Monday, April 30, 2012

On Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche is slowly becoming the older brother I never had. I do not necessarily agree with everything he believed, but we were raised in the same house and his instincts are very similar to my own. 
As I read more of Zarathustra and The Will To Power it seems probable that he will soon join McCarthy and Tolkien as one of my principle guides for dealing with the world.
I do not fully understand how it is possible that in the 1880s he described mid-late 20th century Alpinism so perfectly.
On the Tree on the Mountainside
(from the first part of Thus Spoke Zarathustra)
Zarathustra’s eye had noted that a youth avoided him. And one evening as he walked alone through the mountains surrounding the town which is called The Motley Cow—behold, on his walk he found this youth as he sat leaning against a tree, looking wearily into the valley. Zarathustra gripped the tree under which the youth was sitting and spoke thus:
“If I wanted to shake this tree with my hands I should not be able to do it. But the wind, which we do not see, tortures and bends it in whatever direction it pleases. It is by invisible hands that we are bent and tortured worst.”
Then the youth got up in consternation and said: “I hear Zarathustra, and just now I was thinking of him.” Zarathustra replied: “Why should that frighten you? But it is with man as it is with the tree. The more he aspires to the height and light, the more strongly do his roots strive earthward, downward, into the dark, the deep—into evil.”
“Yes, into evil!” cried the youth. “How is it possible that you discovered my soul?”
Zarathustra smiled and said: “Some souls one will never discover, unless one invents them first.”
“Yes, into evil!” the youth cried once more. “You have spoken the truth, Zarathustra. I no longer trust myself since I aspire to the height, and nobody trusts me any more; how did this happen? I change too fast: my today refutes my yesterday. I often skip steps when I climb: no step forgives me that. When am I at the top I always find myself alone; the frost of loneliness makes me shiver. What do I want up high? My contempt and my longing grow at the same time; the higher I climb, the more I despise the climber. What does he want up high? How ashamed I am of my climbing and stumbling! How I mock at my violent panting! How I hate the flier! How weary I am up high!”
Here the youth stopped. And Zarathustra contemplated the tree beside which they stood and spoke thus: “This tree stands lonely here in the mountains; it grew high above man and beast. And if it wanted to speak it would have nobody who could understand it, so high has it grown. Now it waits and waits—for what is it waiting? It dwells too near the seat of the clouds: surely, it waits for the first lightning.”
When Zarathustra had said this the youth cried with violent gestures: “Yes, Zarathustra, you are speaking the truth. I longed to go under when I aspired to the height, and you are the lightning for which I waited. Behold, what am I, now that you have appeared among us? It is the envy of you that has destroyed me.” Thus spoke the youth, and he wept bitterly. But Zarathustra put his arm around him and led him away. And when they had walked together for a while, Zarathustra began to speak thus: “It tears my heart. Better than your words tell it, your eyes tell me of all your dangers. You are not yet free, you still search for freedom. You are worn from your search and overawake. You aspire to the free heights, your soul thirsts for the stars. But your wicked instincts, too, thirst for freedom. Your wild dogs want freedom; they bark with joy in their cellar when your spirit plans to open all prisons. To me you are still a prisoner who is plotting his freedom: alas, in such prisoners the soul becomes clever, but also deceitful and bad. And even the liberated spirit must still purify himself. Much prison and mustiness still remain in him: his eyes must still become pure.
“Indeed, I know your danger. But by my love and hope I beseech you: do not throwaway your love and hope.
“You still feel noble, and the others too feel your nobility, though they bear you a grudge and send you evil glances. Know that the noble man stands in everybody’s way. The noble man stands in the way of the good too: and even if they call him one of the good, they thus want to do away with him. The noble man wants to create something new and a new virtue. The good want the old, and that the old be preserved. But this is not the danger of the noble man, that he might become one of the good, but a churl, a mocker, a destroyer.
“Alas, I knew noble men who lost their highest hope. Then they slandered all high hopes. Then they lived impudently in brief pleasures and barely cast their goals beyond the day. Spirit too is lust, so they said. Then the wings of their spirit broke: and now their spirit crawls about and soils what it gnaws. Once they thought of becoming heroes: now they are voluptuaries. The hero is for them an offense and a fright.
“But by my love and hope I beseech you: do not throwaway the hero in your soul! Hold holy your highest hope!”
Thus spoke Zarathustra.

