My toes are frozen as I walk through the fresh snow along the ridge. It is, in my opinion, the most spectacularly quiet time to be in the alpine. I believe part of understanding a place is living each season through and I think that’s also why we return to certain places so often or end up calling them home. In his book, “Crossing Open Ground,” Barry Lopez writes:
“I think of two landscapes — one outside the self, the other within. The external landscape is the one we see — not only line and color of the land and its shading at different times of the day, but also its plants and animals in season, its weather, its geology, the record of its climate and evolution. One learns a landscape finally not by knowing the name or identity of everything in it, but by perceiving the relationships in it…. Similarly, the speculations, intuitions, and formal ideas we refer to as ‘mind’ are a set of relationships in the interior landscape with purpose and order; some of these are obvious, many impenetrably subtle. The shape and character of these relationships in a person’s thinking, I believe, are deeply influenced by where on this earth one goes, what one touches, the patterns one observes in nature — the intricate history of one’s life in the land, even a life in the city, where wind, the chirp of birds, the line of a falling leaf, are known. These thoughts are arranged, further, according to the thread of one’s moral, intellectual, and spiritual development. The interior landscape responds to the character and subtlety of an exterior landscape; the shape of the individual mind is as affected by land as it is by genes.”
As I crested the pass and shuffled down the trail, I wondered why it had taken me so long to run this loop. No one was out here, save another runner that I kept catching up to when he’d get water. Finally, he peeled down a different trail and I was relieved to absorb the quietude alone.
The trail contoured around to my right at treeline, and as I gained yet another pass, I realized suddenly where I was with the surrounding mountains orienting me. I could see a mountain to the north I had climbed just a couple of days before, and a dirt road I bike every summer just to the south, but the stretch I was running in between was new. A flat basin of tundra stretched before me. A nice place to camp, I thought.
That was my last long run for while, and I finally realized that it’s shoulder season and my body, which has been dealing with several different injuries all summer, needs a break from running. In an effort to satiate the need to move my body several hours a day, I’ve been hiking steep trails and avoiding runnable terrain or simply walking back downhill.
My knees are very grateful for this because for whatever reason, hiking is fine but running hurts quite a bit. I don’t have any running-based objectives so I shouldn’t keep pushing through these injuries, or so I tell myself … and we’ll see how long I last. I’m also giving a big effort in trying to learn some more technical skills to keep myself growing as an athlete. I like to do things solo, obviously, it is the most intimate way for me to connect to a landscape. However, I recognize that some skills I need help with.
I’m picking up ropes and learning to use them. I’ve even climbed a couple of peaks I’ve eyed for a few years, bringing a small rope with which to rappel the cruxes. I even asked a friend to join on one peak, whose small summit pitch had scared me a couple of years ago. I knew he had a similar risk tolerance to me, and I knew as an extra set of eyes coupled with a rope, he could provide some confidence and backup. And we made it! Better yet, the summit pitch felt much easier this time, which had shown me that my skill level had at least increased since I tried it the first time.
Progression takes many forms in the mountains, but sometimes it takes stepping back in order to move forward. Even this summer, I took a step back from climbing a big mountain alone, heeding the call from some friends to not do it solo, and knew I needed to develop more skills and competency before lunging forward again. It’s fun, it’s exciting, and I already have myriad adventures in mind to use these skills. And I will always continue to do things solo, but it’s nice knowing I have an incredibly mindful and skilled group of friends from which I can learn.
In “My Life in Climbing,” the late alpinist and ultrarunner Ueli Steck wrote, “Days I spend alone in the mountains on my own are the most beautiful and most impressive days for me. There is nothing else, just the mountain and me, and that’s what I love. There is nobody to whom I have to justify anything. I can make my own decisions and do what I want. These are my most precious times. I feel at my best when I can just walk, climb, or run. I get into a beautiful rhythm and nothing can interrupt it.”
Call for Comments
- Do you use this time of year to take a break from running?
- If so, have you been picking up any other fun activities to take its place?