me that the sentencing, as well as the media and public opinion, felt like nothing compared to the judgment of his own conscience and the horror of knowing that he is a father who killed his son. His words strike a deep chord within me, particularly since I am a judge.
Following Erhard’s death in 2011, I find it ironic that I’m also forced to live my personal drama in public. After initially refusing to speak to journalists from my hospital bed, I decide to write a column for a Swiss newspaper to pay homage to Erhard but also to question the concepts of risk, guilt and how tragic events are interpreted by the law. My fall was immediately ruled an accident by the Swiss judiciary, but what would have happened if I had died and Erhard had survived? Could he have been found guilty of negligent manslaughter once more? In my writing, I also wonder if I somehow became a judge in order to question the purpose and the meaning of justice itself. I come to call this belief “reverse causality”, the idea that the present can explain the past, rather than the other way round.
Despite my new doubts about my profession, I feel that I need to return to work as soon as possible. Three weeks after my accident, I schedule a court hearing and get back to my judge’s chair. My career is not in jeopardy, but my unexpectedly prompt reappearance isn’t welcomed by all, and I soon find out that some of my colleagues are arguing that I’m not in the right state of mind to administer justice. I confront the president of the Geneva courtrooms, who acknowledges that he also finds it hard to understand why I’m back at work, when some other judges take days of sick leave just to nurse a cold. I tell him to trust me, that I can go home if I don’t feel up to the job. But my private health insurance also insists that a psychiatrist must determine whether I’m fit to work. My sessions with the psychiatrist prove uneasy, especially after I refuse to take the antidepressants he immediately wants to prescribe. We eventually reach a compromise whereby I agree to work part-time.
One good thing comes of my meetings with the psychiatrist: our negotiations help me realise that the part of my work that I really appreciate is mediation, getting people to agree to disagree, so that they can settle out of court without wasting more money on lawyers and more time on appeals. Increasingly, I see justice as an elaborate game, whose rules are set and sometimes altered by people who do not necessarily have the best interest of the feuding parties in mind.
Out of court, I try to build a quieter life in which moments of introspection are no longer limited to the hours spent riding a horse or climbing a mountain. I live in Geneva but exist outside city life. I find myself getting upset by messages of compassion and the attention of colleagues and friends, however well intentioned. One day, I erase from my address book the names of dozens of lawyers and friends with whom I previously enjoyed spending time. Even a visit to the stables of Lancelot, the beautiful black stallion that I used to ride, brings little joy.
I start to watch the world around me much more closely. Some afternoons, I sit on a bench inside Geneva’s train station, observing. I try to imagine why so many people would want to travel, what drives them to pace back and forth on the platform, how the panic on their faces suggests their lives depend upon catching a train. We all think that we are going places, that we are setting the pace and choosing our direction, and yet most of us seem to forget that key events in our lives are unknown to us, particularly the moment of our death. After discovering the writings of Carl Jung, the Swiss psychologist, I also come to embrace his concept of the “shadow self” — the hidden inner personality that makes us project on to others our own desires or shortcomings.
In the summer of 2011, I take a three-week break, filling my suitcase with a strict minimum of clothing. I need room to pack the diaries I kept as a teenager as well as books that my next-door neighbour has chosen for me. I plough through Osho and Eckhart Tollé, but my favourite is Alice in Wonderland, which I didn’t like as a child but now find impossible to put down. What is reality and what is a dream? Isn’t falling asleep a little like death, since nothing guarantees we will awake? Among other readings, Alice helps me make some sense of my brief experience of imminent death and the afterlife.
After my vacation, I resume my double life in Geneva. I’m a judge for a few hours each day, trying to convince people to settle outside my courtroom, and a hermit the rest of the time, rejecting invitations and phone calls from friends, until eventually I stop getting them.
In the summer of 2012, I have to have more surgery on my wrist, which was badly operated on after my fall. I welcome this unexpected opportunity to scrutinise a specific part of my body, so I ask to watch the surgery, which normally occurs behind a screen. I watch, fascinated from the outside by what is happening inside, as the doctor cuts through the tissues. Afterwards, I decide I need to better understand the link between mind and body. I spend the next two years taking anatomy courses at a school where I am the only participant not studying to actually practise alternative medicine. Most of my courtroom work involves real-estate disputes, so I start enjoying the idea that I’m just a tenant inside my body, trying to keep up the maintenance but aware that my lease might expire any minute.
My introspection leads me to a world of shamans who offer the keys to unlock the spirit. Soon enough, I start to substitute the extreme sensations that I had once felt mountaineering with Erhard for those that can be gotten while playing the drums to reach a trance, taking Amazonian ayahuasca, Mexican peyote, injecting psychedelic toad’s venom into my bloodstream or using different synthetic drugs. At one stage, I start a relationship with the assistant to a so-called shaman whose spiritual retreat I attend. I see in him a healer rather than just a lover, but I find instead a lost soul, immersed in drugs. I manage to leave him after several months, once I finally come to terms with the extent to which he was simply feeding my desire to play the victim.
