Maybe he liked it up there

Ernest F. Imhoff

November 13, 1992|By Ernest F. Imhoff

SCIENTISTS are now poring over the 5,300-year-old remains of The Iceman of the Alps. They wonder who he was: farmer, hunter, prospector, shepherd or miner.

Who knows? Maybe he just liked being up there.

Maybe he was like Emperor Hadrian in the A.D. 100s, who climbed Mt. Etna just to see a sunrise from a mountaintop.

Maybe he was like another earlier climber, Philip of Macedonia, who hiked up a Balkan peak in 350 B.C. so he could see the Adriatic and the Aegean from one place.

Maybe he was climbing closer to God like Moses on Mount Sinai or Elijah on Mount Carmel.

Or maybe he was a Stone Age Rip Van Winkle climbing away from his wife.

Whoever he was, the oldest preserved man ever found probably was not unlike hill hikers and climbers 53 centuries later, many of us more than slightly touched. We've learned to ignore such witticisms as "He who climbs Fuji once is a wise man; he who climbs it twice is a fool."

If my theory is right, the Iceman had fun up there. He might have been shivering, freezing, trying hard to breathe, fighting off wind and cold, enduring hunger and misery -- all while enjoying himself at 10,500 feet and feeling a beauty not known in the valleys.

The mountains hold untold beautiful secrets. The sky is bluer, the storms are darker, the flowers are tinier, the wind is more visible, the rain is wetter, the sun is brighter, the rocks are softer from a distance and harder close up. The snow and ice are whiter but sometimes turn pink from organisms; the trees are smaller and turn their backs to the wind.

All the while, danger waits or walks ahead or behind or below or above.

My scenario holds that The Iceman was pleased until his end when the snows came and covered him in a pocket beneath the glaciers where he stayed until a hiking couple found his body Sept. 19, 1991.

The idea is unproven, but my adventures hiking in the mountains are proof enough for me. Besides, I like the freeze-dried Iceman for a special reason.

He thumbs his ice-pressed, distorted nose at centuries of European myths, legends and histories. These stories held that high mountains were mostly rotten, evil places where dragons and the devil lived and where no decent people ventured. The East revered mountains as places of the Gods, but in much of Europe, people looked in horror and stayed below.

The Iceman tells me otherwise. Maybe people have always climbed mountains for the fun of it, as they also climbed for practical reasons -- to get to the other side, find minerals, graze and hunt animals, plant things and capture enemies or hide from enemies.

The Iceman might have liked Konrad Von Gesner's personal rule. The 16th-century Swiss scientist climbed the Alps at first just to study plants. He finished his life climbing at least one mountain a year "when the flowers are at their best" just to enjoy life.

The light-headed Ernest F. Imhoff has climbed to the tops of all 65 4,000-foot mountains in New England and higher peaks elsewhere. He is this newspaper's readers' representative.

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