Cloud Road

Free Cloud Road by John Harrison

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Authors: John Harrison
describe and explain reality. However, this was not an excuse for subjective or impressionistic science; the range of his instruments shows the thoroughness of his methods. There was even a cyanometer to measure the blueness of the sky, something the poet Byron satirised.
    Humboldt’s team took his battery of instruments up into the clouds on Chimborazo to measure anything that would stand still long enough to be measured. In Humboldt’s day little was known of the effects of high altitude on the human body. Like seasickness, altitude sickness is capricious in its effects on individuals, but they all began to suffer in some degree from nausea and uncertain balance. Their local companion, the revolutionary Carlos Montufar, suffered horribly, struggling on despite bleeding from his nose, ears and mouth. When it seemed the summit was in reach, they found themselves standing on the edge of a chasm. Their route led to a dead end. They calculated their height at 19,286 feet, and estimated the summit at around 21,400, lower than later measurements. When they got down and looked in a mirror, they recoiled from the ghastly scarlet eyes staring back at them. Tiny veins in their eyes had ruptured, leaving them gruesomely bloodshot. Until Alpinists went to the Himalayas, this was a world record ascent; Humboldt bragged ‘of all mortals, I was the one who had risen highest in all the world’.
    After witnessing oppressive Spanish rule, Humboldt encouraged the young Simón Bolívar to help liberate South America, but he pronounced Bolívar himself unfit to lead the task. ‘His brilliant career shortly after we met astonished me,’ he declared, adding stubbornness to misjudgement. Bolívar was more astute about Humboldt: he ‘was the true discoverer of America because his work has produced more benefit to our people than all the conquistadors’.
    When Humboldt sat for his last portrait, he asked the artist to place Chimborazo’s snowy cone in thebackground. He died soon after, in 1859, the year a great admirer published a book called The Origin of Species .
    In 1861, the American Ambassador Hassaurek saw Chimborazo’s triple peaks and wrote ‘no human foot ever profaned them, no human foot ever will’. Within eighteen years, Edward Whymper dared, and succeeded. In his book Travels Amongst the Great Andes of the Equator Whymper attempts a self-portrait as the consummate professional. Between the lines one plainly sees a curmudgeon, a man for whom fellow expedition members are not companions, but handicaps to his genius. He sounds middle-aged, but he was only thirty-nine years old. Drinking had taken its toll. When, at the age of sixty, he took elite Swiss guides to the Canadian Rockies, their main job was to carry crates of whisky on long hikes. In 1911 he was taken ill at the Couttet Hotel, Chamonix, refused treatment, locked himself in his room and died alone.
    I went to bed early. The room was freezing; I slept in my sleeping bag inside the bed. In the morning, Chimborazo was still invisible. I was away by seven in light rain. Rodrigo waved me off: ‘Don’t follow the railway route. There is a very bad family in the village of San Andrés; a foreign cyclist was robbed of everything.’ I followed an irrigation ditch along the contour then dropped down a lane that wove between fields. Labourers looked up like nocturnal animals surprised by a spotlight. In three hours, I was coming over the crest of mature eucalyptus plantations, willing Riobamba closer. It didn’t come. The wind caught the map hung round my neck and slapped me in the face with it. My sandals were filling with grit, and I could scarcely open my eyes for the dust. One knee was stiffening, and dogs circled me, snarlingand barking. On the corner of two dusty lanes, by a smallholding that looked like a set for the dustbowl farms of The Grapes of Wrath , I stood checking my map. An old woman pulled a black shawl over her bent back and made her way across the dirt of

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