In better times, right about now is when ‘the mountains are calling, and I must go’ motto would be setting travel goals for us. But with summer round the corner and nowhere to go, the only mountains one can turn to are the ones deep within, to understand why we have been drawn to them forever. Turns out, the answer lies in more than just their beauty.
The age-old pull of mountains and the curiosity around why people seek them has existed since the beginning of humanity. It largely fuelled mountain climbing too, and made people question why people climb them. The most famous retort to the question probably is Sir George Mallory’s “because it’s there”, and it’s not entirely untrue. There is no one reason that can be singled out as to why people are fascinated by mountains; we are so deeply awed by their presence that it leaves us searching for the right words and feelings. Delving deeper into it, however, can help us identify elements that give us some insight into the timeless question of ‘why’.
For starters, it is the sheer size and scale that dwarfs you and tells you your place on the planet, quite literally. The physical discomposure that we face as we go higher up, be it the dip in temperature, the breathlessness, or the lack of sleep and appetite, all pose a certain challenge that we want to conquer and ‘live to tell the tale’. The beauty of the wilderness too increases in direct proportion to the discomfort experienced, and the rush one gets from that sometimes turns into an addiction that makes people want to go back time and again. This physical test of sorts sometimes also subconsciously becomes a challenge that people want to take on. Writer Ian Brown nailed it in his piece on mountains when he said that “their disdain for human access seems to offend our pipsqueak egos”.
Not only our own physicality in relation to mountains, but the geography of mountains has a profound impact on us too. Turning on the water purifier to fill our glass with water and downing it nonchalantly is one thing, but actually standing at the snout of a glacier and seeing the source of all life is something else. Just like most rivers are born in mountains, most people’s first interaction with jagged topography also happens in mountains, for one-fourth of our planet is mountainous. The touch and feel of rugged terrain, and the magnitude of that quarter can never truly come through on a high-definition TV show, as humanity has begun to realise now after weeks of confinement.
There is a good reason why more than four million tourists visit the Canadian Rockies every year. Closer home, Nepal sees nearly a million visitors annually, and even more travellers ranging from spirituality seekers to serious mountaineers visit the Himalayan belt every year from all over the world. This is surely because the range has something for both the soul and body. While externally we might be soaking in the physical beauty of mountains, it is somewhere deep inside that raw wilderness touches a chord. Why does a camping trip stand out far more sharply in our memory, compared to a movie and a meal at a mall? A lot more corporate getaways, off-sites and reunion trips are now organized in the heart of nature rather than fancy resorts, because disconnection from gadgets aids connectivity with our surroundings, and ultimately with our own self. It might be something we don’t take to immediately, but it is something we will take back and carry with ourselves for a long time.
As an outdoor person, I’ve been part of the mountain cult pretty much all my life. A major part of that has also gone into trying to find an answer to the same question. What is it about the mountains that draws me? In trying to find an answer to that I’ve indeed managed to get a few, which might find resonance with mountain lovers. Mountains are a reminder of who we could be, if we tried hard enough. They also have learnings that we could all do with right now. Many of us will have to restart life after this pandemic, and that’s when we can go back to our mountain lessons on coping with the worst- we don’t necessarily need a lot to have the most memorable experiences of our lives, and we don’t necessarily have to be in competition with anyone to be deemed successful. Above all, the most invaluable message the mountains have for us now is that we can always begin again; the mountain isn’t going anywhere.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.