Climbing a Mountain

Here’s a simile I think is far too common, and for that has lost some of its meaning: “Such and such is like climbing a mountain.”

It’s understandable, of course, why that phrase should get a work-out. It’s a useful shorthand: It tells you a task is difficult, dangerous, and takes a lot of endurance; that, having completed the task, it is now being looked back upon with a mixture of pride and exhaustion. So raising a child is like climbing a mountain. But so is completing grad school, or going shopping on a rainy Sunday.

“Writing a novel is like climbing a mountain.”

There’s one you read quite a lot.

It’s odd though, on consideration — archaic, even. Statistically, most people living today have never climbed a mountain. And why should they? Mountains have nothing to do with arguing politics on Facebook. Mountains have no opinion on the latest episode of Breaking Bad. And anyway, the mountains are way off over there; you can’t even see them from here. What purpose would finding a mountain serve? And why the hell would you bother to climb one?

My father loved to ask that question.

He loved even more to give the answer:

“Because it’s there.”

– – –

My father climbed mountains; therefore, my brothers and I also climbed mountains.  We didn’t want to, when we were little.  It was hard work, and not very fun.  But soon that question-and-answer was ingrained in each of our minds.

“Why climb a mountain?”

“Because it’s there.”

Tomorrow morning, I will rise and shower. I will brush my teeth, comb my hair, then put my toothbrush and hairbrush in my bag.  Then my brother and his partner will come to pick me up, and we will drive from Pennsylvania to New Hampshire.  As we drive, the land will rise around us.  The temperature will drop.  Our ears will pop as the rented car changes altitude, and we will announce this event to one another with some enthusiasm.

Even more enthusiastic will be our search of the horizon.  The Mountain is Mt. Washington, at the head of the Presidential Range, but that’s only its formal name.  To us it’s “The Mountain,” a moniker both as casually familiar and as reverently fearful as “My Father.”

“Is that it?” we’ll ask, pointing to various misty crags on the horizon.

The answer inevitably comes: “No, we’re not there yet.  Besides, that’s not even a mountain.”

What follows, of course, is an argument as to what constitutes a mountain, the savagery of which is only equaled in close proximity to a Scrabble board.  Is a mountain its altitude relative to surrounding landscape?  Or its grade?  Or just height from sea-level?  What’s the qualifier, then — one thousand feet, or five?

After a while, someone might look the answer up on his phone.  “According to Wikipedia, there is no official definition of a mountain.  So we were all wrong.” “Well, I was right.” “No, we were all right.” There is always someone pleading the group to “drop it”.

In the silence that follows, we will all turn our eyes to that tiny gray mound, to think ‘Of course that’s not it.  Of course that’s too small.’  We need no official definition of a mountain: our definition is bone-deep.  We know what a mountain is, because we know what it means to climb one, because we have all climbed The Mountain before.

I have climbed Mount Washington many times in my life.  I don’t know the precise number off-hand, like I neither know off-hand the age my father was, when he died.  He died “when I was 14”; I have climbed the mountain “plenty of times”.

Tomorrow, I set out to climb it once more.

– – –

If you’ve never climbed a mountain, I’ll tell you what it’s like.  Or if you have climbed a mountain, but never climbed this one, then maybe this will help you imagine.  Think of it like a tourist pamphlet, or a season brochure.

Come to scenic New Hampshire!

Come, and climb The Mountain.

– – –

It goes like this:

You pack more than you need, and one season colder.  If you’re going for two days, you pack for five.  If it’s July, you bring clothes better suited to October.  If it’s October, you glare into your duffel-bag, wondering, “Will this be warm enough?”

It’s October now.

You drive up the day before, or preferably, two days before, in case the weather should change, and your hike needs rescheduling.  The drive is long, but not hard. The scenery is pretty.  The leaves are just beginning to change, and there’s a song you’ve never heard on the radio, on a station you don’t listen to, because where you live, that number is static.

Eventually, you get where you’re going.

