We were out west and our directions were faulty. We had been seeking a mountain but somehow arrived at an old graveyard. Instead of a trailhead it was tombstones. The ground between the glancing markers was strewn with pine needles and fretted with morning sunlight. A weather-beaten sign nailed to an old tree delivered two gray words: “Pioneer Cemetery.” No birds were singing, yet in the middle of this small enclosure was a solitary wildflower with small blue blossoms: forget-me-not, or as the plant is more commonly known in these parts, stickseed. The burial ground was serene and inviting. Had we been looking for a campsite, this might have been the place. Ah, but the day was still young and our minds were set on a mountain, so we continued on our way. The peak, as it turned out, was not far off. The sky was clear. Soon we were making our ascent. But that unexpected graveyard and its lone wildflower remained in my thoughts, right to the top of the mountain and beyond.
To judge from the records, a kind of “dark learning” is to be obtained by those who scale mountains. For reasons never to be fathomed, lofty summits serve as portals, if not to the “other world” then perchance to another style of awareness. Maybe it’s the thin air, or the proximity to sky, or the mere physical exertion that relaxes the tension of consciousness—it’s difficult to say with any certainty. “You have but a short time left to live,” says Aurelius, “so live as on a mountain.” Whatever the case, the religious landscapes of the world appear serrated into wondrous heights. Mount Olympus, according to Homer, is “neither shaken by winds, nor ever wet with rain, nor does snow fall upon it, but the air is outspread clear and cloudless.” The Bible has its share of “power peaks,” including Ararat, Horeb, and Tabor, while in China Taoism claims its Five Sacred Mountains, and Vulture Peak in India is revered as one of the Buddha’s favorite resorts, where he delivered some of his most rarefied teachings.
Nowhere do mountains assume greater spiritual significance than in Japan, where adherents of Shugendo—a hybrid of Shinto, Taoism, Buddhism, with a little shamanism thrown in—regard mountains as ritual loci of power, veritable landscape mandalas, to be entered as much with the body as with the mind. Along similar lines, Ichiro Hori in his Folk Religion in Japan explains that the word for mountain—yama—is commonly employed in rural districts to refer to funerary rites. For example, the coffin is called yama-oke (“mountain box”); selecting the burial site is yama-gime (“choosing the mountain”); and digging the grave isyama-shigoto (“mountain work”). A hint is to be gleaned here as to the true nature of all mountaineering, similar to Socrates’ famous definition of philosophy as the “practice of death.”
Make no mistake, mountaineering in whatever form is risky. For the true adept, nothing material is ever gained from the arduous ascent, though all could be lost in the slip of a moment. Edward Whymper, the nineteenth-century Englishman who led the first successful ascent of the Matterhorn, concludes his classic Scrambles Amongst the Alps with these sobering words: “Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are naught without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste, look well to each step, and from the beginning think what may be the end.” The hard-won insight behind these words is almost palpable: half of Whymper’s climbing party perished on the descent, the result of a minor misstep.
The most elevated graveyard on earth is Mount Everest. A couple hundred bodies—each a mountaineering fatality—are believed to lie scattered across the upper reaches of its frozen slopes. The practice of climbers around there is to let the dead bury the dead. It is a tradition arising from necessity: to attempt recovery of bodies at such unforgiving heights is extremely dangerous. Among the oldest of these cloud-shrouded corpses are those of George Mallory and Andrew Irvine. At the time of their deaths in 1924 they were very near the summit. They may have made it to the top, thus becoming the first human beings to set foot upon the world’s highest point. If so they beat out Sir Edmund Hillary by nearly three decades, but no one knows for sure. The tale perished with them—a reminder that the climber is not the master but the minister of the peak.
Those who climb mountains seem motivated by a venerable wisdom: What is gained with great difficulty is more valuable than what is acquired without effort. Or so one would think after perusing the literature. I’m not talking about those bestsellers that dish up harrowing accounts of doomed expeditions on Danali or K-2. No, I am referring to the fugitive writings of ordinary folks who, when they get a little time off from the workaday, spend it upon the more companionable mountains and then write down a few words about their experiences. Such accounts are usually deposited in containers and left on the summits, as a kind of votive offering. Mount Shasta in California provides a case in point.
Shasta is a big peak by anybody’s standards—a glacier-clad volcano rising 14,179 feet above sea level. To climb it is arduous but not technically difficult. Lots of people have made it to the top. I’m one of them. But truth be told, each of these ordinary human beings was seeking something extraordinary. The summit register confirms this.
