Vacheron & The Peak of Dreams

Though we attain not, 
we shall have shared together 
for a space the bread and wine; 
have stood together 
on the peak of dreams 
and seen afar 
the mystic city shine. 

This moving inscription was first revealed to me in the pages of Franco Cologni’s book, Secrets of Vacheron Constantin (pgs.50/51). The words are described as a philosophical reflection and were found engraved on the back of a very rare and unusual 1827 men’s pocket watch with alarm function (VC museum inventory #10713).

Vacheron & The Peak of Dreams

The inscription was added to the watch many years after it left the portals of Vacheron Constantin. The source of the owner’s inspiration was a 1903 poem by Ethel Clifford, titled A Song of the Way:

How will it end, the race of life, for us,
Who sit and speak in whispers of faint dreams
And the dim heritage of worlds unknown
Until the real all unreal seems?

Yet, after all, what matters it the end?
We shall have known the gladness of the way:
The magic mornings, the enchanted nights
And all the changing wonder of the day.

We shall have known the challenge of the dark.
The throb of dawn before the first bird sings.
And, looking deep into each other's eyes.
Have read the knowledge of the hidden things.

Though we attain not yet we shall have shared
Together, for a space, the bread and wine,
Have stood together on the peak of dreams
And seen far off the mystic city shine.

Vacheron & The Peak of Dreams
Secrets of Vacheron Constantin

While Ms. Clifford may not have intended so, her stanza has become the inspiration for my own quest to attain the peak of dreams.

In this case the peak is a tangible place, while the dream follows the course of the poem most literally! This fall, I shall attempt to climb the sixth highest mountain on earth, the Turquoise Goddess of Nepal, known as Cho Oyu. At 8,200 meters, its summit intrudes into the so-called “death zone” where human life cannot sustain itself for long.

How will it end? This is the thought I share with our poem. Yet, within the meaning of the words I find comfort in knowing that the journey is the real treasure; to strive with wonder and share the adventure is a reward unto itself. I will endeavor to keep her words as my mantra upon the mountain and enjoy the secret connection with our beloved world of Vacheron Constantin.

Cho Oyu, the mountain, has a surprising connection with both Geneva and Sir Edmund Hillary’s historic first ascent of Everest. In the early part of this century, Nepal was a mysterious place where the natural barriers were enhanced by political ones. Since the 1920’s Europeans had been attempting to conquer Everest or Sagarmatha as it is called by the Nepalese and Chomolungma to Tibetans, for its massif is bisected by both countries. While their labour-intensive expeditions brought welcome currency, they also intruded into a deeply mystical society. Thus, both the Tibet and Nepalese governments had taken to alternately restricting and forbidding foreign expeditions on this holiest of mountains.

Following the earlier attempts by Irving and Mallory, which only deepened the mystery of Everest, the British took it as a national objective to conquer the mountain. A joint committee of the Royal Geographical Society and Alpine Club continued to fundraise and organize further expeditions. Other European climbers had equal aspirations yet, due to the chivalry amongst the climbing community and the aforementioned travel restrictions, there existed an unofficial agreement to mutually support one attempt at a time.

In 1952, a Swiss expedition was busy preparing to attack the unclimbed Cho Oyu. They received the surprising news that an application made a year earlier to climb Sagarmatha had been approved. They quickly re-focused the expedition for this new challenge. The climbers belonged to the Geneva Club de l’Androsace, and were joined by three Genevan scientists. Unfortunately, it was not to be. Sherpa Tenzing, soon to become world famous, was already making a name for himself as a most stalwart and capable mountaineer. Accompanied by the Swiss climber Lambert, the two set off from their last bivouac at 8,400m but were forced to turn back some 250m short of the summit by pure fatigue. Nevertheless, their accomplishment was accorded great respect by the British Expedition the following year.

A surprising irony that year was the switch of fortunes that occurred between the British and Swiss. A British team was well advanced in their preparations for Sagarmatha, hoping that they and not the Swiss would be granted access. This belief was based on the success of their reconnaissance expedition the year before which photographed in detail the best route to the summit via Nepal and the South Col. Having many supplies and most of their infrastructure still intact, the Joint Himalayan Committee assumed their claim to the summit was assured. Although initially disappointed, the British eagerly shared their knowledge with the Swiss, who in turn contributed intelligence to the successful British Expedition of 1953.

So what did the British do with their time in Nepal during the climbing season of 1952, while the Swiss were attempting their prize? They exchanged roles and turned towards Cho Oyu! It was upon this mountain that Hillary and the nucleus of the Everest team were thrust. The objectives of the 1952 Cho Oyu British Expedition were clear; to select and train the climbers for an eventual attempt on Everest, and to test high altitude equipment including new and temperamental oxygen equipment. They discovered the crux of the climb were ice cliffs at 6,800m and were rebuffed. Nevertheless, many changes in diet, equipment and acclimatization procedures resulted from this expedition which undoubtedly contributed to success on Everest. 

