Meditation on Mountains

I read a grim story yesterday in the latest Outside Magazine, a climbing story from the 1970s. As I read, I knew I’d heard the story before, but maybe it didn’t penetrate? Or I forgot? Or? The simplistic upshot is that it was a problem between two warring perceptions of a mountain and someone died. There was the, “Oh, she died doing what she loved!” and her father — Willi Unseold — who was on the climb, “gave” her body to the mountain, Nanda Devi, for which she had been named. One of the team members had a pragmatic attitude toward climbing; the young woman and her father a perspective that was more romantic. All of them were very good climbers. It is a haunting story, and I’m not sure why Outside decided to tell it again now.

I get the idea of extreme mountaineering requiring the acceptance of the possibility of death on the mountain. That’s obvious to me and it would have to be OK with the climber, but I don’t think that means being careless, profligate, ruthless with the self and the self’s well-being. The Outside Magazine article discusses the philosophical differences between team-member John Roskelly and the Unsoelds. John Roskelly (still alive, BTW, which says something positive about his philosophy), summited on that climb. His approach was much less mystical and romantic.

An old love of mine — a mountaineer — said to me after he came back from Annapurna II, “Getting back down is the difficult and important part.”

Yep. I had that lesson myself years later on Garnet Peak in the Friendly Mountains. I had climbed it at least 50 times, sort of “We have a couple hours. Let’s climb Garnet Peak.” It’s not a long hike — there are two routes — though we liked the long route along the PCT with its dramatic overlooks. The trail to the top is very steep, rocky, and gravely.

I’d gone up with my friend Kris. My right hip was very very very bad — bone on bone, as yet no X-ray to inform me. Just a vague (mis)diagnosis of piriformis syndrome by my “doctor.” Going up wasn’t so bad, but coming down? A descent that was normally 30 minutes — or fewer if I were running — took me 2 hours, the last hour in the dark and in terrible pain. I had climbed that mountain so many times before, but never contending with THAT adversary. I still didn’t “get” it, exactly WHAT was wrong with me, how serious it was, and what it would take to “recover.”

It doesn’t take a 900 million meter peak on the roof of the world to learn that lesson. The height — and danger — of a mountain depends partly on one’s physical ability.

Three years later I climbed the mountain again. I had a prosthetic hip. No problem, but it wasn’t the same. I wasn’t the same. The mountain isn’t just the mountain. I was the mountain, too. It was the intersection between me and a trail, and it didn’t matter that I knew the trail well. I had known the trail well as ONE person, but now I was someone else.

Willi Unseold was a legendary climber, Peace Corps leader, and proponent of wilderness education who did many amazing things with his life. He was kind of a hero to me when I was in high school, my friends (and I) all dreamed of climbing, and girls weren’t even allowed to do Outward Bound. There were two women on the fatal climb up Nanda Devi. Including women on the expedition was a philosophical and logistical problem for some of the climbers. One of the women got sick and went back down. The other got sick, didn’t take it seriously, shilly-shallied, DIDN’T go back down — and died.

I can see why someone would fall in love with the beauty of a mountain and name their daughter for the mountain, but Nanda Devi is also the name of a very important — and complex — goddess. I thought about the Rockies and their names. Kind of funny to imagine some mountain-drunk dad naming his little girl “Sneffels,” or “Pikes Peak.” Some of the mountains around here have plausible girl names — Silver — which was Bear’s original name, or Windy — already a girl’s name in one of the Association’s lesser hits.

Blanca is already a girl’s name in Spanish. It’s is a sacred mountain for the Navajo… “Blanca Peak is known to the Navajo people as the Sacred Mountain of the East: Sisnaajiní (or Tsisnaasjiní), the Dawn or White Shell Mountain. The mountain is considered to be the eastern boundary of the Dinetah, the traditional Navajo homeland. It is associated with the color white, and is said to be covered in daylight and dawn and fastened to the ground with lightning. It is gendered male.”

Mt. Blanca from the floor of the San Luis Valley

There’s a Himalayan Mountain people are forbidden from climbing. I know this from a book — I think The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen. As time passed and I taught the world at the international school, a Nepali climbing guide showed up to learn English. How that happened I don’t know, but there he was. I knew about the sacred mountain, Machapuchare, and that it is forbidden to humans to touch the summit. At the time I had a panorama of some of these mountains on the wall in my house. He was surprised I knew this, and I think it made him feel slightly less alien in the midst of the Japanese and European classmates. The mountain is very beautiful and believed to be the home of the god Shiva. There’s a rumor that it has been summited but who knows…

What makes a mountain sacred? I thought about that as I read the article yesterday. The “friendly mountains”– named that by an Austrian friend who came to visit some time back and who went hiking with me and the dogs — of San Diego County were also sacred to the local Indians, but differently sacred. They were not distant, unreachable temples. They really ARE the friendly mountains and they gave the California Coastal Indians everything — acorns, game, shelter, protection from heat in summer. Water, too. The sources of the San Diego River and the Sweetwater River are in the Laguna Mountains and the Cuyamaca Mountains where it snows. The lower mountains nearer the coast (Mission Trails Regional Park) gave them all this while protecting them from the cold of winter. The Kumeyaay wandered from the sea to the desert and back again, a yearly traverse over the friendly mountains. EVERYTHING is there. It’s a giant “supermarket” of nature.

