Beyond the Mountain — Sometimes the Intense Terrain is your Heart

Post by blogger | July 10, 2015      

Throwback Friday! Here is a little something from ancient days of 1996…

Eventually the question will pop. A friend, workmate, or spouse will ask: Why, when we’ve created a society where one can exist with an incredibly low level of physical risk, do we mountaineers purposefully place ourselves in harms way? Why do we stretch to the limits of our stamina and sometimes risk our lives climbing and skiing mountains, when chairlifts and gondolas provide comfort? Why do we careen back down at speed instead of enjoying a safe and stately plod?

Perhaps your reason lies in the rewards of learning and mastery. Perhaps there is sanctification in piercing the veil of materialism. Perhaps you believe in heaven; perhaps you believe in heaven on earth. Whatever your faith, alpinism trashes morbid connections and plodding complacency. It gives rhythm to a sometimes pointless and scattered life.

I used to count how many rock climbs I could do in a month, how many miles I ran or how many peaks I skied. But I always felt tension between the numbers and less-quantifiable results. My biggest foray into bean counting was skiing down all 54 Colorado fourteeners. I knew such an indexed task would yield rewards — amazing experiences, enhanced career and reputation — but during the process I found it tough to focus on the sterile numeric and overtly material goals. Reaching the summit of a new peak, feeling vast distance beneath my feet, vibrating with the thrum of an edgy turn, muddling through the 1:00 A.M. starts; all these things conspired to a deeper emotional and spiritual involvement. They were powerful experiences, but not because they were successes.

I recall a special failure. At 2:00 A.M. we began our climb up the steep mountainside on Kit Carson Peak. Insulated from the often cool Colorado night by a light snowfall and cloud cover, the snowpack stayed loose and wet. When my ski pole sunk all the way to the hilt through bottomless muck, I realized this wasn’t our day. Still I was tempted to push it. This was my chance for media glory. A Colorado news channel had decided to film us skiing the mountain. They were due to arrive via helicopter at first light.

Two voices wrangled in my skull. Prudence won. For a moment utter dejection twisted my soul, but it didn’t last. After packing up camp and retreating to our truck, we caught one of the most interesting and beautiful sunrises I’d ever seen. As the helicopter chattered above and I radioed the news of our nixed trip, the clouds broke over the vast ranch lands of the Wet Valley. Weird humps of fog clung to the ground like huge wet cotton balls. A golden, glowing light shot from the rising sun, skimmed through the mist and trees, and gave the tableau an otherworldly mood that made everyone pause for a moment and take stock. Combine failure with such beauty, and contemplation comes natural: Video? Who cares! Fifteen minutes of fame? Boring. New tires for the truck? Later. Why am I here? Now we’re talking. Does God exist? I feel an answer coming.

Let’s not make the elitist assumption that those of us who choose physical risk are any closer to life, or God, than anyone else. Perhaps we’re defective, and unlike normal people we must prod ourselves with “le extreme” to feel normal emotion. What’s more, perhaps risk, wilderness, and worldly beauty separate us from truth. You go to the wilderness, you feel spiritual. But that may be heroin for the soul.

As a friend of mine said to me, “I feel fulfilled when I’m out on those trips, but I just can’t bring much of the feeling back with me, nor make it last very long.”

The intellectual part of the buzz is easy to keep: Just read Thoreau (or and give cash to the Sierra Club or your favorite avalanche forecasting outfit. But when you return from the perfect trip, bills await, and relationships pick up where they left off (sometimes in mid sentence). Amid a rapidly fading afterglow you’re planning the next trip, and the next, and the next. If they could sell it on the streets…

There is a powerful lesson in all this. We live in the material world — we participate. Snowboard and ski mountaineers glory in the world by grabbing it by the horns and wrestling with it. For a time in our lives we elevate materialism beyond shopping, to a purer level of us and the mountain, where nothing else exists. But perhaps someday you’ll need to look farther, because you’ve again become a shopper. That mountain top will be just another peak, the powder just another set of turns, the mountain range just another mall. When that day happens, reach for your summit of dreams, look past momentary fulfillment, and see terrain you can’t climb, can’t rappel, and can’t slide down, but terrain you nonetheless feel a deep need to explore. Terrain of the spirit. Mountains of marriage and family. Life of the mind. The essence of these lands will seep into your soul like the glow of warm granite as a new lesson rings in your mind: I can take this home. Then, with your mind and spirit opened up, perhaps the next time you leave home for the alpine that next summit will feel like your first.

