The Innocent Climb
The clouds sink down, the world is invisible. We are marching up the huge stone ridge over lumps and bounds to a summit that will look just like any other place. There will be no view. We will all feel cold and wet and out of place. Except me. I am the smallest and will soon feel the most at home. From the time of this climb onwards I will dream for years of mountains and their hard, open tops, the promise of vistas and the impossibility of really living long up in the cold silence and way above the trees.
Think of the gait of a child climbing the mountain and how it instantly seems about three times higher than to those of us full grown. The huge effort and mystery of it all! This, the highest mountain I had ever had the chance to go up at age of nine. And to have to walk into a cloud to get there, so that anything around could be easily imagined to be true!
For so many years I sought to recover that sense of wonder, that joy at walking into a cloud for the very first time. There have been much bigger mountains, certainly. But I have also thought I knew so much more before I went up them. Their names, their altitude, their stories and the confidence that I could make it. Yet it doesn't take long to lose the innocent climb. And the less we feel next to the greatness of the mountain the closer we are to inhabiting its greatness. I suppose now that's the meaning of the aesthetic goal of the sublime. Hard to wish for if we believe our humanity can rule all, solve all, encompass all, as all that talking now seems to point to. But one mountain, once climbed by a little boy who felt most strangely at home through wet pelting rain and invisible wind running faster and faster up the gray stones to the wet slick top of the second most climbed mountain in the world, yes, one mountain can be enough to remind us that there will always be so much more than what any human being can do.
The world will live on. The mountain will live on, long beyond any uses for it we can think up.
The fewer facts you know about a mountain the better. To prepare to encounter it your mind should be empty, expecting nothing, or if you have to expect, to expect the worst: boredom, the too familiar, too many people, even the same people you would see at home. Even as a precocious mountainmad child I had heard what a monadnock was-a huge lump of rock rising above rolling forests, a big hunk scraped bare but still left after the icecap had gone back. I also knew that Mount Monadnock, in southern New Hampshire, was the second most climbed mountain in the world. Even then it seemed a rather astonishing statistic, realizing that number one is Mount Fuji, a national icon, a postcard Mona Lisa of mountains that is almost an indelible image inside human consciousness-fulfilling an international ideal of what 'mountain' is supposed to mean. That pure snowtipped cone peaking through clouds. A Platonic form of mountain, inside all of us. Five billion views of Mt. Fuji. That's the global brain looking up and wanting to go there.
Mount Monadnock number two? Who in Japan has even heard of it? Who in Europe has heard of it? Who can draw it accurately from memory or picture it inside? How could such a relatively obscure peak be number two?
The standard answer: It's close to some of the biggest American metropolitan areas. It's easy even for a kid to get up there. In its own bounded way it's fabulously spectacular.
My own selfish answer: I've been up it so many times. Each time has a resonance, a significance as it marks my own life passage against the time of the mountain. The time of the mountain is geological and it doesn't care at all for people or animals or trees or biodiversity or life in the least. It's a rock place, a world of eons and eras and millions of years conflated to timelessness. The mountain will be around long past any being that chooses to care about it.These little stories of mine are so, so small. But I want to join up with that mountain, so I'll have to make them even smaller.
What kind of child so loved the mists in the morning, the gray occluded places where you can't tell where you are.? He was happiest inside the clouds. Did that make the clouds inside him any less visible, any more soft and less hard? No one understood him. He wanted most to be taken seriously, to be listened to and not called "kid" or "cute." He would have to wait a long time for that to stop.
The mountain of course would accept him as he was. He could run all the way up to the rocky parts long before anyone older could catch him. He could enjoy the rain and was never worried about catching a cold when wet. Let the cold catch him. Let the wind envelop him, let the rain strike through.
He wanted to rise up, to peek through like that monadnock. But the glacier kept him down, that ice weight of adulthood and experience that is only amused by children, not really interested in them. He took notes, planned for the future, got ready for the inevitable: Note 1: be sure to remember to take my children seriously, if I have any. Treat their ideas with respect, not surprise. Note 2, be sure to live high in the mountains, somewhere full of wind and snow. The air is clear up there. Nobody will bother me.
So few of us can be monadnocks. We are best kept down, shoved into the pen with all the others and encouraged to lie flat and only rarely speak up. Those that rise will find their heads scoured, scratched and maimed. But if you survive you might in the end have something to say, though it will never be easy. You will still carry scars.
That's not to exaggerate his difficulties. They were internal, quiet wounds, but often he burst into tears for no reason. Not in the mountain, no, never in the mountains. The wind and ice are so clear and so safe.
It is many years later, and I am only that child in the reconstruction of memories. I am only the climber in a reconstruction of memories. Who's to say which is closer to the reality of the present, or the geological reality of the mountain scraped bare who cares little for the present?
It's not long ago that no one ever thought of climbing a mountain for fun. Petrarch is supposed to be the first Western man to have done so, back in the thirteenth century. In his famous account of the journey he describes a gradual opening up of his senses and a growing enjoyment of the breath of the land itself as he climbs higher upon the peak and the view spreads out wider and farther around him. It starts to feel like Athos or Olympus. He begins to feel powerful, way up there, like a... God? Wait a minute, he catches himself. Luckily he's got a book with him, in his backpack, something to lure him back away from the senses and into the mind. What is it? By chance, a copy of Augustine's Confessions.
The early climber catches himself, is drawn away from his senses and back to conviction: He opens it, apparently at random, to the tenth book. He reads out loud:
Petrarch is often called the first modern man; he who stood on the wall between authority and experience, just by climbing a mountain. After generations of other literary climbers, Whymper in the Alps, Muir in the Sierra, Matthiessen in the Himalaya, we are used to using the mountain to look within. And these days all we seem to consider is ourselves. Every story takes us back into the self, and all we will end up knowing is how each of us, each lonely life, takes a walk upon the land and tries to remember something of how the place affected us.