Without fully realising it, I spend almost four years navigating a universe of eclectic New Age practices, alongside people with whom I mostly don’t want to talk. With hindsight, I come to believe power, money and spiritualism form a dangerous concoction. Substances can open the mind, but they need to go hand-in-hand with the intense and difficult work of introspection.
In the summer of 2017, I fall in love with Jean-François, a friend of Erhard’s since they were teenagers. They share the same enthusiasm for nature and solitude, as well as the passion for climbing, which Jean-François practises daily in a converted barn that serves both as his workshop and climbing wall. A carpenter by training, Jean-François built his own house in the valley next to the one where Erhard once lived. He reignites my fascination with the mountains, even if I have lost the desire to climb the tallest ones. (My logbook was permanently closed after reaching 47 of the 48 Swiss peaks of more than 4,000m.)
But the winter after we get together, I decide to join Jean-François back-country skiing. Jean-François is more talkative than Erhard, and his words help dissipate any apprehension that I might have had when starting out at the bottom of the slope. We talk about everything, except Erhard. Jean-François tells me that he is interested in my present, not my past life.
In January 2018, we climb a nearby mountain on our skis. It is a beautiful, clear day but, halfway up, I feel a sudden urge to return to the chalet. A few minutes later, I plunge into a ditch that cuts across our slope. I immediately feel that I’m seriously injured, as I have flipped back on to one of my own skis. Jean-François tells me that I probably have broken my sternum with my own chin, but that I might also have more serious damage. He rushes off to get a phone signal and call for help, while I follow his instructions to lie still. I feel scared as I try to fight off the cold. A helicopter eventually airlifts me, this time to a hospital in the city of Lausanne.
The doctors confirm my sternum is broken, as well as several ribs. More worryingly, I have broken three vertebrae, including the top one, the atlas. It is named after the Greek myth because, just as Atlas supported the globe, it supports the entire head. I am injected with morphine, which gives me sensations similar to those I experienced during past shamanic ceremonies. I have a vision of my back, the skin entirely removed, like a carcass waiting to be sliced by the butcher. The surgeons want to operate on my spinal cord immediately, which they say is necessary to ensure I don’t spend the rest of my life in a wheelchair. But the surgery is risky. As a result of my anatomy classes, I’ve also become more sceptical of the protocols that hospital doctors follow, especially when they are too rushed.
With the support of Jean-François and another doctor who helped me recover from my previous accident, I decide to go with the alternative: a rigid corset that compresses me from neck to waist. I will have to wear it for many months, if not longer, with no guarantee the vertebrae will heal properly.
After two weeks in hospital, I’m allowed to return to Jean-François’s chalet, where he becomes my permanent nurse, only taking time off to continue his carpentry work in the adjacent barn. I’m lying on a bed specially adjusted by Jean-François, who also uses his DIY skills to convert part of the ground floor into a space in which he can bathe me. He takes care of me without any sign of frustration. He tells me about the Hawaiian concept of Ho’oponopono, that our souls jointly created this accident so that we could grow enough to surmount it. Everything that happens on earth, that people like to define as good or evil, is in fact following the path dictated by our souls, he tells me.
Once more, I’m forced to take sick leave and told that I won’t be able to return to work for at least eight months. But I’m living with a man who is willing to take on any task, including that of a physical therapist. From the onset, he promises me that my body will re-emerge stronger than before the accident. We also adopt two kittens, Snow and Luna.
My corset and strong headaches make it too uncomfortable for me to read, so I switch to listening to audiobooks, most of which have to do with the mind and the body. I try to learn more from Jung, Jiddu Krishnamurti, Alan Watts, Frédéric Lenoir and Joe Dispenza, among others. I completely stop listening to the news and lose interest in any of the stories that make the headlines.
In the summer of 2018, I return to work part-time, once again much quicker than anticipated. I’m not fully healed, but I’ve learnt to treat my corset as if it were armour and ignore some of the tensions and unpleasant comments that welcome me back in to the courtroom. I’m almost enjoying having to keep my head completely still; I only focus on the person I am facing and who is talking to me, ignoring all the other things that could normally distract me.
Eventually, I recover and no longer have to wear the corset. I keep it at home and occasionally put it on to remind myself how miraculous it is that my body can stand straight. But my year doesn’t end peacefully. We must bury one of our cats, Luna, killed by a car on the road that crosses our village. “She decided to leave us,” Jean-François tells me. “She’s leading the way,” I reply.