You climb out of the car, you stretch, you breathe deep, and someone inevitably says something about how fresh the mountain air is, or something about global warming.  Then you pop the trunk, grab your bags, and head up into your room.  Maybe it’s crappy — one bed, a cot, a bathroom.  Maybe it’s incredible, and look at that view.  At any rate, the TV channels are all different, and you have to consult the little placard to sort them out, which everyone agrees is a hassle.

That evening, you go out for dinner.  There’s nothing around, but there’s even less nothing than there was ten years ago.  There are Wal-Marts and Starbucks’ everywhere now; there never were before.  Maybe you spend half an hour talking about how awful that is.  The fresh mountain air has gotten into your head already; you feel like you’re practically a native.

“Man, f**k Starbucks!”

You eat, you drink, you reminisce and plan for tomorrow.  You have to get up early: that’s the law from on high.  You have to eat a really big breakfast.  You’ll need the carbs.  Even if you’re not hungry, you should eat a really big breakfast anyway, because you’ll need the carbs.  If you don’t bring enough carbs, Jesus Christ, who knows what could happen.

You drive back, and on the way, you think of something you’ll need for tomorrow, and go buy it.  Bottled water, or a first-aid kit, or another pair of socks, or hiking boots because someone thought they’d go hiking in sneakers, and has since been reeducated.

When you get back to the room, you consult the placard, find the channel with the movies, pick one, watch it, and go to bed.  You have to get up early, because you have to get an early start.  You have to be on the mountain by “Six AM, exactly.  Six, at the absolute latest.”

– – –

So everybody gets up at seven the next morning, packs their backpacks with hiking essentials, eats a big breakfast, and brings all their carbs to the mountain.  Then you have to sign in at the ranger station, check the weather at the top, double-check your bag, and the batteries in your flashlight, which hopefully you won’t need (because if you’re still on the mountain when darkness falls, hoo boy, you done fucked up).

By the time you get on the mountain, it’s almost ten.

But by twelve, you’re making good time.  And smell that mountain air!  It’s warm out, now.  It’s fifty degrees down here–“down here” at the base, as opposed to “up there”, above the tree-line–so all the cold-weather stuff is still in the backpacks.

That’s also where you keep the snacks: trail-mix and granola bars, packets of goldfish, anything that won’t crush easily in a crowded bag.  Anything with carbs; y’know, in case you didn’t get enough this morning, and wind up needing more.

The trail starts steady, and it might just as easily be the bike path at your local park.  Then suddenly it gets steep, and you’re climbing hundred-year-old stone steps up a winding shelf of rock, marveling with one another at how out of “shape” you all are; how totally unacceptable your “shape” is.  But if walking these steps is hard for you, can you imagine what it must have been like, for the guys who laid them?  Everybody agrees: they must have been in really good shape.

Soon the steps have passed, and it’s just you and the sloping forest.  Soon the forest has gone, and it’s nothing but chest-high scrub.  Soon the scrub is just a memory of shelter from the wind.  Now it’s nothing but black slabs of granite, trickling water, sheets of ice; the temperature has dropped from fifty to twenty-five, with a wind-chill of thirty, and winds at forty-five.  You stop for lunch, and this’ll be the last time you stop like this.  You struggle to throw together a baloney sandwich in forty-five mile-an-hour winds.

Every single time:

“Aw man, we forgot to bring the mustard.”

Now out comes the cold-weather stuff: gloves, hats, scarves, wind-breaker pants to pull up over your jeans, and definitely a heavier jacket.  A jacket so heavy, in fact, that it doesn’t get use in the land of Facebook and Breaking Bad; it never gets that cold there, even in the bitter depths of winter.

The last time you put on this jacket, in fact, you were standing right where you are now, and thinking about the time before that.

– – –

It’s the afternoon now.  That is, the time is after noon. You’re suddenly very conscious of the time, because passing time means distance yet to go.  Distance yet to go means distance between you and the cog-train, which runs from the summit — the cog-train which, if missed, will mean distance to hike again, going back the other way.

That’s the specter hanging over the outing: having to hike back down in the dark, the cold, and the wind.

It’s cold and windy already: the temperature is at fifteen, ten, zero, less — and the wind has kicked up to forty, fifty, SIXTY miles an hour, so fast you have to fall over just to stand up straight.