Garnet Peak in the (in shadow) Laguna Mountains San Diego County, CA looking down on the Anza Borrego Desert.

We’re having the same kind of winter here in the San Luis Valley we had last year; dry. But the mountains are scraping a LOT of moisture from the clouds, so the Rio Grande should be full this spring. Depending on the snowpack for the rest of the winter — and the snowiest months are ahead — it could be OK for the farmers, though it won’t quell the drought.

The original Spanish settlers brought an irrigation system with them that was similar to that used by the Pueblo Indians, a very efficient system called the Acequia. I recently read a story by a descendant of one of these original Spanish immigrants explaining how that worked, and how the mountain near the town of San Luis was regarded as the provider of life because the snow melt that meandered down the side filled the Acequias and grew their crops. They didn’t exactly “worship” the mountain, but their reverence for it was very close to worship. Then? A private person bought the mountain (how can you buy a fucking mountain?) and closed it off to the people who had historically depended on it… In the last couple of years the mountain has “changed hands,” and people have the right to go on the mountain, again, a bit, anyway. When I’m out there, and the mountains are all around me, I can’t imagine owning one. If any”one” owns anyone, they own me. “Stay down there, little one,” they say, and I do. I figure they love me THAT much.

My physical limitations and the fact that I don’t have a pal to go into the mountains with have driven me to the wetlands. But it’s OK. I’m happy to LOOK at mountains. But there? I read a book not long ago — Mountains of the Mind by Robert Macfarlane — that argues that the beauty of mountains was “discovered” by the Romantics. I think that’s crap. But the reality that mountains are both our friends and our enemies? Inspiration and obstacle? Life-giver and life-taker? Yeah. That is beautifully illustrated in a Swiss film about the building of the Gotthard Tunnel. The title? Gotthard

In a very real way, mountains ARE givers of life, and I can see why they are construed as deities. Still, the story I read yesterday left me feeling kind of sick. I think in 1976 or so when I probably first heard/read it I would have been all good with Willi Unsoeld saying, “I gave her to the mountain.” I’m not now. There’s a lot on the Internet about this young woman and if you’re curious you can find it. Among other things, she had a great mom.

Caveat: I’m not a climber and certainly NOT a mountaineer. That direction pretty much closed to me for reasons such as finances, no climbing partner, work work work, finances, oh yeah, said that, and where I lived AND choices I made when I reached a turning point in my climbing life at 18 or so. I don’t think life is about pining over opportunities you can’t have but about living and enjoying those you do have.


Bear, Teddy and I were out yesterday for a while. No snow to speak of except on the mountains which are sitting around the edges of the San Luis Valley like a come-on from a tourist brochure. Starlings in one red willow bush. Tracks the dogs could “see” but I could not. I gave Teddy my birthday because he was six months old when I got him one June day 4 years ago, so we were celebrating.

As they walked, sniffed and pulled their leashes to get to the next scent, I had the thought that if we didn’t “measure” time we wouldn’t “know” things like that. Funny how we make up stuff and then “know” it as if it were a discovery — that said, the movement of the earth around the sun is regular enough to say “clock” to any human. It’s a system that pre-exists any human “knowledge” and we are obliged to follow it if only because it’s really dark at night.

I’ve sat in on a lot of arguments/disputes/discussions about whether time exists. They tend to get extremely abstract and most of them end in “Oh my god, it’s late. I have to get home.” Some of these disputes started with the idea of a “time line.” “It’s not a line,” was often the opening…So there’s that. I don’t think I’ve ever taken a side in these discussions because 1) I don’t know, 2) I wear a watch. Right there is a conundrum. There’s the argument that there is no “time,” there is only duration. There’s the argument that since all time exists in the universe simultaneously (we can see the beginning of the universe if we look far enough into space) there is no time. I tend to think the problem is the word, “time,” there being a difference between the “space time continuum” and “what time is it?”

At this point in my life, even when I look at the solid form of Mt. Blanca I KNOW it was once a much bigger mountain in located near the equator. Interesting paper on the history of the Sangre de Cristo mountains here.

