Aspiring toward light

What draws us to earth's high places, despite the danger? The allure, these Puget Sound alpinists say, has more to do with spiritual renewal than physical challenge.

By Andy Dappen

It may be the most misunderstood quote in the sporting world.

When George Mallory, the first serious contender in the race to summit Mt. Everest, explained why he risked precious life in the esoteric pursuit to top the world’s highest patch of ground, he brushed off a deceptively difficult question with a four-word joke.

Possibly Mallory, who was 37 when he disappeared near the top of Everest in 1924, didn’t truly know what drove him. More likely, explaining his reasoning was too difficult to encompass with a sound bite. On a visceral level, Mallory probably understood climbing spoke to him–it gave him excitement, purpose, perspective and joy. Conceivably, it delivered him closer to the light of a higher truth. But unable to succinctly verbalize abstract feelings, he tossed reporters the meaningless bone that was to immortalize him. He climbed Mt. Everest he said, "Because it is there."

Since then, the mainstream media have only gone further in muddying the waters around what inspires people to climb. When eight climbers perished on Everest in May of 1996 there was little explanation of what motivated those who died and an underlying assumption that some combination of daredevil behavior, human hubris and because-it’s-there ideology underpinned the human tragedy. When a cover story in Time Magazine reported in 1999 that a daredevil gene took climbers, skydivers and other risk takers to the brink, they completely missed the point: Risk isn’t about invisible genes, but tangible rewards.

As Ruth Mahre ’99, daughter of Northwestern climbing legend Dave Mahre and a summer guide for Rainier Mountaineering Inc (RMI), says, climbing has little to do with "conquering" the mountain, as the media loves to proclaim, and much more to do with "conquering yourself and your own weaknesses."

In the mountains, through the stress of storms and the grandeur of stars, the severance from humanity and the connection to a partner, the fear of death and the pardon of life, the tug of earth and the pull of heaven, we climb a pyramid of understanding.

At the base of this pyramid, we come to comprehend the finite world of the self. Next, we come to a better understanding of others. Later, we come to ponder the infinite viewed through the window of the mountains–how was all this created, what’s our connection to it? It’s here that we touch the spiritual, cosmic, mystical, metaphysical… the forever. It is here that some find evidence for faith in an awe-inspiring, personal God; others perceive an a personal force governing the cosmos; and others still have no words for the energy felt–they simply know they’ve connected to something far bigger than themselves.

Another way of understanding what compels climbers to climb is to view the sport as a stew of isms–athleticism, aestheticism, asceticism, romanticism and spiritualism. For each of us, the isms vary–and they change with age. Young climbers are frequently enticed by the adrenal-gland hedonism of flirting with gravity. Cliff Lightfoot ’00, a 25-year-old geology major who entered Puget Sound after three years as an Army paratrooper, calls technical climbing and mountaineering a replacement for the physical and mental challenges he lost when medically retired after being diagnosed with leukemia. "I could challenge myself in a similar way…without a weapon. The mountains became a way to push my limits."

Even young climbers, however, quickly grasp there is more to the sport than the biochemical rush. Says Lightfoot, "Seven hundred feet off the ground at a hanging belay I’m forced to look deep into myself and ask questions about what I believe in. At that point, priorities become clear. I want to live, spend time with my wife… Climbing clears my thoughts and fills my life with color. More than the adrenaline, it’s this appreciation for life that’s so addicting."

Among climbers this theme of testing and tempering one’s mettle, gaining personal perspective and recognizing one’s priorities repeats itself in hundreds of variations. Those who look beyond the sport’s stereotypes see that climbing has less to do with daredevil behavior than with wrestling one’s own devils. As Ruth Mahre, states, "It’s about overcoming physical weaknesses and, because the game is 80 percent mental, overcoming psychological weaknesses. The sport makes you strong."

Scott Andrews ’87, an Outward Bound instructor for five years who now directs teen/family adventure programs for the YMCA, says, "Climbing mountains strikes many as silly but it has spoken to me in a way that the rest of the modern world hasn’t. Many of my most enlightening moments sprang from adventures in what others would call dumb places. Climbing has given me the clearest vision of my physical, mental and emotional fitness."

Besides testing their own steel, climbers also value the medium as a way to know the mettle of others. Jim Lea ’43, co-founder of the Seattle camping equipment company Cascade Designs, married a woman he had climbed with for years after she was widowed. Through climbing he knew how she dealt with stress, fear, discomfort, inconveniences, setbacks and fatigue. He comments, only half jokingly, "Climbing should be mandatory marriage counseling."

Justin Canny ’91, formerly an Outward Bound instructor and now the Outdoor Program Director at Puget Sound, says the mountains quickly show "what people are made of and who you want to gravitate toward." Canny maintains, however, that the mountain’s ability to help him connect with other people is only a corner of the picture. "Climbing is a vehicle for self actualization–it helps people fulfill themselves." Interestingly, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, to which Canny refers, is itself a climb up a mountain-shaped tower, and the pinnacle of that climb represents something beyond our physical and emotional needs. It represents our connection to the big picture.

Mountains and religion. Mountains and spirituality. Mountains and mysticism. These elements have long been twined like the braids of a rope. Steve Harris ’59 who has written books about geology, mythology and religion, and who is an emeritus professor of humanities and religious studies at California State University, Sacramento, says, "Encountering the divine on the mountaintop, whether at Sinai or Shasta, seems an almost universal experience, regardless of the culture."

