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.