The Top: The Ultimate Open Space

No matter how you get there, standing on top of a mountain inspires a universal thrill. It’s a big WOW! Beyond that, it’s difficult to articulate. If you almost died getting there, it’s easy enough to explain elation and relief. Those always make the best climbing stories. But if all it takes is a long walk, or a bike ride, or a ATV trek, or a chairlift to get to the summit, what is it about being up there, way up there, that infuses that first moment at the top with rapture and repose?

Obviously, the rarity of the experience is a factor. It’s not something most people do every day, and unless you’ve bagged one of those 14ers that attracts more visitors than an RV show, you’re probably (with a pal or two) the only one there. It’s you and a view of dozens, if not hundreds of other empty peaks. The visual evidence suggests you are, literally, top of the heap, above all. Your are freshly special.

That view is the ultimate open space. As human animals, we love open space, especially if we can be up over it and looking down. Our oldest biological ancestors, those Hominid predators with acute vision out running around and hunting — and running to avoid becoming prey — at the dawn of time, knew what a good view meant, and their comfort, confidence and pleasure with elevated perspectives of open spaces hasn’t left us.

Why that WOW! at the top? Because in the context of our human-ness, a mountain is a very, very high tree with all of the physical and psychic advantages.

As one broad-thinking biologist, Elaine Brooks, imagining herself climbing a tree and looking out over the old, old savannas of our beginnings, put it, “Once our ancestors climbed high in that tree, there was something about looking over the land — something that healed us quickly….Biologically we have not changed. We are still programmed to flee large animals. Genetically we are essentially the same creatures as we were at the beginning.

We are still hunters and gatherers. Our ancestor’s couldn’t out run a lion, but they did have wits. We knew how to kill, yes, but we also knew how to run and climb — and how to use the environment to recover our wits.”

The smart ones, the ones who survived, weren’t just running randomly from the large animals chasing them, they were running for safety, for the trees, for home. There is a certain residual implication that we know the higher we can get, the safer we are.

Maybe this is why a high spot with a good view is an undeniably desirable place to stop and rest. Quickly, the effort and adrenaline rush of the climb fade. Our breathing slows. Our heart rate drops. The sky is beautiful and endless. The land below, treacherous and interminable though mountains may be, is beautiful. Atop peaks, we are for a moment completely unthreatened. We can put down our psychic defenses because we are ultimately safe. Hardly a climber will deny the sensation of ultimate escape, and the secret urge to make it last. That’s the stunned silence of the top — a victory and its secret in the same emotional package.

In 1833, Captain Benjamin Bonneville was the first white man to stand atop many of the peaks of Wyoming’s Wind River Range. He was so weirdly taken by the immensity of the scenes he saw that he wrote of himself in the third person, as if the point-of-view inherently granted him omniscience enabling him to rise outside himself and look down on his own expansive reaction. He wrote: “Here a scene burst upon the view of Captain Bonneville, that for a time astonished and overwhelmed him with its immensity. He stood in fact on the dividing ridge the Indians regard as the crest of the world….Whichever way he turned his eye, it was confounded by the vastness and variety of objects. Beneath him the Rocky Mountains seemed to open all their secret recess: deep, solemn valleys; treasured lakes; dreary passes; rugged defiles, and foaming torrents; while beyond their savage precincts, the eye was lost in an almost immeasurable landscape, stretching on every side into a dim and hazy distance…. Whichever way he looked, he beheld vast plains glimmering with reflected sunshine, mighty streams wandering on their shining course toward either ocean, and snowy mountains, chain beyond chain, and peak beyond peak, till they melted like clouds into the horizon…. [H]e had attained the height that from which the Blackfoot warrior, after death, first catches a view of the land of souls, and beholds the happy hunting grounds….The captain stood for a long while gazing upon the scene, lost in a crowd of vague and indefinite ideas and sensations.”

In the way-up-there and way-out-there of a high range,  it’s hard to resist thinking about the edge of eternity, and inviting prospects of concocting treehouse-like plans to make the mountaintop a permanent home. Completely unrealistic, unless the home you have in mind is heaven itself, of course, but we can’t help the idea crossing our minds.

So, like our Hominid brothers after a sprint for safety and a regroup in the trees, once on top, we are elated and blissfully spent, and can’t help trying to figure how to apply the secrets of this undeniable victory to what’s next. Open space and a good view mean you can see all the corridors of coming and going — the safe and the vulnerable, the possible and the impediment. It has all the advantages of the ultimate home: a safe place to think about what’s next and how to get there — whether you are planning to go back down or devising a strategy assuring your place in the Land of Souls.

David Mazel, editor of “Pioneering Ascents,” a study of the diaries and writings of America’s first climbers (and source of the Bonneville passage above), points out that the long-view, long-range-planning instinct affords visions and imaginings of the future that extend beyond the metaphorical implications Elaine Brooks discusses. Expansive forecasting instincts, evoked in America’s first climbers by the ultimate open spaces they saw, found broad cultural expression.