According to Harris, most cultures embrace the archetype that mountaintops are closer to the spirit world and are both pedestals for the descent of sky gods and doorways into the realm of the divine. "The Hebrews assumed a three-tier cosmos, with earth occupying the middle story. Below lay Sheol, the shadowy abode of the dead, and above, arched across the vault of the sky, the Deity was invisibly enthroned. From the Greek Olympus to the Japanese Fujiyama, mountains are approaches to the unseen world of spirit beings."

American culture, with the theological sectarianism of its settlers, the ever-present spiritual influence of the American frontier, the transcendentalism of some of its most influential nature writers, and its present-day religious tolerance in embracing everything from eastern mysticism to new-age spirituality, has produced climbers of every conceivable belief. The truth for some is summarized by the words of Dante, "Nature is the art of God"; others find clarity in the musings of Nietzsche, "A few hours of mountain climbing turn a rascal and a saint into two pretty similar creatures"; others still connect to the wisdom of Confucius, "Without recognizing the ordinances of Heaven, it is impossible to be a superior man"; and some are moved by the moral ferments of Emerson, "Everything in Nature contains all the powers of Nature–everything is made of one hidden stuff."

Ruth Mahre, who was raised Catholic, says the mountains have augmented her faith. "There’s no better way to appreciate God than to be in His creation. And maybe nothing better than the mountains to feel just how miniscule you are." Humility may be prerequisite in grasping spiritual truths and Mahre attests, "The mountains humble you."

Many climbers–Christians, agnostics and atheists alike–experience undefined stirrings and testify that the experience is both transcending and transforming. Greg Child, a world-class Himalayan climber residing in Seattle, writes that in the mountains agnostics like him are inspired to pray and that "abstract feelings dormant since (he last climbed) dust themselves off and flood my spirit." It’s as if the mountains are metaphysical particle smashers giving birth to new spiritual elements that leave fleeting perceptions across the vapor cloud of the brain.

These abstract and fleeting insights are ones that Lon Hoover ’52, a retired practitioner of osteopathic medicine who has climbed and trekked on several continents, says makes him believe, "There is something more governing all aspects of the universe." Hoover, who does not pledge allegiance to a particular belief structure, says the cycles of metamorphosis seen in everything from the reconfigurations of landforms to the birth-from-death cycles of life forms kindle something in him. "When we die our atoms will be rearranged, our energy redistributed. I’m not sure what that means, but I come away from climbing feeling that I want to live this life to the fullest."

Likewise Scott Andrews ’87, who has climbed throughout the Western U.S. for 20 years but is not a disciple of organized religion, struggles for the language to articulate how the mountains have shaped his spiritual beliefs. He thinks it’s a matter of control. "In cities we think our money, homes, cars; schedules give us control of our lives. But in the mountains when you fathom the forces that built them and look away from this microscopic planet through the portal of the night sky, you realize how little control you have. It’s dwarfing. And enlightening. No religious language has spoken to me with a clearer voice than the mountains that something greater–a supreme being–is in control."

Emerson wrote, "God enters by a private door into every individual." It’s a position shared by Harold Simonson, a former Puget Sound English professor who is now an ordained Congregational minister and is father to the famed Himalayan climber, Eric Simonson. He believes, "Christianity is a major spiritual path," but doesn’t deny that, just as many routes lead up a mountain, the soul food of Buddhism, Islamism, Judaism or Hinduism might not lead to the same summit.

Regardless of how climbers codify their spiritual feelings, much of what keeps them in the game is to be, literally and metaphorically, closer to this light. Few would argue that the mountains are their church and that a weekend wandering among them packs more spiritual wallop than visiting the second-rate cathedrals humans have erected to precipitate awe over God’s greatness. And just as the church is an institution for understanding and worship, we attend the church of the mountains to understand ourselves and to worship–each in our own way–the creation.

Climbers who have come to know the mountains feel hollow if they keep away. The mountains fill them with energy, give them peace, maintain their balance, connect them to a greater presence. And while few climbers actually intend to die while worshipping, they recognize the possibility, and accept that the rewards justify the risks. Says Harold Simonson, who has topped Rainier and a smattering of lesser peaks in the Cascades, "Just as the rewards of love are impossible to experience without taking an emotional risk, the personal rewards gained through climbing cannot be experienced without assuming some physical risk."

Unfortunately, those risks are greatly sensationalized. In 1998 when a climber on Ruth Mahre’s rope died in a snow slide while descending Mt. Rainier, the accident became a media inkfest. On the same day, more than a hundred people died on the nation’s roads, many of them engaged in nothing more meaningful than shopping for Beanie Babies. Hundreds more died from the health hazards of being overly inactive couch potatoes, overly active smokers and overly indifferent drinkers. Yet to the nation, the massive carnage of driving and the awful toll of unhealthy living was both accepted and ignored; it was this one foolhardy lemming who had been swept down Rainier as the result of a death wish or a daredevil gene who was unfathomable.

All of which makes one wonder whether Mallory did climbers a disservice by brushing off the "why" of what draws humans to the mountains. Would there be a better understanding of what fills the hearts and heads of climbers had Mallory confessed his pilgrimage to Everest was, "To be nearer the son" or, depending on the nature of his beliefs, "To be nearer the sun." Some would recognize these two answers as products of the same search. Spiritual vowel splitters, however, would find a universe of difference. And if Mallory had told a son-loving world that he climbed to be closer to the sun, would all Hell have broken out? Maybe Mallory really did know what he was up to when he parried the foil of a no-win question with those famous but inane words.

Andy Dappen has been a mountaineer, technical rock climber and ski mountaineer for 25 years. His writing has appeared in Sports Illustrated, Outside, Men’s Health, and many other magazines.