I start 2019 by using my independence as a judge to set up a new work schedule that allows me to only spend three days a week in Geneva. While in the city, I also bunch together my court hearings in order to have time to visit my dad, whose health is declining. I spend the rest of the week with Jean-François in his chalet, where I write my court rulings with a view of the small mountain outside.
For decades, Jean-François has begun his days by climbing this mountain — on back-country skis in winter, jogging in summer — and paragliding back down in time for breakfast. This morning routine has kept him not only incredibly fit but also very close to the nature that he loves as much as he hates city life. One morning in February, when I’m working in Geneva, I try to call Jean-François to wish him a wonderful day. He doesn’t pick up the phone. Anxious, I send him a text message, awkwardly joking that I hope he has enjoyed “flying to the song of the eagles”.
At lunchtime, I visit my dad in the hospital where he has undergone a foot amputation. He seems to be losing his desire to fight his illness and, by the time I reach the car park, I am in distress, worried about my partner and exasperated by my father. In the early afternoon, I get a call from Jean-François’s son, who lives nearby. He tells me there is no sign of his father and that he’s calling emergency services. I drive two hours from Geneva back to the mountains, struggling to keep my eyes on the road. My reason wants to argue all will be fine, but my heart knows this is not the case. Overnight, a search party finds his body buried under a small avalanche. Jean-François died on the mountain that he knew like the back of his hand.
When the rescue helicopter lands, I rush to embrace Jean-François and kiss his cold face, until the emergency team forces me to let go. It’s the second time I’m kissing my dead partner. Eight years earlier, I had insisted that I should be taken, by ambulance, from my hospital bed to the cemetery to attend Erhard’s funeral.
About the photography
Olivo Barbieri is an Italian artist, widely recognised for his techniques of creating otherworldly aerial landscapes by employing a shallow depth of field with a tilt-shift lens. The work in this piece, from the project “Alps — Geographies and People” (2012- 19), explores how a mountain is perceived from the climbers’ point of view. All the proportions, rock formations and people in these photographs are real.
Another new chapter. Soon enough, my fears about my dad are confirmed, and I learn that he is having another amputation. Despite repeated promises from the doctors that he will soon return home, he dies in the hospital six months later.
A month after burying Jean-François, I decide that I must quit my job as a judge. In the upper echelons of the Swiss legal system, it is almost unheard of for a 46-year-old judge to retire under normal circumstances. I was considered young when I was appointed 11 years ago; now I want to become Geneva’s youngest retired judge.
My brother tries to convince me that I should not abandon one of the most secure and prestigious jobs in Switzerland, that I should instead ask for an unpaid leave of absence. But I want to turn the page fully, with zero temptation to ever return to a profession in which the letter of the law seems to me to have become more important than the spirit and where status is placed above feeling. I find it ridiculous to be greeted by people with phrases like “Your Honour”.
My last day as a judge is July 30 2019, which is also my birthday, and leaving feels like the perfect gift. I look back on a job that was never a vocation, rather something I chose because my father once told me that it was both difficult and rewarding to study law, which I took up as a personal challenge. Difficult and rewarding, but low risk. Luckily, I have enough savings to allow me to lead a frugal life. I could also tap into some of my pension money before reaching the official retirement age, should I ever actually reach it.
I start this new chapter believing that I am more solid spiritually than I was in 2011, when Erhard died. I now feel as light as he was when he climbed Everest, with only his water bottle and chocolate. I have no professional duties, no social obligations, and I can devote all my time to trying to understand myself better.
After reading the Yoga Sutras of Patañjali, I add more yoga to my early morning routine, which is a blend of meditation, long bouts of deep breathing and some other physical movement. I also return to an earlier interest in massage and study a Hawaiian technique, Lomi Lomi, that I start to practise on my very few visitors, mostly my mother and brother. I now rent a chalet, at an altitude of 1,000m, just below a ski resort in the Valais region of Switzerland. The chalet itself is on the outskirts of a village, and its main assets are its windows and terrace, from where I enjoy what I consider to be the best TV show in the world. I try to rise with the sun and watch it set every day, as it colours the snowy Alpine peaks pink, deep orange and, finally, dark blue.
Snow, my cat, is also my last link with Jean-François, since we raised him together. But in May this year, on Ascension Day, Snow doesn’t return from one of his hunting trips in the surrounding fields. I spend hours walking up and down the road that runs past our home, until I find his corpse in a ditch. I surmise he must have managed to crawl there after being hit by a car. My sorrow is immense, but soon eclipsed by the gratitude that I feel for having shared an intense part of my life with Snow, whose presence became as important for me as that of any human being. Every being comes, every being goes. I now always try to think of Snow’s departure as the completion of his main mission on earth, which was to help me overcome the loss of Jean-François. As Jung put it, “Life is a luminous pause between two mysteries that are yet one.”
As told to Xenia’s brother, Raphael Minder, who is the FT’s central Europe correspondent
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