Paean To The Mountains

[ 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.  Neither one of us could tell down from up.  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 neared 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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Thanks for reading this – I’d love to hear your thoughts.  The comments box is just below.

319 Replies to “Paean To The Mountains”

  1. Reblogged this and commented:
    This is a remarkably artistic and thoughtful piece. Worth every minute it takes to read. Here’s a short quote: “Sometimes in order to progress we must put ourselves at risk in some way, be it: physically, mentally, or emotionally.”

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I can’t begin to tell you what your piece did for me! It came at a most opportune time in my “climb.” Truly indescribable! Thank you.
    You are an artist with words as you are with music.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. That was quite an adventure James. You’re equally great at creating your music and writing. You should become an author, fiction/nonfiction, as you keep the reader, very intrigued in each word. It’s a story that you can’t put down. TC!😃📝🎼

    Liked by 4 people

  4. Well, I read you a few days ago, but I did not feel the need to answer immediately. I guess sometimes my heart is a little bit whimsical.
    Or maybe not, it is not, but definitly is very sensitive.
    Overall, I do and I say things when I feel like (you know how is it), I will not do it for “commitment”.
    The truth, my English is not “that” good to understand every word that you undoubtedly built with so much passion and delivery, but that does not mean I do not understand the context (something I learned long time ago and is the way I practice my English) But it does not mean I can not feel the strength and beauty of your story. Yes, You transport me, despite I don’t understand every single word, you did it. Did you realize the ability and strength of your writing ?, I’ve never been in Scotland, or on a mountain like that, in fact, I do not even know the snow! and I could see the whole scene. That’s why I like to read you, write you and talk to you, because no matter the distance and that I never been next to you, you have the ability to transport me next to you.
    Yes, I think there is no better metaphor for life. That was your adventure and so is life itself, I believe that all human beings live in one way or another situations with more or less difficulty, under different circumstances of course, but definitely, some people take positions more comfortable than others.
    I’m not surprised to see you writing like this, in fact, I was waiting to see this, is enough to know you just a little to know you can write like this. Somehow this post reminds me the last conversation we had, do you remember what I told you?, your perception of life was very different from the other people? … Well, you gave me the reason with this post, without knowing, here is the evidence and in a way that only you could do it.
    I think I’m in love with Pean to the Mountains, how you express the way you perceive and live your life and how you tell that to the world.
    But, I must say there is something I regret to this story, I feel sorry for you, just for one thing, you could not stay at least a little moment at the top of the mountain to see the view. It must have been beautiful.

    P.S. I had to use a dictionary to read you. And definitly was not necessary to be naked to do it.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I like this post. I feel it offers many wonderful life lessons. What an experience. It is such times that truly shape us, and indeed how we learn much about who we are. Glad to know you survived the perilous mountains, my friend! ;)

    Liked by 4 people

      1. I am a mysterious Yeti with magical powers of telepathy, did I not tell you? ;)
        I could be doing better :| But hey! Smiles lure out the sunshine, right? x

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Oh James your writing is breathtakingly beautiful. You had me climbing the mountain with you the whole way, and as I am currently battling through a struggle of my own at the moment, “forced deep into the trenches” of a cancer diagnosis, this metaphor struck a profound chord in me. I desperately hope that I will somehow grow in resilience and strength this year, and that I will somehow become a better version of myself for having had cancer.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Dear Kate,
      Thankyou very much for this, to say that it means a lot to me would be an understatement. I am deeply sorry for any hardship that you are going thru at this time, and am sure that you will grow in resilience and strength because of it.
      If there’s anything I can do for you, let me know – you can email me direct thru the ‘Connect’ page of my site.
      Big love, Big hug,
      – J x

      Liked by 2 people

  7. Hi, James, an inspiring description of your mountain climbing. I live in awe! I write a 500-1000 word letter to a friend every day; as much a diary as a matter of reviewing what has happened during the day as to find out how I feel about the events. It is a great consolidation. Do I review them later? Very seldom; however the act of writing seems to fix it in my brain. So I can absolutely see where you are coming from. As for the Scottish Highland hills they are magnificent, beautiful, and like so many similar things – – dangerous. Well done on reaching the top in dense fog and snow! Well done on getting down again!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thanks a lot! The descent was a little hairy, but much faster. ;-)
      Letter writing is a beautiful thing, I have a small corner of my heart that secretly loves letters. And I very much know what you mean about the act of writing fixing something in your brain.
      Really good to hear from you, hope your day is going beautifully,
      Take care.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Thanks James, we’re off to a folk festival this weekend, we do some street-theatre which is great fun for us at least. Clowning is the best way to allow the brain to relax and become childlike again. See things in the simplest way. Happens so seldom in our society. Should be a good way to celebrate the Queens birthday – these things are still important in the colonies!!! LOL.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. The contrasts and the mirroring devices you’ve employed in this piece are like silent whispers that nag at my senses, cajoling me to seek out nature to challenge and obliterate my own fears. Brilliant piece of writing.

    Liked by 3 people

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