Friday, April 20, 2012


Circles within circles
Eagle and serpent
Quetzalcoatl consuming his tail

What day is it
And what time of day
What day of the year and what season
All turns – all lives and dies and lives again
But are we dead or alive
Do we walk in spring or autumn
And is it dawn or dusk
Where do we stand in the ancient celestial calender

Dante saw a sepulcher and Sturluson a wolf
In his father’s death each fashioned the turning of the epoch
And the child of the lion saw mountains beyond mountains

What are we saying
And are we screaming or do we stand mute
Who has the voice and the power and the glory
Envy it or spit upon it
But do not cast it into the consuming flames
I or you – the man or the woman
Have I bound a rag across your face
And are these words of dominion I speak

The camel eats itself and lives forever
And the child grows ever to the man
The call of the ram’s horn echoing again and again and again

Friday, April 13, 2012

Three Things

1. The Taste of the Leithe

Always new–
Savory, rich and chilling;
That is the taste of the Leithe.
Clear is the water as the silver-laced gravel of its bed
And tasting it they say one loses desire for all but the bliss of the sunlit fields.

They–the ancients who,
On their great Odyssey,
Saw all lands and all rivers
And chose the Leithe for the glades of their eternity.

There, in farthest Elysium, I wish to be;
To dwell by the river Leithe in deep oblivion
And drink from its rippling flow;
To lie on its grassy banks
And know nothing but the sight before my eyes;
To sit, and sleep, and forget all the waste lands of the earth.

Such is my wish – those happy glades.
My life’s course run,
No more the future yawning out before me.
My children numbering among the stars of the sky,
Rivulets of my mind and blood spreading through the world.
All the energy of my spirit spent
And the taste of the Leithe my only desire.

[Leithe pronounced to rhyme with ‘teeth’]

2. In the most literal sense I am an atheist. I do not believe that God exists in a formal manner, in other words, I do not believe that God exists in the way you or me or this table my laptop is on exists: as existents, as beings. But in its own way atheism is just another manner of thinking about divinity and as such is just rich and diverse as theism. My atheism does not deny the usefulness of the notion of divinity, like, say, the atheism of Richard Dawkins, but rather looks at god a concept analogous to justice or the good.
This excerpt is the most profound articulation on the relationship between god and man I have read since Tillich last summer.

Mortals dwell in that they await the divinities as divinities. In hope they hold up to the divinities what is unhoped for. They wait for intimations of their coming and do not mistake the signs of their absence. They do not make their gods for themselves and do not worship idols. In the very depth of misfortune they wait for the weal that has been withdrawn.
- Martin Heidegger (Building Dwelling Thinking)

3. Fragility
An untranslated prayer to the god of the Leithe

Fragility gels,
Panicky fear shear sweating leach of ache,
As you reach beneath your hopes,
Grope wildly and fall, dropping
Into a gaping bergschrund whose
Black stony mouth you know must shelter
Some things green and living but now
Emits a smell of dripping-cold-decayings-flowings
Like the rank wind out of an cave where some small
Animal has crawled to die.

You walk, you pace from
Chair to chair, you sit and stare,
And then from catatonic stillness, your catacombs enthrall,
You leap up and are away
To pay some half-remembered
Debt to some half-living sorcerer
Who will accept only the
Ash of the tree that was planted
On the day of your birth.

Like from granitic pain all your sense,
Shrinks and darkens like a migraine of a
Wild rose on a funeral pier.
And everything is grainy and blurred – an old convex screen
Caving at the corners, narrowing, mirroring the fragility,
The paucity, the poor and desiccated
Swell of the river’s forward bed revealed.

This is the fragile, your life in the evening:
You slept the day and now it is dimming and still warm
And your mouth has a coating of foul-taste
And your thoughts are a litany of
All that curdles in you – the horrible, the horror;
(the murderous gesture of blackening blood)
And the ceremony of forgiveness is that old apple
Tree, dying from the core,
As they build and re-build and plan to re-build and tell you
All their unwritten and unthought plans, in that little addict’s house,
Now a testimony to a different kind
Of grow light and a different kind
Of seizure.
The ceremony is this – the rot seen
And unseen, the lot of that house: cramped,
Vibrant, stamped with fragility – to he who cannot forget
His own transgressions.

