(Because of the interest in this article in German from our English speaking friends, we here publish the original English text):
The Art of Mountaineering
For the Mountaineer, climbing is more than just a past time, a hobby, something he does every so often. No, for the true mountaineer, climbing is something more, it is a mystery, something he must do every day. “Any mountaineer who has explored the shallow margin of prayer will see the connection between spiritual and physical effort.”
You see, climbing is an art. “If one wishes to master an art, technical knowledge is not enough. One must go beyond the technical to the point where the art becomes an art without artifice which has its roots in the subconscious.” Once he has mastered the art, then the mountaineer can explore broader boundaries and go further. But he must first master the art. He cannot possibly benefit from his climbing if the art has not become a part of him, because this is his quest: in all his climbing, the mountaineer is seeking God. He is searching for the good, the beautiful and the true. He enters the wilderness and ascends to barren heights. In his heart he prays this prayer: Lord, here I am, completely disconnected from the world, from distractions, surrounded by nothing but your beauty. I am completely at your mercy, what do you want to teach me? The answer he receives will always answer his question, because he is seeking the truth, not satisfaction. He may be shown beauty, surrounding him, given freely by God the Creator; he can you be shown truth, the truth of his own limitations, weaknesses, capabilities. Or he may be shown goodness, the goodness of God who supplies him with what he needs, who makes up for his weakness.
Mountaineering and Freedom
If this is his search, then I do not see how one can climb and seek God if he has not mastered the art. He does not have to be perfect or be able to climb anything. You can even be a little clumsy, because the art of mountaineering is not in the technical. The essential is that he be free, at ease in the mountains, open to whatever may come his way. The Mountaineer cannot possibly attend to God working around him if he is distracted by ropes and gadgets. How can he let God act if he’s always concerned about going to right way, doing things properly? How can he see God at work if his full attention is on the trail? “Today’s climber carries his courage in his backpack. Faith in equipment has replaced faith in oneself” (Messier) and in God. People no longer explore a new routes or figure things out as they go. They have to go the right way, the way the book tells you to go. The Mountaineer must start “a more spiritual climbing were he assaults the mountains with less equipment and more awareness, more experience, and more courage.” He must be free to let God act, to accept whatever comes his way, and to work with it, or let God work with it.
He must be ready for anything, even retreat if he meets the impossible, what is beyond his limits. “If only the emphasis would shift; not the achievement but the act itself is of primary importance, and style is the individual expression of an act.” The Mountaineer can still accomplish great things, but it is the way he does them that matters. “Let’s follow the road that past climbers marked out. Put on your boots and get going. If you got a companion, take a rope with a couple of pitons for your belays, but nothing else. I’m already on my way, ready for anything, even retreat, if I meet the impossible. I’m not going to be killing any dragons, but if anyone wants to come with me, we will go to the top together on the routes we can do without branding ourselves as murderers.” (Messier)
Mountaineering and the Search for God
Clumsy or experienced, all true mountaineers are seeking God, within their boundaries and capabilities. The experienced mountaineer will go on more difficult climbs than the one with less experience. This does not mean he will learn more, but what he learns will be different. It is just like school. There are those in grade one and those in grade 12. There are those studying philosophy in those studying science. Each one is learning, but in different subjects and at different levels. As the mountaineer gains experience and goes out more often, he grows and matures, not only in his climbs, but in everyday life.
What are some ways in the mountaineer grows? Let us first look at his attitude in the mountains. The true mountaineer has love and respect for the mountains. Most obviously, he cares for the environment. But also in the way he climbs he shows love and respect. The mountaineers knows that “rape is unethical: the mountain must have the chance of turning you down. The Mountaineer knows he’s not invincible and only does when you can. Fr. Damasus (a family friend) is a shining example of this. “He never reached out in greedy pursuit or an impatient impulse to control or possess God’s creation. All creation was for him a gift to be admired.” (Sr. M. Pascal OSC) The Mountaineer does not control or possess the mountains, but enters in a sort of relationship where he learns more about the mountain, himself and God.
“To climb the highest peak of anything usually makes a proud climber.” (Denis Bruneau) The mountaineer does not need to climb the highest peaks, he is satisfied with the other peaks, because each climb has its own rewards, its own lessons. He’s not out to conquer mountains, but to seek God. As he climbs, the Mountaineer is always aware of his surroundings. If it’s a nice day, he enjoys the beauty around him. If the climb is a difficult one, he turns the struggle into a prayer. “As he climbs, the neighboring summits seem beautiful, the summit immediately above rarely does.” But he goes on because he knows it is worth the effort. Parallels between mountaineering and daily life, as we shall see later, are endless. I think that Maurice Herzog rightly concluded, “L’alpiniste est celui que connait le mieux la valeur de la vie” (the Alpinist is the one who knows best the value of life.” It’s not because the mountaineer is better than others, but because he has so much practical experience on so many different levels, spiritual, intellectual, and physical.
