Why Do We Climb Mountains?

I was in no man’s land. It has already been nine hours since I passed the last safe refugee to retract back to a known trail. I couldn’t even see any birds flying up in the gorgeous blue sky. The ever-changing clouds would take shape filled with the horrors of my imagination one minute and the beautiful purple flowers of existence the next minute.

Mis-step. Wrong foot placement. Now I was tumbling down the east face of the peak. Every few seconds, while falling down, I had a chance to gaze on a shady figure 200 feet above me. Is it a shadow of a person or a tree? I was not sure. Maybe this was the classic familiarity illusion created by the mind. Perhaps this was a trick to focus my eyes on faint chances of survival. I don’t know. But at that point, it would require ample time to distinguish between illusion and reality. Being human, we are accustomed to seeing faces in clouds, tree stumps, or other bizarre places. Not seeing a human soul for a long time combined with dehydration, exhaustion, and fear, it is no magic to mistake distant tree for a human being. In those situations, it is easy to mix up a soulless dead tree to be the savior.

Though my body looked motionless, my mind was fully engaged in finding ways to stop the fall. My eyes were continually staring at the obscure hazy figure in the distance, hoping to be the savior. My mind was weaving its own story about this journey, trying to add meaning to this suffering. The spirit was trying to justify the uncountable risks I had taken to just climb big plies of rocks connected by ridges and saddles, which we call mountains. In essence, the soul was trying to answer the deep-rooted question,’ Why do we climb mountains?’ to somehow justify my actions. The body was so exhausted that it refused to do anything to stop the fall without having a reasonable answer to that hard question. This fall dissolved me into two elements: body and mind. The body was adamant that it wouldn’t struggle to slow down the fall even though the mind gambled with cards about life’s goals, hopes, and future.

Why did you want to climb Mount Everest? – Reporter

“Because it’s there”

George Mallory

George Mallory’s response has been called “the most famous three words in mountaineering.” Neither my dissolved mind nor body was satisfied with this statement. Then my mind, starting seeking explanations from other mountaineering legends. But none of the answers would hit the bull’s eye. It believed there should be something more, something higher than our existence. Suddenly, it remembered Robert MacFarlane’s response,

“Mountains remind us that there are environments that do not respond to the flick of a switch or the twist of a dial, and which have their own rhythms and orders of existence. They pose profound questions about our durability and the importance of our schemes. By speaking of greater forces than we can possibly invoke, and by confronting us with greater spans of time than we can possibly envisage, mountains refute our excessive trust in the man-made. “

Robert MacFarlane

It was instantly dazzled.

My mind focus remained on the second sentence. ‘ They pose profound questions about our durability and the importance of our schemes.’ It started crunching words. Durability – Resilience – Resistance – Robust. Poof! What is in this world that has all these qualities? Atom – Molecule – Cells – Plants – Animals. Poof! Nature. Nature encompasses all these, has all the resilience qualities, and many more. What is the universal truth in Nature? Stars – Sun – Earth – Water – Birth – Death – Mortals. Poof! All of the collective human knowledge dictates that one of the brutal truth is that we are mortals. We all die at some point, and not all agree about another life after our death. Among the many words the mind could muster to counter death, one distinct word ‘ revolt ‘ surfaced from the vast ocean. The answer to recover from the fall had to do with ‘ revolt‘.

Death is imminent and inevitable. That’s the truth though we don’t fancy talking about it. Being alive in itself is a great miracle as there are innumerable ways to kiss death. Albert Camus pointed out, “I revolt, therefore we exist” in his famous book the “The Myth of Sisyphus“, implying the recognition of a universal human condition. According to Camus, the meaning of life is to be alive. Every action we do, every breath we take, is a revolt against death. 

The world we live in is surrounded by artificial constructs: house, city, law, human rights, religion, and money. These collective social constructs consume every second of our life. We are so much engulfed by these constructs that we forget about the higher forces in action. The fact that we might die at any moment is buried alive. A false idea that we will live forever takes charge and brutally murders the truth that was coffined. This fanciful idea takes us so far out that we believe only us humans are the sentient, conscious, intelligent, and rational beings in the whole living kingdom. We totally ignore the unconditional empathy and love shown by the elephants to their calf, the witty and playful nature of the octopuses, the dynamic school of dolphins, the gravity-defying shows of the mountain goats, and the incredible communication network of trees. These magnificent beings don’t register in our definition of intelligence. Still, we don’t have the right to dismiss them as ignorant beings. For me, an average human living inside this disillusion sandcastle is way dumber than the dolphins who have enjoyed the embracing oceans for millions of years.

The point is that there can be a different type of consciousness. Intelligence is not yes or no question. It is a whole range of spectrums, as seen in the different shades of colors in the visible light. Dolphins, octopus, parrots, chimps, and elephants awareness lie in the diverse band of the spectrum. In humans, these bands of consciousness are pristine, vivid, and alive. Scientists, religious gurus, yogi, physiotherapists, and physiologists have shown time and again that there exist different shades of awareness in their subjects. In everyday life, we operate in a default mode. We are always anxious about the future and worried about our past. It is hard for an average human to switch to other ways without a push from other people or extraordinary circumstances. Expert practitioners like scientists and yogis can alter their subject’s default consciousness mode with their knowledge and instruments.

