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
  • NEWS DIRECTOR
    Based in the state capitol, Boise State Public Radio is the premier NPR affiliate in Idaho. With 18 transmitters and translators, it reaches 2/3rds of...
  • INTERNET-BASED BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Dream of owning your own business, being your own boss, working from home... this is the one.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR FOR MOJAVE DESERT LAND TRUST
    Organization Background: The Mojave Desert Land Trust (MDLT) is a non-profit 501(3)(c) organization, founded in 2006. Our mission is to protect the ecosystems of the...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    If you are deeply committed to public service and would like to become part of our high performing, passionate and diverse team, NCAT is looking...
  • TRIPLEX .8 ACRE KANAB, UT
    Create a base in the center of Southern Utah's Grand Circle of National Parks. Multiple residential property with three established rental units and zoning latitude...
  • FORGE & FAB SHOP
    with home on one beautiful acre in Pocatello, ID. Blackrock Forge - retiring after 43 years! Fully equipped 5,500 sf shop including office, gallery and...
  • SMALL FARM AT THE BASE OF MOUNT SHASTA
    Certified organic fruit/berry/veggie/flower farm. Home, barns, garage, separate apt, more. Just under 2 ac, edge of town. Famously pure air and water. Skiing, mountaineering, bike,...
  • FOREST STEWARDSHIP PROJECT DIRECTOR
    Become a force for nature and a healthy planet by joining the Arizona Chapter as Forest Stewardship Project Director. You will play a key role...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ranchers Stewardship Alliance is accepting applications for an Executive Director. This position will provide leadership to RSA, develop a fund raising plan, and effectively communicate...
  • WRITING PLACE: THE ANIMAS RIVER REGION WRITING WORKSHOP
    REGISTER ONLINE BY: Friday, June 15 WHERE: Durango, CO (location TBD) WHEN: Monday, July 16 Youth workshop: 10 a.m. - 12 p.m. (18 and under,...
  • EQUITY IN THE OUTDOORS COORDINATOR
    The Equity in the Outdoors Coordinator will lead community engagement, program implementation and development, and data collection for the Eagle Valley Outdoor Movement (EVOM). EVOM...
  • COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT ASSISTANT
    The Idaho Conservation League is seeking a personable individual who is passionate about conservation to join our Sandpoint Field Office. The Community Engagement Assistant will...
  • LIGHTWEIGHT FLY ROD CASES
    4 standard or custom lengths. Rugged protection for backpacking. Affordable pricing.
  • EXPERIENTIAL EDUCATION INTERN/ASSISTANT
    Actively introduce students to Experiential Education, Outdoor Recreation, and Sustainability while engaging and challenging them to learn and participate in these diverse opportunities. Room, board,...
  • ENVIRONMENTAL INVESTIGATIVE MEDIA SERVICES
    In-depth investigations of polluters, lobbyists, regulators, elected officials and others focused on environmentally damaging projects in the U.S. and internationally. We specialize in mining projects,...
  • UNDEVELOPED 40 ACRES - SOUTHWEST COLORADO
    in beautiful Montezuma County.
  • TRUCK DRIVER
    Class A & B drivers, pass all DOT requirements and clean driving record
  • MARIA'S BOOKSHOP FOR SALE
    - Thriving Indie bookstore in the heart of Durango, Colorado. General bookstore with 34-year history as a community hub for Southwest region of CO. 1800...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    HawkWatch International seeks an experienced fundraiser to join our awesome team! This position will provide support in all aspects of the department. We are looking...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    will develop and execute Wild Utah Projects fundraising plan. Call, email or check full description of job online for more details: