I first felt the spiritual side of climbing on my very first mountain climb. Mt Thielsen (aka Lightning Rod of the Cascades and originally known as Hischokwolas), which is for the most part nothing more than a steep hike, but becomes quite vertical on its final eighty foot pitch, and it is a bonafide rock climb to reach the tiny, precipitous summit. Many people elect to use a rope for this last section, but on this day (and also on every subsequent climb I have made on Thielsen), we would be forgoing the use of rope. I remember standing at the base of the summit pinnacle, staring up at the final pitch which was swarming with climbers, and feeling tremendously nervous at attempting the climb. I talked to some experienced climbers who were leading the climb for the Mazamas, and they reassured me that I was capable of completing the ascent. They also told me to grab a hold of their rope if I needed to.
After gathering my courage, I set out. What I experienced in the short time it took me to climb up to the summit was unlike anything I had ever experienced before, and it would change my life forever. Time stood still. Conscious thought fell away. I became aware of only a few things: where my hands and feet were, and where they were going to go next. Nothing else existed. I was utterly absorbed in the moment. I was completely focused, which for me was a huge, huge deal. Focus has never been my strongest asset, and what I discovered on that climb was that for me to really have that kind of mindless concentration, I need to be at least somewhat scared.
I topped out on Mt. Thielsen, feeling elated but still painfully aware that the climb was far from over. I was standing on a table-sized summit with a no-joke 4000 foot drop on the north, and smaller but still fearsome cliffs on every other side, and after just a few minutes, I decided I needed to climb back down, and the down-climb took me to an even greater state of focus. Once back down, however, a huge sense of elation swept over me, and it would last for over a week after the climb. Probably due to having Asperger’s syndrome, I have always been painfully self-aware, completely locked in my head, and climbing the mountain took me outside of myself for the first time. I finally knew what freedom was, and I was hooked. Before that day, the idea of climbing a mountain was something that seemed like an interesting novelty, something to try because it seemed like a cool thing to do. After that climb, I knew that this would become a way of life for me, a path to follow, a calling.
I experienced that feeling of Zen, again and again, even on easier mountains that did not have technical aspects to them. Just the act of grinding out long miles up steep slopes would put me into that state, maybe not as intensely, but the repetitive motion of one foot in front of the other, over and over again, also can put me into a semi-meditative state. It is what high-level athletes often call ‘the zone’. I feel so fortunate to have found something that just automatically allows me to go there, and that is why I yearn to climb as often as I can.
I experience much of the same state when kayaking. Taking on a huge standing wave or running a six-foot drop transports me outside of myself and yet brings me more deeply inside at the same time. Which is why I have become almost as obsessive about river running as I am about climbing.
In my perfect world, I would climb a mountain on a weekly basis, I would kayak, rock climb and hike on nearly a daily basis, just to find that joy and freedom more often. It is a form of moving meditation, and for me, that is the perfect type of meditation.
Today I will leave you with a quote from Thich Nhat Hanh’s wonderful little book The Long Road Turns To Joy: “When we practice walking meditation, we arrive in each moment. Our true home is in the present moment. When we enter the present moment deeply, our regrets and sorrows disappear, and we discover life with all its wonders. Breathing in, we say to ourselves, “I have arrived.” Breathing out, we say, “I am home.” When we do this, we overcome dispersion and dwell peacefully in the present moment, which is the only moment for us to be alive.”