Words by Dan Richards – you’ll find more of his writing in our soon-to-be-released France magazine.
I’m in Switzerland.
In the morning, when the massive meringue of the mountains alpenglow pink, I sit with coffee by my window and read — today it was a Maigret (mysterious body in a canal). My cabin is a two-level brutalist pod, hanging on hawsers from a concrete canopy… named Fuhrimann.
Every hour, like clockwork, a little train trundles past — two green carriages appearing through a gap in the woods before sweeping in a wide slow arc over to the village L’Isle, then back. It’s very comforting. As much a part of the landscape as the farms and barns, the trees, the cows; it’s whistle as familiar the klang and clonk of their bells.
I’ve been to Switzerland twice before. The first time, I tried to climb Dent Blanche, a 4,357 metre peak in the Pennine Alps which looms sphinx-like over Evolène and Zermatt. My father came too. The trip was not a great success and we ended up benighted on the side of the thing with an unwanted but admittedly spectacular grandstand view of The Matterhorn.
The second visit was more successful, inasmuch as I got to the top of Dent Blanche, led by a Swiss Guide named Jean-Noël Bovier — although such was the quiet fury with which he dragooned my inept form aloft that I my greatest wish became, far above self-preservation, to make the man happy and, failing that, climb ahead and pull the thing up after me.
Now I’m back, third time lucky. I have a residency at Fondation Jan Michalski until December 20th and plan to use it to write. Admittedly, the library where I’m sitting is about 750 metres up Mont Tendre, a mountain which rises unseen somewhere behind me, but almost everything’s halfway up a mountain here… but the Jura are quite small and green in the general scheme. No, the view of the great whites across the lake is enough for me and the more lake and blue distance between us the better.
So you can imagine how my heart skipped when an email arrived yesterday from Walter, my editor at Faber who oversaw the climbing book.
But it was fine, he wasn’t demanding I shin up anything precipitous, which was a relief. Rather, he was writing to ask how I was, how the new book was going and, teasingly, whether I’d been back to see ‘those yaks.’ Ah yes, I thought, those yaks — a 2015 encounter in the high Valais which I remember very fondly but have until now never set down.
The yaks belonged to Rosula Blanc, if yaks can be said to belong to anyone. Enormous ancient beasts, their scale was the thing that first struck me when I saw their recumbent humps through a telescope, far and high across the valley from Yak shu lo ché / Yaks on the rocks, the farm in La Giette where she lives.
Only recently, Rosula has sent me photographs of a four day trek she made with several of her herd across the alps and I recognised a picture of an animal I met in 2015 — a steer named Naulekh, after a Nepalese peak. Shaggy white wedge face alert, black eyes, black nose with a grey-pinkish surround, slate horns swept back like a winged helmet. He lies on the puckered snow serene, rump to the camera, his back rises frosted and pale as a winter fell. Around him straw grasses poke through the snow. Behind him another yak, black with a pale muzzle, huddles up bunched with horns like chopper handlebars. The picture looks utterly cold but the pair seem happy enough; patient, beatific, almost biblical.
There’s something so sweet-natured in Naulekh’s face that he seemed holy. The scene took me back to childhood nativities and thoughts of shepherds, comets and mangers, church cribs, young children with tea-towel and hairband keffiyehs, ideas of warmth and gentleness. I was a shepherd once, in primary school; St. John’s Church, Keynsham. I vaguely recall competition for places. After the star turns: Mary & Joseph, the Kings, the inn keeper — and The Star itself now I think of it — the shepherds were best. I see us walking slowly down the main aisle past pews of proud parents, following the star — an Edward Ardizzone illustration, a Dylan Thomas short story; A Child’s Christmas in Keynsham.
We had one cassette in the car at that time, Under Milk Wood narrated by Richard Burton. A voice of rich coffee, warm dark and pause, never hurried but compelling; leading the way into that strange world — and later others: Zulu, War of the Worlds. But Under Milk Wood was my first encounter; I, in the backseat, invisible, listening, as my father drove — in my memory it’s always night; sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack… and I didn’t understand it all but I could always lose myself in the music of the words. There were cattle in the story, I remember. Christ-like cows. Hateful Farmer Watkins of Salt Lake Farm shouting at his cattle on the hill as he shoos them home for milking. A cow turns and kisses him:
‘He bawls to the cow who barbed him with her tongue, and she moos gentle words as he raves and dances among his summerbreathed slaves walking delicately to the farm. The coming of the end of the Spring day is already reflected in the lakes of their great eyes. Bessie Bighead greets them by the names she gave them when they were maidens.’
