Two mornings ago, I was standing atop Long’s Peak with, oh, thirty other people. Long’s is a Colorado monarch, the northernmost fourteener of over fifty in my home state. It’s a darn tough, technical, mountain climb, and obsessively crowded. Most of the folks on the summit were like me, in their twenties or thirties, many native Coloradans, but European and Asian and Texan as well. They had come in groups and were laughing and smiling, striking victory poses for their busy cameras.
The view was heart-stopping, of course. I say of course to register my surprise that the view was not transporting me to a place of silent awe. I had expected a spiritual rush, a sense of oneness with a great and terrible world. Instead, all I felt was relief, a sense of accomplishment, and a dread of the part of the descent called “The Trough” which (I humbly felt) was downright deadly.
Perhaps I was seeking to do what John Muir meant when he said, “Keep close to Nature’s heart… and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.” Nor did it feel like a great feat of conquest, or even a Tibetan sense of unity with the mountain.
And why not?! The tens of thousands of acres I could see contained everything I see and do and hear, day after day, living my ant life below. The hues of that ethereal world, from jay-feather indigo to midnight, hazy green to velvety whale grey, were splendidly draped over the voluptuous world of stone. There, it was plain that we are part of only a thin film of life on an impossibly giant, heavy metabolism of rock. But I was tired and in no way could I feel related to the view before me.
It is tempting to blame my mediocre mood on all the noisy folk taking selfies and devouring packaged snacks. The other hominids up there with me were not treating this space at the top of the world, that we had run a gauntlet for the privilege to attend, as a temple. No, the atmosphere was more like some combination of amusement park and graduation ceremony, a thrill and an achievement. Which, my aching lungs attested, it certainly was.
When George Mallory set out to summit Everest in 1924, the shocked and titillated Victoria world asked him why he should do such a thing. “Because,” Mallory famously replied, “It is there.” Mallory had climbed many of the world’s great mountains, and he had great respect for the power of nature. He was not a brash man, but a bold one. Yet, his was a path of conquest and exploration, not of worship and unity with nature. Perhaps sensing this, the Tibetan shamans in the village where he prepared for his ascent told him that his journey was cursed, the mountain would cast him down for his arrogance, his otherness. Sadly, their predictions came true, and Mallory died on the eighth or ninth of June, 1924. He may have summited, the first person on record to climb to the roof of the world. We will never know for certain.
His words have inspired generations of mountaineers, and none in greater numbers than today’s young climbers. Like other outdoor sports, mountaineering is more popular now than ever before, with record numbers of alpine, aid, traditional and sport climbers crawling over states like Colorado.
Extreme skiing, paragliding, diving, every single sector of the outdoor adventure market grows by more than eight percent a year. Most of the participation is by twenty to thirty-five year olds, including record numbers of women and minorities filling up skydiving cabins and ski lifts. As a generation, millennials are wildly adventurous. George Mallory would have been aghast at the lines of climbers who now ascend Everest, and not without risk. Mountains are still physical tests of human mettle, obstacle courses for muscle and will.
I admire the impulse to meet nature’s challenges immensely, if a little short on it myself. My climbing partner on Long’s that day was the first to quote Mallory to me, as an explanation for his love of these long treks to the ceiling of creation. I feel that Mallory (he was a great writer of letters) and adventurers of his ilk have explained their lust beautifully, and I highly recommend reading their journals and correspondence.
I would like to suggest that we modern adventurers might treat the hundred-people-a-day summits of Colorado with greater reverence and less frivolity. What comes to mind are the small signs requesting that visitors to cathedrals maintain a reverent silence. Organized religion is well aware that there is a level of human consciousness that cannot be achieved when one is babbling about which instagram filter to use (those same cathedrals usually have bans on cameras).
Awe is the special ward of silence, the childish innocent of the mind’s multitudes that can only be coaxed forward in the absence of more mundane characters. Apart from any fresh winds that might be blowing, mountaintops are some of the most strikingly silent places in the wilderness. In that void, I might have been lucky enough for that wordless, guileless feeling of grace that only the very sacred can instill.
If a man-made structure is deserving of respectful silence, so must the summit of a mountain. Surely no one on Long’s with me that day could truly sustain the idea that she had conquered anything. In a moment the air could shift and we would all find ourselves at the mercy of the fervent charge between cloud and rock. We would not be conquerors at all, but frightened animals scrambling for shelter, ill-suited to survival at 14,259 feet. Alas, if we consider ourselves mountain-masters, we are nothing compared to the fat, fuzzy marmots stealing the crumbs of our granola bars.
I do not want to belittle the accomplishments of my fellow outdoor enthusiasts. The glory of such a rite of passage is real, it is not merely Western or modern to feel. I know that the young and strong of every culture set and embrace obstacles. I can envision young Hawaiians scaling the Nepali cliffs to lounge in rich, high valleys. I know that Paiute and Tiwa and other mountain tribes went on vision quests to mountain tops, and surely some whooped and hollered in exhilaration when they reached the top. Since the dawn of our kind, we have literally left our hands and footprints in a wildly extreme place to say, pre-Instagram, “I, Homo sapien sapien, was here!”
I definitely don’t like the idea of the forest service posting SILENCE PLEASE signs at the summit of every Colorado fourteener. I think the world would be a little duller if young adventurers suddenly stopped high-fiving each other and took on the demeanor of monks. I only want to remind us all that there is an opportunity for something other, something more.
There is a time for silence on mountaintops, to let the enormity of where you are crash through the crusty levels of your everyday consciousness and sink in. Give eternity a few moments (for eternity is, after all, not in a rush) before reaching for your camera to truly make the memory you are trying to preserve and share. Be fully present to the utter absurdity of your physical location. Know how tiny you are. Your body has just struggled to get here because you are so small in relation to this great word, or this would be no achievement at all. Your dizziness, your palpable pulse, your eyes boggling at the vista are all telling you how alive and mortal you are, and how acutely you are connected to the vast, vast cosmos.
On our hike down, in the Alpenmeadows above the treeline, my climbing partner stopped suddenly with a breathless, “Oh!” A herd of elk were moving brownly and confidently up the slope toward us. I sighed, and involuntarily moved toward them, mesmerized. The impressive mountaineering women I had just watched bounce down an ice-slide with an axe and spiked boots swept by, unaware or uninterested in the elk, chattering and laughing. I flung myself onto a boulder on my belly to watch the herd graze, trying not to startle them.
There were about a dozen cows and one placid bull, all browsing on the grasses and wildflowers that gushed from the rocky soil of the mountainside. They regarded me impassively, concluding with flicks of their ears that I was not dangerous.
I felt my own aching legs and watched theirs power them easily up the slope, their great bodies built from plants that would do very little, nutritionally, for me. Their heavy bones were made of the mountain itself, pulled from its sides by tiny grasping roots, eaten, then assembled into this sentient herd.
As we watched, Dana said, perfectly, “I always forget that they spend their whole lives out here with nothing but fur. Just always here.”
“Yes,” I said, finally feeling the transcendence I had missed on the mountaintop, “Their world goes on forever.”