Why Mountains

I lived the first 24 years of my life far removed from any mountains. I grew up in central New York, not far from the Adirondack Mountains, but far enough that we hardly ever went there. The immediate area around my childhood home is one of the flattest places I have ever seen.

The first time I saw “real” mountains was when I was 19 or 20. I remember driving across the Plains for what felt like forever. It seemed impossible that anything other than more flat grassland and corn fields was ever going to exist. I knew that if I just kept driving west, mountains would form on the horizon. Eventually, I started to see some low clouds in the distance. At least this was something to change up the monotony. As the clouds began to thicken I remember worrying that I may be driving into a late summer thunderstorm, or even worse, a tornado. As I got close enough I could make out that I was in fact seeing the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains, and not clouds. Tornado avoided, mountains discovered.

From this point forward, I have spent nearly my entire life in close proximity to mountains. When I am not near mountains, I feel anxious and uncomfortable. Flat land in every direction makes me feel, for lack of a better analogy, one dimensional. In Juneau, Alaska, where I have spent the majority of my time in the past seven years, there is an infamous lack of sun. Juneau is one of the rainiest and cloudiest places in North America. I used to think that the lack of sun in Juneau had a significant negative impact on my mood, but over the past few years, I’ve come to realize that it isn’t the lack of sun, but rather the lack of seeing the nearby mountains when the clouds are low, hovering around sea level. I really figured this out last summer when we had the cloudiest and wettest May through July that anyone there could remember.

Sometimes the clouds would move down low for four straight days, but then on the fifth day the clouds would move back up to 5,000-plus feet. Suddenly, the mountaintops were open and visible for the first time in days and my entire being would soften and spring to life. To my surprise, though, it seemed like so many other people in town were in a dreary mood, and were still waiting for the sun to come back. Almost like they didn’t even notice that the clouds had moved up 5,000 feet. Clouds are clouds whether they’re blocking the sun a few hundred feet above you or a few thousand feet above you, right? Yes, in some cases, but not if they are also blocking the mountains that surround you in every direction.

I’ve thought often about exactly why mountains bring me such comfort and make me feel so at home. Although much of this is still a mystery to me, I have been able to come to some small understanding of my affinity for mountains.

I think a large part of it has to do with the typical solitude and lack of large population that tends to go hand-in-hand with mountainous terrain. I have always been a small town kind of person, and in general the higher you go up into mountains, the smaller and smaller the towns get, and the more calm and laid back the culture tends to become. Certainly, there’s something more than this, though, as a small town in a flat place doesn’t appeal to me nearly as much as a large city in or near the mountains. I would much rather spend significant time in Salt Lake City than in Corning, New York (as a random example).

The other major reason why I think I like being in the mountains so much is a little more abstract, and a little harder to explain. But, in short, I think that when I move vertically (as compared to the vast majority of movement in life which is horizontal), I get a better view of my life and the world that surrounds me. Obviously, when you climb to the top of a mountain you have a great view of the land surrounding you, but I also feel like going into the mountains gives me a better understanding and a better view of life in general.

It’s hard to say exactly why I feel this way, but I think it does have to do with this idea of seeing things from different angles. Very few people regularly travel more than a mile in the vertical direction, whereas nearly everyone travels this far horizontally every day. I think there is a lot to learn and a lot to discover in horizontal travel, but for some reason (perhaps only because of the novelty), there seems to be so much more to discover and so much more to learn from traveling vertically. Life just feels different when you ascend 3,000 feet up a mountain. In that moment everything seems easier to understand, and everything looks just a little (sometimes a lot) more beautiful.

I’m sure I’ll spend plenty of time in my future away from mountains, but I can’t imagine ever feeling clear and comfortable in my life unless I maintain some relationship with them. I used to think that I would probably only be a runner when I was relatively young and could do it at a highly competitive level, but now that I think of my running primarily as a way to explore mountainous terrain, I suspect I will be a “runner” (as long as we can define running as going into the mountains on foot, even if the terrain forces you to be walking much of the time) for as long as my body allows, because in almost all cases running is my favorite way to interact with the mountains.

Call for Comments
I’d love to hear other mountain lovers’ thoughts. What is it that draws you to mountains? Do you agree that you see life a little differently, a little more clearly, when traveling vertically, as compared to horizontally? Do you ever feel a little “off” when you aren’t in or near mountains? Meanwhile, I’m off to go for a little run up into the mountains, excited to see what I’ll discover today.