Actually, “register” is a highfalutin’ term for the tattered spiral notebook I found crammed into a dented coffee can stashed in the uppermost rocks. Over time, weather takes its toll on the legibility of all such mountain documents—words suffer from exposure. This book was in worse shape than some of the exhausted climbers who stagger up to sign their names in it: all meaning was perched on a narrow ledge of coherence, about to tumble off. Even so, it was still possible to make out various entries in the Shasta register. Most of them were commonplace exclamations concerning the weather (“Glorious day!”), God (“Thank the Lord for getting me up here!”), and ego (“I’m on top of the world!”). But one or two entries did rise above the ordinary, in terms of ability to pique a reader’s interest. At the bottom of the can, a brittle slip of paper preserved this fragment of a tale: “. . . end this way. I never thought I’d be writing about [. . .] for strangers to read, but . . . .” And then there was this text, surviving in its entirety save for the author’s name: “Beautiful climb, perfect weather, hope to God I make it down. My sex change operation is at 9:00 sharp. Just think: Maybe I can be the first person to re-climb Shasta as another person.” Ah, but who among us ever remains the same from one climb to the next, whether it be up a mountain or out of bed in the morning?
To gain some purchase on this question, consider the seventeenth century alchemist Thomas Vaughan, whose Lumen de Lumine, or A New Magical Light can be recommended as one of the great handbooks of mountaineering. At one point, after referring in cryptic fashion to a wondrous plant found only on the highest peaks of a shadowy range called the Mountains of the Moon, Vaughan writes: “Much indeed might be spoken concerning these mountains, if it were lawful to publish their mysteries; but one thing I shall not forbear to tell you. They are very dangerous places after night, for they are haunted with fires and other strange apparitions, occasioned—as I am told by the Magi—by certain spirits which dabble lasciviously with the sperm of the world and imprint their imaginations in it, producing many times fantastic and monstrous generations.”
For my part, I never climb a mountain without the hope that I will discover on its summit one of Vaughan’s rare and winsome moon-flowers. That I have yet to succeed does nothing to diminish my expectation. As for the psychological dangers he speaks of—those lasciviously dabbling spirits—they do exist and should be given heed, but one man’s peril proves another’s boon.
The philosopher William James loved to climb mountains. He was particularly fond of the Adirondacks. On a July night in 1898, while camping out with friends just below the summit of Mount Marcy, he had a run-in with a gang of mountain spirits. The story is recounted in a letter James wrote to his wife. Here’s what happened.
After a delightfully strenuous day of clambering up and over the highest mountains in New York State, James not only was physically spent, but his mind was furiously at work on a series of lectures he had agreed to present at Edinburgh. Unable to sleep, he arose and ventured forth, alone into the night woods. “All fermented within me,” he reports, “till it became a regular Walpurgisnacht. I spent a good deal of it in the woods, where the streaming moonlight lit up things in a magical checkered play, and it seemed as if the gods of all the nature-mythologies were holding an indescribable meeting in my breast with the moral gods of the inner life . . . .” A colloquy of gods was being held in his heart!
The ordinarily eloquent James suddenly was at a loss for words as he tried to explain to his wife what had come over him. Like a desperate climber on a difficult and unfamiliar pitch of rock, he started grasping for anything that might provide a hold: “The intense significance of some sort, of the whole scene, if one could only tell the significance; the intense inhuman remoteness of its inner life, and yet the intense appeal of it; its everlasting freshness and its immemorial antiquity and decay . . . .” Having arrived at the limits of linguistic ability, James concludes: “It was one of the happiest lonesome nights of my existence, and I understand now what a poet is.”
The lectures he eventually delivered in Edinburgh were profoundly influenced by his encounter with those gods in the mountain dark. Later the talks were published under the title The Varieties of Religious Experience. The book was immediately recognized as a classic. James was now at the top of his profession, but it came at great cost: the gods had opened his mind to the poetic nature of reality, but the grueling traverse across that rugged Adirondack range had worked irreparable damage upon his health. His remaining years were marked by visionary intensity but drastically diminished physical vitality. There would be no more trips into his beloved mountains. When he died in 1910, an autopsy revealed the fatal lesions on his heart.
* * *
Hellroaring is the unsurpassed peak in its range, but you will not find its name on any map. Some say this omission was a mapmaker’s error, while others claim it a stratagem on the part of locals to keep out unwanted visitors. Another piece of information not on the map: Hellroaring has had more than its share of climbing fatalities, giving rise to a considerable body of tragic lore, which hovers ominously over the mountain like a lenticular cloud. What you will find on the map, however, is Hellroaring’s elevation—10,751 feet—and a labyrinth of contour lines that translate into a rocky finger of fate pointing skyward. There’s no mistaking this peak once you’ve laid aside the map and are actually on the ground. So, if your heart is really set on climbing Hellroaring, you can find your way there, despite the obstacles.
