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.
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