There was one day not too long ago where I was standing on top of a high peak, gazing on the meadows and snowfields below me, all while under a bright, blue sky dotted with cottonball clouds. It had been a spectacular day thus far, with exciting scrambles, exposed ledges and airy ridgelines – all the things that make climbing mountains fun.
I’ve had a lot of days in the peaks like this, even if not all of the mountains were quite as demanding as this one. But there have been a few bad ones, too.
Years ago, while coming down another mountain on a decidedly drearier day, I recall stumbling around, exhausted and sick. Altitude and illnesses don’t mix well, often magnifying otherwise manageable annoyances into life-threatening dilemmas. Around that time, a mountain can seem impossibly big, dark and threatening. Get into trouble here, and it could be many hours – or even days, if the conditions are particularly bad – before help will arrive. An injury here, a storm there, a dangerous drop in temperatures when no shelter avails itself – all of these things lie within the realm of possibility with even some of the more benign peaks.
My personal alpine crises are not numerous, nor are they as serious as some of those faced by some of my friends. Two of them climbing a particularly gnarly mountain suffered injuries from rockfall, and that’s no joke. Rockfall also killed a group of hikers last summer who were treading a pretty popular, benign trail.
Yet another friend a few years back witnessed what was supposed to be a fun day on a nondescript mountain transform into a horrifying fall that led a desperate rescue effort of her climbing partner, who eventually succumbed to his injuries.
A lot of people wonder why folks tempt fate by exploring the mountains, but seriously, just look at them. Humans are drawn to high places. They are the places of mythology and wonder. They tower over our lowland homes and promise a whole new view of the world we see every day. Such are the things that beckon us upward.
That allure is also what can, at times, get us in trouble. In an effort to escape the sameness of our ordinary lives, we seek refuge in the peaks. That can work, at least sometimes. But there is a reality of the high country that some of the more naïve (that includes me) sometimes miss.
Jon Krakauer probably summed it up best when he wrote (and I paraphrase) that mountains make bad receptacles for people’s dreams. That’s a nice way of saying that the peaks don’t care.
Yes, the mountains look inviting. But don’t think for a second that when you go up their lofty heights that you’re actually invited.
I’d explain it this way: You may have a day in the mountains where everything is going right. The weather is perfect, a true bluebird day. Your body is in prime condition and you’re blasting up the route. New challenges are being tackled and mastered, and you even got the greatest summit selfie or group shot ever taken in the history of mankind. Heck, even your GoPro footage looks like it could be made into the next great entry into Banff or the Reel Rock Tour.
And when you’re done and everyone is at the pub noshing down that victory dinner with a beer or five, you may just think that you and those titanic piles of rock have something special going on.
Don’t fool yourself. The truth is, your next venture into alpine greatness might see that docile peak bear down on you like a lion, swallow you up and gnaw on your bones before ejecting you from its stony maw like a wad of unwanted spit, splayed out on its rocky apron and crying out to God or anyone within earshot for help.
It’s just what mountains do, and they do it at random with total indifference, the same lack of concern that they have when they let you have your epic day of high country fulfillment.
None of this is to say that there aren’t profound lessons to be learned in the high country, or that truly transformational moments can’t happen. They can and do, something I can attest to personally.
And I think that’s what makes the mountains so special to me. You go to work with expectations of getting paid. You go to church with the idea of learning something important. You go to concerts to get loud and to bars to blow off steam, and you go home to feel a sense of peace from the world that swirls around you.
But when I go to the mountains, I don’t go with any expectations because I truly do not know what will happen when I’m there. I don’t know if the weather will cooperate, if the peak will be too daunting, or even if I’ll make it back at all, and all of that is because the mountain will do what it’s going to do regardless of my presence. A rock that stayed in place for a million years might move when you’re there, but it might not budge for a million more.
All that you can be sure of is that it’s going to do what it does, predictably or not, and how you deal with it at the time will be a measure of who you are in terms of skill, wit and toughness. Perhaps that’s all we can know, that the mountains will test us, but they’ll do so with the nonchalance of something that has existed long before we were born, and will continue to stand tall long after we’re gone.