[This Sharp End Essay originally appeared in Alpinist 70, which is now available on some newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Alpinist.com. Be sure to pick up Alpinist 70 for all the goodness!–Ed.]
CAIRNGORMS, SCOTLAND, ca. 1944: Nan Shepherd scrambled over granite, heading “into” not “up” the mountains, as she would later write. With each step, her hobnail boots scraped the rock, igniting sparks that flashed from her feet like a flare of fireflies. “However often I walk on them, these hills hold astonishment for me. There is no getting accustomed to them,” Shepherd reflected in The Living Mountain.
Among the quieter recesses, Shepherd sought what she called the “total mountain,” searching for a sense of place not riveted by the summit, but attentive to the entire landscape. As she traversed the terrain, she exchanged the vertical plane for the horizontal one. She sifted through the heather and felt the earth’s responsive touch. She slept on the flanks of the range, and while she drifted in and out of consciousness, she seemed to merge into the rock. She studied the moss that slowly broke down the surface of the stone under the blazing sky. And she absorbed knowledge from the hillside dwellers, farmers and gamekeepers who understood the skin of the earth.
During her years of exploring a single landscape, Shepherd strove to use her senses fully–to see, hear and feel beyond the breadth of her knowing. “I can teach my body many skills by which to learn the nature of the mountain. One of the most compelling is quiescence,” she wrote. To allow yourself extended periods without frenetic motion is itself a cultivated practice. As the mountain would teach: there is value in being still.
OVER THE LAST FEW MONTHS, and for some time into the future, people have been asked to “shelter in place.” The term, new to many of our vocabularies, comes at a moment when many of us are adjusting to a new normal of remaining in our residences and avoiding all nonessential travel. As I write these words in early May, I’ve been home for nearly seven weeks.
It has been almost two months since the World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, a pandemic. According to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, over 3.6 million cases have been reported globally, with more than 1.2 million in the US alone. Over a quarter million people have died around the world, and that number continues to rise. For all of us, this is a time of uncertainty, anxiety, stress and grief.
And yet vulnerable members of society–including the immunocompromised, the elderly, recent immigrants, people experiencing homelessness or living in poverty–often confront additional risks. The pandemic has also exacerbated inequalities in our nation. On his website, The Joy Trip Project, outdoor journalist James Edward Mills observes, “I believe that we are once again living through a chapter of the great American narrative in which people of color throughout the country are being disproportionately impacted by the ill effects of a national crisis.” According to preliminary data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black and African American people account for nearly thirty percent of COVID-19 cases in the US (while that demographic represents only around thirteen percent of the total US population in the most recent Census Bureau estimates). Low-paid essential workers from all backgrounds–such as grocery store clerks, farm laborers, transit workers and health aides–are told to come to work, sometimes with scant personal protective equipment or without employer-backed health insurance. Some may have only a limited economic safety net if they become sick or need to care for a loved one.
There may be months or a year or more of a new normal ahead, as case numbers rise and fall and uncertainty weaves in and out of everyday existence. “Everyone wants to know when this will end,” Devi Sridhar, chair of global public health at the University of Edinburgh, told Atlantic journalist Ed Yong. “The right question is: How do we continue?”
IN MID-MARCH, as vehicles overflowed from parking lots near popular crags, the American Alpine Club released a statement asking that climbers limit “all recreational travel” and “consider…keeping outdoor objectives conservative to reduce the load on the medical system.” Numerous organizations have warned that by taking unnecessary risks, an injured climber could end up in need of rescue and could potentially expose search-and-rescue teams to the virus, while putting additional pressure on strained health care systems.
Climbing has never been a wholly individual activity. Generations of celebrated efforts–as well as unacknowledged labor–have gone into producing gear, uncovering routes and developing techniques. Far above the last piece of protection, when the sharpness of our attention focuses and melds our sense of being and the rock, we might have forgotten the invisible network that connects the mountains to the valleys. Now, it’s more visible than ever, its presence reiterated across outdoor media. The message has been clear: stay at home.
For many of us, climbing has been our oasis; an activity both pointless and rich with potential meaning–relationships, joy, challenge, contentment–a practice or a means of organizing life. In climbing, I crave a simple, easy consciousness somewhere between mindlessness and focus–a space where muscle memory takes over, where hands and feet move in the barely hurried rhythm of a vertical crawl toward the distant glimmer of an anchor, the cool shadows of an island of trees, the snow-lit dome of a summit, the warm smile of a partner.
Now, far from the mountains, I look for other places to wander while I’m sheltering in place. There is no playground within walking distance of where I live, no public land or parks. No sidewalk leads out of the apartment complex, only an ample parking lot and a speed-bumped road. I ramble above the ditch on the lookout for rattlesnakes amid the blue- bonnets, thankful even for the access to this space to roam.
As evening approaches, I slip through a gate and enter a big open lawn. In the hour before the sun sets, the golfers disappear and other neighbors lope onto the glossy wet grass. Maintaining a safe distance from each other, they transform the area, briefly, into something that resembles a public space. The landscape emerges with new meaning, new life. A child’s fairy castle appears–a stack of twigs adorned with dried petals and wilted leaves. Teenagers come out to fish in the stream. A mother watches her young son pedal his trike over the slow sloping hills. My climbing trips are all postponed. But I am breathing humid, cedar-scented air, and the sun warms my skin. A breeze brushes my face. My partner walks by my side.
In times of crisis, we have the opportunity to recalibrate our relationships with each other, with our activities and with the land. We are called to act with more empathy, love, care and solidarity. And we have the chance to think of how we will continue when this crisis is over, to reimagine future lives different from our experiences during the pandemic, and different from our existences before. Amid the grief, unrest and brokenness, how do we want to emerge on the other side? In a recent Outside Online article reflecting on how the culture of climbing affected her relationship with her body, Beth Rodden wrote, “We need to start celebrating a culture that values sustainability, longevity, and health.”
Climbing, like the entry to any outdoor space, is a gift. But even before the current crisis, the ability to spend time in nature has long been a privilege limited to relatively few people. When we begin to rebuild, we can invest in more community land trusts and advocate for more accessible public spaces, while respecting the rights of Indigenous residents on their traditional lands. We can act to address the climate crisis that continues to threaten communities and the planet; we can strive to create a society in which everyone earns a living wage and everyone has health care and the time and means to enjoy the outdoors. We can work to extend the possibility of finding refuge in places to all people. Everyone deserves to play, but everyone also deserves some time to rest. To be still.
WHEN SHE FIRST TRAVELED in the Cairngorms, Nan Shepherd looked to experience “the tang of height,” the excitement, adrenaline and summit views. “I was not interested in the mountain for itself, but for its effect upon me,” she wrote. “But as I grew older, and less self-sufficient, I began to discover the mountain in itself. Everything became good to me, its contours, its colors, its water and rock, flowers and birds. This process has taken many years, and is not yet complete. Knowing another is endless. And I have discovered that man’s experience of them enlarges rock, flower and bird. The thing to be known grows with the knowing.”
We will climb and taste the heights again someday. But in the interim, as we traverse our local landscapes, we can encounter new meanings on the horizontal plane, where there are new things to become known. In the present darkness, we might find small forms of solace in the sidewalks and streets, the ditches and open air, and the faces of neighbors as they pass by, even at a distance. For when we act together, we are never truly alone.
[Katie Ives will remain on sabbatical until Issue 72. This Sharp End Essay originally appeared in Alpinist 70, which is now available on some newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Alpinist.com. Be sure to pick up Alpinist 70 for all the goodness!–Ed.]