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from the March 2004 issue

Climbing with Huberath

I was surprised to hear that Marek Huberath was a mountain climber in his spare time. I thought, "Maybe not a real mountain climber." People do like to boast. He was achiever enough, not only one of the best and most respected writers of his generation (when describing him to others, I often use the word "powerful") but also a Ph.D. research physicist at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow and for few months of each year in Belgium.

Over a beer, I told a Polish writer in Warsaw, Artur Szrejter, that I would be going on a mountain hike with Huberath in a few days in Zakopane (in the Tatra Mountains, near the Slovak border) with another couple, Terry Bisson and Judy Jensen. (Terry is a Brooklyn writer, now in Berkeley.) This trip would be taking place in July 2000. Artur shook his head and smiled ironically--Poles do that very well, having had more than two hundred years of practice--and remarked that I should be careful, as Huberath liked being near God. "Near God" in two senses: the altitude and the peril.

Huberath himself had told me that he feels at peace only when he has empty air beneath his feet. He also told me how he once rescued another climber who became paralyzed by fear at the edge of a precipice. He also told me how once he and his wife, climbing alone, had had a close call in Switzerland. With exhaustion, dehydration, and the cold, they almost didn't make it back.

Climbing and cliffhanging scenes certainly appear in Huberath's work. In an episode in his novel Nest of Worlds, two men try to leave a building on a fire escape that midway through their descent partially detaches from the building wall and sways precariously. In another scene from the same novel, a man jumps from a plane without a parachute, trying to die in an existential protest (which is unsuccessful).

That God is very much in Huberath's fiction is unusual: most of his writer and intellectual contemporaries are agnostics or atheists. Unbelieving is the default. You'll find no or little religious furniture as such in Huberath's stories, yet deep moral problems are dealt with in universal terms. God may not put in a literal appearance, but He is present. (I'd suggest a line here from Huberath to Solzhenitsyn.)

Huberath is a traditional Pole in other respects. He is a perfect host (Poles believe that there is no hospitality equal to theirs). He is a protector of women, in a way that is, without exaggeration, knightly. He has a strong sense of location and history. In Krakow he gave us a detailed guide talk, which ranged from the medieval castle (Wawel) to the air pollution from the steel mills in Katowice to the small cemetery where his father lay.

So I doubted that we would be in any real danger in the mountains: Huberath would protect his American guests.

A worry, however. Would I be up to a few hours of hiking in the Tatras? Terry and Judy both hiked, but my athletic days, such as they were, were long over: although I used to run marathons (never very fast, finishing in the last quarter of the field), I stopped jogging altogether when I began commuting to New York City from Long Island. My legs were probably strong enough, I thought, and I had good balance now, both from doing tai chi for a few years.

The trek was physically more difficult and longer than I expected, especially since it was made in wind and rain (sometimes a downpour), on slippery rocks, and in hiking boots that were too small (a mistake I'll never make again). My jammed big toes hurt on our descent.

The trail went on rocks and boulders set along a narrow edge between two steep slopes down, so steep that if you stumbled, you were lost. I believe the term is ar'te. I guessed that the rocks were put there to keep the path from being eroded by hikers--and maybe also to provide safer footing. I noticed that the other people on the trail (not many, because of the weather) were kids: people in their teens and twenties, all cheerful and lean as they passed us or came the other way.

Through the rain, a thick mist kept most of the landscape hidden. Huberath apologized for the weather; he was disappointed that we were missing some spectacular views.

I am not big on the beauty of nature. Given a choice, I prefer the squalor and various little human environments of a city. To me, nature tends to be a nonhuman place, where one cliff or gully is like another, no matter what country you're in. Nature provides a nice opportunity for a break, to get away, but I think I would have a problem spending more than two days in a cornfield, for example. I'm not generally impressed by scenery, though I did love the land in northern New Mexico last year (my first time to the Southwest).

Nevertheless I was struck by the picturesque on that mountain in the Tatras--the few times the mist parted: woods below fields below woods below fields, all at different and beautiful angles, with sunlight streaming down at different levels. It was a three-dimensionality far beyond my everyday experience.

My fear of heights fortunately (a pleasant surprise) did not come into play--perhaps because of the shielding mist, perhaps because I tended to keep my eyes on the ground before me whenever the drop was only a foot or two away.

Huberath narrated for us tales of falling. On the long cable car up that we took, he told us how a champion skier during the Nazi occupation of World War II jumped from the cable car to avoid being captured by the Germans waiting for him at the top--an amazing leap to an almost vertical slope of snow. I looked down and could hardly imagine anyone surviving such a stunt. The skier got away fine. Another story: we passed a marker on the path, where a young man had fallen to his death. It is not known whether it was an accident or suicide. The commemorative words were very simple: his name, his age, his end.

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