In different realms, there are different ways to alter consciousness. This can be achieved in any number of ways: through psychedelics and meditation, as various researchers have demonstrated, but perhaps employing specific breathing exercises (like holotropic breathing), sensory deprivation, fasting, prayer, overwhelming experience of awe, extreme sports, near-death experiences, and so on. Some methods might be accepted in current society, and some might be seen as a taboo. Some methods might have been popular in ancient times but abolished now. Some ways might be more natural to access, but some might be cumbersome. Some methods might have a long-lasting impact on the person, and some might only impact as long as the person is intoxicated. I don’t know which methods are superior or which will take us to ultimate truth, but all I know that all these are proven ways to disrupt the default mode.

The most common mind-altering method/substance that has been used throughout human history is alcohol. It is a readily available, secure, and accessible way to alter the state of consciousness, which only lasts for a few hours and has its own baggage of merits and demerits. But many societies have disdain towards alcohol. There is a long, complicated history of use, criminalization, and legalization of liquor from the Roman empire to the 18th century English empire. In similar veins, marijuana also shares a complicated history with alcohol. In ancient cultures, cannabis was used as herbal medicine, followed by use in textiles and rope. Political and racial factors in the 20th century led to the criminalization of marijuana. However, its legal status is changing in many places now. Some psychedelics like LSD and Ecstasy are cursed for the counterculture in the 60s. In contrast, magic mushrooms and toad have a sacred history in native American cultures.

Psychedelics and alcohols are a more accessible medium to alter consciousness than meditation, which requires tons of practice, patience, dedication, and knowledge. Within a few minutes to hours, these compound dissolves onto own selves. But the trip induces by these chemical compounds do not always yield mystical experiences. No matter how much set and setting is controlled, it is almost impossible to recreate the same experience. People who take these compounds in search of mystical experiences sometimes are only gifted with inconceivable horrors, deep-rooted fears, childhood traumas, and flashes of disturbing human history. It is not the fault of these innocent compounds that deny us the mystical experience we seek, but the responsibility is ours. Ingesting a high does of psychedelics is like being dropped from a helicopter to a mountain top. Without acclimatization, an inexperienced person lost on the mountain top might survive to tell his story of mystical survival or just sign a treaty with death. Only with proper acclimatization, training, fitness, and adequate risk assessment, climbers can summit mountains. Similarly, only with trained therapists, fitness, and mental aptitude can a person attain a mystical phenomenon with those compounds.

For people who don’t want to associate themselves with psychedelics, there are proven and thoroughly studied way to alter consciousness. Different forms of meditation are well known for their coping with stress, anxiety, and depression. But lesser know fact about meditation is that an experienced monk or meditator can completely shut down the default mode of consciousness and dissolve the ego associated with ‘I’. Recent peer-reviewed studies have shown that expert monks can completely shut down the brain’s default networks. Then they can enter into a fascinating mode where there is no sense of self, where every difference dissolves, and nature talks to them in its own language.

The connection between all mediums that alter consciousness is that they discredit the massive artificial constructs of collective human imagination and help us see the world through a new lens. Thus revealing magnificent beauty in ordinary objects that have been neglected. I believe this is what happens to the mountaineers who risk it all to climb mountains. I think we climb mountains to alter our consciousness by acknowledging the work of more significant forces in nature. The most important fact is that the higher consciousness reminds us of the awful truth that we are mortals. Unlike psychedelics and meditation, the mountains evoke a big mirror in which the rays of death is reflected in our eyes. The mirror not only brings the question of mortality but radiates the beauty surrounding us and dissolves our ego in that beauty.

Climbing mountains is one of the potent ways to recognize the truth about death and yet understand that life is a revolt against this unfathomable truth. Mountains are sacred places to mysterious forces of nature where avalanches, blizzards, and extreme weather conditions call home. In the summit, while battling with these forces and physical and mental exhaustion, it’s no magic for the mind to transcend into sacred consciousness. Some fragments of this divine consciousness survive in everyday life for mountaineers. They relish even nominal activities like walking, cooking, peeing, and seeing loved ones that the ordinary people would take for granted. The sacred consciousness gifted by the mountains always reminds us how small and meaningless we are in the grand cosmos. Mountaineers never forget that life is beautiful, like the mountains. We climb mountains not to reach the summit but to glimpse through the state of divine consciousness.

I don’t know for how long my mind was debating over why we climb mountains. But the answer connecting the threads between the mortality, revolt against death, and sacred consciousness was profound. I quickly realized that this question arose when I was tumbling down the east face of the peak. I have done nothing to revolt against the inevitable truth that would follow. The pain receptors from all over the body were overloading the brain and continuously reminding it that the body is being tormented. I quickly grabbed the wooden pole in my right hand and adjusted it such that my right hand was holding near the end of the pole, and my left hand around the midpoint of the pole. I pressed my right hand such that some portion of the pole was inside the earth picking out big and small stone like a hand crumbling corn as I was tumbling down. I managed to transfer my whole weight on the pole, and with this self-arrest technique, I slowed down. Carefully using both wooden poles, I stand up upright.

With my head up to the peak, I could still see the shadowy figure 300 feet above me. I was not sure if it was me who stopped the deadly fall or was it this mysterious figure who gave me a new life. All I know is that when we rise above the default mode of consciousness, the mysteries in nature becomes move vivid and transparent. Don’t hold back. Live outside the maze of human civilization, and then you will see magnificent conscious and intelligent beings all around you. You are just one climb away from a mystical experience. Climb that mountain. You are only one meditation session away from reaching nirvana. Keeping meditating.

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