As Tame As A Lion
My first serious obsession as a child was dinosaurs. I had tomes of information, volumes of books, posters tacked to my walls, figurines lined up on shelves. I knew everything there was to know about these prehistoric creatures: their names, their diets, their locations, their places in history, and their sizes. The latter was what used to captivate me the most: the concept that once upon a time, an animal could have been the size of my house - indeed, some of them could even have been bigger, taller, longer. The obsession was fed by awe. I remember watching Jurassic Park at about age six, and feeling that tingling sense of awe as the protagonists, Grant and Ellie, "meet" the Brachiosaurus for the first time. They approach it with amazement, bewilderment, fascination, and ultimate respect - this creature that was infinitely more enormous than anything they'd ever encountered in flesh and blood; it could demolish them in a single misplaced step, and yet was ultimately so docile despite its immense figure.
Today, and every day that I venture into the mountains, I feel as they did. I look out at the peaks, at the rolling hills, at the shifting gradient, and I feel fascinated, fond, and fearful. The sensation is awe by definition, and with it comes a very serious appreciation for what it means to be amongst these monolithic entities.
All this comes about due to what a dear friend recently referred to me as: a mountain tamer. Flattering as that is, it's as true as it can be to be a lion tamer. We can get to know them, we can come to understand them, we can even come to love them, but we can never remove the inherent wild from them. And nor should we seek to do so.
The idea that we can is a sentiment held by many alpine adventurers, and is arrogant and dangerous and disrespectful. Suggesting that a human can conquer a mountain, that a peak is there for our personal triumph, that we feel the need to harness its untamed nature, that somehow this geographical entity is something of an enemy to be vanquished is nothing short of insulting to those ancient hills.
To "conquer" a mountain is a violently outdated, egotistical concept. It suggests that we as humans, we as adventurers, as explorers, as trekkers, venture out into the world of mountains to overcome, to dominate, to lay claim to what we believe to be ours. And I concede, of course, that without early explorers upholding this mentality and utilising it to drive forwards and upwards, we wouldn't have access to the mountains where we now enjoy adventuring ourselves. But the idea that a mountain is there for us to conquer creates this unpleasant divide between us and the natural world, and suggests in a grossly untrue way that we are somehow superior. Nothing could be further from the truth.
We should be regarding the alpine world in the same way as Grant and Ellie regarded the Brachiosaurus in Jurassic Park: with respect, with awe, with love. With understanding of its power, and with admiration of its majesty. With the knowledge that it is volatile and unpredictable, and with the nous to work with and around this variability. With appreciation for its beauty, and the sense of duty to do what we can to preserve it. With care and compassion and curiosity. With the want to join it in its wildness. With humility, and the desire to listen to the lessons it has to offer. With the desire to walk alongside it as a companion, not as a dominator or conqueror, or even as a captor. Ultimately with the willingness to see it as a friend, not a foe.
Because if we listen, we can choose not to tame the mountains, but on the contrary to surrender part of our very selves to the wild. This doesn't mean, of course, that we all throw ourselves to nature and become hermits or creatures of carnal instinct. But the wild of the mountains can allow us to unleash some of the wild that we have tamed - even repressed - in ourselves. That is to say, they are facilitators of self-discovery. Being amongst the mountains, we discover part of our primal capabilities. We relearn how to walk, one foot in front of another, up and down hills over what sometimes feels like countless kilometres, despite it seeming like an impossible feat. We come to appreciate the sensations of nature - its visual beauty, its fresh scents, its cacophony and its silence, the cold and the heat on our skin, the sweetness of water from flowing streams. We realise, rather frighteningly at first, that we are powerless to what is happening back in the "real world," but that for us, reality is what is before us in that moment - the trail, the bush, the gradient, the summit, the satisfying ache of a long day, the independence of survival in the elements, and that really, respect for our surrounds and the mental fortitude to be prepared is enough to see us through the roughest of nights - that there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad equipment. We learn that whilst our First-World lives are important, and our responsibilities matter, and our possessions are fun and bring trivial yet undeniable happiness to our lives, that it's actually quite nice to be out in the open, where makeup doesn't matter because the only mirrors are those found on the most still of puddles or ponds, where there are no charging ports for our devices because energy for ourselves comes from the sun, where we familiarise ourselves with how we smell after days of activity and no shower, where we begin to talk about what we are going to eat when we get home but know that the spaghetti bolognese rehydrating in a bottle in our packs as we speak is going to be the most delicious meal ever come dinner-time that night, where we learn to listen to what is truly going on in our thoughts because they aren't corrupted by reminders to pay that bill, attend that meeting, pick up that child, go to that training session. We discover how strong we are, how resilient we are, how capable we are, and rather than taking this and declaring it a victory, we are humble enough also to discover how vulnerable we are, not to the mercy of the mountains, but to ourselves. We learn that vulnerability is not weakness, but knowledge, self-awareness, and ultimately the greatest tool we have to survive in the wild, as part of the wild, as someone inherently wild, and not as someone disconnected from the wild. And most importantly, having learnt all of this courtesy of the mountains, we can take these discoveries of self home with us and live our best lives in the wilderness of developed, capitalist civilisation. Climbing mountains as a metaphor for success only works if we see it for what it is: a journey in the company of an enormous, living creature, who is there to challenge us, encourage us, throw obstacles at us, test us, but ultimately reward us with knowledge, tranquility, harmony, and achievement.
It's a matter of perspective, really. And my challenge is for us to rewire the way we approach mountains, to see them not so much as adversaries to be defeated, but as wild creatures who can accompany us, help us, teach us, and lead us to discover our own sense of positive accomplishment.