I was born just thirty years ago,
but I’ve wandered a million miles already.
Along the River through the green grass on the banks,
out to the borderlands where the red dust roils,
Chewed herbs, cooked up alchemical elixirs,
trying to become an Immortal.
Read all the Writings, chanted the Histories aloud,
trying to learn them all by heart…
Today I’m on my way
home to Cold Mountain.
There, I’ll bed down in the creek, just to wash out my ears.
-Han Shan, from Cold Mountain Poems
In the Mountains
In the mountains, sometimes there’s a sudden dampness when my feet stick in the mud I didn’t know was there. A sudden little field of small fronds sticking their heads up over the wet earth. Soon enough I’ll hear a trickle, insects buzzing and the fluttering shimmer of butterflies over it, especially at noontide.
If there’s a descending stream nearby, then I can tell of its imminent arrival by the appearance of a shadowy deep gully or a gulch. I can tell that there’s one just around the corner by the way the trees clinging to rock faces seem to bend inwards, trying to hide.
Much before I see the stream, I see the flycatchers, flashes of colour out for a meal over the running water. They hop, they leap, they’re beautiful little precise killers. But while they’re full of life, I’m languorous. There’s nothing I would like better than to sit on a large boulder beside the stream, and be hypnotized by the sight of flowing water over rocks.
Mindfulness. Mountains demand mindfulness. Look up. I hear a high, shrill screetch. A dot circling in the clear sky above. I step into a wet puddle. Shit. Look up again. What is it? An eagle or a griffon, or is it a lammergeier? I envy its perspective.
But the view from the high ground is grand too, just in a different way. From up high, I’d never be able to tell that at the root of all mountains lies dust, fine powder that sometimes glints as the sun catches infinitesimal minerals. The ever-present future of all pinnacles, right there, nestled in a lazy pile between boulders, or blowing in the keen, biting wind. I can feel this promise of mortality between my teeth, fine grit I can chew on. What does the lammergeier see?
When I’m not in the mountains, which is often, I dream of long, hard descents from some high pass. At the high breach in the massive wall, the world seems pristine—a promise that’s been fulfilled. Look at those peaks, just look at them! Have you ever seen anything finer?
Passes are empty spaces, filled with thoughts that flow like a stream that’s burst its dams. My ragged breaths make me high. Maybe a tiny mouse hare will give me company. Mostly, it will just wait for me to leave. A pass. That notch in a sky full of notches; that gentle dipping depression in a sea of white ice and snow, forever receding; that succession of incredible, titanic, human-hewed staircases of rock that are re-built every year, so the goats and sheep can pass, accompanied by their herders. What ingenuity, to fashion a path through a field of piled boulders as big as houses. When high civilizations crash, this knowledge, this ability remains. Other things might come and go, but we’ll always need to cross mountains.
But then my eyes lead me back to the immediate thrills—the peaks I’ve been dying to meet all these days, whose photos I’ve looked at again and again—the view I’d been dreaming about for months and years. The magnitude of the peaks always defeats my imagination. They exist to undermine all the exalted images in my head. I often dream of famous mountains viewed from a pass. They rise towards me in a slow-moving wave, one that will crash down on me in a million years. After living with their photographs for years, the mountains in all their resplendent granite leaves me dumbstruck. They’re often too near, making me jump out of my skin, or much farther away than I’d imagined—a goose bump horizon of serrated teeth, the jaws of the world.
But a pass must always pass. I can’t live on the threshold. Sooner or later I will have to move on. I will need to descend, over snow, ice and rocks, over cliffs made slippery by rain or rotting ice, piercing through the cloud canopy, down to the promise of green grass and flowing water.
And so, I descend, on a sloping ridge, where the only gait possible is at a gentle run. I’m sliding on the edge of the void, down a giant rocky rib poised in the air. The clouds stand still below, the wind picks up and screams in my ear. Move, or you’ll fly, scream the spirits of the empty sky. I move.