Fragile the hope and fragile the dread,
Fragile the fragility of the pen,
So that someday it might feel to be made
Of that leaden fright like your flesh when you are
Just beginning to be sick.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012


Index, noun, second sense: an indicator, sign, or measure of something.

Local significance – Mount Index, one of the more visible peaks from Highway 2; related to the city of, an old mining and logging town whose heyday was before the Great Depression; also related to the Index Town Wall, the premier crag climbing center in Washington.
Mount Index is actually composed of three distinct summits (resulting in the common misapplication of its title to the nearby Mount Barring, which also has three summits and is visible along much greater sections of highway): the north peak, the most visible from the highway, the rarely climbed central peak, and the true summit slightly farther south, for which, unlike the other two, there are several less technical routes. The mountain’s prominence is due to all of these factors, the town, the wall, the dramatic visage, but also to the Lake Serene Trail, which ends at its foot and is among the most popular hikes in the state.

The name of the peak is someone ironic, it is commonly taken to refer to its index-finger like appearance, despite Mount Barring being far more fitting of that description. But in the sense indicated above, the mountain’s name is more appropriate. The nearby Wild Sky Wilderness is noted for its inaccessibility, possessing few trails and very rugged peaks, and Mount Index is in this line. It is the most prominent major peak one encounters on Highway 2 and relative to its technical difficulty, probably the most climbed until one reaches the Icicle Creek area out of Leavenworth. All of this is intended to provide background for what it meant for me to set out last weekend to solo the main peak of Index by the Hourglass Gully route. This was not my first attempt.

I am beginning to wonder what exactly it is that lies at its summit that I am not to reach – a pot of gold, Cordoba upon Talol, the mother of my children – something to this effect would be fitting. The look of the mountain from Lake Serene, which is one of the most arresting lowland views in the Cascades, has acquired a certain familiar, haunting quality; and the trail has certainly been the scene for more than one minor tragedy.
When I was 8 my family went on a day hike to Lake Serene, it was a warm day and on the way back I went a short ways off-trail to wet my head until a waterfall, returning to the trail I slipped on a wet log and hit my head on a small boulder, requiring three stitches.
On January 27th of this year I made my first attempt on the peak, I found the trail infuriatingly impassable, requires close to twice the normal allotment of time to reach the lake. After a short climb up the ridge I decided the chances of reaching the summit that day were negligible and turned around.
After that trip in January, Index was at the top of my list, yet for mostly weather related reasons I was not able to return until March 20th, which I designated as a trail-clearing operation. Once I arrived however, I found that trail crews had already done of the bulk of the work and I enjoyed a relaxing few hours at the lake, watching avalanches come off the face and digging a snow cave. When I was nearly back to the trailhead I realized that my car keys had fallen out of my backpack when I had eaten lunch and I had to re-hike the entire trail.
The weekend of he 7th and 8th of April looked to be one of the first good patches of weather of the year and once again I set out for Index, this time intending account for all circumstances. I left my house at four thirty in the morning to be at the trailhead at first light. In addition to my usual winter mountaineering gear (snowshoes, trekking poles, ice axe, snow shovel) I carried a set of crampons, a rope and equipment for a self-belay, a snow-anchor, and food and equipment to stay the night. The pack must have weighed 40 pounds. By the end of Saturday I was back at the trailhead defeated, with soggy feet and a very sore back and shoulders.
My plan had gone very well until I reached the ridge above Lake Serene, which the early morning sun had reached hours before myself. Through increasingly soft and slushy snow I fought my way upward, climbing each pitch twice because forward progress was nearly impossible with my pack, for nearly five hours, and covered a meager 1000 feet from the lake, leaving another two thousand, and a great deal of ground I had never seen, to the summit. Around two in the afternoon I finally reached a flat spot, recognizable as a notch toward the top of the steeply slopping section of the ridge, where, for the first time since I left the trailhead at six, I sat down and ate something. Unsure of how many more nightmarish pitches of snow climbing remained ahead, how I would protect any untreed sections, and how much, if any, of the equipment in my pack had remained dry, I gave up and rappelled back down to the pass and hiked out.
Obviously this was not the best day in the mountains I have had, but the principle trauma was barely related to the act of climbing at all. Obviously there were exacerbating effects: solo climbing an unfamiliar route in adverse conditions with a tremendous amount of exposure only partially mitigated with a self-belay system one invented on the spot is hardly a scenario for a good state of mind. Yet that I sat down and cried when I stopped for lunch implies a much deeper problem.

