Concerning Mountains (and why we climb them)

Originally sent July 20, 2012


To a great many people, myself included, there is something irresistible about the Mountain. Rising up from the monotonous plains, the Mountain offers an escape from our everyday lives. It is dramatic; it is beautiful; it is nature at her grandest scale. We flock to it like moths to the flame. We build our cities at its base and surround it with impossibly nice resorts. It is the basis of legend and the home of our gods. We revere the Mountain. But for some of us, simply being in its presence is not enough—we need to climb it, “bag it,” stand at its summit and revel in its—and our—glory.

The question is: Why?

Last month my friend Hilary and I traveled to Tanzania, largely to satisfy this mysterious urge. And while we ultimately ended up climbing two mountains, we came for the first: Mount Kilimanjaro—the highest point in Africa and the tallest free-standing mountain in the world. Ever since I learned I was moving to Africa, I’ve wanted to climb it, and, thanks largely to the generosity of my wonderful Dad, I was finally able to do so. But why did I want to climb it so bad? Well, part of the answer lies in my description of it.

It’s the tallest! One of the seven. Nineteen thousand three hundred forty feet. No matter how much we’d like to deny it, there’s no getting around it: we climb big mountains for the bragging rights inherent in it. We toil in order to say we stood at fourteen—, eighteen—, twenty-two thousand feet; that we bested the elements and reached the roof of this country or that continent. Mountains like Kilimanjaro, Blanc, Denali, Everest, these are trophies to be won and put on display for any willing to look.

Nowhere was this truth more apparent than atop Kili, where hordes of tired tourists fight for their chance to take a picture in front of the sign: “Congratulations! You’re at Uhuru Peak, 5895 m. Africa’s Highest Point. The Tallest…” &c. &c. Proof that you were there. And for many people, this seems to be the only reason they come. They plod along, looking nowhere but out in front, with a scowl on their face, not seeing the great beauty all around them, and go straight to the sign and argue over whose turn it is to stand in front of it. As if having to wait five minutes at the summit, after hiking six days to get there, is worst thing in the world. Yet despite my thinly veiled contempt for this sign, I, nevertheless, had a number of photos snapped before it and even included one in my photo album. Proof that I was there.

But not every mountain is the tallest. Far from it. And yet we still climb them. Which means there has to be more to it… One answer is so obvious it seems superfluous to even mention it, but stick with me. I believe a large part of why we climb is simply to get to the top.  At first glance, this seems a rather simple-minded desire, but try to describe the reasons behind it and it takes on a new complexity. What fuels this irresistible urge? Is it the view? Or perhaps something spiritual, like a pilgrimage of sorts? The top of the Mountain is, after all, rife with potential meaning. Or maybe it’s much more simple than that, along the lines of “It’s there and it’s possible so why not?” I personally can’t say.  It’s probably a little bit of each, with countless others also thrown in.

Whatever the reasons, the truth remains that venturing into the high-country is physically demanding. True mountaineering is often dangerous, and it’s never a given that you’ll reach the summit. The Mountain, looming thousands of feet above you, takes on an adversarial quality: it is the force against which you must measure yourself. Getting to the top is a test of your own strength and willpower. And the higher the peak, the more technical the ascent, the greater the sense of accomplishment and elation upon reaching the summit. Proof that you could do it.

Ironically, this mentality, this need to defeat the Mountain, cropped up not so much on Kili, but rather on our second adversary: Oldoinyo Lengai, which in language of the Maasai means “The Mountain of God.” Quite a name for a peak that measures in at a paltry 9,023 feet. But the mountain, which rises up out of the Great Rift Valley and is East Africa’s only active volcano, is an absolute bitch to climb. Never have I come across a trail—if it could even be called that—that goes so straight up the side of the a mountain. Factor in that the viciously steep slopes were sandy as hell at the bottom and hard slick rock at the top, and that we begun our half-day ascent at midnight, and it’s not unreasonable to say that Oldoinyo Lengai presented more of a challenge than Kilimanjaro. Were it not for the promise of reaching the summit, and the feeling that you bested the mountain, no one would climb it. The difficultly of the means justifies the unimpressive, albeit very beautiful, end.

Kilimanjaro, on the other hand, is not particularly difficult to climb, and were it not for its extreme elevation, would be downright easy. Yet the altitude requires you to acclimatize yourself, so while it is less than forty kilometers from trailhead to summit, it takes most people between five and seven days to reach Uhuru. Except when shrouded in clouds, the peak is almost always visible, its last four thousand feet rising sharply up toward heaven, but the knowledge it is still several days away requires that you satiate yourself with something besides the need to reach the top, lest you lose the true beauty of climbing it. Sadly, judging from my interactions and conversations on the mountain, many, if not most, climbers fail to do this. Instead, they climb in order to earn that picture and that trophy we talked about earlier, and all the days spent acclimatizing are simply something to sludge through on their way to the top.

The author Robert Pirsig touches on this subject in his rich treatise Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, calling such mountaineers “ego-climbers.” He writes: “The ego-climber is like an instrument that’s out of adjustment. He puts his foot down an instant too soon or too late. He’s likely to miss a beautiful passage of sunlight through the trees. He looks up the trail trying to see what’s ahead even when he knows what’s ahead because he just looked a second before. He’s here but he’s not here. He rejects the here, is unhappy with it, wants to be further up the trail but when he gets there will be just as unhappy because then it will be ‘here.’ What he’s looking for, what he wants, is all around him, but he doesn’t want that because it is all around him. Every step’s an effort, both physically and spiritually, because he imagines his goal to be external and distant.”

Now, to say there is no “ego-climber” in me would constitute a lie, for surely there is some. I believe that my writing about climbing Kilimanjaro and sharing it with you all proves this to a degree.  But that said, I take an immense personal joy in simply being on the Mountain. I find the rhythm of hiking therapeutic and the stark solitude of the high-country enchanting. I can think of no place I’d rather be than sitting beside a high-alpine lake (preferably in The Sierra). Yes, I want to reach the top as much as anyone, and with every peak reached the desire to climb more compounds, but for me the journey is just as important as the destination. The days of hiking, the evenings spent just sitting and thinking, about everything and about nothing—these are just as valuable as those two hours at the top. As Pirsig says, “When you’re no longer thinking ahead, each footstep isn’t just a means to an end but a unique event in itself… To live for some future goal is shallow. It’s the sides of the mountain which sustain life, not the top. Here’s where things grow.”

But Pirsig was a mountaineer, his philosophy notwithstanding. He understood the need to get to the top. So it’s no surprise that he follows with this: “But of course, without the top you can’t have any sides. It’s the top that defines the sides. So on we go…”

So what’s next? Well first, eight months in perfectly-flat-Gambia. After that, I can’t say, but you can be sure my love affair with the Mountain is just beginning. After all, I got another six to go…