Cursing the mountain

An adventurer asks whether his failures in the alpine zone are caused by blasphemy.

 

Hiking up Precipice Peak in Colorado.
Brooke Warren

Back in college, my buddy Chris and I were legendary for our orographic failures: When it came to not bagging Colorado’s high peaks, we were the best. To put it nicely, our vision and verve outstripped our technical climbing ability. To put it less nicely, we were borderline, or perhaps treeline, incompetent. Once, attempting a notoriously exposed ridge traverse in December, Chris forgot both pants and boots; he had his ice ax and crampons, but only bald sneakers for the feet and thermal underwear for the legs. Another time — OK, twice — we failed to reach our desired trailhead, let alone the base of the route we’d planned to ascend in “perfect style.”

 Regardless of whether we inked our names in the summit register or not, much fun was had. There was the bivouacking in remote cirques, the soft fade of the alpenglow, the drinking of cheap whiskey from a plastic bottle, the slurping of cold beef stew from a can when somebody — who could that be? — spaced out the stove. On occasion, shaggy white mountain goats paused to look at us, gazing deep. “Take me to the top,” I’d say to them, making sure Chris overheard. “This guy in the thermal undies means nothing to me. Please, take me with you.”

There was also vigorous, impassioned cursing, of course, for a misadventure without swearing is far less enjoyable than one loaded with scatological references and creative anatomy lessons. When our less-than-heroic assault on some 14,000-foot granite hulk was stymied by pissing rain, a misread map, or a hangover from too much of the aforementioned whiskey, well, let’s just say that our mouths glowed neon with blue language. Think of John Muir’s elegant syntax, only dirtier.

Actually, the foul talk tended to start well before we found ourselves stuck on a sketchy dead-end ledge or avalanche-prone slope. As soon as we left campus to drive to the mountains, a manic energy crackled in the car, and the sight of gorgeous ranges drew mock-disparaging comments from our lips. Chris especially had a knack for belittling the horizon, building himself up by putting the earth down with taunts, challenges and macho nonsense. By no means was it genuine hubris; it was playful, what basket-ballers call “trash talk.” Still, I cringe now to consider how ugly it would have sounded to an outside observer.

A misadventure without swearing is far less enjoyable than one loaded with scatological references and creative anatomy lessons

That’s where this gets interesting — outside observer. In my study of 20th century nature writing and indigenous North American spiritual traditions, I find again and again the wonderful, mysterious, brain-bending notion that the so-called inanimate world — the world of “objects” without human ears — is in fact listening to what we two-leggeds say. The hunter must take care not only to avoid offending deer and bear; he should also watch his tongue in the presence of stones, stars, weather systems, plants and rivers. It’s a matter of manners, of simple respect. 

So, then: Was our failure in the alpine zone caused by blasphemy, or did it stem exclusively from our sloppy mountaineering style? Perhaps more important: Did the sacred topography know we were just kidding?

Another pal of mine often says that humor is the greatest form of honesty. I’m inclined to agree, and to add that honesty is one of the core fibers in the muscle we call the heart. Without honesty, there can only be a kind of rose-scented fake love, not a true love with warts, F-bombs, deprecating jokes and all. I picture my girlfriend, how her eyes sparkle with glee as she mirrors my idiocy back to me, my sister, my mom and dad –– how what bonds us is our willingness to laugh at one another’s expense, and how that laughter becomes the sign of our connection, our appreciation.

These days, Chris is climbing glaciers in the Pacific Northwest, earning his keep as some kind of businessman, living a life that does not involve me. So it goes. I mostly hike on my own, in silence and without the aid of whiskey. From time to time, I will take a seat way up there above the trees, in the tundra meadows or amongst the jagged rocks. With my eyes closed and the sun on my face, I’ll listen back to those two dozen missions we made into the glorious, rugged, ambition-smashing Colorado backcountry. What I hear in such moments of reflection, albeit filthily expressed, is a kind of pure passion: Crazy yelling, cackling laughter, words unfit for print. I hear my dear old buddy leaning into the wind and sleet and danger, his voice barely audible over the louder, larger voice of the storm.

