Mountains, memory and the nature of experience
PERHAPS I DIDN’T KNOW how to enjoy hardship. Perhaps I wasn’t cut out for this sort of thing. Perhaps the authors of those adventure books I had read were misrepresenting the experience.
Why was it, I reasoned, that those writers of mountaineering adventure, those climbers of the world’s high places, made the experience seem so bearable, so enjoyable when, here in these modest mountains of Tasmania, I found the experience of cold, wet, sleety conditions and ploughing through deep snow so trying?
It took a few years of reading this sort of literature for me to realise that the critical factor in what turns the experience of the arduous into a sense of pleasure is time – the passage of time.
Time, fortunately, brings perspective and the opportunity to put a particular experience into some sort of framework. What is hell at the time becomes ‘the successful acceptance of challenge’ after awhile. The author feels a better person for having gone through the experience, now that he or she has had time to think about it and rationalise a little. This is the ‘if it doesn’t kill you it must be character building’ school of thought. There is no doubt that the writing up of an adventure also puts it into a perspective and, when the experience has been particularly grueling, writing can be therapeutic although therapy does not necessarily make for a good book.
Perspective explains why even hard trips into the mountains acquire an aura of enjoyment. The length of time that passes must be sufficient for the blisters to heal and for sore muscles to to quieten. Even when packs weigh heavily on shoulders, feet are numbed to a state of non-feeling by cold water, sleet stings the face or hot sun burns the skin, we later find pleasure in our discomfort although this was far from the emotion we felt at the time.
It can be years after the experience for this perspective is gained. Over that time, the mind forgets the actuality and blends memory of the journey into a continuum punctuated with emotional highs and lows. The journey becomes memorable. Although challenges remain recognised as such, their raw edge is now blunted and they are intellectualised rather than felt. Only the most dramatic continue to raise a chill along the spine.
Arduous journeys into the wilderness are the exception, and perhaps that is why they are so memorable. They are an extreme of the mountain walking experience. More common are the pleasant days when you cover long distances without becoming lathered in sweat, when you can take a break atop some pass without becoming chilled.
Mountains and memory
But why the Tasmanian mountains? Walk and ski the Main Range of the Snowies, reach a fearful velocity coming off Koscuisko on touring skis, ski or walk Bogong High Plains and trek out to Jugungal – these are good days in great country with blue skies, warm sun and convivial company. But they are different mountains, not the alpine landscapes of Tasmania with their sharp peaks and precipitous declines. They are rounded, gentle mountains. Ask Tasmanian bushwalkers about their experience of the mainland’s mountains and they will tell you that they are interesting, enjoyable even… but different.
The unstated suggestion is that they are somehow less of a challenge although this does not diminish their grandeur or the experience of ambience that is subtle… the serene beauty of mist among the tall trees of Blue Gum forest in the early morning light; the expansive view over cliff and valley from the dry, knife-edged climbing ridge of Mt Solitary on a hot summer’s day; the transit of forest and upland that takes you into the heartland of Moreton National Park. So different to Tasmania’s ragged ridges.
It is easy to write of hard journeys in bad weather or treks on which mishap occurs, for these are dramatic events that are hammered into your memory. But the dramatic and the trying are only peaks of experience and usually of short duration. What of the not-so-traumatic, not-so-dangerous moments that make up so much of what is good and enjoyable about the mountain experience? Those things that provide the emotional counterpoint to the difficult and dangerous? Are these recollections not sometimes missing from the books of mountaineering hard men and women?
Memory is made up of such moments as surely as it is of the dramatic and challenging. How do you convey the uneventful ambience of sitting around a campfire beside Pelion Creek, the late light of the day projecting yellow beams over the high peaks as a party of walkers, weary from the days journey, enjoys their simple meal? Or the tired chatter late into the night in Pine Valley hut… the relaxed, jocular conviviality of a group of friends around a campfire in a deep, forested valley on the side of the Wellington Range?
Mountains and emotion
Once, I was compelled to climb peaks. Nobody forced me, apart from myself. It was just this need to climb any high point within the range of distance and time. Eventually, I grew out of it but at the time it was indeed an affliction.
Remembering this got me thinking about what it is that moves walkers emotionally.
For some it is physical challenge as they strive to break a time and distance record or meet a physical goal of their own appointing. People like this have the mindset of sportspeople, of competitors, rather than mountain walkers out to enjoy the mountains on their own terms. The challenge is less with the landscape than it is with the walker’s own psychological makeup.
Once, an experienced walker suggested walking the north to south length of the Cradle Mountain – Lake St Clair National Park carrying minimal equipment so as to complete the journey in two days. Quite a challenge, I agreed, but there would be no side trips to climb peaks, no time to linger on passes, no waiting for the light to improve to get a photograph. It would be a journey devoted only to rapid movement, a walk governed by the clock.
There is inspiration and exhileration to be found in walking the mountains. The closeness and intimacy of a passage through the forests inspires some, but it is the summit of the peaks that are the key to emotional exuberance for others. Stand on a high point on Mt Wellington’s summit plateau from where, when the weather is clear you can just see, on the horizon, the distant finger of Federation Peak… and realise that it takes days of walking to ascend that mountain. There is the fantastic outlook over soggy plain and far peak from Cradle Mountain and Barn Bluff, the view over farmland and forest from Ben Lomond’s rocky plateau and the outlook of wild and wet wilderness from the angled chunk of quartz that is Frenchman’s Cap.
The enjoyment of sitting for a time on any of these peaks is subtle. Sure, the view in itself is inspiring, weather allowing, but there is something else, and that is an inward experience. It is… how do I describe it… like a transcendence that comes with just sitting and looking and not thinking too much… a taking in of the pattern of the land and the sky… seeing not just peaks, ridges and valleys but a total landscape… seeing it as a product of geological forces and deep time… and perceiving that although our presence in this vast landscape is fleeting it is also a part of the mountains… it is that we belong.
These considerations are less metaphysical than an actual part of the mountain experience for many who venture into wild places. Perhaps it is that they are too subtle for some mountain adventure writers to put down on paper; that to discuss them will lay the mountaineer open to charges of being soft and fluffy-headed.
Yet, the best of adventure books do consider the transcendental moment and the authors manage to use them to counterpoint the dramatic and threatening. Adventure, after all, is something that is experienced inwardly as much as outwardly.