There are many dangers in solo climbing, the one I find most distressing is the ease of admitting defeat, but most people are aware of the increased objective chances of injury or death when alone. This is actually true of most activities, from walking down the street to studying for exams. Given that I am not delusional and this was arguably my most ambitious climb to date, I knew the chances of my not coming back were as high or higher than they had ever been before. On some level I half expected to never return. I have always laughed at mountaineers who say that a climb is not completed unless the climber returns alive, for who are they to disparage total sacrifice? But perhaps for reasons even they do not understand, they are correct. It is not that the dead climber has failed, but rather without the clear and distinct hope of return the entire process of the climb is upset, somehow the return is integral to the experience. Built in to every aspect of the mountaineer’s journey is the future: one is constantly thinking in terms of preparation. This may be why mountaintop experiences tend to be so anticlimactic: the meaning of the accomplishment is always oriented toward the future, such that the significance of any accomplishment is not in-and-of-itself, but related to future aspirations. This means that there cannot be, categorically, a greatest climb, or therefore a greatest climber – one never arrives in that manner; there cannot be that sort of end-goal. This should not be confused with the post-modern vogue notion that routes, rather than summits, are the centerpiece of mountaineering: that the end-purpose is somehow in the experience. If there is not an end-goal there cannot be an end-purpose. No experience, no high, no accomplishment can be the goal of mountaineering, for each act simply points to the next or makes itself insignificant. Mountaineering is a pilgrimage, and like a journey to a holy land, there are actually two journeys, the journey there and the journey back. Each needs the other: without the journey there, the journey back is the path of defeat, without the journey back, the journey there is the path of doom. The lasting joy is not to go, but to have gone, to have seen and then returned.

This is part of a wider re-assessment of mountaineering motivations I have been undergoing that began when I read that according to Alex Lowe’s wife, one of his primary motivating forces was the fear of the discovery of his mediocrity. This suggests that the hope of security in success is ephemeral. Lowe was as great of a mountaineer as has ever come out of this country, and if even he doubted his excellence, no one can be secure. The pressing onward in the hope of proving oneself, of arriving at some sort of elite and respected position, is, from a personal perspective, endless. One can see others “arrive,” but never “arrive” for oneself. I am under no illusions that if I were to persist in seeking excellence in mountaineering I would someday be the peer of Alex Lowe. The greatest mountaineers are gifted rock and ice climbers who bond easily with other people and revel in personal fitness. I am none of these things. But in my own small way I have thought of climbing in terms of proving myself, establishing myself, earning a place, and if this desire is flawed at its very core, I cannot, with real hope, pursue it.
The effects of this, as evidenced by my experience on Mount Index, I am only beginning to realize. This sort of climbing has already acquired the character of a compulsion: I feel as though I have to do it, like there is no other way, like in order to justify my self-worth I am required to test myself like this. The issue of self-worth is central, in the past few years mountaineering has come to be the core of my identity, it is what I am most proud of about myself; yet as I have said, it is clearly nothing to be proud of and my insecurity regarding my value as a mountaineer is not something that is going to go away no matter how accomplished I become. It is becoming clear to me that I need an entirely different way of thinking about these matters. I need a new model.
There are strands of the tradition that do not consider climbing in the ways I have described, early mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada range for instance – John Muir in particular, but I have found the magnetic effects of elite Alpine climbing to be very difficult to shake off.