‘Peg, Meg, Buttercup, Moll, Fan from the Castle, Theodosia and Daisy.’
And Naulekh perhaps. ‘Five years old and my best,’ wrote Rosula, ‘the one with the most ambition to walk and a tough body, a strong character.’
Flash forward to this evening, early December, 28-something years after my turn as a nativity shepherd. I’m standing at my cabin window looking out into a Swiss dark full of processional stars — cars, little trains, the sky full of flickering planes for Geneva, two pinnacle beacons flashing red, flashing green— and the tinking clonk-song of cattle unseen, stood out in the night.
All these threads meet later this month when the Silvesterkläuse are abroad, uncanny wax and paper-masked New Year Mummers in ornate costumes and bells. They’ll sing sedate yodels known as Zäuerli whilst proceeding house to house celebrating Saint Sylvester whilst ringing Christmas out and the new year in — die Schöne (the beautiful) in traditional dresses, peacock-like headgear and spangles, and die Wüeschte (the ugly) mantled up in moss and pine clippings, hefting cow trychels big as propane bottles, clanking in their wake like evergreen yeti.
These rituals are then repeated 13 days later, a Janus déjà vu dating back to Gregory XIII’s introduction of his snazzy new calendar in the 16th century. The Swiss, quite reasonably taking umbrage with the papal postponement of New Year by almost a fortnight, began to celebrate it twice. So old Julian’s Silvesterkläuse falls on December 31st and Gregorian gets his terrifying turn in January.
It was on my second visit to Switzerland that I scrambled up the mountainside above Evolène with Rosula to meet the yaks. First we drove as high as we could up a series of steep hairpin tracks until we reached a farm building with a pitched red roof. Behind it steep green flanks rose to meet silver boulders, scree, cliffs and sky. Atop that somewhere was the crest of Pointe du Tsaté, but we weren’t going quite that far… although it felt like it as we climbed and my legs began to ache and lungs began to crackle. I’d mostly acclimatised to the altitude and heat in the few days I’d spent at Yak shu lo ché but I was not yet fully there — unlike the yaks for whom these steeps are a step down from the Himalayan plateaus. It was summer then and the days were blistering hot. The yak were specks near the sun, but grew as we climbed; first to the size of woolly washing machines, then cars and, finally, tractors. Massive animals watching us approach, very still, almost impassive, broadcasting potent mass; mammoth in almost every respect.
When we reached them, Anuun, an Australian Border-collie of tremendous enthusiasm, began to skirt around the outspread herd. At this, the statuesque yaks erupted up and chased her away. I stopped dead, frozen mid-step. Agog. The tableau had broken and exploded before me. What had been a pasture recalling Heidi was now a steep scarp of careering bulls.
Then it stopped. Just as fast as they’d exploded, they relaxed, sat back down.
As you were, they seemed to say. Just keep that dog over there.
Anuun sat down as well, over there, two hundred metres away. I’d frozen, he’d fled. I looked at Rosula who’d none neither. ‘They’re very protective of the calves’ she explained with a gesture to three yaks yonder — two tractors and a sit-on mower. ‘Tsarang, son of Chele and Udari was only born last week.’
I wonder how Tsarang is now, in December, in the snow. Two and a half years have passed since I saw him, new to the world and hobbledehoy, peering big-eyed from behind his mother. The heat was liquid that day, the air hardly stirring, the streams almost dry. I wondered how the yaks could stand it. They don’t really sweat, Rosula told me, and pant like dogs when they’re hot. They regulate temperature by adjust their elevation; higher in the heat, lower in the cold.
They were high on the ramparts of Pointe du Tsaté that day — Yak Olympus.
That was June. How and where are those yaks tonight? Snug in the timber barn at Yak shu lo ché? Steaming, snuffling around, asleep. I hope so. I imagine them there, anyway. They’re family to Rosula, who talks of each as a distinct personality, reeling off a parent’s evening precis of each. Naulekh, for example, is ‘not the easiest one. He is really my yak, I know how to manage him and I adore him… but he is not always gentle and respectful with other people. He knows what he wants.’
There’s a short story that I love by Richard Brautigan called ‘I was trying to describe you to someone’ in which, having tried and failed to describe his love in terms of other people — ‘I couldn’t say ‘Well she looks just like Jane Fonda, except that she’s got red hair, and her mouth is different and of course, she’s not a movie star…’ I couldn’t say that because you don’t look like Jane Fonda at all.’
