Mt. Stuart, from the southwest
Far to the west the western faces of the mountains still glow, as I sit here in the dark. I sometimes dream of them, in various guises; I dream of them as far away and inaccessible, as cloaking themselves in a fog of hindrances, of flights missed, family problems, auto breakdowns, illegible maps, inaccurate compasses, laziness. They visit these plagues on me and I wander through the dream with the eagerness slowly dying from my eyes, unable to find again that perfect vantage point from which the dream began, from which the great mountain appeared as a vast landscape all of its own, full of rising beauty, crowned with that undeniable grandeur; the promise of a glimpse of the perfect knowledge, the perfect beauty for the climber who is willing to go on and on to the utter end, who will not turn back.
Mt. Rainier from the northeast
Nevertheless, I wake with my eagerness still smoldering. In truth the mountains don’t care, even a tiny bit, whether I visit them. They stand in the sun and think the thoughts that need a hundred thousand, or a million years to express. Their statements have much in common with the statements made by trees: based on a perfect strength, of a life long enough to give full scope to their being, shaped by the identical forces that have configured every molecule in my body, but magnified incalculably. Therefore when I confront that statement, only an atom of its power and spirit can be absorbed by my so much smaller one; yet it fills me. My spirit is directly nourished, and grows stronger, when I open my soul and allow the mountains to speak to me.
The question, why climb?, lead directly to the questions, what is spirit?, and, what is the world?
Answers to these essentially nonverbal queries begin to flood through me at certain unusual moments: when a piece of music rises to the great height it aims for, and then goes beyond; when certain clouds combine to make a statement of extraordinary, mute meaning; when a cliff rises before me, filled with amazing ideas. This flood is an actual physical sensation: a tingling starts in my legs and rises up my spine, spreading though the back of my head; my ears draw back, my scalp tightens, my eyes focus on the most distant things possible; sometimes my hands shake with the beauty of it. Those who have never felt anything like this will not believe that it exists, or has meaning. But I am a climber, and I need no faith, no proof; after all, the mountains are still right there, in front of me, not one iota less real or beautiful from the moment of my birth until my last moment of life. They are not gods; they are greater than gods, for they send down no ridiculous pronouncements to us. They witness and participate in Creation and Destruction; they nurture and protect, distilling water for the great rivers, enriching the earth; they are integral to the Great Dance.
We humans, on the other hand, appear to be merely incidental, each of us living just long enough to look up at the galaxies and wonder. Nevertheless, these are the things in which I would participate. Tiny and stupid and weak though I may seem, I am a man, and I can think, and I can climb. The Lao Tzu has it thus:
"Within the realm there are four things that are great, and the king counts as one."
Dave on a minor spur of Mt. Stuart
- the others being Earth, Heaven and the Tao. Precisely because I will be gone from here so soon, I want to feel the pulse of my planet: to lay my hand on the main vein and understand, however dimly, the vastness of it. Sometimes I feel a great sadness that so few of us look up at those galaxies, and so many must stare at their patches of mud, not daring to raise their heads; but I can do nothing. I raise my pack and turn to the west.
Contemplating the West Ridge before sunrise
I stand at the base of a granite cliff; it stands, and will stand. I place my palms on the warm stone, and lean in, and let my head droop. Soon a seepage of power electrifies my wrists, and gradually fills my every cell, down to my toes, and flows through to the dark earth. My partner takes up the slack; I put my right hand in a crack and begin the climb. Everything ugly, small and trivial in the world has disappeared; nothing exists but the cliff, the sky and my body. I feel, unfolding in counterpoint, my fear of death, and my great and unbounded pleasure that I can be allowed to live, and to act.
Why do so few climb?
Just our good luck!
Text Copyright 1986 by David Warren Rockwell
All photos by Dave except “Spur” and "West Ridge" shot by Chris Mrozowski. All were taken during an expedition to the Cascades in August of 2008 by the intrepid team of Chris, Dave and Todd Bradley.