The Ancestral Rockies

The first Rocky Mountains, called the “Ancestral Rockies,” began to rise about 320 million years ago during Penn- sylvanian time. Like the present Rocky Mountains, deep fault-bounded basins separated individual ranges of the Ancestral Rockies but, unlike the present Rockies, these basins were filled with shallow seas. Geologists continue to speculate about how the Ancestral Rockies formed, whether by compression and thrusting of the crust or by strike-slip faulting, or some combination of these, perhaps when two large ancient continents, Laurentia (North America and Europe combined) and Gondwana (South America and Africa combined) collided. However they formed, the Ancestral Rockies were largely worn down by erosion by the end of Permian time, about 250 million years ago. 

Think about that…a whole mountain range gone. Not exactly “poof!” but still gone… And before that? A whole lot of stuff no one really knows much about. The paper says, “The first 30 billion years are largely unknown…”

Yesterday my cousin, Tom, called me. Tom and I were good friends in our childhood and teenage years. We’re the same age, well, he’s one month younger. But time (ha ha) marches on and people grow up, get married, move on and on and on and on and things happen to them. Last time I talked to Tom was in 2008. The first thing he said was, “Are you really 71 years old?” I cracked up.

“You’re not far behind, sonny.”

RDP Sunday: follow

The Sublime?

Back in the day when I was young and foolish, in high school studying poetry, I learned of something called “The Sublime.” It was an idea, an aesthetic, so abstract and yet so beautiful that I wanted it, I believed in it. The Sublime was perfect, breath-taking (literally), beyond (almost) human effort, inspiring, an object of wonder — and fear.

The Sublime is an ideal. A person might think of Plato but that would be missing the point. Plato’s ideal did not have the power of inspiring anything awe. It was an unreachable archetype that we just gesture toward as inferior human beings in our inferior copies of what we can imagine but cannot recreate. There is no emotional content (frustration, maybe?) in Plato’s ideal, but The Sublime?

It was a human idea — floating around for a while in the mid 18th century and infecting the Romantic poets and propounded by the philosophers Edmund Burke and Emanuel Kant. I have dim, dim memories of encountering this in an intro to philosophy class in college. My teacher was a classicist, so she kind of ran over The Sublime with the truck of  Platonism, but The Sublime lingered, somehow inextricably tangled up with nature.

When the idea was new, mountains — especially abysses, crevasses, precipices, high snowy peaks and plunging, surging waterfalls — all became conduits through which people could experience The Sublime. People started climbing mountains in order to terrify themselves into a kind of “horrible joy” through which they could fully perceive The Sublime. What were they really climbing? Was it the mountain under their feet or something else? Fear is prescriptive, and it is thrilling (if we don’t die) which is why we like carnival rides.

A very interesting book that looks at this is Mountains of the Mind by Robert McFarlane.

The Sublime was the property of well-educated and well-to-do Europeans. No self-respecting farmer or ploughman or sailor was going to have any part in the reduction of nature into an idea.

I think The Sublime was a force in separating humans from nature (in their minds, only, there’s no real separation possible). That in my life time there has been a movement to “get back to nature” is kind of sickening and self-indulgent. Nature has ALL the power over us. We are it. It is us. It’s not Sublime; it’s the ultimate reality. Drink water or die pretty much says all we need to know about where the power lies.

Featured image: An Avalanche in the Alps Philip James de Loutherbourg. It’s pretty accurate, for all its drama. But…


A non-sublime account of an avalanche at Chamonix

Mountains (with Maps!)

A long time ago, I made a list of my favorite words. The two on top were “mountains” and “wonder.” If I wrote a list like that today, I’d probably have the same two words on top.

I like living a little distance from the mountains so I can see them ranged across the horizon. That’s why I chose Monte Vista instead of some of the other towns in the Valley when I moved here. I’m perfectly placed to look at the San Juans (not that far away) and at the Sangre de Cristos (farther away). I can watch the alpenglow (morning and evening) and enjoy the gathering clouds in both directions.

This side (eastern) of the San Juans is pretty “soft” and gentle, but the west side is a different story. The San Juans are the largest range in Colorado, and they cover a good part of the state — “good” meaning both “high quality” and “large.” The dark green line on the map below marks the Continental Divide. The orange line that runs from Alamosa to Cortez is my street. 🙂

The Rio Grande starts up in the San Juans, and I hope someday to go to the source up on Canby Mountain. That will happen when I get my hip and get my jeep 🙂


The Sangres, at least here where I live, remind me of the Alps with their jagged peaks abrubtly jutting from the Valley floor. In Colorado, they are a long, narrow range that marks the end of the Rocky Mountains and the beginning of the Great Plains.


Mountains are a source of wonderment for me. I look at them all the time and they are never the same. Mt. Blanca (featured photo) is a massif, not really just one mountain. It’s one of the Navajo’s four sacred mountains and marked the northeastern boundary of their lands.