And yet, the urge to stop and stare again around me is always strong, even at this uninhabitable altitude. Too soon, my soul protests, too soon will this view be lost. Why don’t I just sit in the lee of that boulder and let the mountains soak through? I do stop, for a few minutes, maybe half an hour, perhaps for the time it takes to smoke a biri, drink some water, munch on some sweet biscuits, get a sugar rush, and move on down.
How to climb down a mountain.
Step. Hop. Stop.
Move one leg down a tall slab.
Swing your butt about, pivoting.
Lunge down to a rock.
Descend five feet.
Rinse and repeat.
For a few hours.
I enter the sea of clouds. It’s like entering a vast hall, with no bottom. Everywhere there’s thick mist. The world is a cloud, and dark, shadowy, echoing giant rock slabs. They careen over me, loom over me. The world is vertical. I descend like demons are on my back. I’m terrified, but also exalted. My blood beats in my ears, a dull thud inside my brain. A thick flap of wool traps all sound within my head.
The biting wind is like the insane flute of Azathoth, the demon sultan. My feet thumping on rocks—a bass rhythm that keeps time, varying its beat constantly. Sometime there’s the wild, high, piercing scream of a bird of prey, out there in the world-cloud, looking for a thermal to rise on.
Hands move assuredly—palm on a bit of soil, a sharp flint shard of shale, a cold rock millions of years old, semi-frozen moss, slippery to the touch. Arms like pistons, the two of them doing what a tail does for the snow leopard—find meaning in an ever-shifting world. The body creates its own little bubble of gravity to depend on as the world is constantly giving contradicting signals.
My eyes show me a dark vein of rockfall gully to my left, descending some 100 visible feet into the cloud. The guide has started traversing and has disappeared. He knows that he needs just show the way. After all these days together, he’s sure that I will follow, at my own pace, according to my own level of expertise.
I move as fast as I can. It isn’t just about making time, or the haste to get out of a dangerous zone. The speed is just a function of the way our bodies use the inexorable pull of the void. The animal brain takes over. My eyes look for a zigzagging route through the vertical scree, convincingly fooling the brain into believing that there’s a path, and lo, there is a path. There is always a path. Rocks and boulders might confuse. A devious goat trail might bring me to the edge of a precipice, or an impassable wall. But it’s just a small mistake because a path does indeed exist—I’ve just left it two rock moves ago, missing the small cairn made of one solitary pebble that marked it, not noticing the true trail, faint but still there. There’s nothing else to do but to grin, climb up and then down again, the euphoria of a jigsaw solved.
Falling off a Mountain
Many hours have passed, I suddenly realise with a start. It’s like waking from a meditative trance, knowing that I’ve been doing exactly what the yogic methods prescribe: centre your concentration, focus on your breath, let your mind go blank of conscious thought. The only difference? I’m flying down the cold mountain like Han Shan all the while. Han Shan is Cold Mountain. Cold Mountain is Han Shan.
There’s a Zen saying that I hold very close to my heart. It’s impossible to fall off a mountain. Of course, people still do. I think I came across the aphorism in The Dharma Bums. It’s possible that Jack Kerouac might have just made it up. No matter. What you believe in grounds you. In this perpendicular world, more than at anywhere else, the mind and body need to be grounded. That’s the key.
Sometimes it’s necessary to just stop and go still. Catch up with the racing mind, close my eyes, sway gently, and let the pounding of blood accelerate, chasing the lost momentum of my body. Then it slows, massively, until its barely there. A sudden rush of intense emotions overwhelms me. I look around, what a miracle this world is, it always exceeds my wildest dreams. I think back on just a few hours ago…to when I was standing on the pass. It was another life, another universe. Those huge white peaks, deities all, are still out there somewhere, beyond this cloud that contains me. The vastness of airy distances between my mountain and the rest of phenomena—peaks, valleys, suns, galaxies—break down all my defences. I’ve always cried on descents, out of the sheer wonder of it all; out of gratitude for my brief admittance.
