“The mountains are calling and I must go.” — John Muir, 1873
I climbed my first mountain from a pouch slung across my mother’s back. Okay, I guess she was the one doing the climbing — the true legwork — but at less than a year old, I’d moved from the base of a mount to its summit without the assistance of any motor vehicles. So by that definition, at least, I’d bagged my first peak.
The mountain was a modest one. Located in the Adirondack region of New York, across from our family’s regular summer campsite on Lake Durant, Blue Mountain tops out at 3,750 feet (1,143 meters). To high-altitude mountaineers who regularly scale dangerous Himalayan peaks stretching multiple miles into the clouds, that sort of elevation is chump change. It’s more of a hill, really — something you might ascend and descend a couple of times to acclimatize for a real climb.
But to me, from my comfortable perch behind my mother’s shoulders, this was one of the most exhilarating adventures I’d ever embarked upon. Granted, at that age, exhilarating adventures were few and far between, what with my busy schedule of naps and diaper changes, as well as my inability to ambulate. And, of course, I don’t actually recall anything from the climb. I’ve returned to the summit of Blue Mountain many times since, but as for my first ascent, I’ve relied solely on my parents’ testimony, comprised mostly of complaints about how difficult it was to lug me up the trail.
While I don’t remember the climb itself, I know I enjoyed it because for as long as I can remember, I’ve had this itch inside of me — to scramble up gravelly slopes to the highest point in sight, to chalk my hands and clamber up rock faces, to seek out the most prominent peaks in a region and find my way to the top. Call it an obsession. Like many before me, I’m utterly fascinated by the vast number of mountains scattered throughout the world, the majestic furls in the Earth’s crust forced up by colliding tectonic plates. I want to peak-bag the 14ers of Colorado, traipse across the snowy summits of the Alps, hone my mountaineering skills in the Alaska Range and the Pacific Northwest, and embark on expeditions into the Karakoram.
In short, I don’t like being below things. When I see a mountain, I want to be at its summit, not its base.
I grew up amid the rolling foothills of northern Massachusetts, where the gentle peaks of New England surrounded me and nurtured my obsession. In the summers, my family and I would explore the Adirondacks and seek out day hikes in southern Maine and New Hampshire.
As I got older, my horizons expanded, as did the elevations of the summits I attempted. Mountains soon became an integral aspect of all of my journeys. When I went to Japan in the eighth grade, I made sure to hike Mount Fuji, though our tight schedule did not allow for a summit bid. When I ventured to Peru in high school, I whiled away long hours on the bus staring at the rising walls of the Andes that surrounded us, daydreaming about slinging on my backpack and trudging my way to the top. After becoming passionately involved in the world of cycling, I signed up for the Colorado Copper Triangle, an alpine cycling tour that pits its riders against three brutal mountain passes in the state’s gorgeous Rockies. On a service trip to Tanzania a few summers later, I ponied up the money for the optional add-on expedition: a guided ascent of Mount Kilimanjaro. When I stood at its glacial peak, I revelled in the joy of existing at 19,341 feet (5,895 meters) — to this day, it remains my record elevation, a statistic inked permanently on my right shoulder, waiting to be bested.
My bucket list of summits suffers the neverending expansion of a bibliophile’s booklist — by the time I’ve bagged one, five more have been added. Katahdin, Whitney, Baker, Rainier, Denali, Mont Blanc, the Matterhorn, Aconcagua, Ama Dablam — these eccentric names clutter my mind and my life. They can be found underlined and highlighted throughout all of the mountaineering literature I’ve collected, scrawled in the margins of my class notes, and littered throughout my internet search history. Like a detective tormented by the moniker of an evasive serial killer, I can’t seem to escape them. Logistical reasoning guides me away from the world of climbing — it’s too dangerous; the gear is too expensive; I don’t have the time or money to train properly. But these names continue to follow me, urging me skyward, refusing to let me be until I’ve stood atop every peak, absorbed in the beauty of the mountain vista.
Why are we drawn to mountains? Is it their magnanimous beauty, the way their knife-edge ridges and rocky faces seem to hold age-old secrets? Is it their metaphoric promise of an attainable goal, every peak a physical representation of the obstacles we must overcome to succeed? Or is it something deeper, more profound — a natural urge to climb until there’s no more Earth to ascend, until we can stand atop the world and gaze out on the expanse unfurling below?
I don’t think I’ll ever know.
Obsession often resists logical interpretation. But, whenever I return to these questions of why, my mind jumps to a particular moment, a moment in which this intense fascination sent me running toward danger.
Two summers ago, my friends and I thru-hiked the Long Trail, a 273-mile (439-kilometer_ footpath that traces the backbone of the Green Mountains through Vermont. Along the way, the trail tops out many of the state’s major peaks, including its tallest, Mount Mansfield. The morning of our Mansfield summit bid, the weather was foreboding — dense cloud cover, gray skies, and a constant, ominous breeze in the air. At one point during our ascent, we came to a fork in the trail. To the left lay the true path of the Long Trail, and to the right was the bad-weather route. Arrogant and excited, we opted for the former. A few minutes after we left, rain began to fall.
At the time, I was roughly two-thirds of the way through Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air,” the very work that introduced me to the insane world of high-altitude mountaineering. Its pages are filled with actual adventures — accounts of men and women who climb dangerous rock faces at the cruising altitude of a jet plane, who accept an unsettling amount of fatal risk in order to attempt the world’s most coveted peaks, who put their bodies into the death zone — an altitude at which humans don’t receive enough oxygen to survive much longer than a day or two — and race against the clock to summit and descend before it’s too late. For me, mountaineers are among the last remaining true explorers. They risk death and suffer tragic loss solely in the pursuit of adventure. Who else in today’s modern world can say they do the same?
From the very first chapter of Krakauer’s book, I was absorbed, and as we raced along the steep and slippery rock path to the top of Mansfield, I found myself imagining that I was in Everest’s death zone, scrambling up the Hillary Step as a snowstorm raged around me. At one point, we had to hop across a foot-wide gap between two boulders — in my mind, it was a gaping glacial crevasse.
It’s important to note, of course, that Mansfield tops out at 4,393 feet (1,339 meters), not even a sixth of the height of the world’s tallest mountain. I didn’t care. Our ascent leveled at the chin (Mansfield’s profile resembles the face of a prone man, with the chin at one end and the forehead at the other), and from there, it was still about a mile and a half gently uphill to the summit.
By this point, however, the rain had evolved from a drizzle to a downpour. Heavy winds physically and repeatedly blew us over (luckily toward the east — into the mountain — as opposed to the west, where rocky cliffs and drop-offs awaited us). Icy hail stung our cheeks as we sprinted forward in bursts, taking periodic cover behind any rock big enough to provide a moment’s rest. Not a single other person joined us atop the mountain, which is notable considering the summit is accessible via a public road. I struggled to recall if anyone had perished on Mount Mansfield before, and I began to accept that we might be the first.
On a clear day, we would have been able to spot the summit ridge ahead of us, but in the mess before us, we could only see about 50 yards ahead. Our only option was to continue trudging forward, to survive until the peak came into view. Drenched to the bone, I felt my pack cover slip off and watched as it was whisked away violently by the punishing wind. Luckily, one of my hiking partners was able to snag it before it was out of sight, but the message had been received — this was no longer a safe situation.
That realization should have rattled me. Yet, as I stopped for breath and prepared for another push forward, I found myself smiling. When the wind died down for a brief second, I took off again into the fog.
After all, the mountains were calling.
Header image by Mark Reed