The lightweight tarp I had stretched from a large rock cracked sharply in the wind, spraying water in my face from melting snow as I burrowed deeper inside my sleeping bag. It was early June atop 7,522-foot Bold Peak in Alaska’s Chugach Mountains, and the last thing I expected on this solo climb was a snowstorm on a summer day that had begun with crystalline clear blue skies.
I began piling rocks on each end of my impromptu shelter, literally walling myself in. The rocks created enough of a windbreak to allow me to light my stove and heat water for instant soup.
“Are we having fun yet?” I asked myself, shivering, wondering how many people would consider this bivouac an act of lunacy. I’ve been spending time in nature most of my life, seldom pausing to reflect upon the time-worn question: Why do people climb mountains?
A lifetime of mountain climbing
In the 1950s, when I was five years old and living in the small coastal community of Seward, Alaska, I remember pointing up to the rugged Kenai Mountains and asking my father, who was then a part-time gold prospector, how he managed to climb up so high. He pointed to his legs and said, “About 30 percent here,” and then, pointing to his head, “about 70 percent here.”
Those early years in Seward were the genesis of my love affair with the mountains. I would stand for hours in my front yard staring silently at them, carefully selecting routes and making imaginary expeditions. Before I was 12 years old I climbed Seward’s 3,000-foot Mount Marathon more than 20 times, simply to get closer to nature and enjoy the adventure of ascending high above town.
In the fall of 1963 before entering college, I joined a friend on an eight-day sheep hunt far into the Chugach Mountains, a first for both of us. We were cold, wet and hungry for the duration, and a full-curl ram deftly eluded us on the second day of our hunt—the last legal ram we would see.
That night, a full moon illuminated the hanging glaciers on all sides, and the sound from two streams, each in their own valley, created a stereophonic effect. The glaciers glowed with a blue-white phosphorescence, and the light pulsated like the aurora. The night’s only discordance was my hunting partner’s muffled snoring deep inside his sleeping bag.
That trip marked the true beginning of my connection with the mountains that lie to the east and north of Anchorage in the 495,000–acre Chugach State Park–the third largest state park in the U.S. For the next 40 years, I challenged many of the park’s peaks, and in the process, ascended a cumulative 250 vertical miles.
So, why do people climb mountains?
But the underlying reason I love to explore Alaska’s backcountry wasn’t forged in the craggy heights of the Chugach Mountains. Rather, I discovered it in a glacier-carved valley. It happened on a crisp, clear October day about 17 years ago while hunting grouse.
Entering a clearing, I came upon a gray wolf only 20 yards away. We stood immobile for about two minutes, gazing at each other. I read before that it is best to not stare directly into a wolf’s eyes because it signals aggression. But I couldn’t help it. I had never been this close to a wolf in the wild. His eyes didn’t look at me, they looked through me. They held knowledge of something primeval, timeless, completely outside the human perspective. He finally ambled off into the woods and began howling in low tones. He was soon answered by another wolf farther down the mountain.
For years I felt like an outsider in the outdoors, an intruder just passing through. But after the wolf encounter, I began to perceive myself as part of it all. Today, when I climb a mountain or trek into a valley, I do not feel detached. I feel like I am joining it. I cannot always sustain this feeling, but I never stop trying.
I’ve been asked by many, “What are you looking for in the mountains?”
The mountains offer an escape, a respite from the cares and woes of everyday life. They are stunningly beautiful—with prominences and spires reminiscent of a cathedral. They are elemental, primordial, a creation beyond our ken. They silently emanate power, and when I reach those lofty heights, I feel myself merging with that power.
But there is also another answer: I climb to learn about myself. The mountains offer the equivalent of a chalk board upon which I can enter my thoughts and dreams. The mountains bestow ideas, inspiration, but they also take.
On every trip I’ve felt as if I’ve left part of myself behind. It makes me wonder if some day there will be anything left of me to take back home.
The next morning after my bivouac on Bold Peak, the sun shone brightly and there was only a slight breeze. It felt as if the mountain was apologetic and now making up for what it had dished out the night before. My view was unlimited in all directions. Through my binoculars I spotted a full curl ram on a lower ridge about ½-mile away—perhaps a distant relative of the one that eluded us some 30 years earlier.
I started packing up for the long trip home. As I lingered in the warm sun, I felt fortunate that in my advancing years I had the good health and strength to reach these heights. But even more, I was thankful that I could spend time in places like this and not feel alone.