We had planned to hike the western slope of Mount Tamalpais, but in the morning we saw clouds covering the ridge, which would erase the vertiginous views of the Pacific Ocean. So we went further up the mountain, to a place called Rock Springs, and picked the first trail that led downward, hoping to bury ourselves in the folds of the mountain and find something, close up, that would rival the distant vistas to the west. We followed Cataract Creek among mossy laurel trees and chest-high river rocks, then dipped along wooden footbridges, past a stand of young redwoods, toward a windbreak called Bath’s Retreat, before climbing a rocky escarpment with stunted manzanitas.
Four things about mountains occurred to me along the way.
1. Mountains really do loom.
They command our attention. This one, Mount Tamalpais, is a wooded ridge that rises out of the Pacific Ocean toward a sudden promontory 2,500 feet above San Francisco Bay. On a clear day it’s visible for 150 miles. Towns like San Rafael and Bolinas cluster at its feet like villagers worshiping an idol.
A mountain is like the sun. It’s far away but you feel it nearby, and you intuitively know which way to turn if you want to see it. Someone recently tried to tell me about a particular baseball diamond in Marin County, and I had no idea what she was talking about until she said Mount Tamalpais was visible in right field. Then I remembered the place perfectly.
If you’re a mountain and you want to be remembered, it does no good to be one of the 100 peaks that soar above 23,600 feet in the Himalayas, where people rarely go. (Cho Oyu, anyone?) Better to be a mid-size peak darkening the horizon of a sizable metropolis. Athens has Olympus. Tokyo has Fuji. Seattle has Rainier.
2. You are not alone on the mountain.
You might walk undisturbed for miles, only to step aside for a pack of rowdies on horseback. Or you will be peeing in the bushes and strange voices will carry, seemingly from two directions at once. Mountains are too big to be empty. Someone is always out there, and paths have a way of converging.
For any encounter on a mountain there is a widely accepted social etiquette. Make eye contact. Say hello. Be prepared to share your map, swap information about conditions on the ground, or help in an emergency. Some people will tip their hats.
In mythology Mount Parnassus is where Apollo and Orpheus bump into each other, and for this reason it lends its name to the Montparnasse neighborhood of Paris, where people used to mingle and recite poetry. If forests are where we hide and dissemble, then mountains are where we go to escape our regular society and chance upon something—often someone—unexpected and new.
I sort of remember a Kay Boyle story in which some adventurous young people have been skiing all day in the Austrian Alps, and they stop to rest at a chalet. The chalet is already occupied, and they become fast friends with the occupants before realizing they are talking to Nazis.
3. Don’t trust the mountain.
Despite appearances, mountains are not forever. On a geological scale they are crumbling, drifting, upheaving. You choose a moment to climb the mountain and there is a chance your timing will be terribly, geologically unlucky. What if the mountain moves? What if it erupts? Deep down every mountain wants to be a volcano.
In Cliffhanger a team of rescuers tries to navigate a snow-covered mountain using ropes, picks, and walkie-talkies. Their helicopter is a fly on the mountain’s back. This is the drama—whether people with simple tools can survive, or whether the mountain will shrug and send them to their deaths. Jon Lithgow, wonderful though he may be, is superfluous to the film. The real villain is the mountain. Either it will kill everyone today, or it will kill another group of people another day.
You have to hope the mountain shows mercy.
4. You will never reach the mountain.
Anywhere you go on the mountain, you are missing out on some other part of the mountain.
In The Eiger Sanction, Clint Eastwood’s character attempts to summit a Swiss peak known as the Eiger, while his friend, played by George Kennedy, watches from the balcony of a luxury hotel. The hotel is designed to observe climbers on the peak. Through golden telescopes, guests watch climbers inch their way up the rock and maybe die. Both the guests and the climbers are on the mountain, but they are separated by a chasm and fierce weather. From this far away, the guests are powerless to do anything but watch.
The mountain is always over there.
– Brian Hurley is Books Editor at The Rumpus, Founder of Fiction Advocate, and Curator of the Critical Hit Awards.