 Cho Oyu remained unconquered until October of 1954 when an Austrian team under Herbert Tichy claimed the prize. Until recently, Cho Oyu was the friendliest of the fourteen over-8,000m summits and has continued as a training ground for aspiring Everest candidates. With the Chinese government now allowing access to Shishapangma (8,020m) within Tibet, it appears Cho Oyu may lose its popularity.

Vacheron & The Peak of Dreams

Still, the Turquoise Goddess presents the greatest challenge of my life. As has been revealed by the stories of past expeditions, success is not simply a matter of patience and practice. Fortune and luck must play an equal role. For peace of mind, I shall endeavor to recall during the inevitable periods of difficulty those words etched onto the back of a certain ancient Vacheron pocket watch;

Though we attain not, 
we shall have shared together 
for a space the bread and wine; 
have stood together 
on the peak of dreams 
and seen afar 
the mystic city shine.

Best Regards,
Dean Albrecht
10 April 2010
Best of luck Dean!
04/11/2010 - 15:28
If after this huge, "Everest training run", you want to summit Mt. Everest from the China side.  Let me know, I'm always willing to visit Tibet.  Though I've only been a little over 5000m. I'm sure that I'm not the only one that will be eager to read about this adventure after you have completed it Best Regards, Dan Lhasa - Potola Palace in the background Highest elevation on the way to Nam Tso, or Heaven's Lake - 5,190m
Great Pics Dan
04/12/2010 - 18:17
Thanks so much for your well-wishes .  I really appreciate the pictures and hope to take some of my own as our itinerary leaves us a few days in Kathmandu and Lhasa, including a visit to the Potala Palace.
A peak I can only dream of and definately and more than just an
04/12/2010 - 16:52
adventure but a life experience. I will wait with baited breath to read your journey's logbook!
Words to live by...
04/12/2010 - 18:21
Alex, I really take to heart your description of a "life experience" and wonder how this adventure will change me.  I know many find spiritual significance, others a test of character or strength.  I'll try to take some time every day to write a bit on the journey, to share on my return.
As my mother used to say to me when I was a young boy...
04/12/2010 - 20:44
...Dean, just get back to us in one piece! Cho Oyu, the sixth highest mountain on earth... whoa. And I like the nickname the Turquoise Goddess - it reminds me of Vallee Bleue, the (terrible) 111m "mountain" in the Laurentians that I conquered in my younger days. As Doc always says, Carpe Diem, and it seems that you're doing that all the time Dean! I agree with your philosophy, life should be about challenges and pushing yourself, and enjoying the journey. And it's always more enjoyable when you have a VC on your wrist... Will you have to train harder/differently for this new challenge? Fall will come quickly, I wish you luck and mental strenght my friend! Cheers,  Francois
God Bless Mothers
04/13/2010 - 01:24
Thank-you for your well wishes, Francois.  I'm sure I must have aggravated my mother to no end, and having broken a few bones but always managing to remain in one piece, as you say.  Truly, fortune has been on my side!  But when you think about our modern lifestyles, the dangers involved in an every-day activity like driving a car are more terrifying to me than walking a narrow ledge high upon a mountain.  At least there my destiny is in my hands, and not those of some drunk or distracted driver piloting two tons of metal directly towards me at high speed . As far as training for this adventure, I have a difficult task...I must gain weight!  On Denali I lost 15 lbs. and haven't got it back yet.  So my wife is busy trying to fatten me up with cheese cake and biscuits.  Oh darn....
I wish my quest was to GAIN 15lbs
04/13/2010 - 14:59

Cheese cakes and biscuits? It must be such a tough life, Dean

Re: Vacheron & The Peak of Dreams
04/13/2010 - 19:04
Dean, you certainly deliver the most exciting posts for me. Your zeal for adventure and conquering new heights is just amazing. I will look forward to your posts showing your progress and the gorgeous photos of the expedition. As far as the needed weight gain, I recommend bagels every morning and a 16 inch pizza for lunch. Hope you have chosen the proper watch for the trip as we also need wrist shots :)). Be well and take care along the way. With all my best wishes, Matt
Great menu Matt
04/14/2010 - 03:41
That's about what I eat too .  Cold pizza and warm beer are the best, don't you agree? As far as summit watches go, there is a great deal of history to be told there too...perhaps for another story .  The short version is that Rolex sponsored the 1952 British Cho Oyu expedition and Hillary wrote an endorsement for them afterwards.  He switched to a British-made Smiths watch for Everest in 1953, while Rolex continued as a co-sponsor and supplier of timepieces to the expedition as a whole. Tenzing Norgay received a Rolex Oyster from Raymond Lambert after their ill-fated attempt on Everest in 1952, and he continued to wear it for the big show the following year.  But actually there are numerous photos showing expedition members, including Hillary and Tenzing, wearing two on each wrist!