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Silences at Dawn

[This Sharp End essay originally appeared in Alpinist 63, which is now available on newsstands and in our online store.–Ed.]

Morning view of Trisul (7120m), Nanda Devi (7816m) and Nanda Kot (6861m), from Kaser Devi in the Garhwal Himalaya of India. [Photo] Coni Horler

Morning view of Trisul (7120m), Nanda Devi (7816m) and Nanda Kot (6861m), from Kaser Devi in the Garhwal Himalaya of India. [Photo] Coni Horler

IN MY TWENTIES, when I began to climb, I felt as though I’d fully come to life. A new existence appeared to unfold like a tightly furled leaf, green and shimmering. Here, I thought, was the enchantment I’d longed for as a child: a world in which everything seemed transmuted. The noon sun and the dry leaves, a silver flake of mica or a white crystal of quartz–all the familiar details of the New Hampshire hills could turn sharper and brighter as I crept higher up a cliff. A new climbing partner could become a sudden friend. A simple action, such as the uncoiling of a rope or the tying of a knot, could take on the weight of ritual. I felt a sense of some defining choice when I stepped off the forest floor and committed to a realm of rock and air. And in the afterglow of the descent, there was an indescribable joy that reminded me of a dreamlike country–like the flare of gold along the horizon as dusk melts through summer haze.

Later, as I ventured onto bigger peaks, that realm seemed to draw nearer: there were days when the light flashed from edge to edge down walls and deep into chasms; when a chill rose from ice that lingered, invisible, beneath giant blocks of stone; when I would reach over a bulge, uncertain, and find a crevice where my hand held fast; and I would imagine, for a moment, that I was a part of the mountain, and it would not let me go.

A UTOPIAN THEME HAS LONG EXISTED in mountain literature: a longing to enter a world in which the boundaries of the self might merge into a larger whole. In his 1969 memoir, That Untravelled World, British explorer Eric Shipton described pursuing “those moments of delight which come from a sense of complete harmony with wild surroundings,” a desire that recalled the ever-receding edge of a luminous, never-quite attained mountain landscape.

In a study published in the 2015 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Paul K. Piff, Pia Dietze, Matthew Feinberg, Daniel M. Stancato and Dacher Keltner asserted that moments of overwhelming awe–such as the experience of standing before “a grove of towering trees”–can evoke “the feeling of being diminished in the presence of something greater than the self, and the motivation to be good to others” and “enhance collective concern.” Polish mountaineer Voytek Kurtyka likewise recalled in Alpinist 43: “I’ve sometimes had this feeling of great surrender, a breathtaking impression of unity with everything around me.” Once awakened during an ascent, this “expanded sense of adoration,” Kurtyka explained, could reemerge in ordinary moments, such as working in a garden or gazing into someone’s eyes. Yet he noted that such experiences could be “double-edged,” arousing either all-encompassing love or else extreme selfishness.

“Alpinism is an amazing act of creativity, and that’s exactly why it’s so risky,” he said. “It’s so easy to succumb to the feeling that we are exceptional. We become the center of the universe. And as a result, our sense of unity with our surroundings and our capacity to empathize with them just goes to hell.”

Awe is not always an innocent emotion. A swell of cosmic or oceanic feeling can lead people to do both good and bad. Romantic accounts of mountain adventures also served in the spread of colonial empires and imperial values; notions of “pure” wilderness contributed to the displacement of Indigenous peoples. And as Pete Takeda writes in Alpinist 63, the image of the Nanda Devi Sanctuary as a hidden alpine paradise (appearing in Shipton’s tales) eventually helped attract crowds that trampled meadows, chopped trees, endangered rare species and ignored the cultural traditions of nearby villages. We can’t assume that a momentary sense of connection with a peak will create lasting or truly inclusive forms of empathy. The Indian philosopher Meera Baindur explains that mountain travelers must also adopt a deliberate “place-ethics” that “honor the place and its resident people.” All too often, the margins of climbing stories themselves remain restricted, excluding the recognition of experiences and perspectives that might conflict with an idealized dream or with a dominant definition of what the mountain world must be.

IN MY OWN CLIMBING LIFE, the desire to dissolve the borders of my self and fade into something vaster, once acquired an urgent, physical meaning. Some years after I first felt the awe of those New England cliffs, I took to the woods and the hills, after dark, as a form of flight. There was a former climbing partner whose advances I’d rejected, and in the aftermath of his words to me, I became afraid. To avoid being seen by him at the crags near the town where we lived, I began a kind of intermittent exile, climbing alone at unusual hours or in unlikely places, waiting until twilight fell to set out for classic routes or thrashing through dense brush to cliffs that existed only in obscure topos or had no published information about them at all.

Increasingly, I became drawn to ways of imagining myself invisible: I could hide my body within the folds of giant ridges, become a shadow that slips through crevices and corners, a silhouette that flickers in and out of clouds. I could turn off my headlamp and vanish amid a cluster of boulders or below the rim of a couloir; run through a summer forest, navigating only by the light of the stars, by the textures of the ground, and by the changing echoes of my feet, louder on the hard-packed trails, muffled over the soft earth and leaves.

