Wild Side: Why we climb mountains

    Mt. Thielsen isn’t the tallest mountain in the Cascades and summiting this jagged volcanic peak isn’t the most difficult ascent when compared to Shasta, Hood or Rainer. But in my book it is the most spectacular Cascadian peak.

    A few weeks ago, I decided to climb Thielsen again. I had been up the “Lightning Rod of the Cascades” a couple times before, once with my then-girlfriend. We encountered snow, brutal sun and swarms of bloodthirsty mosquitoes. We made it near the top but not without tears, choice profanities, and a tense heart-to-heart.

    Amazingly, she eventually agreed to marry me.

    My recent trip was a solo expedition, which afforded me an opportunity for introspection. 

    After a few miles I began to wonder why I love to bag peaks. What is it about climbing mountains that is so fulfilling? What drives us to risk life and limb, at times, to reach the top of a piece of rock? I suppose the same questions apply to those that seek adventure in backpacking, whitewater rafting or skiing. 

    For some, I’m sure it’s simply the exercise. Many of us feel a compelling urge to get out and move our bodies. Given that we could do that in town running on the sidewalk or at the gym, it can’t be just about the cardio. If it were just about getting into the wild — which I also love — nature seekers could get their fill on trails that are safe and flat and avoid so much risk. 

    A reporter once asked Sir George Mallory, one of the very first climbers to attempt Mount Everest, why he is drawn to summit such a mountain. “Because it’s there,” he quipped. Unfortunately, he died on Everest. 

    As I approached the summit I could see the spot called “Chicken Ledge” where many climbers turn around. Many years ago, it’s where I told my wife that it’s perfectly fine to do so. Here I am this time, eying the pinnacle of the mountain. 

    There in the boulder field, I caught up to an older hiker in his 60s. Climbing mountains for 40 years, he said this we probably his 20th trip up Mt. Thielsen. As we helped each other find the appropriate hand and foot holds up the pinnacle to the very top, he admitted that if this were his first trip up Thielsen, he wouldn’t be attempting this difficult pitch. 

    Atop the mountain, the panoramic view is vast. On this clear day, many of the Cascade peaks are in plain view, and I could see where the National Creek fire had burned inside and outside the northwest corner of the Crater Lake National Park. The Park Service has allowed them to continue to smolder to restore the fire cycles in the park, and they looked insignificant from this view.

    As I stood on top I realized how meditative the hike had been. Sure, I got some exercise, but the everyday hustle of work, deadlines, to-do lists, and bills had evaporated without me noticing. Needs and desires melted away. It was just me and this big, beautiful mountain.

    So, do we climb mountains to help us achieve that meditative state? Or do we do it to feel mountain under our feet and realize an intimate closeness to the earth?

    I think it’s more than that. In his book “Into Thin Air,” Jon Krakauer suggests that the pain and suffering from exerting oneself on a mountain can help one achieve a state of grace and that the misery of climbing big mountains is of a spiritual nature. If that’s the case, then I hit the high plain of spirituality, because I could barely walk for two days afterward. 

    On top of Mt. Thielsen, I didn’t feel miserable. I was content. Living in the moment, soaking in my surroundings, and feeling a bit of that state of grace.

    Joseph Vaile is executive director of the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center (KS Wild, 541-488-5789, www.kswild.org). His Wild Side column appears every three weeks.


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