There are 41 comments

  1. Patrick Krott

    I know nothing of these mountains of which you speak. I've never been west of Cincinnati, Ohio. That being said, my first exposure to mountainous terrain will be this June 29th at Western States. Living here in Erie, PA doesn't provide for the elevation that I need to properly train for such an event, but I try to make due the best I can. It's going to be an interesting and awesome experience, that much I know.

  2. John Bryant

    Growing up in the shadow of the Tetons I know exactly what you mean! I just don't feel whole when mountains aren't in my view, I truly feel as if something is just not quite right. As for traveling vertically, it gives me a perspective that I would never have had I not gone up. It's like seeing my life and the physical world as a complete picture and not just a piece of a puzzle and not knowing how that piece fits. Great article Geoff, keep on running upwards!

  3. Brandon

    I feel the same way about you feel when it comes to mountains. Although I do not live in them, fortunately I live close enough to them to visit them on a weekly basis. Although, I don't take to kindly to your line "real" mountains. I live at the foot of the Blue Ridge in NC and I would definitely qualify these mountains as "real" and I've been to other big mountain ranges (Sawatch, San Juans, Sierra Nevadas, etc) in my time and still find the southern Appalachias some of the most beautiful and tough terrain out there.

  4. Charlie M.

    Very interesting, particularly since you weren't raised atop a mountain. Much has been written about Kilian Jornet's upbringing in the mountains, and he seems to feel much the same as you. Maybe in a past life you were born at elevation :)

  5. Jim

    Not from mountainous terrain either, the 3 best times I have had in life were in juneau on the trails there and grand teton mtns. Twice in juneau I was there once all sun and the other overcast and drizzly. Both unbelievable times! Many would have been down due to the weather but those mountains and ridge lines…there was a new energy I never had. Thanks Geoff!

  6. Max

    Excellent perspective Geoff. I find I am drawn to mountains for how natural and unpredictable they are. There is something comforting in the challenging, remote environment that does not exist on flat land. It is a different feeling when traveling vertically too. Just yesterday, on a steady state treadmill hill run, I couldn't help but visualize the first time I saw Pikes Peak. Something clicks, the struggles to go up disappear – more of a state than a feeling really.

  7. Sara

    Geoff, (agreeing with Brandon above) if you're saying the Adirondacks aren't real mountains, I totally disagree! The High Peaks and surrounding areas are absolutely stunning, and the trails are ridiculously technical and steep for running.

    1. Matt Smith

      If you think that 'daks are maligned as mere hills, think about us folks from the Catskills! Our little hills get no respect – that is until someone tries to 'run' the Devils Path, Burroughs Range or the Escarpment!

  8. olga

    Bingo, this one hit home. If I don't see mountains (and right now life had pressed me to make a choice to not be able to live near mountains, as opposed to my previous 20 years) once a month, I get physically ill. And depressed. I don't really care for explanation, I just know this is the way it is. My life revolves around "when is the next time I go to the mountains" and "in how many years/months/days are we moving there for good".

  9. Fadi

    I have never thought I'd miss mountains until I moved (immigrated) into the midwest. Living the first 25 years of my life in Beirut a busy capital with mountains 20 minutes away. I could literally see white peaks from my parents house.

    What pains me the most is that in the first 25 years I was not a runner. But at least we could go to the mountains to sleep over in the summers, and go skiing in the winter. I love the beach (and that's where I spent most of my time) but nothing, NOTHING, compares to the scent of a forest in the early morning.

    It's just amazing how little you think of something, until you lose it.. Maybe I should start planning trips out west!

  10. Jim P.

    For me, one of the draws of the mountains is that it is in the high country where one is assaulted by the wonder of wild, open public lands. Immensity is a multiplier of beauty. Those wide-open spaces activate a hidden nodule deep in the brain, one that lifts the spirit, calms the mind and allows ones muscles to work harder and longer than we thought possible.

  11. Jamie

    For me it's not necessarily mountains, but big geographic features.

    I grew up on the shores of Lake Superior, and everywhere you go in the down is either "towards the lake," "away from the lake," or "up the shore." Now I live in Boulder, and it's "towards the mountains," etc . . . I think that defining reference point anchors me wherever I am. Whenever I don't have that, I feel a little lost, physically and mentally.