I can subscribe to these boundaries, too. They circumscribe some of my favorite places in the world, where I’ve had the chance to experience many moments of…



Daily Prompt: Wonder


I was driving east on US HWY 160 on the weekly road trip to the big city for groceries — Alamosa, Colorado. It was a semi-bleak February morning, Sunday, somewhat early. I was armed with the coupons they’d sent in the mail, a bunch of good deals, as it happened. The envelope was covered with pale pink hearts against a dark pink background. There were even free things in there; free juice — my favorite brand, other stuff. Added up to a savings of more than $40. Not bad.

I hate shopping, but it’s a 25 minute drive and I have satellite radio in my car. It’s a luxury for which I pay $6/month. I was listening to the 60s station — uncommon for me — Paul Revere and the Raiders had just regaled me with “Kicks” (but they don’t keep getting harder to find). After that? The Association, “Never My Love.” I don’t think I’ve heard that since it was on the Top 40, and, for some reason, the song filled my car even though it’s not a song I ever liked.

I looked around at the mountains all around me, the white, white fingers of fog filling a high valley in the Sangre de Cristos, layers of random clouds all negotiating the future like a bored couple on a Sunday afternoon. “Shall we rain? Shall we snow? What do YOU want to do? I dunno, what do you want to do?” I thought of my novel in progress and how much fun it was last week when I finally FOUND the story. I thought of how I could organize the vastness of the narrative and got a good idea.

The song kept playing.

The mountains right now are snow-covered, white and indigo. I thought of my piano teacher in Nebraska who consoled me when I had to move away by saying, “Just think of the mountains, how much you love them and how happy you’ll be to be there again.” The family was moving back to Colorado.

The song was still singing, a full-on love song, and I remembered the moment I realized I was a writer. I sat on the floor of my bedroom in Nebraska, probably 12 or 13. I had my dad’s portable typewriter sitting on the closed case. Not a bad desk for a kid who liked to sit on the floor. I was writing a poem. I was SO happy. It was a love poem to the fields and forest where I hiked and played, to storms and seasons, to natural features, foliage, wind and sky.

The song moved closer to the ending, and then I saw it. I have always found a way to be near any mountains, out in any nature, that happened to be around. I have always written. Life without love? No.

What makes you think love will end
When you know that my whole life depends
On you…
Meanwhile, I move we return to celebrating this egregious paper holiday of disappointment in the Roman way. Bonum Lupercalia!!

Better than Promised – The Meaning of Life

“So what do you think?”

“I think it’s incredible. It’s an immense house with mysterious rooms behind shining doors. How did you come up with it?”

“Just happened. Kind of a cool idea, no?”

“Definitely. Was it difficult to build?”

“Well, you know, I’m He-Who-Is-Not-Named. It took a week.”

“Amazing. So what do I do here?”

“Stuff will happen. You’ll meet other people and interact with them. Sometimes it will be difficult and sometimes easy. There is a lot to see. You’ll travel around, look at things and learn from them.”

“Better than Disneyland, yeah?”

“Well, there is Disneyland, too, you know. This is fairly inclusive.”

“Thanks! How awesome!”

“There is one thing, though. As time passes you’ll start breaking down and then…”


“Yeah, that’s a bit hard to explain. You’re not permanent.”


“You’ll die. Cease to exist. End of story. That’s all she wrote. Kick the bucket. Finito.”


“Uh, that’s for me to know and you to find out.”

“Ah. Well, OK. Knowing that isn’t very helpful anyway, is it?”

“I don’t think so, that’s why it’s not part of the design.”

“Design? What’s the point of being here?”

“You get to see it, participate in it, learn from it, BE in it. Have a good time.”

“Is anything permanent?”

“No, I mean even those big things there, those rocky bits with snow on them? That’s not even the first range of them to be here. There were others before and there will be others when those are gone.”

“Wow this time thing is pretty major isn’t it?”

“There really is no time, Lamont. It’s actually just duration, how long things last. In reality, there is no time. It’s all a grand simultaneity.”

“What’s a ‘Lamont’?”

“You’re Lamont. Augusta Lamont. You’re named after those things there. You’re going to love them, I can tell you that much about yourself.”

“They’re beautiful, aren’t they?”

“I’m fond of them, but…”

“Well, OK, so I’m Augusta Lamont and I’m here for this thing called ‘duration’ and I get to look at stuff and do stuff, have a good time and then I die?”

“That’s pretty much it. You might contribute to it somehow, but basically, you’re here for the ride. Anything else depends on you. You’ll discover that from the ground, it’s kind of a labyrinth.”

“Cool. I’ll do it. Looks like fun, however long it lasts.”