Mountains Aren’t Spiritual

Six years ago yesterday, a close friend of mine died mountaineering.  I started writing to process this, and it’s one of the things that helped me heal.  A few months after the death, I wrote a piece called Mountains Aren’t Spiritual, reflecting on here death.  Here were the original words:

For the first time, someone close to me died in the mountains.  After the death, I was a mess of science and philosophy and raw grief.  The psychology of ignoring evidence we don’t like.  The limit of our obligations to others.  The miracle of consciousness—and the frailty of it.  How a great person could stop existing just because she fell down a mountain.  The last time I’d seen my friend, how she’d left the gathering early.  How I’d been distracted, and hadn’t given a goodbye hug.

It’s been months now, and I’ve settled enough to write about it.  Other people have written better about who she was, about the joy and the risk and the ethics of pushing limits.  I’ve thought about this, but something else struck me.

Nature isn’t spiritual.  The ‘connection’ we feel isn’t an interaction of conscious minds.  It’s activity within our minds.  When lightning knocks us off a ridge, it’s not anger.  When sun peaks through a storm, it’s not kindness.  When wind softens to a caress, it’s not intimacy.  When rocks fall where we just stood, it’s not a warning.  It’s an example of how we could have died—but it’s not intentional communication. 

We know this.  We live in the modern world, we accept the truths of science.  We take avalanche courses.  We learn rope rescue.  We practice first aid.  We turn around before the summit.  And some of us have friends who became photos and memories.

But do we really know it?  Do we know it when wind whisks our problems into the clouds?  When color first bleeds into the sky on alpine starts?  When strength surges from cold and hunger and fatigue?  It’s easy to feel in touch with something deeper.  And it’s an illusion.  Mountains are really big rocks.

This doesn’t make mountains less valuable.  We walk on ancient oceans.  We climb sculptures forged in the depths of the earth, when our ancestors were rodents.  We ski on ice-cubes from the glaciers that covered continents.  In an age where sitting is the fastest way to travel, we move with our bodies.  In an age of screens, we share time with people.  In an age where we earn our living pressing buttons, our lives depend on physical competence.  In an age of learning from marks on paper, we experience the world around us.  Mountains let us live as homo sapiens.  As humans.

But mountains aren’t spiritual.  They can’t love us back.  They can’t reward environmental stewardship.  They can’t give a summit to someone who needs it for personal reasons.  They can’t spare someone who doesn’t deserve to die.
They can’t know we exist. 

We should still play in mountains.  We should still risk our lives in them, if we decide it’s worth it under careful consideration. But we shouldn’t do this to connect with them, only to connect with each-other.  We shouldn’t do this to love them, only to love ourselves.