I, and I believe the rest of the mountaineering community, need not simply a new index by which to judge our accomplishments, but an entirely different way of thinking about climbing that rejects the entire notion of an index – the notion that we need to be able to quantify, even in a qualitative manner, our achievements. And not just any ideology will suffice, the athletic model that came out of England in the post-war era and infiltrated nearly every school of mountaineering is incredibly seductive and contagious. We don’t just need a new Alpinism, we need a new Alpinism that is attractive and persuasive. As yet I do not have such a thing, but my research has pointed me in some promising directions: a renewed respect for less technical climbing, along with an understanding of technical skills as tools rather than goals in-and-of themselves; an exploration of the mystical traditions associated with mountaineering, including strands in Zen Buddhism and the Catholic Alpinism that came out of Italy before the second world war; the eschewing of “classic” routes and well researched lines – climbing should be an act of exploration, not simply following someone else’s route description.

For about a year now I have been carrying around a photo of Mount Saint Elias. On the back I had written the last two stanzas of my poem Lent v2. Before I left my high-point I made it into a paper airplane and launched it into the cirque.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Stairwell (revised)


This is revised and shortened version of a story I originally wrote almost three years ago while I was working at a screen-printing company. I left that job to wander aimlessly through Europe, which, as it happened, didn’t go so well. But it was the door at the top of the stairwell and I had the courage to walk through it. And since then I’ve mostly been in the forest, trying to stay out of the tower, but listening to a Radical Face song today I realized how much of this I’ve completely forgotten.


There is the boy and there is the headland,
There is the Leithe and there is the tower,
And there is the song though it all,
Calling me to the kraken and the cavern
And the stairwell;
Florescent in the peerless night–

The Stairwell

There once was a stairwell in which sat two denizeyns upon the grey and worn carpet. Above them was a window into a world so darkened that no human eyes could pierce its deeps and opposing it were two passages, one closed off by a plain and wooden door onto which a plaque was affixed into which a name was inscribed that neither could read, the other a stairwell that led to a glass door. They sat against the wall beneath the window, the man and the woman, peering blankly into the plaster ceiling.
Are you going to go in?
The man turned toward her staring face and she reiterated.
Are you?
Is this even the right door?
The question was one they had asked many times – there was not and had never been an answer.
You know we don’t…we can’t know. We can never know. Just go in and see.
He turned, looking away from her imploration.
Why did we think…
I do not know.
The bleakness of her unanswer lay upon him a great weight, bending head into hands. Her gaze shifted to the silent door and then descended, pausing only for a fractured moment on the foreign inscription that had so reduced them.
How long do you think we’ve been here?
I do not know.
We can’t just…
I know.
So, do something.

Sitting close and intertwined they had spoken.
Who do you think we are?
Do you want names?
I suppose so.
How about Ronald and Amelia?
She laughed,
Why those?
They are names...
I can’t see you as a Ronald.
Neither can I. You could be an Amelia though.
Maybe. But forget names, who are we?
Does not ‘who’ imply a name?
Perhaps, but who we are – it must be more than a single word.
Then ask for more than a name, what are we?
Her reply came slowly, dredged up from a mind unpierced.
Two people sitting in a stairwell waiting for something to tell us what we might find behind that door.
He was silent, then, the laughing edge of his voice stilled,
That is what we are now, but what were we before? Two people walking up those stairs? What were we before we saw the light in the window, before we thought there might be something here?
Before that I don’t remember, we might not have existed before that…we might have existed, but without memory it is as if we did not.

In dusky luminescence they had walked, the man and the woman, striding through the pitted and crumbling streets and around them a deadened city: first two wanderers of a long-slumbering race. Although the cloud ceiling hid any sun that might have sunk, the road darkened and they had made only for the yellow-lit glass glowing amid the upper windows.
Through the door and into the stairwell they had come. Into that waiting place of christening and funeral and all middle ceremonies and seated thus, against wall and window, had their becoming begun.
And as they in the stairwell embarked upon their genesis, the night thickened into a viscous tar-pit blackness, utterly sundering hall and stair and door and whatever lay beyond from the greater earth. Narrow became their existence; its channel-worn depth carrying them into the deadly oblivion of night. Through them began to blow the winds of the battles of all sentient ages and in them raged the tempests that have consumed and will consume all men.

