The Ritual of the Mountain

Sitting through my semi-annual Catholic mass the other Easter Sunday, I thought about ritual. In some ways, it seems a silly thing to do–the same thing, over and over. But we all do it. We all have rituals: religious or not, spiritual or not, whether it’s watching The Princess Bride for the umpteen thousandth time and struggling not to say every line along with the actors or lurching out of bed and blearily assembling the material components for a cup of tea. A ritual is a benchmark, a means for acknowledging and measuring change by observing something that doesn’t change. A ritual is also something you gain some emotional benefit from–otherwise you wouldn’t keep doing it.

I have climbed a lot of mountains. Not as many as some, not enough. But I’ve climbed my share. And there is absolutely a ritual to it, though I’m only really becoming conscious of it now. It goes like this.

Get up early, full of mixed dread and anticipation. Assemble what you think you’ll need to carry with you, then cull it down. The more you carry, the slower you’ll go, the harder it will be. Bring what’s essential, leave everything else. On the way to the trail, be aware of the ease of your conveyance. Shortly, by choice, you won’t be able to rely on it. At the beginning, move too quickly, tire yourself out prematurely. Rest. Tire yourself out again. Repeat until you settle into a rhythm. Time your breaths, count your heartbeats. Sing songs in your head–only the ones with repetitive riffs, those to which you remember almost all the words, and preferably those with relevant lyrics. Knocking on Heaven’s Door has always been a favorite of mine. Remember to look up from the trail from time to time–but not for too long. The higher you climb, the more careful of your footing you must be. Rationalize the exertion required. Are you a third of the way? Halfway? Three quarters of the way? At the peak, drop everything you brought with you and stare empty-minded into space for as long as it takes for your pulse to subside. Close your eyes and point yourself at the sun. Eat any food you carried with you. It will stick in your throat, but taste different from all other food you’ve eaten since the last time you stood on a peak. Drink water. Relive the ascent in your head in preparation for the return. Resist the urge to fall asleep. Think how far away the world is, how here you are, without all of it, still alive. All that stuff you left behind–you didn’t need it, even though you’re already missing it, already anticipating the moment when it will be returned to you. As you begin to descend, favor your ankles and knees. They’ll turn rubbery soon, you’ll risk falling. You’ll fall. By the time you get down, you’ll be sticky, dirty, so tired you’ll be barely in control of your extremities. The view from the summit will flash before your eyes when you blink. Stumble back to your conveyance. If you’re not driving, it’s okay to sleep. Stop somewhere along the way to eat a ridiculous meal, more copious and more rich than anything you’re used to. Consider it the first step in piling back on all that stuff you left behind. When you get home, shower. The dust and sweat and bits of stick and pine needle and sap and dead bugs that slough off down the drain–that’s your old self. Step out from under the stream. You’re renewed.

This is the tallest mountain I’ve ever climbed: Volcán Santa María, Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, 12,375 feet. Santa Maria has been dormant since 1902. The smoldering protrusion on its left flank is Santiaguito, 8,500 feet, which began forming in 1922 and has erupted every few years or so since. The rocky cut in the foreground is the path of the pyroclastic mudflow from an eruption in 2008.

Variations on the ritual:

I got up at 4:15 AM. Venus and Orion were in the sky as we started hiking. I could barely see my feet. Our guide was Edgar, a 21-year-old, four-foot-tall Mayan cabbage farmer who does this once a week. There were hummingbirds everywhere, hundreds of them, sucking nectar from trumpetlike clusters of red flowers, shooting up into the heavens above the slopes and then diving madly, according to Edgar, for the pure joy of it. The locals, of the Mayan and Christian religions alike, consider this mountain sacred. We didn’t see practically anyone on the way up–it was too early–but at the peak, panting for breath and incoherent with altitude giddiness, we found altars of calla lilies and an old, old man with his wife and daughter singing laments, burning incense, importuning the saints. On the way down, there were scores of them, carrying offerings of flowers, food, huge jugs of orange soda. The boys stopped to congratulate us and shake hands. The adults looked suspicious. All of them indiscriminately tossed away their trash on the slopes of the mountain–water bottles, plastic packages of toasted corn nuts, chips, gummy candies, tissues. This saddened Edgar to no end–that people who purportedly love this mountain so much, even to the point of considering it holy, don’t have enough respect for it not to cover it with trash. For years he’s been trying to convince them to stop, organizing teams of foreigners to pick up trash thrown by his own people. But he’s young and idealistic, and his elders don’t seem much inclined to listen. So my sisters and I collected trash, filling up about a dozen plastic grocery bags in the course of our descent. We tried to help brainstorm solutions, but it’s a hard thing–there’s no way to get the word out. They speak lots of different dialects. Many don’t know a common tongue. Most don’t know how to read. My sister El Nubo, who works with community radio stations (about the only form of mass communication that works out here), said she’d try to help him get out some PSAs over the airwaves. I hope it works.

The Central American volcanic arc, looking east from Santa Maria.


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