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How climbing a mountain is like meditation

Crossing a mountain pass is something that human beings have always done. And yet, it remains a moving experience

‘Tangla. The Song About Shambhala’ by Nicholas Roerich, 1943.
‘Tangla. The Song About Shambhala’ by Nicholas Roerich, 1943. (Getty Images)

Today I’m on my way

home to Cold Mountain.

There, I’ll bed down in the creek, just to wash out my ears.

—Han Shan, from Cold Mountain Poems

In the mountains, sometimes there’s a sudden dampness when my feet stick in mud I didn’t know was there. And then a little field of small fronds suddenly comes into view, the fronds sticking their heads up over the wet earth. I know then that a stream is near. Soon enough, I will hear a trickle, the buzz of insects and see a fluttering shimmer of butterflies over the flowing water, especially at noontide.

If there’s a descending stream nearby, then I can tell of its imminent arrival by the appearance of a deep, shadowy gully or a gulch. I can tell that there’s one just around the corner by the way the trees clinging to rock faces seem to bend inwards, trying to hide.

Much before I see the stream, I see the flycatchers, flashes of colour out for a meal over the running water. They hop, they leap, they are beautiful, precise, little killers. But while they are full of life, I am languorous. There’s nothing I would like better than to sit on a large boulder beside the stream, and be hypnotised by the sight of water flowing over rocks.

Mindfulness. Mountains demand mindfulness.

I hear a high, shrill screech. Look up. A dot circling in the clear sky above. I step into a wet puddle. Damn! Look up again. What is it? An eagle or a griffon, or is it a lammergeier? I envy its perspective.

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But the view from the high ground is grand too, just in a different way. From up high, I would never be able to guess that at the root of all mountains lies dust: fine powder that glints sometimes as the sun catches on infinitesimal minerals. Dust, the ever-present future of all pinnacles, right there, nestled in a lazy pile between boulders, or blowing in the keen, biting wind. I can feel this promise of mortality between my teeth, fine grit that I chew on. What does the lammergeier see?

Mountains demand mindfulness.
Mountains demand mindfulness. (Bibek Bhattacharya)

The Pass

When I am not in the mountains, which is often, I dream of long, hard descents from some high pass. From the high breach in the massive wall blocking my path, the world seems pristine—like a promise that has been kept. Look at those peaks, just look at them! Have you ever seen anything finer?

Passes are empty spaces, filled with thoughts which flow like a stream that has burst its dams. My ragged breaths make me high. Maybe a tiny mouse hare will give me company. Mostly, it will just wait for me to leave. Because that’s what humans do at the top of a watershed, they pass. A pass. That notch in a skyline full of notches; that gentle dipping depression in a sea of white ice and snow, forever receding; that succession of incredible, titanic, human-hewed staircases of rock that are rebuilt every year, so the goats and sheep can pass, accompanied by their herders. What ingenuity, to fashion a path through a field of piled boulders as big as houses! When high civilisations crumble, this knowledge, this ability remains. Other things might come and go but we will always need to cross mountains.

Other things might come and go but we will always need to cross mountains.
Other things might come and go but we will always need to cross mountains. (Bibek Bhattacharya)

But then my eyes lead me back to the immediate thrills—the peaks I have been dying to meet all these days, whose photographs I have looked at again and again—the view I had been dreaming about for months and years. The magnitude of the peaks always defeats my imagination. They exist to dwarf all the exalted images in my head with even more grandeur! I often dream of famous mountains viewed from a pass. They rise towards me like a slow-moving wave, one that will crash down on me in a million years. After living with their photographs for months, the mountains in all their resplendent granite leave me dumbstruck. They are often too near, making me jump out of my skin, or much farther away than I had imagined—a goosebump horizon of serrated teeth, the jaws of the world.

But a pass must always pass. Must always be passed. I can’t live on the threshold. Sooner or later, I will have to move on. I will need to descend, over snow, ice and rock, over cliffs made slippery by rain or rotting ice, piercing the cloud canopy, down to the promise of green grass and flowing water.

Descending a Mountain

And so I begin my descent, on a sloping ridge, where the only gait possible is a gentle run. I am sliding over the edge of the void, down a giant rocky rib poised in the air, miles above the earth. The clouds stand still below me, the wind picks up and screams in my ear. Move, or you will fly, scream the spirits of the empty sky. I move.