There was a point at which I lost my fear of wind and storm, when all that was chaotic in nature felt like solace: the blizzard that swept over a slope of moonlit white; the spindrift that poured down a flow of dusk-blue ice; the frost that formed rime feathers over my clothes; the snowflakes that swirled within the brittle, glass-like air. There was a time when I came to feel a kinship with the darkness that welled in the spaces between the trees; with the flash of stars between torn clouds and across a rain-blackened river; with the tumble of stones in meltwater streams and the shiver of unseen void beneath my feet; when I imagine all that was feral within me was both an invisible refuge and an infinite land.

In No Map Could Show Them, a collection inspired by the history of women’s mountaineering, British poet Helen Mort wrote:

When we climb alone / en cordee feminine / we are magicians of the Alps–we make the routes we follow / disappear. / Turn around / to see the swooping absence / of the face, the undone glaciers, / crevasses closing in on themselves / like flowers at night…. Where you made ways, / we will unmake: / give back the silence / at the dawn of things.

The poem alludes to the reported statement of Etienne Bruhl, after Miriam O’Brien (Underhill) and Alice Damesme’s all-female ascent of the Aiguille du Grepon in 1929: “The Grepon has disappeared…. Of course, there are still some rocks standing there, but as a climb it no longer exists. Now that it has done by two women alone, no self-respecting man can undertake it.” To Bruhl, the presence of female alpinists on a sharp rock tower seemed to cause its significance–for him and other men who had viewed it as a testpiece–to vanish.

For me, Mort’s words now evoke more than a defiance of sexist assumptions: rather, a reflection of buried geographies beneath dominant maps; an echo of unheard tales drowned out by louder histories. Awe implies a notion of the inexpressible, the silence of what stirs us beyond words. Yet there is also another form of silence, the often-unspoken memories of all that becomes suppressed, erased, left out. In a Guardian essay, “A Short History of Silence,” Rebecca Solnit wrote, “The tranquility of a quiet place, of quieting one’s own mind, of a retreat from words and bustle is acoustically the same as the silence of intimidation or repression, but psychically and politically something different.” During off-route and nocturnal wanderings, I have dreamed of unmaking the well-worn paths in my mind, tearing out the signs, shutting the atlases, watching the ramparts of old empires fall–like fragments of brittle ice–and learning to hear the stories, forgotten and new, that arise in the stillness afterward. For Solnit also described a third kind of quiet, one that seems to me as intense and all-enfolding as the alpine air just before sunrise. This one, she explained, “makes room for the speech of others,” for long-silenced thoughts and voices, “like the quiet of the reader taking in words on the page, like the white of paper taking ink.”

In 2017, on her way out of the Wind River Range, Szu-ting Yi looked back to see the granite spires vanish behind a blizzard. When the sun struck the falling snow, it seemed to set the crystals ablaze, briefly consuming all traces of previous climbers. As a female alpinist and a Taiwanese immigrant to the US, Yi had struggled to find her way in a realm still dominated by white men. “I didn’t need any guideposts anymore,” she concludes in Alpinist 63, “I would derive my own order from perceived chaos.” With each new story, writers such as Yi reveal vaster and more varied landscapes, ones that might better evoke not only the awe of icy summits, but also the value of all people and all elements of the mountains and the world.

AFTER YEARS OF SOLITARY CLIMBING, I realized that my most intense experiences remained entirely unshared: moments of pausing in the midst of a vast mountain face, surrounded by green rivulets of water and thin passages of dry stone, wondering where to go next; of peering with a dim headlamp up a winding gully where each turn revealed the wonder of a hidden ice step; of getting lost and finding myself beyond the pages of a guidebook, partway up a granite ridge in a drift of incandescent clouds; of trusting that a way would reveal itself and that I would be able to follow. I was forgetting what it felt like to be roped to someone other than myself, to hear other climbers’ voices, to recollect the sound of my own.

It took a while, then, to convince myself to return to a daylit crag, to explain to a new climbing partner that I was more nervous about sharing a rope with another person–on a bolted route under deep blue skies, so exposed to view–than I was of free soloing, benighted and alone. At first, I felt startled by the calls of other climbers through the trees, and I looked around, still expecting to see the man who had once frightened me. The rock felt fragile as dry leaves; its mica-silver dust soon coated my fingertips. Yet I remembered how in the distance between the last bolt and the anchor, I could still immerse myself in that sharp and radiant world of stone and air, and then reemerge to belay my partner to join me. I recalled how the face of a companion could mirror the warmth of the sun. And how each movement, however small, could feel like a reclamation of a right to be in this space–for a time, at least, until I needed to take refuge, again, in the wild and the night; to lose myself in those long, still silences of mountains before dawn.

[This Sharp End essay originally appeared in Alpinist 63, which is now available on newsstands and in our online store.–Ed.]