I’m not a mountaineer. I’m just a little lady who loves mountains. What I love best about mountains, actually, is looking at them from a distance. They seem to promise so much and I love those promises. As long as I can remember, I’ve felt this way about them and I’ve been lucky to have seen a lot of great mountains in my life, some of them up close.
But when you’re close to a mountain, it becomes something else. It becomes a trail, a ski run, a face, a glacier, a route, a snow field. The mountain is gone. Because of this, I never really minded Southern California. The “mountains” in my California life were all under 10,000 feet and the ones I spent the most time on were not mountains at all; they were hills that happened to rise above the surrounding landscape one or two thousand feet. I got to know these mountains well; they were the right scale for intimacy.
I spent at least an hour most days between 1987 and 2005 on one or another of these trails through the mountains. What I liked was motion and the chance to see animals and the way my mind would work after about 30 minutes of hard exertion. I also liked that I was alone, with my dogs, most of the time and I liked whatever surprises came my way. Coyotes yipping and howling, sometimes to me; the burst of Datura fragrance at dusk on a warm summer evening; an owl silently flying ten feet from my face; the screech of a hawk in the blue sky; the fragrance of black sage after rain; rainbows; clouds that touch the ridge; standing with one hand in rain the other outside of the rain shadow; the view of the desert from a high place; small seasonal waterfalls; dogs “fishing” in puddles; standing in a golden field with a friend watching a black shouldered kite hover in her hunt; bald eagles fishing in eskers coming out of the flooded reservoir; following my white husky into a thicket to find a surprised doe staring into my eyes; wild lilac blooming all around, their tiny blue petals falling on the trail; thousands of lady bugs in the tall grass; the fun of climbing up a mean little mountain with a good friend and looking over the desert at the Salton Sea; my white husky swimming in a spring; a manzanita ancient and huge with beautiful red bark; orange poppies blooming everywhere; a roadrunner staying in arm’s reach as we both climb a steep, steep trail; ravens surfing on a thermal showing off, I think, for me as I sat and watched on a cliff right beside them; sunset bright red on the ocean 70 miles from where I stood on a narrow, snowy ledge; a mountain lion; the coyote following along beside me as I carried my dead dog’s tag to place on a fence post. I also liked the discomforts; flies in the face, rattlesnakes on the trails, carrying water (lots of water in summer), heat, cold, wet, storms, mud, night. I liked that everything around me was OTHER than I, that the only power I had in that place was over myself, my attitude. I liked that the power of it, nature, is never arbitrary or fake. I liked being where I knew I belonged as a natural creature, not a proponent of culture — a teacher.
I learned so much on those trails, mostly about myself. I learned things I probably am not even fully aware of but which stand me in good stead every day of my life.
Growing to maturity in Colorado in the 70s meant that I was surrounded by the emerging climbing culture. Many of my friends climbed — I climbed, when it comes to it. I liked the feel of rock under my hands; I liked finding routes; I liked the strength involved in making it from place to place. It was never more than a hobby for me, though. What I liked best was moving through space and climbing what came between me and the next vista. Others, though, became mountaineers. Some of them got hurt and most of them didn’t and ended up quitting at a certain point because it is kind of a stupid way to die unless it is your passion.
Last night I watched a film done by Outside magazine, a little documentary and interview of Reinhold Messner, probably THE greatest climber of my generation, and because I liked climbers, love mountains and faraway places, I followed Messner’s adventures. He was the first climber to solo climb Everest without bottled oxygen. He was also a participant/believer in the “free” climbing movement which means climbing without relying much on technical tools to make the climb safer. That style of climbing means you don’t leave hardware on the mountain and the route remains pristine for the next person. I knew if I were a climber, that’s what I would do, too. Messner free-climbed Everest (and many other mountains).
Reinhold Messner was born in 1944 so he’s eight years older than I. In the film I watched last night, I’d guess he was in his sixties. He talked about his philosophy of climbing and answered the question, “Why did you climb?” He asserted he was climbing to learn about himself, to learn about his limitations. He spoke about fear and what fear can teach a person. He said (as I used to say to my students!) “We suck as animals. We might have a man he runs 100 meters in 9 seconds or so but any horse would beat him; we’re not so fast, and there are animals that can pull themselves over an overhang, no problem. We have nothing special except this,” and he pointed at his head, “we have this brain. It’s fear that pushed us into figuring things out, how to get away from the lion or the tiger.”
The interviewer asked him what he had hoped to achieve as a climber and Messner said, “I wasn’t achieving anything except for my own. I was having adventure. The adventure begins here.” He tapped his head again. I thought about that a lot since then — adventure is really everything. All my trails were adventures. I went out every time ready for whatever happened; happy with the consequences. I thought about Messner’s idea of adventure — it does begin in the mind. It is going out into something you’re afraid of and maybe you fail. He said, “Well, I was going up Everest alone without oxygen so there were some things I wasn’t going to do. I was going to take the usual route most people take, not an unknown route. I had to carry all my things myself, so I knew I had to go fast, and to stay up at that altitude too long is dangerous. I was three days up and two days back. It would be easy for things to go wrong. I had to be able to see my footprints or I wouldn’t get back down, but you see, I saw them, I got back down.” He laughed. Thinking is the part that eliminates all that is NOT the adventure.
He talked about how all the big mountains will stop being adventures. “To get to the top of a mountain is a kind of superficial goal; that’s not the adventure. There are thousands of mountains and walls and faces no one has climbed, but the people are going to the top of Mt. Everest.”
I thought about that, too. Since, for me, mountains are beautiful things at a distance, they are all mountains I have not climbed. The mountains I have climbed? Fortuna, South Fortuna, Kwapaay, Cowles, Laguna, Hays Peak and Garnet Peak. That’s it. Not much of a peak bagger… My life has been on a few hard trails but all mountains are trails. I just had to earn a living and I never earned much. It wasn’t like I could pick up and go even to Yosemite.
But the most truly beautiful thing Messner said was that in his mind, in his climbs, he had inscribed lines on the faces of the mountains and walls that he climbed. Only he can see the lines, no one else. Others will have the chance to make their own lines in their own lifetimes. “Each generation remakes the world,” he said. Without the beauty and the mystery, the story that hasn’t yet been written, there is no adventure. Leaving protection on the rock is stealing from the future the possibility of adventure.
He said some other things that touched me, but maybe most touching was this, “I can’t do it any more. I got this leg that gives me some problems, so now I’m going to do these other things, find different adventures.”
Here’s the film: