[ Paean noun: a song of praise or triumph. ]
I write for all kinds of reasons. One of the big ones is: Writing about something lets me know how I feel about it; and why.
A few weeks ago I took a one thousand mile road-trip around the far north coastline of the Highlands. I rested. I spent time. I did Things.
I climbed some mountains.
I wrote this post to find out why.
The mountains of Scotland are the highest hills in the U.K. Angry fists of granite and quartz punching their way heavenward from the molten bedrock of the earth’s strata; each one a unique glacial scream, frozen in time. In relative terms they are infants, dwarfed by the incontestable might of the Himalaya but, when contrasted with the artificially flat ribbons of our electric grey city streets, they are towering and fearsome gods, capable of a retribution both swift and eager on the unwary and unprepared. Up here the climbing is beautiful, but the conditions are ever-changing, sneaky, and capricious. Make no mistake, people die on these hills.
We were nearing the top of Ben Hope. We had long ago crossed the snowline and were now forced to kick holes in two foot deep powder in order to make progress. We knew we were close to the summit but fog had descended curtailing visibility to less than 10 feet. Our map told us that just to our left lay a sheer edge, a vertical stone wall dropping away into a black abyss of nothing onto which snow had frozen and refrozen forming a shelf of indeterminate width. Best not get too close to that edge. Best not test its boundaries lest it suddenly free itself to champ it’s eager waiting maw around our broken bodies…
It is laughably easy to lie to yourself during peacetime. Blanketed in soft stationary comfort and easy pleasure. It becomes a lot harder when you are forced deep into the trenches of war, or when you find yourself in the cold, hard, and unforgiving places of the world. When you are forced by circumstance to gulp down shot after bitter shot of gut-check reality espresso. Sometimes you will surprise yourself, especially if your preparation has been good. Othertimes you will realise that: all your talk has been naught but the parroting of an elaborate fiction. A fragile tower, spun of sugar and built on sand in monsoon-storm country.
It had been snowing heavily for the last forty minutes. We moved forward, crunching step after step into the whispering blanket of whiteness, and did our best to peer thru the murk. The sky, the mist, and the snow-covered ground were all the same colour. There were no features, nothing we could use to get our bearings. You couldn’t tell which way was up or down. The wind howled and bit at us but all other sound was dampened. We started to see figures in the mist that vanished as we approached them. I had long ceased to be able to feel my fingers and my phone, which I had been using as a camera, had now frozen solid.
What is there of great worth in life that carries no risk in its gaining? I would say: Nothing worth having. To endlessly seek to protect yourself by: shying away, building higher walls, and fitting better locks is not living, it is merely surviving. An approach to life spawned and gifted as the final remit of prisons, death camps, and every other dark place built, cordoned, and maintained by fear.
We knew we were close but visibility was virtually non-existent now. We were two blindfolded children, surrounded and held close by a sub zero desert of dirty white with only a compass and our reckoning to keep us true. We called to each other over the wind, our sentences terse and expedient, focused solely on the situation at hand. Should we call it? Should we descend and come back another day? Or should we push on? As we inched like snails ever upward, the temperature continued to fall…
Sometimes in order to progress we must put ourselves at risk in some way, be it: physically, mentally, or emotionally. Sometimes, in order to truly live, we need to throw ourselves wide open to the world and engage with it in a deeper, more visceral sense than we are used to. When the mask begins to crack and the armour sloughs away; when the light is stark-white-bright and the mirror unavoidable; when there are no excuses left, and nowhere left to run, there is hope; and the opportunity for real growth. These moments may be painful, they may be hard, they may hurt like hell and burn like the moan of a lost and aching thunder, but that does not render them unnecessary.
All at once I caught sight of the summit stone, just a little way off to our right. We whooped and hollered and ran, joyous and stumbling to it as fast as the deep powder would allow. We each touched the rough block of ice-covered stone once, then turned in unspoken agreement and immediately began retracing our footsteps. The way down would be hard, and dalliance would only bring greater punishment.
The mountains and the journey of climbing are a living metaphor for me. A testing ground. They allow me to confront weaknesses in my game and character that are not readily available or apparent at ground level. They reveal me to myself. This type of insight is vital beyond price, yet cannot be purchased at a store, ordered online, or won in a lottery. It must be earned.
As above, so below. As on the mountain, so it is in life.
And that, is why.
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