Many of America’s early climbers were not climbing for individual amusement or psychological regeneration necessarily. Their intent was exploration, leading to invasion, and leading to exploitation. “For such climbers the act of conquering a mountain…had value as a sort of mental rehearsal for conquering the territory below,” Mazel says. For them, the mountaintop provided a view that fed their perceived racial privileges, even their perceived Manifest Destiny. The mountaintop was a point of domination, a vantage where the future looked irresistibly good for the inevitable victories below.

Agree or disagree with Manifest Destiny, but the good feeling the conquerors of the continent felt wasn’t unique to their particular sense of domination. With a big view, we all feel a degree of control, and from up there, our abstractions swim with sustenance and growth. The early Hominids in trees felt secure, but they also saw a world out there that would provide and nurture. The higher you get, the better your chance of seeing something good. Though distorted by ambition and racial hubris, the pioneers who stood on mountaintops and felt that same sense of confident well-being weren’t just elated with the idea of maraudings to come. Built into them was a sense of hope a gaze into open space almost genetically guaranteed a human being. The hope extended to all he associated himself with.

Some biologists, including Harvard scientist Edward O. Wilson, point to these rewarding sensations as signs of the “biophilia theory,” in which “a decade of research reveals how strongly and positively people respond to open, grassy landscapes, scattered stands of trees, meadows, water, winding trails, and elevated views.” Expressed ecopsychologically, a good view is good for you.

There’s evidence. According to Richard Louv, author of “Last Child in the Woods,” hundreds of studies conclude that time in nature reduces stress. Outdoorsy kids have twice as many friends. Backpacking improves proofreading performance. Experiences in nature boost a child’s attention span. Children in homes with good views concentrate better, especially girls. Louv writes:  “Environment-based education produces student gains” in every subject and “improves standardized test scores and grade-point averages,” and “develops skills in problem-solving, critical thinking and decision-making.” Louv cites a “link” that states children with access to the outdoors are less likely to suffer from ADHD, especially boys. People who spend time in nature are less angry. “Most transcendent childhood experiences happen in nature.”

Why climb to a mountaintop? Because, if you’re human, it’s the safest you’ll ever get, it’s the most visionary you’ll ever get and it’s the healthiest you’ll ever get. It might be the best you ever feel about the chances of your kind. That WOW! you feel when you get to the top means all the advantages of open space have just become all the advantages of the ultimate open space.

Long-time Mountain Gazette senior correspondent Wayne Sheldrake is author of “Instant Karma: The Heart and Soul of a Ski Bum,” winner of ForeWord Magazine’s 2007 Adventure “Book of the Year” and contributor to America West,, Writer’s Digest, The Bloomsbury Review, Your Health, Triathlete, Velo News, Snow Country and Rocky Mountain Sport.

The joy of sliding: Why our feet make skiing feel so sexy

It’s long been a cliché among skiers that a good day on the slopes, especially a good powder day, is as good as sex. Maybe skiers who think so are simply better at skiing than they are at sex. Or perhaps the sport is flush with shameless pervs. (It is frickin’ freezing out there and streaking the spring splash is considered normal.)

Skiing’s sexy mojo might just be a marketing ploy combined with a sharky singles scene and Hollywood hype, but a close look at the neurological relationship of the feet and the brain suggests that skiing and sex may be more intimately related than we might suspect.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “A Natural History of the Senses,” Diane Ackerman, found scientific evidence that stroking, sliding and caressing motions are therapeutic. “The touching can’t be light, or it will tickle…, nor rough, or it will agitate …, but firm and steady, as if one were smoothing a crease from heavy fabric.” Great advice for the execution of the ideal ski turn: not too light; not too rough.

Firm and steady. Keep it smooth and it feels good.

Applied to skiing, the most important touch points are obviously our feet. Feet are already sexy, of course. No fetish is more famous than the foot fetish. A Google of “Feet & Sex” returns 1,480,000 listings. Says one on-line advisor, “If you keep your feet in good shape and looking nice, it makes for much more erotic sex.” This alone may be the reason women care what color ski boots are. And why you should demand that your girlfriend’s ski boots are warm. Dr. Louann Brizedine, author of “The Female Brain,” claims “women need to have their feet warm before they feel like having sex.”

The obvious issues of appearances and comfort aside, it turns out there probably is a visceral, sexy connection between our heels, arches, toes and skiing.

The soles of the feet host two types of nerves with a flair for sexuality. Meissner’s corpuscles are hyper-sensitive, especially to perpendicular pressure. They respond to gentle sensations — caresses, kisses and tickles. Sharp sensations, like a pebble stuck inside a shoe, or a poke, also send them into a tizzy.

