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 axe and crampons, but only bald sneakers for the feet and thermal underwear for the legs. Another time – okay, 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, it was 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.