    1. Michele A.

      I have to agree with you Jamie. Growing up and still living in Wisconsin it was (is) all about water. I have realize that I have never lived more then 5 minutes from a body of water. I run trails that go around lakes, near rivers and through marshes. I love the mountains and wish I could spend more time exploring them, but I guess for me it renewing to see each spring all the new life that goes to and from the water. I hope we all have areas nearby us that we can gain a sense of renewal,awe and peace from.

  12. tite

    last year totalizing 90,000m elevation gain, I feel I have to close to my half family origins: the Dolomites. The older i get, the greater the need. To keep perpective and simplicity. Namasté

  13. Will T.

    My opinion has been slightly different then Geoff's on some of his latest articles, but he hit the nail on the head with this article. I completely relate to everything he says. Thanks Geoff!

  14. Davide

    Very interesting.

    Where I do live (Genova, Italy), we have both, sea and decent mountains right behind.

    I've always hiked with family in the mountains, but my first love was the sea: rough water swimming, sailing, surfing, everything related to the sea had an incredible appeal to me. I tried to live away from it, and moved by juvenile curiosity enjoyed traveling the world and living in incredible places, but after a while I always became moody and nervous because I was missing something. And I always ended up nestling somewhere close to the coast.

    4/5 years ago I started running more seriously. It became an addiction, as many of us know too well. I started exploring again the mountains behind the city, and the sheer joy of rediscovering old trails and running at 3000 feet above the city was (and still is) extremely intoxicating.

    During recent working trips, I've been to some of the flattest places in Europe (Netherlands and northern Germany): I felt lost, without anything on the horizon I had no grip of the outer world… And I understood how much mountains mean to me now.

    I probably never appreciated where I live as much as I do now: I'm lucky enough to run to 3000 feet on rocky mountain trails and end the run with a swim in the sea.

    They are both natural elements that somehow radiate a "force", a magnetism that draws me to their core and make me feel really alive!

  15. stack

    its almost purely spiritual for me and I do find that when I need to feel 'right' again I head to the mountains (~2hrs away) and I feel whole again.

    it may not make sense that you can feel recharged and refreshed after spending time in the mountains (even if its running constantly and beating up your body) but thats just the way it is.

    on the spiritual side… I truly feel closer to God when I'm in the mountains and out in the woods. I often pray (sometimes out loud) on these runs/treks and love to be surrounded by His creation during those times!

  16. Jesse

    I feel most at home in the mountains, and not just because of the challenges posed by ascent and descent, or the rewards of endless vistas. Also because mountains are a view into the past, if you know enough of geology, you know you are looking back into time. Seeing the world in a way that you could never see it in the flat lands. Like an astronomer looking back at a world long past: so is the mountain runner.

  17. Anonymous

    Last weekend I made what feels like an interesting decision: Run the 50K I was registered for with its aid stations every 3 miles, or head to the local mountains with a friend and run an unsupported 40M…care to guess what I decided?

    In literature I believe they call this foreshadowing?

    As in: The day comes when maybe we just want to be left alone to do what we like to do!

    JV in SD

  18. Shelby

    "One sees great things from the valley, only small things from the peak." I think of that Chesterton quote a lot when I'm running up and down mountains. Funny thing though, I was raised in Anchorage with mountains in view on three sides, but feel strongly drawn to the ocean after living in New England for 10 years. I think very clearly when I'm on their rocky shores and feel completely at peace.

    Now that I live in Colorado, I've seen how the mountains challenge me to dig deep and search for my potential on so many levels. I suppose having both ocean and mountains would be ideal, but this must be what I need right now and I'm fine with that. One day though, I'll return to the ocean and find my inner beach bum…

      1. Hone

        I'm a hand model, mama. A finger jockey. We think differently than the face and body boys… we're a different breed…

        Anyways, I was raised surrounded by mountains and have never taken it for granted. I have been lucky in some of the places I have lived. Nothing is better than fly fishing on a river staring at the peaks up above me. That is heaven.

  19. ScottD

    This is great stuff, Geoff.

    I live in the mountains in California, landlocked in a county park. What seems to bring me peace is that the mountains are alive at such a grand scale. The plants and animals are layered in ecosystems as you go up, and as you go past rivers, ponds, redwoods. Then you get to the top and realize that mountain has been there for a million years, withstanding everything, thriving throughout eternity. I feel the flow, and become one with the mountain's energy.