Mountaineering and Spiritual Growth
Let us take another look at this important aspect of mountaineering: growth. Too often, people focus on the physical aspect of mountaineering and ignore the growth of the person as a whole. I think this is because it is very difficult to explain what goes on in the mountains. The subtlety of the plot is that no one, apart from solo man, knows how you spend the day. From the moment he disappears at the double over the first convenient hillocks, his movements or shrouded in mystery.” The growth the Mountaineer experiences is very often personal and difficult to share. Asked why they climb, mountaineers are at a loss for words. How can one explain such a great mystery? I think Brian Kidwell has the best answer: “I climb because, well follow me and I’ll show you why.” This mystery is something that must be experienced, treasured, and loved. It is something one must return to again and again. It is not something you can buy or do once and be satisfied. The growth one receives from mountaineering is like a lifelong process. “Some aging climbers, no longer able to make the grade on the crags, have been known to contemplate matrimony as the only honorable way out.” Why? Because of the beauty and richness of mountaineering and because of the immense treasure of knowledge, experience, and growth the mountaineer has accumulated. “To many of the mountain people the idea of climbing the idea of climbing these peaks seems nearly as sacrilegious as for a devout Catholic to scale St. Peter’s.” (Nigel Nicolson) Not because the mountains are sacred, but because of what they teach us.
“In the midst of such peaks one can draw near to what is truly priceless, the really divine.” (Ibid) I think this is at the heart of the matter. The mountains are like a sanctuary, they are a meeting place between God and man. Moses, for example, met Got at the top of Mount Sinai. Jesus himself often went to deserted places and mountains to pray and teach. Why would God use isolated places to speak to us? Because there are no not distractions there, he can have our full attention. “The silence of dead places were not even a plant or a bird dwells… I seemed on the very boundary boundary of things knowable and unknowable”, of this world and the next. “I like to feel that God is present not only in his power but in his very person. Mountains remove all barriers from me.” (P. Damasus)
The mountaineers climb, then, is prayer, communion with God. He enters the wilderness to free himself of distraction in order to converse more freely with God. “Mountain climbing is to push myself to my limits physically and mentally, but this is only part of a prayer I offer with every step and breath I take. God so near breaths down my neck. I put myself in his wagon, he steers me, tells me what route to take, I trust him. He is my leader, yet he is in me to help me take my steps. I want to have a share in his trip up Mount Calvary. I want to suffer a little for him, to offer it up for him. He’s done so many things for me always, but I do so little for him in my daily life. Me I never climb just for the boast of the peak, but may each trip be more and more, and better and better of a prayer.” (Denis Bruneau)
As we can see, the mountains are in inexhaustible source of treasures. One can learn so much from them. “The mountains offer the opportunity to test nerve, skills, and endurance to the limit,” they offer lifelong lessons, sources of prayer, personal growth, social skills, and of course, they off tremendous beauty.” As he looks at the mountains, the climber’s heart swells with joy and pain. It is so beautiful and yet so inaccessible. Oh! The set foot on these virgin slopes, even though death waits poised above!” (Ed Hilary) As he looks at the mountains, he can hardly restrain himself, his whole being wants to climb. “The mountaineer returns to his hills because he remembers always that he’s forgotten so much.”
This is all very good and beautiful. It is, however, only a mere glimpse into this mystery, it is the outer mountain as I would call it. One cannot go climb in the mountains every day, as I said we must do. Yes, mountaineering is great and it has incredible spiritual dimensions. But this is simply a reflection, a taste of what must happen on the inside, on the inner-mountain.
Mountaineering and the „Inner-Mountain“
The true mountaineering we must do every day does not have to be on a physical mountains. For most of us, this daily climb will take place in the home, in the workplace, in society. We are seeking the good, the beautiful, and the truth, we are seeing God. The route we must take is not always clear. We need to be alert and watchful. The terrain on which we climb can vary from day to day. And those who climb with me will not always be the same people. If we take a look at the outer-mountain then we can learn how to climb the inner mountain. Everything the mountaineer experiences can be transferred to daily life.
As I said, climbing is an art, something we must master. Likewise, climbing the inner-mountain of every day life is an art, something we have to master. We need to be free, at ease, open to whatever life offers us. As the days go, we gain more knowledge and experience. We grow every day. The mountaineers love and respect for the mountain will transfer to love and respect for other people. If the mountaineer is completely disconnected from the world during his claim, then we too must disconnect from the world and connect to God. Just as the mountaineer frees himself from distractions and focuses on the climb, then we likewise need to focus on the one thing necessary (Lk 10:41-42).
We must also strive to see God’s beauty, truth, and goodness in everyone and everything around us, as does the mountaineer surrounded by God’s creation. Just as a mountaineer turns his struggles into prayer and perseveres to the summit, so can we turn our daily difficulties to prayer and persevere through hardships. If the Mountaineer does not need to climb the highest peak, then we truly do not need to advance to the top, to be a big shot. We must realize the value of our current position. And as a mountaineer is completely at God’s mercy, so we must also trust God and thrust ourselves in his arms, abandoning ourselves to his Providence. We’re not in control, God is, and we have to try and cooperate with him, to be led by him.
As you can see, we must climb mountains every day, not physically, but spiritually. The outer-mountain is good and very helpful, but if one can master the art of climbing the inner-mountain then he will surely soon ascend to the heights of sanctity and climb the mountain of God of which the psalmist says: “Who shall climb the mountain of the Lord? The man with clean hands and your heart, and desires not worthless things.” So come, rise let us go forth. Forget all trust in the world and what it has to offer. Trust in God who gives us all that we need and let us climb, let us make the daily effort it to reach the summit of sanctity. For we know that no matter how difficult it may be, it is well worth the effort.
Not in my strength alone, into thy hands, oh Lord!
The author of this Article is Paul Bruneau. He is 21 and lives…well, most of the time he is to be found somewhere in the Mountains of British Columbia. He participated in the July 2019 Expedition of „Adventure&Faith“ and has become a dear friend. The picture portrays him during this expedition.
Quotes that are presented without authorship come from the climbing journal of Paul’s Father and are either his dad`s or anonymous quotes.