Sunday, December 17, 2006

What's the kick to climb a mountain?

Conditions can change quickly on Mount Hood. This photo, taken Oct. 7, shows the mountain at when it appears safest, with most of the snow gone and clear skies. However, half an hour later fog and clouds moved in so quick that the mountain top could not be seen from Timberline Lodge.

“What’s the kick?” night talkshow host Larry King asked the mountain climber he interviewed tonight on CNN.

King probably asked what so many other people across the country wondered after so many days of watching search efforts for three mountain climbers lost on Mount Hood.

Why do people desire to climb mountains? Why do people risk their lives to climb an Oregon volcanic mountain in December or other mountains internationally each year? Why did the tragic circumstances lead so many media, rescuers, and friends and family members of the climbers to spend so many cold, physically and emotionally draining days and nights staring bleakly at one of the highest mountains in the Cascades?

This particular mountain climber paused before he tried to answer. Then he described what it looked like to see a sunrise from the peak, to feel like one with nature. In a few words he tried to share why he — and so few others in relation to the general population — have pushed themselves to the limit to see the world from a mountain peak’s incredible view.

Perhaps the guy could have just simply answered that he climbs mountains because they’re there — and he is human.

Ever since man first saw a higher point in the distance, he has been drawn to climb that hill, to see what he can.

The leaders of ancient civilizations sought the highest point for safety reasons: to see enemies in the distance, to build fortifications to protect themselves from all directions, to make it tougher to attack.

As civilizations evolved, man was drawn to highest points to assist with exploration, to better hunt, to settle curiosity, and yes, also for recreation.

Talk to a farmer, and usually that farmer will tell you what is the highest point on the family farm.

Back home, that was the place where the first crocuses emerged, the most wildflowers grew, and where the winds howled the wildest in summer and winter. Wildlife were abundant there, the stars always seemed closer to those hills and whenever we needed to figure out where everyone else was working on our fields, that was the best place to spot everyone.

We knew how those highest places affected the weather patterns and how storms always acted a bit different at those higher elevations. The snows seemed deepest, the thunderstorms wildest and it was from there we heard the thunderstorms booming in the distance.

When I think of our family farm, when I think of when do I feel the most peace in my soul and the closest to the land, it has always been when I have sat on those hills overlooking the land my parents still call home.

At a meeting recently, a slideshow during a luncheon included a picturesque image of a great high point overlooking the Klamath Falls area in southern Oregon. When I talked later to the farmer who owns the land with her husband, she talked about how much she enjoyed going to that spot: sometimes just to sit there among the rocks and gaze over the fields and lands below.

“It’s my most favorite spot,” she said.

So what is it like to stand on a mountain peak?

I have stood on a mountain peak in the Canadian Rockies. I dare not claim I am a mountain climber, just an occasional hiker. The hike was in summer, the trail was not overly dangerous, and we had taken the easy route of a gondola for most of the way, traveling only the last part by foot. It was a sharp ascent but no special gear was needed.

I remember my lungs aching, my head spinning, my legs burning as I kept urging them on. Being someone from a much flatter part of the country, I realized I probably should have given myself more time to acclimatize myself. The higher the altitude, the more I gasped for oxygen, and the harder it was to get it.

Why go on?

It was near sunset. It was a glorious summer night. The orange glow of the sunset was silhouetting so many of the mountains around, and it was one of those rare days when even Mount Robson — the highest mountain in the Canadian Rockies — could be seen distinctly in the distance with not a single cloud obscuring it.

Around me the tops of mountains were pink and purple, catching the last of the light at the end of one of the longest days of the summer. I could see glaciers below me on the tops of some of the other mountains.

A full moon was rising to the east: yellow globe floating up from the blue-pink eastern horizon, and moon beams were starting to illuminate the mountains as the sunset’s last light faded away.

I remember the silence, just a few murmurs from those of us gathered there. A few people took pictures, some people placed stones on top of each other to mark that they had been there. But most of my fellow hikers were quiet, walking off in different spots by themselves for a few minutes to reflect upon life, the world, and this incredible moment to cherish.

When the signal was given that we needed to leave so we could return down the mountain before it got dark, it was with regret we began the journey back. We all seemed to vow deep inside to some day return there or to climb another mountain, to feel that euphoria and humility and adrenaline rush that is so hard to explain unless the experience can be shared at that same precise moment with someone else.

“What’s the kick?” Larry King asked, as he leaned on his desk in his trademark suspenders, trying to understand why people climb mountains, challenge themselves and nature and risk their lives.

I realized the answer: On those highest places we feel the most alive.

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Anonymous said...

An excellent answer.


Anonymous said...

Beautifully put. For us it is Seven County Hill..wonderful up there in all seasons. I miss my horse who used to gallop me to the top without much effort on my part.

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