Interestingly, Meissner’s are found in a select few sexy places in the body: the lips, clitoris, penis, nipples and the feet. When you slide and your feet feel undulating pressure passing under them, the Meissner’s get busy. “The slightest distortion of a Meissner’s corpuscle will create sexual sensation,” writes Kristin O’Hara in “Sex As Nature Intended It.” Even inside a tight, hard-shelled boot, the soles of our feet become amplifiers of pushing, twisting, bouncing sensations, sensations that get fed to the brain via very sexy channels.

There just happens to be oodles of Meissners in the toes (which help monitor forward lean), and at the back of the foot (where subtle heel pressure allows the finish of a carved turn).

Pacinian corpuscles, according to the reference “Anatomy, Descriptive & Surgical,” are “found chiefly on the nerves of the fingers and toes…and in the genital organs.” “The Science of Orgasm” identifies the Pacinian as “specialized to respond to pressure and vibration,” and the “densest nerve supply in the body” occurs in the clitoris. Men have them too, in the glans, where O’Hara assures us they are “densely packed nerves excited by pressure.”

Every skier knows that, despite those clunky, heavy boots, there’s a whole lot of vibrating going on — not just those Julie Andrews the-hills-are-alive psychic vibes, but literally the vibration of the skis. Skis thrum powerfully as they turn. Amidst this constant vibrating, the Pacinian corpuscles wiggle their sexy messages to the brain, and what is the brain to do except enjoy the ride?

Luckily for skiers, it doesn’t take much to get a touch receptor’s attention. Ackerman explains that, “Any first time touch, or change in touch (from gentle to stinging, say) sends the brain into a flurry of activity.” The nerves wake up. “A little pressure produces a flurry of excitement, then fades, and a stronger pressure extends the burst of activity.” She explains that the excitement of touch is all about change — as in novelty, variety and intensity.

Like sex, the joy of skiing resonates with touch’s craving for nuanced, diverse experience. The texture and consistency of snow changes, often. Dozens of companies afford us thousands of novel combinations of equipment. Edges tune to various degrees of sharpness and bevel. A range of base structures combined with a rainbow of waxes respond to arrays of snow temperatures. Varying intensity is as easy as skiing steeper or flatter or bumpier runs. Ski fast. Ski slowly. Like the snowflakes we ski on, no two skiing experiences are ever exactly the same.

This is a good thing for touch receptors. Our sense of touch knows exactly how to challenge and reward valuable activities — like sex and skiing. As a touch sport that demands so much from the feet, there’s almost no denying that (provided your boots fit and they are warm) skiing is inherently sexy. Dr. Daniel Amen may not have had skiing in mind when he wrote, “What a lot of people don’t know is that the foot area in the brain — the area of the brain that feels your feet — is right next door to the area of the brain that feels your genitals,” in his book, “Sex on the Brain: 12 Lessons to Enhance Your Love Life.”

Or maybe he did.

There’s more. Our footy fetish with skiing may be a nod to our evolutionary success. Ackerman reminds us that the sense of touch evolved before all other senses. The earliest blind organisms literally felt their way to survival. Whether found in our genitalia or our feet, the Meissners and the Pacinian are nerves retained from primordial sliding in epochs when slithering and sliding meant the success of species.

Experimental neurologist Saul Schanberg, interviewed by Ackerman, asserts that, from the standpoint of sexuality within species, “Those animals who did more touching instinctively produced more offspring which survived, and their genes were passed on and the tendency to touch became even stronger.” He says, “Touch is not only basic to our species, but the key to it.”

In other words, sliding has been the key to sentience for more than 600 million years. The fittest were those that were best at it, and liked it, and kept doing it.

So maybe when skis start to slide and slither under us, something elemental happens, too. Maybe skiing stimulates nerve receptors that evolved partly to detect and encourage the firm, steady, smooth, not-too-light, not-to-rough flurries and bursts of sex — the touches that send our brains into a tizzy.

And maybe after a great day of skiing — with all the nerve receptors in your feet suggesting to your brain how great all that sliding was — there’s a chance you might find yourself thinking, “Wow, skiing is as good as sex.” Notice as you slip your boots off the therapeutic glow arising from your feet. Notice the distinct feeling that your entire species is destined for success.

Sources Consulted:
“The Female Brain.” Dr. Louann Brezedine. Broadway Books, 2007.
“Sex as Nature Intended It.” Kristin O’Hara and Jeffrey O’Hara. Turning Point Publications, 2002
“Anatomy Descriptive and Surgical.” Henry Grey, Thomas Pickering Pick, William Williams Keen. Bounty Books, 1977. p. 75-76.
“The Science of Orgasm.” Barry Komisaruk, Carlos Beyer, Carlos Beyer-Flores, Beverly Whipple. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006. p. 231.
“Sex on the Brain: 12 Lessons to Enhance Your Love Life.” Dr Daniel G Amen. Three Rivers Press, 2006

Wayne Sheldrake is the author of “Instant Karma: The Heart and Soul of a Ski Bum.” He lives in Del Norte, Colo.