There are few things more difficult for the climber than attempting to answer the question of why he climbs. Yet there are few things more intuitive for him than the need to do so. He remains a paradox to himself. What follows is an attempt to resolve the seeming contradiction of his existence.
A climb is a response. It is an action in response to a call. It becomes a necessary response when the call is experienced as urgent, as imperative. The experience of the call is common to many, the necessity of action, felt by some, but to climb a mountain as a response – that I daresay is done by very few.
A climb fails to be a response when it proclaims an ego. The egoist, incapable of making a response, will soon become deaf to the call itself. Thus the fundamental prerequisite of all climbing is humility, which renders the possibility of response. When lived as a response, climbing becomes an art. When lived as a promotion of self, it becomes an object to be used. Outdoor consumerism, so prevalent in our time, is merely a symptom of egoism, whose inherent objectification of nature is offered at the altar of the ego. Any self-reflecting climber sees this temptation, if not this habit of sin, in his own heart. Pride, the most destructive force in the human heart, will first strip us of gratitude, then wonder, then joy. But in time, it will kill the very love of climbing itself. If we seek to climb in response and avoid egoism, we must meditate once again on the nature of the call.
A call implies three things – receptivity, relationality and intelligibility. It is impossible to conceive of any kind of call without these. When I call my sister’s Bernese mountain dog, he is capable of receiving an intelligible message (shockingly) mediated through a relationship with me. Now the dog’s conception of the message, as well as his understanding of the relationship is of a radically different mode than my own – yet there must some correspondence. Likewise, his receptivity of the call is dependent upon his training, which in the case of my sister’s dog, is rather wanting.
The intelligibility of a call is dependent upon the relationship, and the relationship dependent upon the receptivity. To rid oneself of egoism in the climb, to be free to give a response, one must begin with the arduous task of deepening his receptivity to the call, before he can better understand the relationship and the intelligible content.
It is striking that the call of the mountains is being received with renewal vigor in our age. Our estrangement from the mountains, from the wild land, is a wound carried by all. The constant construction and destruction, the unceasing noise and chaos they bring, have created an artificial world, disposing us towards egoism. The poor, who once lived most intimately to nature, have since the revolution of industry, become the most inhibited from it. The work-a-day world has created a caste of tragically leisure-less people, whose restoration is an imperative of our age. We must begin with our own rehabilitation.
But there is something even more striking. Those who are most captivated by the call of the mountains are the ones most often given to the secular disinterest in religion, that which so clearly dominates our post-Christian age. Those who no longer inhabit the Church now inhabit the mountains. This reality must be embraced by Christians if we are to be its students. But one can be captivated by the mountains and fail to perceive their call. One can even respond to the call with a full heart, even an entire life, and still not perceive the call. To perceive the call is to seek the relationship it entails as well as unpack its intelligible content. If we do not find ourselves doing this, we are merely outdoor dilettantes. The life of deepening perception is the life of deepening receptivity, which as mentioned, is always rooted in humility. The difficult work of humility – the death of self and the loss of control will in time cultivate an unlimited act of surrender. Only the one who takes on this most difficult spiritual climb will experience the ever-greater joy, wonder and gratitude that it brings.
As I behold the snow-covered summit of Wilson Peak, there is an encounter. In fact to speak of a call of the mountains is first to speak of an encounter. For the mountain does not literally speak and in fact does not even act; the encounter is with its beauty, with its form, which draws me to itself. If the mountains are calling through an encounter, then we are left with two philosophical conclusions regarding the relationship it implies – either the mountain itself is calling or another is calling through the mountain. In other words, the mountain is either the speaker or the spoken word.
If the mountain is the speaker, then I am a pantheist (the equation of creation and divinity). Thought the term is modern, pantheism was embodied in antiquity in a variety of religious and spiritual forms, most dominantly in the West under the philosophy of Stoicism. To perceive relationship within a stoic-pantheistic worldview is to,
“Constantly regard the universe as one living being, having one substance and one soul; and observe how all things have reference to one perception, the perception of this one living being; and how all things act with one movement; and how all things are the cooperating causes of all things which exist; observe too the continuous spinning of the thread and the contexture of the web.” (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, IV, 40)
This noble philosophical worldview is re-emerging in a new modern form, and is dominant in the hearts of those who are going into the wild. These Alpine Neo-Stoics express the desire for an encounter with creation, whose relationship is determined as non-personal. Virtue is essential, but only those virtues that cultivate the encounter with creation. Religion is not essential because its pantheistic presuppositions inherently reject the need for any other form of revelation. For the Alpine Neo-Stoic, the mountain is divine and shares in our nature, and the call is a mysterious echoing within the one being of all creation.
If the mountain is the spoken word, then I am a monotheist (the participation of creation in divinity). The mountains are calling, but they are the word, the content of the message and not the speaker itself. They speak of the speaker; they call for the caller. They are not the relationship themselves, but invite us deeper into a more hidden, mysterious, and transcendent relationship. With what is the mountain inviting us into relationship? The Proto-Indo-European word to call, ghau (c. 3500 BC), eventually became the Proto-Germanic word Gudan, which for the last 1400 years, has been translated as God. God, the one who calls, through the mountain, is the one I encounter. He speaks through what he created, as he fashioned the mountains to communicate the intelligibility of his being. The mountains, whose beauty holds us captive, are merely the stewards of the call.
Greater than all else is the intelligibility of the call of the mountains. The call has content it seeks to convey because of the nature of the relationship conveying it. But what is the content? The mystic Adrienne von Speyr proposes an answer: The Trinity … is the sole content of the creation. This proposal, which is unique to Christian revelation, states that the content is the relationship itself; that God himself is the perfection of relationship, the fullness of personality and love. To profess the intelligibility of a Trinity is to profess that all of creation is a call to relationship; that everything is relational because God himself is relational. In the call of the mountains can be found the key to human existence – we are made for relationship.
So often we flee to the wilderness to escape relationship, as Rousseau and Thoreau have counseled. But to avoid relationship is to destroy humanity. Christopher McCandless, who died in the Alaskan wilderness in 1992, has become an icon of mountain culture. Shortly before his tragic, solitary end, he wrote these beautiful words – Happiness is only real when shared. The Trinitarian God, who created the beauty of the mountains, embeds in their very essence the call to find one’s happiness in the relationship of the other. The egoist mountain life will never satisfy because it is contrary to relationship, contrary to the self-gift of love. Only in the sincere gift of self does man find himself. Only in relationship do I live the fulfillment I am created for. And only in a God who is himself a relationship can I truly perceive the call of the mountains.
The Mountains are Calling, and I Must Go.