    Not sure if I could go a week without it. ;-)

  20. Jason H

    I second what Davide from Italy says above. It's not just mountains that can have this affect. I grew up living on a sailboat. There is something magical about the ocean. The similarities abound: Calming, alarming, beautiful. In both places you may pay with your life for making the mistake of not respecting their power and your own human frailty. Some of the greatest memories of my life are quiet trips sailing around the islands on the Maine coast. Breathtaking. Later I moved to the Pacific Northwest. There I had beautiful ocean, amazing islands, AND snow covered peaks! I love Boulder, but I'll always choose mountains near water to live. Now, in Hawaii, I get WARM water, and mountains that will humble any runner. Mountains that demand respect but reward with amazing views of the terrain and life!

  21. Brian

    I think there are a lot of cultural/ historical influences that go into how we feel about mountains. People in large numbers have only really found mountains to be beautiful and inspiring in the last couple of hundred years. Before that, they were barren wastelands where sometimes you might talk to god or something, but more likely you would die.

    Now, we like nature. It is safe (for the most part) and we go there for leisure/ spiritual purposes. In lots of cases, mountains have come to stand in for nature. The big, pleasant chunks of nature that we preserved are often mountainous. I recently moved back to the foothills of the Arkansas Ozarks (which many would consider foothills themselves) to be closer to mountains/ nature. I think what I missed in the flatlands was not so much mountains as accessiblity to nature. This accessibility in which you can immerse yourself is, more often than not, in mountains, but I think the same would hold true for similarly sized and placed flat stuff and rivers and coasts.

  22. Paul Elliott

    I'm not sure if the English peak district counts as mountains, as it only goes up to about 2000 feet, but I need to spend time in wild places as often as possible. It was a major influence in our choice of new house, we're 5 minutes run from the nationalpark boundary, and 30 minutes run from the top of Stanage edge.

    My wife luckily understands me, to the point of sending me out to the hills if I'm getting stir crazy or down.

  23. Moogy

    Agreed. When I was training for WS and living in TX, with no hills close by, I would do parking lot ramp repeats…actually a good workout.

    Good luck!

  24. CJ

    Geoff, great post and something I can totally relate to. Having grown up in Oregon, it was difficult (torturous?) to live in NW Ohio for nearly 15 years where my wife's side of the family is from. Since moving to Colorado a little over a year ago, I've had an extra hop in my step that my wife has noticed significantly. But I need plenty of sunshine as well which is another reason we moved to Colorado Springs

  25. Andy

    In keeping with Stack's comments above about finding God and spiritual awakening in the mountains, the reality is that the magic and majesty of mountains is imbedded deep in human culture. Where did biblical revelations and near sacrifices occur? Where did the Greek pantheon of Gods live? Where does the yogi sit, at one with the universe? They're all on the mountain.

    It's chicken or egg, but I'd bet that the allure of the mountains is behind these allegories rather than the reverse (no offense intended to any biblical literalists out there). Particularly before the era of air travel, where else could one get a bird's (or God's) eye view of the world? The mountain is at once foreboding and inviting — just like the divine presence itself.

    Well, enough religion. I totally agree with Geoff. I'm off for a rainy late day run on the local mountain. It's only 1k feet above sea level, but the views are still pretty nice. I guess bigger epiphanies will have to wait for my next trip west.

  26. Brent

    Slightly similar for me. When I go to a mountain, even just the local hills for a bushwalk or taking my kids tobogganing, I'm always struck by this very deep "why don't I do this ALL the time?" feeling.

    I remember the last time I went proper rock climbing, about three years ago, I was sitting on top of the cliff, looking down at the valley and the climbers bumbling home in the sunset light, kangaroos hopping past, and birds swooping the cliffs for insects, I sat there for afull half hour trying to work out what my job, my car, my stuff, my house, what was all that stuff for? I didn't understand why I had no plans to go back.

    I will. But I haven't yet.

    And I don't know why.

  27. caper

    I grew up in the east coast of Canada on the Atlantic, squeezed between the NE Applacians and Atlantic. I understand your point, but personally feel missing the Ocean hurts me more as I now live in central Canada. The ocean is a calming view, and let's me realize all my whining is for naught as I'm a very small part of this world, and what an amazing world it is. Every year I make a point of being somewhere near an ocean…just sitting staring at it for 20min seems to make me happy and whole again. Unfortunately its now so great for running.

