I lift up my eyes to the hills. - Psalm 121:1
There are other Annapurnas in the lives of men - Maurice Herzog, Annapurna
Mountains and hills, snow robed peaks and knife edged turrets have a way of drawing the spirit and soul to the heights. There are rock jocks, of course, that merely turn to the high regions to bag yet another peak, to overcome another challenge. But, there is, at a deeper level, much more to the mountains than merely another ascent feather to place in a climbing cap.
Many of us grew up, as children, with the stirring tales, set in Switzerland, of Heidi and Banner in the Sky. These novels were made into movies, and both tales are more than merely about living in the Swiss Alps or climbing the Matterhorn. It is impossible to read Heidi or Banner in the Sky without being taken by the fact that these stories are about, at a deeper level, inner mountains that need to be climbed to overcome a variety of fears, insecurities, anger and bitterness. Such interior peaks take people to vistas and views that open up all sorts of new possibilities for the journey of life. But, a journey needs to be made to reach such pinnacles, and often many a hard hike.
It is significant to note that the Greek word for mountain, oros, is the root from which we get oracle and oracular. Moses went to the peaks to receive the Decalogue, and Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount was, indeed, taught high above the hurly burly of valley life. There is something about the mountains that points the way to deeper and higher issues. Those who take the time to travel to such high places, spend hours, days or weeks in the solitude and silence of such ancient sentinels often return different people.
The mystical tradition within Christianity often refers to our pilgrimage as an ascent to insight or a climbing of a ladder from lower to higher desires. It is significant to note that Dante in the Divine Comedy used the analogy of the mountains as a means of charting the journey from darkness to light just as Petrarch’s, ‘The Ascent of Mount Ventoux’, was as much about an inner hike as it was about a demanding physical climb of Ventoux in France. There is no doubting the fact that mountains, hills and highlands are one of the basic archetypes and mythic ways of seeing and being deeper people.
The Victorian Mountaineers (1953) and Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory: The Development of the Aesthetics of the Infinite (1959) are now classics in the genre of literature, mountaineering and spirituality. These are must reads and keepers for keeners on the nuanced relationship between Nature and the Soul, God and our all too human journey. It is significant to note that many of the American Beats (Snyder, Kerouac, Whalen, Jeffers, Everson) turned to the hills for hope and insight just as the English High Romantics (Coleridge, Wordsworth, Southey and Ruskin) saw in the peaks sites of wisdom and transformative power.
I have spent days, weeks and months in the last few decades in the high regions. In fact, in my early twenties, in the early 1970s, I lived in Switzerland twice and hiked and climbed many peaks to be near where Banner in the Sky and Heidi were written. I spent time in the Alpine village of Grindelwald in Switzerland in 1972 to be near the chalet of Coolidge, the Boswell of the Alps. I was fortunate to spend six months with Francis Schaeffer in 1973-74, and while I was at L’Abri, I took to the Alpine peaks often.
I have spent a great deal of time in the High Cascades and Coastal Mountains, and I find, in most of my hikes and climbs, most I meet, are interested in the connection between mountains and spirituality. Books in lookout cabins often deal with Eastern spirituality and mountains. Perhaps the time has come when we need to turn to the fullness of the Western Tradition and discern how Christianity, mountaineering and spirituality need to be brought together again. This is a peak worth climbing. May we do it, and do it well.