Mountains call to us. They whisper promises of grandeur to the egotist, visions and inspiration to the artist, scenes of great beauty to the naturalist, geological wonders to the scientist. They don’t speak to everyone, but I think it is a rare person who can stand at the foot of a mountain and not have some kind of desire to be at the top of it, touching the clouds and surveying the landscape that rolls, infinite, before you.
It wasn’t always so – until the Romantics and natural philosophers began waxing lyrical about the wonders of mountains in the 17th century, Europeans regarded them as abhorrent, ugly things, rocky warts on the natural landscape that it would be foolish to climb. The Sherpa and Bhutanese, who have lived in and around the Himalaya for centuries, believe that gods live atop the high peaks and see no reason why any right thinking person should want to go up them. They view the desire to reach a summit as a mixture of insanity and blasphemy.
A love of mountains (and a desire to be on top of them) is something that we have learnt, not something we are born with. In some way that it is impossible to understand, the love and lust for mountains is a reflection of our modern Western society. We have evolved into a society of summit hunters.
It is insane in many ways – hundreds of people lose their lives climbing mountains each year, and for what? And yet when I see a great mountainside like the North Face of the Eiger, I want to climb it.
It has killed so many, and there is no logical reason why I should want to get to the top, yet as I look at that forbidding wall of rock I am already trying to map a path up to the top. Something in it calls to me.
Perhaps this desire comes from simple territorialism – the desire to be king of the castle, the master of all we survey. Perhaps we have become a bored, soft race of people who have to create our own dangers artificially, by hurling ourselves at inaccessible peaks. Perhaps it is pure ego, the longing to achieve where others have failed or are too scared to attempt. Perhaps it is an expression of the self-destructive urge, the death drive that compels people to risk their lives for no good reason.
This love of the mountains may well be part founded on these less pleasant emotions, but there is something else to it as well – the truth lies beyond mere egotism or a desire for self-destruction. There’s something hidden up there in the mountains, up there where the air is thin. Not on the mountains themselves, but in the human mind.
Strange things happen to people at altitude. Sometimes terrible things – retinas torn loose, brain cells asphixiating for want of oxygen, lungs filled with blood, hands frozen black. But beautiful things as well; clarity, humility, peace, joy, an absence of the self, a connection with the natural world and the present moment.
The fascination of mountaineering is that it is a journey in the world of the spirit translated to the physical. Spiritual hardship is substituted for physical danger, moral hazard for the cracking ice, loose rocks and sudden storms that are the common threats on the mountains.
To climb a mountain, no matter whether it is Welsh peak in Snowdonia or a eight-thousander in the Himalaya, is in some way to wager one’s life on a pilgrimage of sorts, to accept discomfort, pain, and the chance of death in return for the psychological reward at the top. The spiritual journey of a philosophical discourse or crisis of religion made into tangible sensation. Mountains are not places human beings are supposed to be – alien, high and dangerous. To make a summit and come down again is to journey to some forbidden corner of the soul and come back alive.
No matter how hard I try, I doubt if I could express these these thoughts with the same clarity (and brevity!) as the famous Russian climber Anatoli Boukreev, so I’ll leave you with his wonderfully poetic justification for the madness of mountaineering.
“Mountains are not stadiums where I satisfy my ambition to achieve, they are the cathedrals where I practice my religion…I go to them as humans go to worship. From their lofty summits I view my past, dream of the future and, with an unusual acuity, am allowed to experience the present moment…my vision cleared, my strength renewed. In the mountains I celebrate creation. On each journey I am reborn.”