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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

The View From the Top

It has been a year or two since I last climbed to the top of a mountain. The location was Arizona, outside Phoenix and the day was warm--but not so much so that it was unpleasant, and the cool breeze at the top was refreshing. It was a tall enough peak that I shared the view with a handful of hawks who were gracefully gliding on the thermal currents. Peace descended on me as I scanned the surrounding landscape and enjoyed the feeling of accomplishment of mastering the last few dozen nearly vertical feet.

Over a life-time of hiking I have climbed well over 50 different peaks—some several times over. A few of those mountains were just shy of 4,000 feet, while others were over 14,000. If you enjoy a vertical walk you know that height is not always a useful way of gauging how difficult it is to summit. Some of the toughest hikes I’ve done were on relatively modest mountains where the trail and weather conditions conspired to add a certain element of risk and effort. But a tall mountain affords a majestic view and carries its own climatic challenges.

I remember one hike in the White Mountains, famous for fast changing weather, where in the course of an hour one August day, I experienced fog, rain, hail, and brilliant sunshine. But regardless of the weather there is nothing quite like breaking out of the flatlands and woods to an exposed peak, regardless of its height. I was reminded of this by a charming book a friend lent me about a man and his dog who walked those same White Mountains building a bond that perhaps few people have experienced with an animal or human. I understood.

Walking in the woods or up the side of a mountain does that—builds long lasting friendships. It is more than just shared company or challenge. There is something so removed from everyday life, a sacred quality about the tops of mountains, that inspires reverence. When you’ve shared that with another it is a powerful—sometimes deeply emotional experience.

Strange and sometimes inexplicable things happen on the tops of mountains. Native Americans believed that the most powerful spirits dwelt there—and some tribes would not climb to the top to avoid desecrating a place the spirits enjoyed. I can see why—it simply feels close to the heavens, to God, when you are at the top of a mountain, especially if you have walked up on your own steam. The effort is part of the ritual—the sacrifice made to obtain that precious peace. Even in a blowing gale, which I have endured at the top of one memorable mountain peak, there is serenity.

50 mountains is not a lot. Veteran hikers claim many times that number and never grow tired of it. When I travel, something I’ve not been able to do much these past 2 years, I always like to fit in at least one good hike. In Italy that included two memorable walks. One to the top of a mountain in Santo Stefano di Sessiano, where an abandoned castle stood. This particular ruin was slightly famous, having served as background in a movie named Ladyhawke. we weren't there for the castle, but for the view of the farms, orchards, and surrounding hills, a a wonderful peasant lunch in the tiny refugio on the opposite slope. On the Amalfi coast we walked the 1,000 steps from the town of Amalfi to Ravello. It was a different kind of hike—up a dirt trail and carved steps between houses separated by a few feet and people’s gardens and olive groves. Ravello is a gorgeous little gem looking out on the coastline and most people get there by car on a winding twisted road. But sitting in a little café in the town having spent a few hours navigating this rise I felt the same sense of accomplishment I did hiking big Rocky Mountain peaks in Colorado.

I like walking in the woods too. The cool breeze in the shade of tall pines, filtered light breaking through the canopy above is tranquil. There is time and few distractions. One can be alone with one's thoughts without the constant bid for attention that is commonplace in our everyday lives. But as welcoming as that is I yearn for the peaks—for the places where we can see ourselves in proportion to the world around us.

Perhaps that is why these memories of walks to the top stand out more vividly than many other places and moments. It is not about achievement. Anyone who has done this –whether on small or great mountains, knows the humility they inspire. We are ephemeral—but mountains are ageless. We are poorly made to stride great peaks but must instead carry ourselves with some difficulty –sometimes hand over hand, dodging the snags of tree root and branch, gingerly picking our way over mossy stones, streams, and tumbled rock. Mountains are never conquered, the test is one we give ourselves.

On Mt. Monadnock in southern New Hampshire, where I lived for a while, I saw at first hand the powerful forces that shaped these peaks. Deep parallel grooves across the rock face showed the path of the glacier that passed that way hundreds of millions of years before me. Monadnock means mountain that stands alone in its native american tongue, but in fact it was once surrounded by far greater peaks that succumbed in the ice age leaving their brother behind. It was a favored spot for both Thoreau and Emerson, drawn there I suspect for many of the same reasons as I, by the mysteries that surround these peaks.

Mountains are like that, humbling and inspiring. They challenge us and require our complete attention, sober reminders of man’s place in the vastness of nature. In county Sligo, Ireland, another inspiring landscape stands. Mt Bundoran looms over the horizon brooding and dark even on a sun filled day. Its slab top is far from a peak, but it is no less prepossessing. In the little village of Drumcliffe, not far from Bundoran the poet WB Yeats lies buried in the churchyard marked by a simple headstone inscribed with these words: “Cast a cold eye on life, on death, horseman pass by.” Long after we are gone, Bundoran and all those peaks I have walked and have yet to walk will still stand. Cast a cold eye on life, on death………

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