As we sat on the summit under blue bird skies our instructor posed a simple question, “What do the mountains do for you?". Atop Poster Peak, in the North Cascades of Washington, our minds deliberated. Among those present were Rainier Mountain Rangers and Institute Guides. We sat and thought. Thought of longer days, of harder days. I thought of snow capped peaks and the sight of my frozen breath. After a moment of speculation, many words began to crystallize. Words like “challenge” or “clarity”, some of “risk" and others of "reward”. As I sat and contemplated I shook my head in accordance, not fully sold on the idea but agreeing with what was said.
It has been weeks since that question was first posed to me and still, I have deliberated. Deliberated on the difference between my first trips to the mountains and as to why they still beckon me towards their slopes.
It is true if I were to be asked that same question years ago I would have said “challenge” or “humility”. For the mountains were the first endeavors in my life to truly challenge me. Both physically and mentally. Each time I ventured onto their flanks the pain in my muscles was equaled only by my gasping for breath, or my racing thoughts. “Am I strong enough?”, “Do I have what it takes?”. With those questions, with the pain, came humility and gratitude for those stone giants.
Flash forward to this summer, over half a decade of time in the mountains. As I worked, and groveled, and slogged up the slopes of mountains in the Northern Cascades my mind wandered. Wandered off and on to thoughts of why I was here. I climbed countless peaks with countless individuals but still didn't have a clue. Through countless struggles; struggles through the night, under the stars, and into warmth of the rising sun. With all the beauty and all the pain, my mind still searched for an answer. Why? Why the troubles? Why the sacrifice?
Then, suddenly, laying in the back of my Toyota 4 runner Mick's words hit me, “What do mountains do for you? Well Mick, I think I finally have an answer for you, even if it's not the one you were looking for.
“The mountains have been a path in which my objective knowledge about the nature of reality have coalesced with my personal feelings and experiences of that reality. In doing so the mountains have put a clarity filter on my perspective of humanity and its place within this vast ocean we call the cosmos.“
You see for years now I have studied the scientific models of the universe. Since my late teens, I have searched and searched for the “How” of things so that in turn I may discover the “Why”. For I have never been a religious person. Nor, have I subscribed to a particular faith or paradigm. But like anyone lost in the throes of life I have spent my days searching for a “Why”. And in that quest of knowledge acquisition, I have looked to science. The unadulterated fact checker. The nature of things.
This search for meaning led me from book to book and from challenge to challenge. From “The Origin of Species” to “The Journey of the Universe”, from Heisenberg’s “Physics and Philosophy” to theories of complexity and quantum spookiness. The more I read, the more I drifted towards the study of Cosmology.
Unbeknownst to me and in parallel to my personal discoveries of the “facts” of things are the ventures that have taken me deep into the mountains. Each pursuit of knowledge followed by a pursuit of challenge. Endlessly consuming my mind and body to this day.
Cosmology, unlike pure science, takes into consideration the human aspect. Where science is concerned with mere facts, cosmology understands that humans are a part of the singular process that we call the Universe. Not separate from it. That, of course, I now realize is what the mountains have been doing for me all along.
The more I have learned about the nature of things, the more I have yearned to be a part of the whole. The more I contemplate it seems the more I venture into the mountains. I venture to feel, to breathe, to live. The more I am among the mountains, the more I discover that I am centered. A centering of my place in this vast ocean of reality.
The mountains allow me to feel and to touch what is real. They allow me to live in the moment. To exist, to fear, to love, to thrive. So that instead of drifting along lost in this sea of reality, I may float carelessly among the waves and cast my mind to the stars.
The mountains tell me.
I am real. I am fragile yet strong. I am alone yet connected. I am different yet ultimately the same.
But they also show me that I am human. That I feel and think, and dance, and sing, and love. They are a centering that shows me what is important. Like a shooting star with its extravagant display of fire across the sky. We too have this short chance, a blink of an eye, to burn our brightest amidst a sea of endless dark.
The mountains show me the earth, the stars, the waxing and waning of the moon and the coming and goings of the sun. They calibrate my soul with the diurnal shifts of night and day rather than the endless ticking and tocking of our mechanized clocks.
They are a way in which through this transformative process of climbing I can align “How the world is” with “Why the world does”. The mountains show me that we are all one Happening, a single beautifully complex process that started some 14 billion years ago.
Each time I venture onto their slopes I am all at once mystified by reality, and humbled by my own existence.
That is what the mountains do for me.
What have they done for you?
Photos by Ben Matthews
Words by George Bieker