  28. T.S.

    Thanks for this piece, Geoff. I've been transitioning in the past couple years from being a trail runner who also happens to love the mountains to someone who applies the running skill-set to hills small and large (whether you call that "mountain running" or something else). When I first read your blog, your mountain ethos of getting up high, moving quickly, and exploring unknown places resonated with me and what I was starting to do. This year I relocated to Vermont and have been exploring the Green Mountain ridge, along which runs the Long Trail, and I've found a lot of truth in your love of ridge-lines.

    As to why living near, and traveling on foot in, the mountains is uniquely fulfilling…that's a complex question. Part of what I see is that a duality of familiarity and wildness that informs every venture I make. Over the course of my lifetime I've begun to know some mountains intimately, to the point where I feel like I can go up them without worrying about safety from unpredictable weather patterns and such. This breeds a closeness with the landscape which is comforting and nurturing. On the other end of the spectrum is the wildness evident upon reaching a windswept, bouldery summit. As Henry Thoreau put it the first time he climbed Mt. Katahdin in Maine, it is a place "not bound to be kind to man." This latter sense – of feeling unwelcome – is nevertheless life-affirming, for it shows us that there are mystical forces out there unknown in the flat-lands. The best routes (figurative and literal) are those that lead us from the familiar summits to the unfamiliar ones.

    As for me, I don't think I need genuine "mountains" to feel satisfied by a place…but I do need hills. There is something about subtle rugosities of terrain that makes me psyched to put on my running shoes and go exploring 365 days a year.


  29. Brian K

    Here in Eastern and Central Pa we don't have "mountains" in the text book sense of the word, and what we do have can be sadistically steep. We have 24k races with over 4,000ft of climb, and 50k’s with 7,000+

    Hyner 25k/50k: http://hikerun.com/
    Green Monster 25k/50k: https://sites.google.com/site/greenmonstertrailchallengepa/
    Rothrock 30k: Rothrockchallenge.com/

    Megatransect: https://ultrahike.com/

    They are not the Rockies, but our lush tree covered Appalachians are beautiful and loaded with nasty, technical trail races that our Western brothers and sisters should not overlook.

  30. CT

    Solid piece. I live at the base of the Wasatch these days but I grew up in the foothills of Mt Monadnock in Southern New Hampshire. My love for the mountains began with one relatively "small" mountain in a relatively "flat" region of the US. Doesn't matter where you live, when you move fast through challenging terrain and your reward is standing on an outcropping looking at a 2K+ foot drop. That's sweet.

  31. GILL

    Hi Geoff,

    As you know, I don't read/comment on blogs very often, but this post really hit home with Francesca and I. Thanks for using your words to articulate our feelings about the mountains! See ya soon…

  32. Alex

    Hello there,

    Brilliant post. I grew up about 20 miles from NYC, so no, not exactly in a mountainous region at all. But after living for 10 years in Massachusetts, at the foothills of the Berkshires and in Brooklyn, where, believe it or not, I could get to mountains via public transit in about 1.5 hours, I fell in love with rock climbing and hiking (and camping). Once the latter took told, the exercise and emotional-satisfaction I could easily garner from a mere 2-day trip became clear. I fell in with with hiking and camping, and before long, had walked further than I'd have ever imagined. After leaving NYC for economic reasons, I traveled throughout the country: Badlands, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Canyonlands, the Rockies, etc. You name it, I tried to go during my 6-week trip. Ultimately, my partner and I landed in Dayton, OH; I am endeavoring to transition to the medical field, he had a long distance audio editing job, and life was CHEAP. The main goal was/is saving to emigrate.

    But now, especially as the spring rushes into summer, and I spend most weekends at Metro Parks, longing for those leg-torturing climbs that eventually become nearly painless; when you can measure your physical progress so obviously, yes, but also clear your hand and nearly allow your body and mind a bit of separation. Recently, it has brought me to a point of near depression: something those very mountains helped me fight into the recesses of my mind.

    Everything even halfway decent is nearly four hours away…that is quite a drive for a weekend, in total, it seems, especially with gas prices. And what is really worth it? I just don't know anymore, and have done plenty of research. Maybe one day a three-day weekend will show me. :) Hard when you don't have paid time off.

    If other midwesterners are feeling this, suggestions would be welcome! I need this stuff; yearn for it. Even if I'm not climbing Mount Washington or something, I don't want "rolling hills" only, you know? :)

    Again, thanks for this! Perfectly illustrated points.



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