We were up there just a few weeks ago. A sunny summer day, the eleventh of July. From our base camp, it took most of the morning to reach the top of the peak. It was ourselves alone and endless distant ridges. The air was calm. Pincushion clumps of alpine phlox were abloom in blue abundance, saturating the summit air with a fragrance sweeter than any breath of Persephone. Butterflies were everywhere, feeding on the nectar.
The summit register for Hellroaring is housed in a mountain-box more lavish than most: cast aluminum and embossed with the name of the mountaineering club that placed it here in 1961. The top of the box is hinged and held shut by two large thumb-nuts. When I bent down to raise the lid, a resting butterfly took wing. Inside the box was the usual oddball assortment of mementos left by climbers: business cards, empty pens, a set of keys, an old pair of sunglasses. And of course, there was the register itself—in this case, an ornate leather-bound journal. Its entries possessed an eloquence all but lost in contemporary alpine literature. Hellroaring’s register was packed with the gnomic utterances of several generations of mountain sages: “Don’t mess with what lies deep in the other.” “Foolish people imagine what they imagine is someplace else.” “Only a few among us have learned to love stones.” Given this mountain’s unfortunate climbing history, many of these entries can be assumed last words.
My attention was diverted from the book when I noticed a Ziploc bag lying at the bottom of the box. I reached for it and opened it. Inside was a photograph. Climbers often leave them on summits, and almost always these are pictures of people—yearbook mugshots, wedding photos, family reunions, that kind of thing. But the photo I found that day on top of Hellroaring was unique in my mountain experience: it was of a grave marker, located who knows where, bearing a simple inscription:
June 27, 1977 – Sept. 8, 1999
She May Have Died Here
But She Lived Here Too . . . .
The back of the photo was blank. No words upon which to anchor a narrative. The question, if not the ghost, arises: Who was Heather Smallidge, and what happened to her? Tales too go the way of all flesh—and this one was lost in mountain air.
Only later do we learn the story—or at least a story. We happen upon it on the way home. We stop for breakfast in a log cabin tourist lodge at the edge of the mountains. A young waitress shows us to our table. As we are sitting, we spot a small memorial plaque hanging on the wall. It bears the name of Heather Smallidge. Surprised, we ask our young waitress if she has any details. Yes, she does. She has them all, and delivers them in a tone of malicious joy.
“Oh yeah,” she says, “her—the snooty college girl from back east. She worked here a couple summers. They say she was a poet and crazy about wildflowers, especially ones that grow on tops of mountains. She called them her ‘flowers in the sky.’ I’ve never seen them myself. She must have had her head in the clouds. People around here used to call her ‘Sky Pilot.’ Yeah, she loved her poetry and her flowers and—oh yeah, she loved the bartender too.” She jerks a thumb toward the barroom door.
“They were going to be married, you know, and have kids and a whole life together. That never happened. One day the girl just didn’t show up for work. People knew she had gone off the day before looking for her flowers in the sky. Nobody knew where exactly. Talk about stupid! It was three or four days before they found her body up on Hellroaring Peak. Looked like she slipped and fell, but that’s not what killed her. They say she bled to death. If you know the spot you can still see the bloodstains on the rocks. Imagine the suffering!”
“How horrible!” we say. “Did you know her well?”
“Oh no,” the young waitress replies, now yawning. “I never met her.” Once again she jerks her thumb toward the barroom door: “My fiancé told me the story.”
As I resumed my perusal of Hellroaring’s summit register, an index card dropped out from between the pages. The card showed no signs of weathering, and indeed looked brand new. It contained a short message, written in a neat hand. It was dated—July 11th. Today! Had somebody already been here before us? Funny, we saw no one on the way up, nor any signs that any had been here in a long, long time. With only the date and no year to go by, this card could just as well have been placed in the register one hour ago, or one year ago, or even ten years ago. Maybe it had always been here—no telling. Anyhow, the card read: “Most extraordinary, right now, just me and ten thousand butterflies.”
Yes, the butterflies, those innumerable small triumphs of transformation, faithful pollinators of the alpine phlox. Phlox—the word literally means “flame”—and the gaslight blue of its petals must be drawn from the same dark lamps that lit the way for Orpheus. That such a flower should abide up here on this deadly summit, so close to heaven, confirms that most enduring of all mountaineering maxims: “The way up is the way down.”
Death among the ancient Greeks was personified as a beautiful youth. Because the immortal gods are by their very nature “without death,” they hated this boy and banned him from Mount Olympus, a place he dearly loved for the wild beauty of its flowers. Thus he was forced to wander in the mortal realm, a lonely journey that continues to this day. In old paintings and motifs he can often be seen holding an inverted torch, its flame extinguished, or, as I like to envision it, the flame having fallen to the ground and shattered into innumerable slivers, now transfigured into the petals of certain flowers that grow only in those high and hard to reach places, closest to the heart of that outcast youth.
(Originally printed in the November – December 2003 issue of Quest magazine.)