Why climb the mountain?
The answers I used to fire off to this question ran along the lines of because the experience of it, because of the challenge or George Mallory’s famous reply to the question, “Because it’s there!” But after having stood atop six of Colorado’s mountains over 14,000 feet, the answers to the question have begun to change.
This past Labor Day 2019, my brother and I flew to Denver, took a rental car to Georgetown and the following morning hiked the 14,065 foot Mount Bierstadt, supposedly one of the easier 14ers, though as the saying goes, there are no easy 14ers.
My brother and I did this very same thing two years ago for his 40th birthday. We flew in Saturday, got up very early Sunday and hiked, collapsed Sunday afternoon, then back on a plane Monday. I’m not saying I’m getting too old for this, but I’m not getting any younger. It’s quite a haul with no chance of catching up as we go straight back to work on Tuesday (both my brother and I are teachers). Under less rushed conditions, yeah, I’m totally up for it.
To the Hike!
We hit the trailhead at 4:45 AM. There was some faint light coming from presumably Denver, but the sky above was, as poet Derrick Brown calls it, like a black construction paper night. The sky above was filled with thousands of stars and we could see the faint, cloudy presence of the Milky Way – spectacular. It was very dark, and cold, right around 30 degrees! I had on three light layers, a hat and gloves, and hiking pants. This was fine though so long as we were moving.
Headlamps were in order for the first hour or so, but eventually, the sky began to brighten. We were hiking eastward toward the sunrise but between us and the sun was the silhouetted mountain ridge, inky black against the palest of skies.
Behind us, to the west, was the valley from which we started and then across, another ridge. As we continued up, we watched those mountains transition from dark impressions to varying shades of pre-dawn color to finally peaks illuminated with the brilliant golden light of the morning sun.
The bottom ⅓ of the hike was easy enough, simple trail with a gradual incline. The second ⅓ was tougher with rockier terrain and bigger steps up, though still a well-worn trail to follow. The final ⅓ was big rocks that required some bouldering – enough to make it a Class 2 hike. This was fine, if not outright fun, but coming down was challenging.
Hiking as Expression
Will I hike another 14er? I think yes, but no longer simply for the challenge of it, if that ever was the primary reason. For me, there is something very special about being in, what I call, the High Country. Above the tree line, in the alpine region, where the short tundra of gold, green, red, and brown grasses, with its exclusive wildflowers, its insects and butterflies, and the “Eeeep!” of the Yellow-bellied marmots – standing on top of that mountain – I love it so.
It is a kind of homecoming each time, returning to a place that resonates with something deep and mysterious inside me. It plucks the strings of my heart, reverberating in harmony with something much greater than I am. I love these kinds of places, the harsh, rugged lonely places. You don’t have to climb a mountain to find them; the western coast of Ireland is another great example. Nor do you have to travel far; there is likely a copse of trees nearby or a field or the flower bed in your back yard where you live, just waiting for you; these are sacred places.
It is in these places that I feel whole, and isn’t that a part of holiness? Feeling whole?
While we were there, still hiking up in the dark, we could see below and behind us a line of headlamps along the trail, and I imagined that it looked rather like pilgrims carrying lanterns through the dark night on the way to a holy site. I told my brother this. He responded, “Well…?” and left it up to my interpretation.
And so climbing a mountain, whether above the treeline or not, is in some way to me a sacred act. It is a way to honor, through engagement, the existence I’ve been given, and by way of that, come as close as I can to the divine.
Compliment this essay with another on Spirituality Faith, Reason, and the Existence of God