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Published: January 21st 2012
In the old stories, mountains were the navels of the world, the axis mundi, the abode of the gods. Where there was no Kailash, Fuji, Olympus, or Sinai, people built their own: the ziggurats of ancient Mesopotamia, the pyramids of Egypt, Teotihuacan, Chichen Itza, and the Empire State Building in the Americas. The mountains connected heaven and earth. They were a conduit for the flowering of myth, the place where the sacred and the profane overlapped.
My story was less sacrosanct. I was walking around Mt Kenya, the second highest mountain in Africa, so I wouldn’t have to do anything so stupid again. I’d been comforting myself for about a month with the thought that this was the last time. That it was time to put away childish things and spend more time vacationing where alcohol drinks were garnished with paper umbrellas. The thought had gotten me to the mountain, but it was day one, and I wasn’t sure it was going to get me to the top.
In such circumstances, a conflict between Mind and Body is inevitable. Body is outraged to be compelled to do something it is so woefully unprepared for. Despite Body’s justifiable raging, Mind
is a notoriously stubborn ass and deaf to appeals to logic or common decency. So, in the end, Body acquiesces. Mind, quite pleased at having vanquished sensibility, excuses itself from the quotidian business of breathing and putting one foot in front of the other and busies itself fashioning a grand heroic narrative.
Day one was only nine kilometers up a rutted red clay road through a moraine forest, but at some point, we crossed the Equator. Beyond the tiny tatters of shade, an angry African god was beating me with sun on the anvil of the mountain. Shuffling one foot in front of the other, the mantra “Quoth the raven, nevermore” looped in my head. One syllable. One step. Stop. Breathe. Mind was trying not to pay attention but nevertheless, having serious doubts. Although there is, allegedly, a correlation between age and wisdom, this was f#$%ing stupid. There is a reason everyone else has porters. N.e.v.e.r.m.o.r.e.
The second day I awake strangely refreshed, but deeply concerned by Mind’s exuberant enthusiasm. Had it already forgotten yesterday? An hour later, trees have vanished, giving way to tufts of parchment colored scrub grass and fields of seussian flora: lobelia trees crowned
with dying sprays of yellow flowers, enormous silvery ground cabbages, and tall pale green plants that look rather like feather dusters. Fat rock hyraxes sitting on sun-warmed boulders watch our passing disinterestedly. While Mind busily paints colorful adjective heavy descriptions, Body mutters darkly and trudges on. Up one hill and down another for hours without end, the serrated north face of Mt. Kenya’s growing ominously before us. At dusk, we make camp in the deep shadows at the foot of the peaks, and watch the rising moon, its light nestling into the silvery snow patches amongst the dark crags of the mountain. Spectacular.
In the frosty brittle light of dawn, we awake. The trail circling the peaks generally stays over 4000 meters; climbing up and down scree fields, over cols, along the cliffs of the western tarn dotted flank before a heinously long climb to the base camp. Around noon, we are somewhere along the western flank of the circuit. Thick clouds roll up the mountain blotting out the sun, sky, and the jagged peaks above. All sound is swallowed and the mountain’s colors fade to muted grays and black. The world becomes silent and still. Mind, lost in
the delusions of its heroic adventure, is thoroughly enchanted and finds it all quite mysterious. Body, however, is concerned about finding the gnomic shadowy cairns that appear and vanish in the sunless gloom. Stopping for lunch on the shores of a tarn, the clouds briefly part. Above us, glaciers crouching in the steep valleys glitter in the momentary sunlight that turns the dull somber waters of the tarn deep emerald green. Just as quickly, the clouds return. Then it starts to hail. Mind and Body concur that this is not a positive development. Many hours later, as the sun sets somewhere beyond the clouds, we reach the top of scree mountain and the camp at the base of Pt Lenana, the trekkers peak.
At dawn, sunlight slips quickly over the folds of the mountain, banishing the cold morning shadows. Soon, the clouds will arrive, so we start climbing the final peak. The trail winds around towards the north before following the glacier up along its edge. Scrambling up and over a final rock face, we reach the top. Mind is, naturally, ecstatic. Body, less so. Going down is harder than going up, and cold beer is still very very
On the summit, there is no one but Nico and me, the sun warmed rock, and a gentle breeze. To the west, the southern face of Bation juts upwards like a fin, glowing red in the morning sun. The cerulean sky stretches out to the horizon and gathers up the tropical hazy green of the Kenyan plain far below. Tarns, like tiny emerald droplets, shimmer on the rocky flanks of the mountainside far below. In the enveloping silence, the cacophonous accoutrements of modernity and the prattling of the mind seem gaudy and juvenile. Even though “the only Zen you find on top of a mountain is the Zen you bring up there” (Pirsig), there is serenity atop a mountain, an austere simple beauty. Perhaps this is why the imaginations of the myth makers were so enamored with mountains. And why, I will, regrettably, make the jackass decision to do this again.
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