Though reaching a summit is one of the most rewarding achievements of a mountaineering venture, the steps leading to and from that humbling view are just as important.
The wonder of a mountain lies in her whole form–foot to summit. To visit a mountain solely for her pinnacle is to miss the beauty wrapped up in every step of her surface. Within the entire body of a mountain is a world rich for exploring that affords the opportunity for quiet encounters and wild moments of connection to landscape and ecosystem. After all, we crave wilderness — or perhaps simply wildness–but on a planet full of adventurers, it is increasingly difficult to find privacy for stillness, reflection, and recovery from the hurry of modern life.
I have been exploring the bodies of mountains for many years. At the beginning, it wasn’t a conscious decision, but rather the natural progression from time as a geologist. I was accustomed to paying attention to the detail of a mountain, but over the years I’ve grown increasingly more conscious of the landscape as a whole living organism and have been drawn in ever deeper to the parts of a mountain that others might overlook in their race to the summit.
This isn’t to say that the summit isn’t an important part of my travels through the mountains, just that I get as much, if not more, pleasure from the long ascent itself. My attention is drawn to the type of light, the soundscape, and the transitions between environments as I move from mountain meadow pastures, through the tree line, and up into the near-barren corries and ridges. Indeed, John Muir knew that the call of the mountains is not just to the summit, but to the wholeness of the experience that a mountain offers:
“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.”
Light, wherever it falls, has a quality that is unique because the thing on which it falls is also inimitable. Light breaking to the forest floor is different from light spreading out over a mill-pond sea, just as light on the high mountains, between valleys and crevasses, is different from either.
Noticing the mountain light at any given moment, on any given day, is a guaranteed way to have a unique mountain experience. Light never falls the same way twice, as the variables of land, weather, and spectator are constantly in flux. Nothing captures mood quite like lighting, so to go into the mountains and notice the light is also to notice something about ourselves. What shifts in us in the moment when a storm cloud blocks the sun and produces a shadow dialing down the blue beneath our feet? What joy is written on our faces when we crawl out of the sleeping bag in the dark to watch the sunrise over a crest of peaks? Light and dark are universal, and so too are joy and sorrow, hard work and rest.
Capturing the visual elements of mountain landscapes comes naturally. Photography is the common language of travel and exploration, and to bring back something of the experience that can be kept forever is a near-universal need. We worry our memories will fail us; we want to share our achievements with others; we value the chance to see and revisit our life story in pictures, to prove to ourselves “I was here.” Often, we’ll supplement our images with words — like this essay.
To simply be present in a journey and not save a thing beyond our own memories is increasingly rare.
And yet, the unpredictability, subtlety, and fleeting nature of the soundscape of a mountain is, for me, an opportunity to hear the world at that moment without distraction. It is to be mindful in the mountains. I take no special equipment with me to listen to the sound of the mountains. What makes an impression — what is stored in my memory — is a product of chance, and for me alone.
I cannot adequately describe for you the hollowing-out beauty of a goat shepherd’s song echoing through the dry valleys of the High Atlas. I can’t capture in words the specific, almost metallic, glinting sound of chamois hooves clattering over scree as they make their precipitous chase across a rock buttress at dusk. Neither can I possibly account for the deep and deafening mountain silence that seems to creep out of nowhere from the space between overhead aircraft, other mountaineers, rockfalls, and errant gusts of wind. The mountains are an amphitheater that you simply must experience for yourself, because making time to notice the acoustic ecology of the mountains is another way to know the mountain more fully.
Mountains hold an endless fascination to the modern mind. They embody what it means to escape, take risks, endeavor, and achieve, and to discover an expanded version of ourselves that might be fitter, better balanced (physically and mentally), and more tenacious. However, they also offer solace, a sense of permanence and perspective, and a chance to be elevated above the worries of our normal lives.
Wild mountains are spaces for healing and growth; exploring their reaches with all our senses is a way of reaching into ourselves and answering that oldest of calls to be outside, to experience the world above and beyond us.