At home, when you were looking at the mountain through the picture-frame of a Wikipedia article, “highest wind-speed on Earth” seemed like such an innocuous phrase.  Kinda neat-o.  Now you know its meaning in a different way: the wind comes down with straight-up hurricane force.  Every time it can find an opening between glove and sleeve, or jacket and hat, it does: then it surges through the opening like a pressure seal’s been burst, like a razor shooting up your arm, or like those scarabs from The Mummy, burrowing up under your skin and going straight for the heart.  You’ve never been so cold in your life.

Why the f**k would you climb a mountain?

“Because it’s there,” suddenly feels pretty insubstantial.

And anyway, the mountain isn’t “there”, it’s HERE.  It’s all around you.  You’re “on” it, but only in the sense that a flea is on a dog, or a mite that’s on a flea is on a dog.  The mountain looms, in the fullest sense of the word — the mountain looms like God might loom, or like that moon in Majora’s Mask.

Every time you go to climb one of those huge black ice-covered slabs of granite, there’s a terrible sudden sensation of the weight of your backpack, tugging you backwards.  The weight of the void is behind you, you realize.  You can’t help but think, One slip is all it would take.

Just one.

It’s why you signed your name at the guest-book at the ranger-station: so when they find your broken and bloodied corpse at the bottom of a ravine, they know where to mail all the pieces.

After all, people die on this mountain.

People Die On This Mountain: you’ve heard it a dozen times the past few days.  Not from the natives, of course — the natives know that for a fact, and stating it is like stating that the sky is blue.  No, you and your whole yuppy brood have been telling it to one another: “People die on that mountain.”

It’s only now the words really take on weight, and that weight is all sitting in your backpack.  And you shoulder that weight, and you tighten the straps, and if you’re bold enough, yes: you press on.

– – –

Maybe you make it to the top.  Maybe you don’t.  It doesn’t really matter, at this point.  Climbing a mountain doesn’t mean reaching the summit — that’s why “summit” is its own special verb, which only people who climb mountains get to use.  Summiting (verb, “to reach the summit”) is as much a culmination of luck and good weather as it is a feat of endurance.

No, climbing a mountain doesn’t mean reaching the summit.

It means feeling that weight on your back.

It means traveling to an alien landscape to which you do not belong, at an altitude you’re crazy to have reached.  It means thinking about your name, carved into that piece of paper at the ranger station, like being carved into a gravestone.  It’s feeling the weight of that gravestone on your back, and the weight of the world behind it. It’s seeing the void.  It’s looking over your shoulder and seeing where you were this morning — and Oh My God, it’s on the other side of the clouds.

It’s feeling all that, if even for a moment, and a million other emotions too subtle to put into words.

Then and only then can you can say that you’ve climbed a mountain.  It doesn’t matter anymore, whether you go up or down from there.

After that, it’s all just hiking.

– – –

I write this at a strange time in my life. I’d say a crossroads, but then all of life is just a series of crossroads, stretching forever in every direction.

I’ve finished a novel.  Or mostly finished one, since a novel is never really finished.  And like climbing a mountain, this is no new feat for me: I’ve done it before.  I did it when I was twelve, and a half-dozen times since.  Hopefully, I’ll do it again.

But in a month, I will have published a novel.  And this, I think, is like reaching a summit: as much a culmination of luck and good weather as it is a feat of endurance.

The hard part is over now.  I’ve just crossed the hump.  There’s still more writing to do, and editing, and rewriting and editing some more.  But I’ve felt all those little emotions, and yes, been borne backwards into the void, by all that awful weight.  And I’ve shouldered that weight and pressed on.  So now it’s past.  It’s all behind me.

It’s nothing now but hiking.

Having crossed that threshold, I feel rightly entitled to say: “I have written a novel.”  Similarly, having climbed a mountain, I feel entitled to use the simile, “…like climbing a mountain.”

But it’s only having done both, that I feel I’ve earned the right to claim the whole cliché: that writing a novel is like climbing a mountain.

And I’d dearly love to wield that cliché, except I think it’s got the whole thing ass-backwards.  Writing a novel can’t be like climbing a mountain, because of the two, writing a novel is harder.

mt washington


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