Summits As Virtuous Constraint

This past summer, on July 8th, as noted in a post here, I climbed Long’s Peak in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park. A minute or so after I stepped on to the summit, grabbed a quick sip of water, and removed my helmet, I shook my guide Rob Smith‘s hand, and thanked him profusely. I was close to being ecstatic. I had risen at midnight, picked up Rob at one am, and started hiking by 2AM. On the approach to the base of the North Face–from where we would pick up the Cables Route–I had been half-asleep, somehow willing myself to keep up with Rob as he motored along. As dawn  broke, and as the imposing massif of Long’s rose up above, I was feeling the effects of having gained some 3000 feet of elevation on an empty stomach and little sleep. The climbing and scrambling sections of the North Face were mercifully easier than that long, rock-and-boulder strewn approach march, and of course, they required more attention to technical detail, which induced its own alertness. Along with these physical sensations was a sense of foreboding and anticipation; I was keeping an eye on the weather for I did not want to be disappointed again. I had made plans to climb Long’s in the summer of 2017 and had been thwarted then–before we could even set foot on the trail. Then, the forecast had made Rob and I change our  plans the night before. Since then, my mind, overcome with disappointment, had immediately begun a downward spiral in the course of which I had kept track of all the summits I had been denied by bad weather conditions: Stok Kangri in 2011, Cotopaxi in 2018, Mt. Washington in 2016 and 2017. I had begun to believe I was jinxed in the mountains, that these twists of fortune only happened to those who were insufficiently prepared, who did not belong in the mountains. Doubt had crept into my mind that when my guides had suggested turning back on each of those routes, they had done so because they did not trust me to ascend successfully.

So when I stepped on the summit, a spell broke. Suddenly, I was reassured that I belonged here. I had been told that ‘Long’s Peak will be still here when you come back next summer’ but I hadn’t taken it to heart. Now, I did.  I had not ‘conquered’ anything, except, of course, for my own doubts and insecurities. And in this state of mind, it had become clear to me too, all over again, that a summit was not a thing to be conquered. Rather, as I saw it in the clear light of that Colorado morning, a summit was a virtuous constraint, one that clarified and organized my life, driving me onwards. The mountains were not a domain in which I went to find success for myself, to find targets to pick off, to rack up ‘kills’ and ‘hits’ and notches on my belt. They were instead, where I could go to accept failure, to reconcile myself to its inevitable presence, in some shape or form, in my life; they would teach me acceptance and forbearance and some measure of stoicism in the face of forces much, much greater than myself. My summit failures had kept on bringing me back to the mountains; they had induced me to train harder, to keep hoping. Yes, I had despaired too, but not entirely. After all, wasn’t I here, in the mountains, all over again?


The Mountaineering Make-Over

A few days ago, as my nephew, an aspiring mountaineer who has been on expeditions to Kamet, Trishul, (both in the Garhwal Himalayas) and Stok Kangri (a trekking peak in Ladakh), chatted with me on Facebook, he said (roughly),

You know, for me it’s no longer that away from the hustle-bustle, out to find myself thing. It’s become more of a battle against a target; now, its to see if I can do it; it’s no longer like, oh let’s go into the mountains and feel spiritual, it’s become more like, ‘its me against the mountain.’

I responded (roughly):

Yes, that’s not a surprising feeling to have. Mountaineering will do that to you, but you’ll find moments of spiritual beauty up at those heights, and you find out about yourself in the course of that struggle and you’ll come back a different person anyway.

At which point, my nephew said,

You mean to say I’ve become a different person five times?

The answer to that, of course, is a most resounding ‘Yes.’

Climbing a mountain is a physical and mental challenge, among the most intense and demanding that a human being can undertake. To say this is to do no more than faithfully echo the thoughts expressed in the many millions of words written about mountaineering endeavors. But they don’t quite capture the sheer just-been-through-twelve-rounds-with-a-prizefighter feel that a climb at high-altitude in freezing weather can inflict on you. (I say this as someone who, despite having hiked a fair amount at high altitudes has only flirted once, briefly, with anything approximating a mountain climb, and that was on Stok Kangri, a hiking peak!). That feeling of having been battered around by the elements and the implacable mountain can generate, sustain and stoke the relentless competitive desire, in some sufficiently motivated beings, and evidently in my nephew, to ‘beat’ the mountain, to ‘overcome’ it. But the mountains also afford us–again, as so many have noted–ample opportunity and space to experience incredible, soul-awakening beauty (like, for instance, the open, silent, cathedral-like snow-field in a glacier basin crossing on Stok Kangri below; click on the image for a larger version).

Quite simply, it is the juxtaposition of such sublime beauty with harshness and physical discomfort that ensures that even as mountains may make us regard them as barriers to be overcome, they continue to retain their ability to reach down into our being, unsettling, rearranging and morphing it into something that will retain indelible traces of that encounter.  Up there, among the snow and the crags, lurk many spaces for enabling a new understanding of oneself.  Go up and come down; a make-over cannot but ensue. A hard-earned one.

Note: I’ve written here before, briefly, on the relationship that mountaineers have with the mountains they attempt to climb. In one post, I noted the problematic adversarial language that is often deployed in writing about mountaineering, and in another I sought to move the focus in mountaineering language away from individual effort to collective action.