(Note, a version of this article was published in Couloir Magazine, Volume 11, #1 1996)


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17 Responses to “Beyond the Mountain — Sometimes the Intense Terrain is your Heart”

  1. Scott July 10th, 2015 1:14 pm

    Yes to the philosophic blog post instead of a materialist gear review !( I know you have bills to pay )

    Thank you for a wonderful retreat from the consumerist appetite for summits and bucket lists and mass media images of what should constitute an adventure.

    The rhythm of movement amongst elegant natural forms releases us from the mindless modern tedium of individual, strategic pursuits, opening a portal to the eternal Now as we traverse ice, rock and snow. The gear only gets us out the door, then we must consciously decide where we will let it take us!

  2. Lou Dawson 2 July 10th, 2015 2:34 pm

    Right on!

  3. Boone July 10th, 2015 3:37 pm

    Yea Lou!! Touching on the infinite glory, what it’s all about!

  4. Scott Nelson July 10th, 2015 4:44 pm

    Nice writing Lou! ” Terrain of the spirit,” love that. A lot of times, that is why I go out in the first place.

    Though I do think that there seems to be some addictive qualities involved too, which you alluded to. I love it for what it is, how it makes me feel, the interesting places it’s led me, but it’s not my life. Or maybe I’m just in denial?

  5. Bob Shattuck July 10th, 2015 10:18 pm

    Thanks . . . I’m always trying to find an answer . . . probably don’t need one.

  6. Charlie July 10th, 2015 11:41 pm

    Thanks, Lou. Good turning-tail tales are wonderful. No matter how you approach Kit Carson, it’s a beautiful place.

  7. Alex July 11th, 2015 4:09 am

    This is an occasion to think about his life

  8. Jim Milstein July 11th, 2015 7:52 am

    “Heroin for the soul,” wow! Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

    And, this reminds me, it’s time to take my endorphins.

  9. Susan Rhea July 11th, 2015 4:00 pm

    My goodness Lou. this is beautiful. I don’t think I was reading you in 96 but maybe David was. This is perfect for me today; i am lifted by this line : It gives rhythm to a sometimes pointless and scattered life.

  10. Lou Dawson 2 July 12th, 2015 8:06 am

    Thanks Susan, glad you enjoyed it! You guys take care… Lou

  11. Tay July 13th, 2015 2:25 am

    Hi Lou,
    This probably sums it up best;
    Reinhold Messner was the first man to climb Mt. Everest without the use of supplimental oxygen. When he was interviewed by a reporter, he was asked…”Why did you go up there knowing you could have died? Why did you go up there to die?” He responded…

    “I didn’t go up there to die. I went up there to live.”

  12. Wookie July 13th, 2015 6:58 am

    I’ve pretty much decided that the only reason I do all this is to answer once and for all, and definitively:

    Which is the best place to put the keys to the truck on a long walk?

    25 years – and its usually the toughest choice at the trailhead.

  13. Lou Dawson 2 July 13th, 2015 7:27 am

    Wookie, the corollary to that is the old comment often made to folks who rave about having found their latest miraculous connection to the infinite, “does he-she-it find your car keys for you when you’ve lost them?”

  14. Mark Worley July 13th, 2015 9:42 pm

    I have felt some of those euphoric moments myself. They are strong, but fade. Now I tone things down and try to share a slice of this with my wife and 6 year old son. Euphoria comes in different packages. Nice post.

  15. Billy July 14th, 2015 11:59 am


  16. scott July 14th, 2015 2:48 pm

    Another reason is because you can.

  17. Lou Dawson 2 July 14th, 2015 3:57 pm


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