On Top of Grand Combin

It’s not all battles. For instance July 30 saw the first ascent, in 1859, of Grand Combin, which is one of the highest mountains in the Alps. Thus securing immortality for whosit, whatsisname, thingamy and some other guys.

I do know. It was Charles Sainte-Claire Deville along with three Balleys (Daniel, Emmanuel and Gaspard Balleys) and Basile Dorsaz. But I did have to look it up. Which might have you wishing I’d get back to the battles including that of the Crater and of Warsaw (which one, you might ask). But I’m sticking with Grand Combin, and not only because I personally never mountain climbed.

I didn’t. I rock climbed a bit, badly. But mountain climbing was always too dangerous for my taste. And I had the latest late 20th century gear, not the hemp ropes and hobnail boots with which European amateurs began scaling peaks in earnest in the 19th century just because they were there.

With Grand Combin, where that was was even a challenge. Mountains are always more topologically complex than they appear from a distance, as Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills warns. So it took rather a while and a few attempts just to figure out where the big peak and the big problem was. But then they did it.

It can’t have been easy. I presume the best part of climbing a mountain is stopping because you’re safely back down, though being on the peak is probably also exhilarating in a terrifying way. But maybe that’s because I never climbed them… or perhaps it’s why. The point is, it’s an amazing feat.

To climb mountains is to challenge the unknown, and to respect nature even while “conquering” it because if you don’t do it the mountain’s way, you die. Even if you do, you might die. Did I mention that it’s dangerous? And not everyone can be the first man on the moon (Neil Armstrong, as neither of us had to Google) or even the last (Eugene Cernan, possessor of an odd distinction) or the first man up Everest (Edmund Hillary, unless it was Tenzing Norgay (again, I didn’t have to Google). But you can still do something remarkable even if you say “I climbed Grand Combin” and they say “Huh?” And I’d rather people were climbing mountains than fighting battles except that regrettably many battles have to be fought whereas it’s not obvious that most mountains have to be climbed.

Thus there is one melancholy note. And that is that only one person or group can be the first up any given mountain, or on a celestial body, and afterward a little bit of the mystery is gone. I’m content that there should be some wild peaks on which the hand of man has not set foot. And I’m doing my bit. I’ve never pioneered the ascent of any mountain, nor indeed stood on the summit of anything that was a “real” mountain rather than just something named Mount Royal or what have you.

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Wish I’d said that – July 30, 2016

“Finding a solution here is like putting socks on an octopus. There are too many moving parts.”

U.S. Federal Trade Commission member Mozelle Thompson during a summit on spam, quoted in the Ottawa Citizen June 19 2003

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Defeat and attack at Kleidon

On July 29 a very long time ago as we now reckon these matters, in 1014, Byzantine emperor Basil II crushed a Bulgarian army at the Battle of Kleidon. It would be just one more dang thing in the depressingly long list of things that can’t end well. The entire concept of a cycle of Byzantine–Bulgarian wars, I mean. Except for one curious grimly almost uplifting note to this episode that deserves discussion.

After winning the battle the emperor, possibly in a fit of rage or possibly just because he was a cruel and evil man, had 15,000 Bulgarian prisoners of war blinded, with the exception of every 100th man who was left with one eye to lead the others home. That’s not the noteworthy episode, though. It’s just more of our all-too-typical savagery that makes you wonder who coined the word “humane” and why.

Here’s the thing that’s almost uplifting. When the blinded men returned home, Tsar Samuil of Bulgaria evidently suffered a heart attack that led to his death within months. And I wonder why more leaders are not similarly afflicted personally by the misery that results from their decisions.

I’m not blaming Samuil, mind you. He is widely remembered as a hero in Bulgaria and apparently with reason, though mostly for his efforts to defend its independence (which collapsed ignominiously amid intrigue and murder four years after he died) because war kept him too busy to have much of a domestic record. It was an unequal struggle in which he did a great deal better than one could expect before finally succumbing. And while I value Byzantium as a long-standing barrier to Ottoman expansion into Europe I don’t have much good to say about its government otherwise. I think Samuil was right to fight even knowing that it exposed his men to injury, death and even deliberate mutilation. (And for what it’s worth, he had personally suffered a crippling injury in an earlier battle, in 996.)

So what I really want to know is why Basil II didn’t die of remorse at what he had done, instead of strutting about proud of his new nickname “Bulgar-slayer”. I’m all for understanding that war is hell. But we wouldn’t be safer, or better off morally, if good men and women collapsed in horrified remorse at the savagery and loss of war or even shrank from contemplating it, while bad men and women reveled in it. Or more exactly, we aren’t better off because they do, as is so often the case.

Still, the fact that Samuil keeled over in shock at the sight of his mutilated troops even though he was right to send them into battle speaks well of his character. That’s the almost uplifting part. The fact that Basil didn’t, and rolled over Bulgaria with a smirk in the aftermath, is the grim part. And regrettably it’s also the familiar one.

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Hey, Tom remember your head?

On July 28, 1540 Henry VIII had Thomas Cromwell’s head cut off. Strange that he didn’t see it coming.

Cromwell, I mean. He was Henry’s chief minister from 1532 to 1540, in which capacity with various official titles he played a central role in Henry’s break with Rome and divorce from Catherine of Aragon in order to marry Anne Boleyn, during which Henry had Thomas More’s head cut off (see July 7 in this series for a sharp denunciation of same, and then his divorce of Anne’s head from her body so he could marry Jane Seymour, a rather tasteless 11 days after Anne’s execution.

After Jane died of complications from giving birth to the sickly future Edward VI, Cromwell arranged for Henry to marry Anne of Cleves who was, at least in Henry’s opinion, offensively unattractive. They were soon divorced, Anne probably happy to escape with her own head still firmly anchored in place, and Henry turned on Cromwell for reasons that have never, formally speaking, become clear. The king married Catherine Howard the same day Cromwell was executed. And not 19 months later he had her beheaded.

Do you see a pattern emerging here? Apparently Cromwell didn’t, at least not in time. He thought the king just had a lot of bad people beheaded. But in fact the king had a lot of old friends beheaded. To be in a position of trust with Henry was a reasonably reliable precursor to be in a kneeling position with a wooden pillow… briefly. And if anyone should have realized the king was an unstable maniac, you’d think it would be Cromwell.

Or I suppose Henry. You’d think once you’ve had enough people beheaded, including two wives and two trusted councillors, you’d notice a pattern. But of course if you were that sort of person you probably wouldn’t stack dead former close associates like firewood in the first place.

Still, the person climbing over the pile to kiss such a king’s ring ought to have had some concerns about joining it one day.

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Wish I’d said that – July 28, 2016

“The great inlet by which a color for oppression has entered the world is by one man’s pretending to determine concerning the happiness of another, and by claiming to use what means he thinks proper in order to bring him to a sense of it. It is the ordinary and trite sophism of oppression.”

Edmund Burke (quoted by Richard John Neuhaus in First Things February 2003, saying he learned of it from a correspondent named Nino Langiulli)

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