For love of mountains

I can’t think of anything in nature better than mountains. There are other things I’ve seen that are thrilling — beautiful views of Lake Superior from the bluffs along the north shore in Minnesota, sunrises over a huge reservoir in Tennessee, sunsets over the Pacific in California. But mountains are different.
I am filled with desire for them, a deep wanting that makes me feel something close to sick. It’s inexplicable to me, but I see the mountains and I need them. I can’t hold a mountain in my hands, I can’t have any real interaction with a peak, I can’t keep it. So what is this desire? What would ever satisfy it? There’s never a feeling of satisfaction associated with this; the closer I get to a peak, the higher the level of desire — it just grows. And I can’t answer it.

I’m looking at a picture right now of a place in Montana where I spent a few days in a cabin in a meadow. Two mountain peaks, a little snow near the top of each, sit across the meadow. A higher range, with more snow, is off in the distance. They all sit around 10,000 to 12,000 feet, far from the two 8,000-meter peaks I glimpsed through the clouds in Nepal years ago, but it doesn’t matter. They’re beautiful.

The snow makes it. Once, on a solo backpacking trip, I topped out of an excruciating, boring hike up a canyon to arrive at 270-degree vistas of brown peaks. Those don’t count to me, which is one reason that was, overall, a shitty backpacking trip. There was nothing different about those ugly peaks except their overall altitude and climate, but that white coat at the top is the key feature. Snow-covered peaks leave me with that deep, consuming desire. So I want to get my hands on them. Or, rather, I want to get my feet on them. Getting closer to the mountains makes the desire grow; I used to think climbing them would finally satisfy that desire.

The climb, the process, it means something to people. It doesn’t mean much to me, I’m afraid. I’m a destination-oriented person. I’ve driven across the country a few times. Once to the east coast; once to the west coast; several times from the Midwest to the Rockies. Nice drives, parts of them. But really, I don’t have the patience for it. That might be because driving is tiring and attention-demanding; I mean to try an Amtrak trip in the near future to explore that idea. And my lack of patience for mountaineering, for the process that is the ascent and descent, may be because of my lack of physical fitness and, most times, lack of acclimatization to the altitude (Chicago is at around 600 feet). I did a lot better on the trip to Asia; I was younger, more fit and had lots of acclimatization time, and despite some rainy, cold weather we experienced while trekking and one 1000-meter morning, I enjoyed the process a lot more. So I’m not totally sure of myself on this, but I tend not to enjoy the climb, the drive, the trek. It’s all about seeing something from afar and wanting it immediately.

After the journey, the view from the top — it’s good. But, honestly, its main selling point is the great view of other mountains (along with the topography below). In the Rockies, they say that the view is best from the summits of peaks off the divide. If you climb a peak that is part of the main ridge or divide, the view along the ridge is obstructed by peaks on either side of you. But if you climb a peak that’s on its own, separated from the ridge, you get a beautiful, unobstructed view of all of the peaks on the nearby ridge. I’m trying to point out the circularity here: you climb peaks to see the surrounding peaks. So as far as the view goes, the summit you stand upon means nothing. You can no longer see the mountain below you — just the other ones.

I was on top of one of those two peaks in the picture I mentioned, reached by climbing a ridge behind the cabin in the meadow and following it around and up to the summit — Class I with a little scrambling and some easy snow. That was the first summit marker I ever saw. It was the first time I wasn’t just looking up at my love; it was under my feet. I had a sense of achievement, a realization that I had finally climbed a real, named peak.

But there was no satisfaction. The object of my desire, my love, was under my feet, and I couldn’t see it. Actually, I could see it, but what I could see wasn’t my mountain. I saw the dirt and rocks that made up the mass; I saw the snowfields trailing down the sides of the mountain and down the ridge I had just climbed, but they were just like the fields of snow in pancake-flat Illinois; I saw my mountain trailing away to beautiful river valleys, but that’s not quite as impressive as looking up the massive feature from below, in those valleys. My mountain was just another piece of earth from up there.

On the other hand, the summit provided views of many other summits in the area, some close, some fifty miles away. Those other mountains looked pretty good — far better than my mountain. Their snow was a beautiful white coat, their ridges knife-like and their faces stunning in their steepness and height. I knew, though, that while some of those mountains maybe did have sharper features and more challenging approaches than the one I was on, the difference was marginal. I was envying the other mountains for no good reason, because, for the most part, they could provide no more satisfaction than I had already been afforded by my chosen peak.

What is this endless desire, then? What kind of experience, if any, on or near a mountain would satisfy it? Assuming there isn’t a good answer to that, what do I do with this feeling, this need? Do I pick a promising-looking mountain and try to feel fulfilled when I fight my way to the top? Do I climb every mountain I can find in the world until I find one that looks as good from the top as it does from the next peak over?

All I know to do is to walk among them at every opportunity and to relish the intense longing they incite in me.

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