Then I start to feel cold, through my layers. It’s time to begin the dance, again.
Down to the Valley
As I climb lower and the impossible angle of the scree slope levels off somewhat, my descent becomes a loping run. The rock trail is more visible now, the shepherds have tended it well. I can see it snaking down the mountain, in wondrous array of sloping angles. Sometimes I run around the turns, though there might be a thousand foot fall just six inches beyond my widest turning point. It’s impossible to fall off a mountain, I tell myself. And on my merry way I go. Ho, Tom Bombadil, Tom Bombadillo!
Sometimes I can’t run, because then I’d definitely slip, or twist my knee. I break my run suddenly, come to a standstill. Then I gingerly twist and reach down to the next rock ledge, a few feet below. Then I traverse sideways, a gigantic crab. I’m too exposed to the windy void. I turn my back to it, hug the mountain and gingerly step down. I’m conscious that for perhaps a few seconds I have just three points of contact between the earth and the sky, but I can’t think about it. I concentrate on finishing the move. My face is so close to the rock that I can see the grains of quartz. I’ve never concentrated this hard. It’s a giddy feeling. I complete the move and laugh out loud at the audacity of the human body. It’s the best feeling in the world, climbing mountains.
The trees begin now, just the bare stumps of cold rotting tall pines. They stand as the defeated outliers of the treeline, beaten back by the natural history of altitude. There’s not so much rock under me than turf. At some point I’ve left behind the perpendicular slabs of rock and brittle scree and now I’m trotting along on a boulder-strewn meadow. It’s still treacherous going though, because the ground is now disguised by grass and soil. Little blue flowers distract with their sudden beauty. A hidden gap between two boulders might well twist my ankle, hurl me face-first into ruin. My brain adapts yet again, racing ahead with the calculations, trying to maintain the balance between speed and caution. Right then, I’m the greatest mathematician in the world.
The pleasures of the boulder-hop. The pirouetting leaps from one ball of granite to another. Between them lies grass, soil, flowers, beetles and flowing tendrils of water. The valley floor is here at last.
I emerge from the cloud that has been my world for the past six thousand feet of descent. Boom! The universe expands rapidly. I can suddenly see for miles and miles. A green world of undulating meadows punctured through with dark thick groves of pines and rhododendrons. The trees soon become denser, the vanguard of high Himalayan forests. Behind me, lies the giant perpendicular rock cirque that I’ve just come down from, disappearing into the waiting cloud above.
The chitter of birds begin. The buzz of insects. The dull echoing void is replaced by the song of the bees. I leap over runnels of water that will coalesce into a small lake before debouching down the valley in the form of a mountain river. Behind me, my sky-path is lost in a kilometre-wide jumble of boulders. My body is weary. The knees hurt, the back aches, the head thuds. All that constant impact on my poor insignificant body, just a speck in this ocean. I look forward to the lake ahead, beside which will be our camp, and fire and heat and food.
In the Mountains
In the mountains, sometimes there’s a sudden dampness when my feet stick in the mud I didn’t know was there. A sudden little field of small fronds sticking their heads up over damp earth. Soon enough I hear the muted splash of tiny waves as I reach the lake, flies fussing over dung and the fluttering shimmer of butterflies over anemones, out for a last sally as evening rolls in.
The runnels are wide now. I can’t leap over them. Instead I skirt, certain that I will find a useful rock to use as a bridge. I let my weary feet take me where they will. Cows and ponies from the shepherds’ encampment mill about in the sloshing meadow, with gambolling, friendly bear-dogs for company.
Smoke rises from cookfires. I can’t walk anymore. I want to sit down right where I am and go to sleep. But after my solitary descent, I think of the company of the camp…the tales of miraculous snakes, of napping bears in spring. There will be tea! There’s rain coming on. The spectral cloud above is ready to give up its secrets in a torrent. Soon I’m home.