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And yet, the urge to stop and stare again around me is always strong, even at this uninhabitable altitude. Too soon, my soul protests, too soon will this view be lost. Why don’t I just sit in the lee of that boulder and let the mountains soak through? I do stop, for a few minutes, maybe half an hour, perhaps for the time it takes to smoke a biri, drink some water, munch on some sweet biscuits, get a sugar rush. Then, I move on down.

How to climb down a mountain.

Step. Hop. Stop.

Move one leg down a tall slab.

Swing your butt about, pivoting.

Lunge down to a lower rock ledge.

Descend five feet.

Rinse and repeat.

For a few hours.

I enter the sea of clouds. It’s like entering a vast hall, with no bottom. Everywhere, there’s thick mist. The world is a cloud, and dark, shadowy, echoing, giant rock slabs. They careen over me, loom over me. The world is vertical. I descend like demons are on my back. I am terrified, but also exalted. My blood beats in my ears, a dull thud inside my brain. A thick flap of wool traps all sound within my head.

I enter the sea of clouds. It’s like entering a vast hall, with no bottom.
I enter the sea of clouds. It’s like entering a vast hall, with no bottom. (Bibek Bhattacharya)

The biting wind is like the piping shriek of some insane Lovecraftian demon. My feet thumping on rocks—a bass rhythm that keeps time, varying its beat constantly. Sometime there’s the wild, high, piercing scream of a bird of prey, out there in the world-cloud, looking for a thermal to rise on.

Hands move assuredly—palm on a bit of soil, a sharp, flinty shard of shale, a cold rock millions of years old, semi-frozen moss, slippery to the touch. Arms like pistons, the two of them accomplishing what a tail does for the snow leopard (with way less grace)—give meaning to an ever-shifting world. The body creates its own little bubble of gravity to lean on. You can’t depend on the ground. The ground is perpendicular.

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My eyes show me a dark vein of rockfall gully to my left, descending some 100 visible feet into the cloud. My guide starts traversing the gully and gets eaten by the cloud. He knows that he needs to just show the way. After all these days together, he’s sure I will follow, at my own pace, in my own lane.

I move as fast as I can. It isn’t just about making time, or the haste to get out of a dangerous zone. The speed is just a function of the way our bodies use the inexorable pull of the void. The lizard brain takes over. I am all instinct. My eyes look for a zigzagging route through the vertical scree, convincingly fooling my brain into believing that there’s a path, and lo, there is a path! There is always a path. Rocks and boulders might confuse. A devious goat trail might bring me to the edge of a precipice, or an impassable wall. But it’s just a mistake that can be rectified, because a path does indeed exist. I have just left it two rock moves ago, missing the small cairn made of one solitary pebble that marked it. I look again and see, the true trail, faint but there. There’s nothing else to do but to grin, climb up to the cairn, and then down again over the correct set of boulders, the euphoria of a puzzle solved.

Falling off a Mountain

Many hours have passed, I suddenly realise with a start. It’s like waking from a meditative trance, knowing that I have been doing exactly what meditation prescribes: Centre your concentration, focus on your breath, let your mind go blank of conscious thought. I am flying down the cold mountain like Han Shan while I meditate. Han Shan is Cold Mountain. Cold Mountain is Han Shan.

There’s a Zen saying that I hold very close to my heart. It’s impossible to fall off a mountain. Of course, people still do. I came across the aphorism in The Dharma Bums. It’s possible that Jack Kerouac might have just made it up. No matter. What you believe in grounds you. In this perpendicular world, more than anywhere else, the mind and body need to be grounded. That’s the key.

Sometimes it’s necessary to just stop and go still. Catch up with the racing mind, close my eyes, sway gently, and let the pounding of blood accelerate, chasing the lost momentum of my body. Then it slows, suddenly, until it’s barely there. A sudden rush of intense emotions overwhelms me. I look around, what a miracle this world is, always exceeding my wildest dreams! I think back on just a few hours ago…to when I was standing on the pass. It was another life, another universe. Those huge white peaks, deities all, are still out there somewhere, beyond this cloud that contains me. The vastness of airy distances between the mountain I am on and the rest of the phenomena—peaks, valleys, suns, galaxies—breaks down my emotional defences. I always cry on descents, out of the sheer wonder of it all; out of gratitude for my brief admittance into the secrets of earth and sky.

