Friends in high places

  • Breaking Through the Clouds

  • Suzanne Malakoff

  Breaking Through the Clouds is a compilation of essays by Richard Fleck, a scholar, writer and wanderer of the West’s high mountains. Fleck deftly weaves in the history and human background of each peak, quoting John Wesley Powell on the first ascent of Longs Peak in what is now Rocky Mountain National Park. Far from Colorado, he shares excerpts from Japanese novelists as he hikes along the misty flank of Mount Fuji — which, we learn, translates to "Origin Mountain."

As Fleck works his way uphill, he observes both weather and flora, and his descriptions are accurate and vivid. Each mountain reveals itself to him through its boulder fields and forested slopes, its birdsong and animal movement: "… I began to ‘think like a mountain,’ to use Aldo Leopold’s words."

Along the trail, Fleck ruminates on place names that are often lyrical or reveal something of the thoughts of the namers: Never Summer Mountains, Katahdin, the Rawah Range, Mummy Mountain, Tabeguache, Halla San, Medicine Bow, Quandary, Sangre de Cristo, Monadnock, Sandia. There is mystery and poetry in this catalog of rock.

On many of the hikes, Fleck’s family accompanies him. He also hikes with a core group of mountain friends, one of whom — "a true companion along many a trail" — dies in a fall a week after one of their climbs. There are many trails here and many companions, and that too is a gift offered by the mountains — the opportunity to share the miles in conversation or in comfortable silence.

Fleck closes with Sioux elder Black Elk’s prayer atop Harney Peak in South Dakota: "Teach me to walk the soft earth as a relative to all that live. Sweeten my heart and fill me with light." Fleck has taken that gentle request and learned well.