So he ends up describing her in terms of a movie about rural electrification, ‘a perfect 1930’s New Deal morality kind of movie to show kids’ which he saw when he was a child in Tacoma Washington — a movie about farmers living and working without electricity, until a new dam is built and electricity flows, appears to the farmer like a young Greek god, to take away forever the dark days of his life:
‘Suddenly, religiously, with the throwing of a switch, the farmer had electric lights to see by when he milked his cows in the early black winter mornings. The farmer’s family got to listen to the radio and have a toaster…’
‘That’s how you look to me,’ he ends.
It’s one of my favourite stories. I carry it with me. The way it slots together, crafted piece by piece, the lightbulb moment with the cattle at it’s heart. Electricity as a gift of love; as love itself.
One final piece.
One valley west of Pointe du Tsaté is Grande Dixence, the highest gravity dam in the world. A great stop: 15 million tonnes of concrete, 285 metres high, reservoir fed by rain and the meltwater from 35 surrounding glaciers.
In 1976, Dorothea and Ivor, my great-great-aunt and uncle visited Dixence. Ivor would have been eighty-three and Dorothea eighty-one, I can imagine them driving up zig- zags to the telepherique, returning together to the sites of some of their greatest adventures; birdlike in hats and coats, natty dressers.
They were great climbers in their youth. They put up routes on mountains all over the world but their ascents in the Pennine Alps are still celebrated. Their 1928 ascent of the Dent Blanche with Joseph and Antoine Georges, their great friends and Swiss guides, was the reason that I was drawn to climb it and my father before me in 1981 — the magnetism of the peak increased by the fact that it was our family who’d cracked the famous problem of it’s north arête… and it was after our benighting opposite the Matterhorn that I met Rosula’s partner, André Georges, great nephew of Joseph; and it was only through him I met the yaks.
Like the yaks, André is gigantic. I have a photograph of him stood with one of the animals which could captioned ‘man with yak.’ This is atypical. Were I to stand next to the same yak the caption would read ‘yak wholly obscuring man.’
And now, every December, I get a Christmas card with a yak pun and pictures of the beasts at play in the snow. Rosula rolling in the hay or perched precariously on the back of a yak named Thor or Hermes or some such immortal deus. Wishing you a bull-iant Christmas and a bovine New Year — the yaks brought into Christmas like they’re brought into the barn, included; if not domesticated then met halfway.
‘Animal husbandry partly involves orientating animals towards the human world, for instance by including them in human communication,’ wrote Karl Ove Knausgaard in a recent essay collection Autumn. ‘In all animal husbandry there is a zone that lies between humans and animals, where they meet.’
These boundaries blur at Christmas. Peace, good will to all men; get the yaks in and let them bounce on the sofa…
But what do the yaks get from Rosula, apart from winter bed and board? They are not completely domesticated and nor does Rosula want or expect that. In the summer the herd need to be self-sufficient on the mountainside but when Rosula pitches up they engage, orienting themselves towards her. The fact that Naulekh is not the easiest, needs careful management, has wildness within him, knows what he wants, is a given. That’s the relationship he has with Rosula. To the world he is a wool humvee or, more likely, an unknowable white dot up near the sun. But he and Rosula have a companionable understanding, and whilst he loves to be smoothed and brushed and fussed he is no pet — there are still flashes of Bos mutus, the elemental wild yak, in his heart.
So, freed of the old ways, yak as constant beast of burden, yaks for milk and meat, Rosula has opened up a path back to yak as long distance trekker — something not explored in Europe for millennia. This is a joy to both parties, the yaks love to boldly go. Particularly Naulekh whom Rosula refers to as her ‘best sports-yak’ — the one with the most ambition to walk.
Can a yak be said to be aspirational? Certainly says Rosula, they are a team, enthusiastically supporting each other — ‘yaks are intelligent and skilled on difficult ground. They carefully examine every obstacle and consider other possible routes before walking on.’ And indeed there is film of this which shows a bright eyed curious yak in a forest slow down, stop, look around at the stumps and mulch in her way then, thoughtfully licking her nose, proceed, leading her party on.
This is the gift. As the electricity was a way of talking about love, so that yaks, to me, represent a flash of pure joy, a way back into a childlike world of wonder. A miraculous meeting of worlds. I thought that the first time I saw them, so strange and beautiful.
As well as herd, the collective noun for yaks is cabinet — or wardrobe perhaps; wardrobe with all its mysterious Christmas connotations. Rosula leading the way through heavy lanolin-scented wool and fur into a land of snow.
She sent me another picture this morning: six yak on a snowy mountain pass, backs laden with tents and bags. They look alert, heads up, picking their way — greatly venturing, as great-great-aunt Dorothea used to say. Marvels in a marvellous world.