Then I start to feel cold, through my layers. It’s time to begin the dance, again.

The mountains in all their resplendent granite leave me dumbstruck.
The mountains in all their resplendent granite leave me dumbstruck. (Bibek Bhattacharya)

Down to the Valley

As the impossible angle of the scree slope levels off somewhat, my descent becomes a loping run. The rock trail is more visible now, the shepherds have tended it well. I can see it snaking down the mountain, in a wondrous array of sloping angles. Sometimes I run around the turns, though there might be a thousand-foot fall just six inches beyond my widest turning radius. It’s impossible to fall off a mountain, I tell myself. And on my merry way I go. Ho, Tom Bombadil, Tom Bombadillo!

Sometimes I can’t run any more, because then I would definitely slip, or twist my knee. I break my run, come to a standstill. Then I gingerly twist and reach down to the next rock ledge, a few feet below. Then I traverse sideways, like a gigantic crab. I am too exposed to the windy void. I turn my back to it, hug the mountain and gingerly step down. I am conscious that for perhaps a few seconds I have just three points of contact anchoring me to the rock face, but I can’t think about it. I concentrate on finishing the move. My face is so close to the rock that I can see the grains of quartz. I have never concentrated this hard. It’s a giddy feeling. I complete the move and laugh out loud at the audacity of the human body.

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The trees begin now, at first just bare stumps of cold, rotting, tall pines. They stand as the defeated outliers of the treeline, beaten back by the natural history of altitude. There’s not so much rock under me any more, it’s turf. At some point I have left behind the perpendicular slabs of rock and brittle scree and now I am trotting along on a boulder-strewn meadow. It’s still treacherous though, because the ground is now disguised by grass and soil. Little blue flowers distract with their sudden beauty. A hidden gap between two boulders may well twist my ankle, hurl me face-first into ruin. My brain adapts yet again, racing ahead with the calculations, trying to maintain the balance between speed and caution. Right then, I am the greatest mathematician in the world.

Ah, the pleasures of the boulder-hop! The pirouetting leaps from one ball of granite to another. Between them lie grass, soil, flowers, beetles and flowing tendrils of water. The valley floor is here at last.

I emerge from the cloud that has been my world for the past 6,000ft of descent. Boom! The universe expands rapidly. I can suddenly see for miles and miles. A green world of undulating meadows shot through with dark, thick groves of pines and rhododendrons. The trees soon become more dense, the vanguard of high Himalayan forests. Behind me lies the giant perpendicular rock cirque that I have just come down from, receding, disappearing into the cloud above.

The chitter of birds begins. The buzz of insects. The dull, echoing void is replaced by the song of bees. I leap over runnels of water that will coalesce into a small lake before debouching down the valley in the form of a mountain river. Behind me, my sky-path is lost in a kilometre-wide jumble of boulders. My body is weary. The knees hurt, the back aches, the head thuds. All that constant impact of gravity on my poor, human body, just a speck in this ocean. I look forward to the lake ahead, beside which will be our camp, and fire and heat and food.

The valley floor is here at last.
The valley floor is here at last. (Bibek Bhattacharya)

In the Mountains

In the mountains, sometimes there’s a sudden dampness when my feet stick in the mud I didn’t know was there. A sudden little field of small fronds sticking their heads up over damp earth. Soon enough I hear the muted splash of tiny waves as I reach the lake, flies fussing over dung and the fluttering shimmer of butterflies over anemones, out for a last sally before evening rolls in.

The runnels are wide now. I can’t leap over them. Instead I skirt, certain that I will find a useful rock to use as a bridge. I let my weary feet take me where they will. Cows and ponies from the shepherds’ encampment mill about in the sloshing meadow, with gambolling, friendly bear-dogs for company.

Smoke rises from cook-fires. I can’t walk any more. I want to sit down right where I am and go to sleep. But after my solitary descent, I think of the company of the camp…the tales of miraculous snakes, of napping bears in spring. There will be tea! There’s rain coming on. The spectral cloud above is ready to give up its secrets in a torrent. Soon I am home.

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