At such moments I relax, at ease with the land. 

Then I stand up, stub my toe, and cuss so hard that the boulders shake in place, almost as though the mountain itself were chuckling.

Leath Tonino’s writing appears in Orion, Sierra, The Sun, Men’s Journal, Outside and other magazines.

High Country News Classifieds
  • A CHILDREN'S BOOK FOR THE CLIMATE CRISIS!!
    "Goodnight Fossil Fuels!" is a an engaging, beautiful, factual and somewhat silly picture book by a climate scientist and a climate artist, both based in...
  • DIGITAL ADVOCACY & MEMBERSHIP MANAGER
    The Digital Advocacy & Membership Manager will be responsible for creating and delivering compelling, engaging digital content to Guardians members, email activists, and social media...
  • DIGITAL OUTREACH COORDINATOR, ARIZONA
    Job Title: Digital Outreach Coordinator, Arizona Position Location: Phoenix or Tucson, AZ Status: Salaried Job ID Number: 52198 We are looking for you! We are...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming seeks an experienced fundraiser to join our team. We're looking for a great communicator who is passionate about conservation and...
  • INDIAN COUNTRY FELLOWSHIP
    Western Leaders Network is accepting applications for its paid, part-time, 6-month fellowship. Mentorship, training, and engaging tribal leaders in advancing conservation initiatives and climate policy....
  • MULESHOE RANCH PRESERVE MANAGER
    The Muleshoe Ranch Preserve Manager develops, manages, and advances conservation programs, plans and methods for large-scale geographic areas. The Muleshoe Ranch Cooperative Management Area (MRCMA)...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 52 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • ASSISTANT OR ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF ENVIRONMENTAL HUMANITIES
    Assistant or Associate Professor of Environmental Humanities Whitman College The Environmental Humanities Program at Whitman College seeks candidates for a tenure-track position beginning August 2023...
  • ANNUAL FUND MANAGER
    Working closely with the Foundation's leadership, the Annual Fund Manager is responsible for the oversight and management of the Foundation's annual operating fund. This is...
  • DATABASE ADMINISTRATOR
    Looking for someone who loves public land and understands the value and importance of data in reaching shared goals as part of a high-functioning team....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA) in Crested Butte, CO is seeking an enthusiastic Executive Director who is passionate about the public lands, natural waters and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF VOLUNTEER PROGRAMS
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with volunteer management experience to join...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The conservation non-profit Invasive Species Action Network seeks an executive director. We are focused on preventing the human-caused spread of invasive species by promoting voluntary...
  • NEW BOOK: A FEAST OF ECSTATIC VERSE AND IMAGERY
    Dynamic fine art photographer offers use of images to raise funds. Available for use by conservation groups. Contact at www.anecstaticgathering.com.
  • WANTED: TALENTED WRITER
    Write the introduction to A Feast of Ecstatic Verse and Imagery, a book concerning nature and spirituality. Contact at www.anecstaticgathering.com. Writer who works for conservation/nature...
  • MT STATE DIRECTOR- THE WILDERNESS SOCIETY
    The Montana State Director is a member of The Wilderness Society's (TWS) Conservation program team who plays a leading role in advancing the organization's mission...
  • HIGH COUNTRY NEWS EDITORIAL INTERNS
    High Country News, an award-winning magazine covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, is looking for its next cohort of editorial interns....
  • THE MAGICAL UNIVERSE OF THE ANCIENTS: A DESERT JOURNAL
    Bears Ears, Chaco Canyon, and other adventures in the Four Corners area. 60 photos and lively journals. Purchase hc $35 or pb $25 from bigwoodbooks.com...
  • DIRECTOR OF PEOPLE AND ORGANIZATIONAL CULTURE - HR
    Career Opportunity: Director of People and Organizational Culture Do you have interest in approaching organizational culture from a place of creativity and curiosity? Do you...