Leaning against the walls, her the narrow span between door and stair and him across, staring into the window, hands cupping eyes, they stood. Her arms folded, face an aloof air.
Can you see anything?
It can’t have been this dark when we came in.
Maybe it is not a window.
He half turned, his shoulder on the glass, to answer her leering suggestion.
The door down the stairs is the same.
It is odd, can’t remember the state of the light before, there must have been some.
We would remember if it had been dark–
He turned back,
–There’s a light out there.
She joined him searching that smoky landless void.
A speck, see it? Almost like a star.
He looked at her and spoke in semi-disgust,
In the middle of all the blackness.
She turned away,
I don’t see it.
They stood in silence. Him watching the pin-light slowly expand, her beginning to weep softly.
After a time he too turned and reached his arm around her, pulling her gently into a sort of half-embrace.
When it’s light again we can leave and forget this, forget we knew this stairwell and this door existed, it will be fine.
Just give up and leave? Coming here then for nothing?
We can’t just go in, uninvited and unannounced, we don’t even know who this is.
Whatever then. Ok.
Now… now we just wait.

Why are we?
She raised her head from the tear-stains on his shoulder,
We said who, and what – why are we?
That is an incomplete question, why are we what? Here? Who we are?
Why are we at all?
Through each of their minds passed their sole knowledge: they had come seeking the light in the window and without that pursuit they could not answer. She turned from him and leaned against the side of the stairwell,
Why are we? Why do we exist? Who is this we? Why do you exist?
He remained unmoved on the edge of the landing, feet on the stairs, and answered as if to the sky,
I am here because you are. When we walked through the city I doubt we even left footprints and this stairwell will not remember us. You are all that I affect.
She stared at her feet, her face damp and shining, refusing to meet his gaze, but he continued,
Why am I? Because without me your every step is toward your tomb.
She finally looked up,
That sounds ok.

In a sort of spastic desperation they caressed; tear-streaked faces meeting in desperate union – the man and the woman, I and we, them, forcing all their horrible unknowing into that meager and brief expression of oneness.

If we leave this place who will we be?
Their pain had all but gone to salt and ambivalence. They stood their backs to the dimly growing dawn, recalling her words; flirtation now an icy and terrible pronouncement. He answered,
No one. We will be no one.
And you still think we shouldn’t go in?
In there I don’t know what we will be, out there we will only be no one.
Her voice was thick with incredulity,
You don’t know what we will be? What might we be - dead?
Its possible. If we go in there we have to be ready to die. Or become anything else.
And you would rather be nothing?
I suppose…
I think I disagree, being nothing – I can’t even think of it, how could something be worse?
There are a thousand ways something could be worse, and maybe more ways something could be better, but we cannot know that. I cannot know that. And what I cannot know I cannot choose.

They sat as if a great portcullis had come down between them. Alone in their company. Unspeaking. Separate in all but physicality. From the womb of the earth had they come and in its stark birth canal did they then wait and though of this they were ignorant somehow he sensed his folly and she her wisdom. Delay they might but there was no retreat. The currents of gods and men flowed in but one un-fluctuating direction and though they could not know what they had proposed to enter, it was their singular path to proceed through that plain and wooden door.

I think I’m going to.
That door – whatever the name upon it – I’m going to enter.
And the unknowing, the risk?
Her question, his own words, nearly a mocking quotation.
All life is risk, of death and much else. And death the risk of life; they are not opposites – life and death. Death implies life and life implies death, without each other each is meaningless… And beyond that door lies not one but both of them. However, here lies neither. Here we are waiting - but only for ourselves, the becoming lies beyond, here is only stagnation.
And in one motion he stood and stepped forward and grasped the handle which clicked as though locked. And through his mind ran all their battles in the night and the utter vanity therein but then the door was opened from within and through it poured men of all times and nations. Dark Nubians and bearded northsmen and bone-eared hunters and victorians and businessmen and beggars and beaded women with infants strung about them and ragged farmers and emaciated children. He stood aside and they passed a murmuring, equestrian jumble down the stairwell and out the glass door and into the still, crystalline light; children laughing as though the world lay before them.
From within the doorway came a soft glow and they entered, the man and the woman, into life and death and all its secrets.

Special thanks to Cormac McCarthy, Tom Stoppard, Ben Cooper, and not wearing thermals with shorts.