If the monadnock is bathed in light you can find your way up above the forests. But how is it to understand the rocks in darkness? The eclipse climb taught us that.
It was in the summer after my first year of college, I was nineteen years old. A lunar eclipse was expected, a rare, but not unheard of event. We would climb from the forest into the open sky and observe. At night, guided by the bright and full moon.
There were a group of us: my first girlfriend Bridget, my good friend Andy, other friends Somi and Paul. We drove up after dusk from the city and parked by the head of the old Halfway House trail.
An easy walk it was on the moonlit trail, the rocks like cobblestones on an ancient weathered street. Every beautiful way seems like it looks back to another time when more people put their feet to its Earth: Monadnock, I had heard, was once a popular resort destination. There were scores of exact, tiny trails marked upon its flanks, attractions, tea houses, resting places and a gracious lodge on its top. It was a grand destination, a title now reserved for Caribbean hideaways and faraway ski resorts. Without the airplane, Monadnock seemed a much more wild and distant adventure for the train and stagecoach riders from Boston and Manhattan. It was a long way off, a fine place to escape to.
Now it was another New England path much more wild than it was. Did this mean that we were slowly returning to nature? No, only turning our tendency to conquer elsewhere.
But on this night these facts did little to cloud the clear skies above our climb. The moon casts an unfamiliar shadow, especially to those of us too long in the city. Streetlights, it is said, tell lies. This was the real changing light of the night. It guided our rocky way up.
I thought of the legends of lunacy brought on by leaving children too long out in the light of the moon. It's not where we are supposed to be. But when we go there the forest does become a strange and privileged place. Everything's now like a fading black and white photograph, only the wind moves the shadows as you see them. You can look at your feet to make sure you don't slip but there isn't always that much to see.
Stepping slowly up beneath the moon. Careful on the rocks, always some are wet. Watch the faint shadows that are trees shrink as you get higher. In the distance views peak through, shimmers of the distant lights of tiny towns, or single candles burning in shacks deep in the woods, where someone sits and could not know they are being watched from far away on the mountain.
When you reach the long rock finger ridges you know you will make it. The way ahead is open, quiet, unvisited by any other animals on this night. The light is strange enough to keep them all away. And now even something is happening to the moon. A piece is being clipped away. A strange round shadow makes its appearance on the source of light. That's the Earth. That's where we stand right now, so far away. How can the line of this planet possibly make a difference to that faraway bright light? That's what has astonished people about eclipses for centuries.
I see now the cool rock dome in night shadows, seventeen years later. The shape and color are still clear. Or are they? Have they not become blurred with other mountains I have climbed at night, other moments when the deep silence of the world has been felt. There are many times I've been on the rocks at night, and seen how lonely the world is. For as much as humanity reshapes this planet in our image, its mountains still seem unmovable and unfazed by it all. Nothing is expected of us by the night.
I'm trying to be specific, I want to be clear. The one thing about this climb that separates it from all others in my mountain memories is that the bright moon did not give way to sunrise. By the time all of us sauntered up to the summit, most quietly in awe, some talking to avoid taking in the emptiness, the shadow was swallowing the moon. Suddenly its motion sped up, and in an instant the light was swallowed up. The sky was instantly dark, and we had no flashlights. We had forgotten about this part of the eclipse-the light goes away. So we sat at the top of Monadnock with all the wonder of moonlight gone and the wonder of the eclipse darkening the sky. What to do?
"We wait, of course," I announced. "If we wait, the light will come back."
"But it's cold," said Bridget, holding my hand, though with that single sentence the temporary nature of our relationship seemed to come out. It would not last.
"Just enjoy the cold. Feel the intensity of the cold and the darkness. It won't hurt you." She looked at me skeptically. Some others had already started down, even though they could not see where they were going. It looked possible. "Well, we can also feel our way down. Sight as a sense is a bit overrated."
Stepping down you let gravity do the work for you. It's less effort but so much easier to fall, as the weight of the Earth just pulls you along down right there beneath the shadow of the Earth in a lean darkness. You rely on recent memory to know that the trail is safe, where it turns wet and dry, where it goes right and left, slippery or firm. Holding hands does not help as this is a single file trek. Some are more confident than others. The group spreads out in time along the walk. Soon each of us is alone, going at our own pace not being easily able to see but soon easily able to feel. It becomes a pure and individual descent for all of us.
One by one we return to the clearing where lie the cars. Some people are taking too long. We're worried what happened to them. Andy and I rush back up, confident, wanting to rescue. We find Somi and Paul about halfway up. They were just taking their time. Not wanting any kind of push or rescue. We were the impatient ones. They said they were fine.
Not quite dark, not quite light when we are that the bottom. It was a special adventure about which little needs to be said. I've probably said too much already. Where are they today? Andy runs a successful computer concern. Paul tells architects what they can and cannot build in New York City. Somi is one of the country's most esteemed cutting-edge graphic designers. Bridget is a lesbian. We will never climb together again. The mountain is still in the same place, not even wondering about the next eclipse. I probably think more about this ascent than the rest of them, and it still seems like one of the most important things I've done.
Why? Because I set myself away from the normal days. Because I took some risk to get tainted by the darkness after the light. Because I didn't know exactly what would happen, and because I brought my friends there with me.
But where are they today? That's the question I keep asking about which the mountain has nothing to say. Where are they today? These people, these memories, these reasons for the climb.
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