Thursday, April 17, 2008

"It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves" -Edmund Hillary

(Cotopaxi 5897 meters viewed from Illiniza 5248 meters, near Quito, Ecuador)

Having grown up near mountains, I had accepted the local examples as epitomes of the geological/geographical feature. It wasn’t until I traveled to South America that I was put in my place. It is difficult to appreciate the majesty of a mountain without it being placed next to a familiar reference point. Generally, this is difficult, as a mountain range is constituted of similarly shaped mountains. It is no coincidence that all of the worlds’ 8000+ meter mountains are found in the Himalayas.

(this is K2, 8611 meters)

(This is Mauna Loa, Largest Volcano on Earth, and one of the primary constituent of the largest of the Hawaiian Islands. What looks like no more than a hill with a touch of snow on the top is in fact a 4169 meter beast, that if measured from the ocean bottom is actually the second largest mountain on earth. (second only to its neighboring peak Mauna Kea, which when measured from its real base, at the bottom of the ocean, is around 10 000 meters high) )

Perhaps one of the best ways to appreciate the grandeur of a mountain is actually being there on one rather than gazing from afar. Hiking in the Andes, an endeavor that despite its general failure to evoke much excitement at its utterance, is probably what really opened my eyes to the sheer massiveness of the range. Like how Ron Burgundy described jogging as “apparently you just run…” hiking is just walking, but at an altitude where something so simple becomes more like a struggle between life and death. Though my description sounds extreme, I can assure you that this is little exaggeration when at 5000 meters above sea level. In fact, altitude-sickness is deadly, causing cerebral and pulmonary edema, which can lead to death in young, healthy, fit individuals. The point is that the body’s need for oxygen becomes terribly evident when the air is thin. What would normally be a simple stroll becomes a battle requiring every ounce of strength in your body. The first 100 meters of ascent may take 30 seconds, the last 100 meters towards the summit of a 5000+ meter mountain may take an hour.

(trying to breathe at 5200 meters)

It was upon seeing the Big Mountain Skiing documentary “Steep” that my admiration for such landforms really flourished. This movie sketches the history of Big Mountain Skiing, the extreme sport of getting to the top of the biggest, steepest mountains and skiing down. Before it was popular, and skidoos and helicopters common, this would entail scaling a mountain covered in snow and ice in your ski boots with an ice pick in each hand and your skis strapped to your back. They said that the first location that really saw the rise in Big Mountain Skiing was Chamonix-Mont-Blanc, located in the French Alps, where France shares a border with Italy. The location of the 1924 Winter Olympic Games, Mont-Blanc massif towers over the valley below at a height of 4808 meters. Though the region is home to several different ski-hills, it is most notable for the hors-piste skiing it offers. With a glacier extending into the valley from Mont-Blanc, the vast amount of out-of-bounds skiable terrain is evident, and it still remains one of the primary hot-spots for trek-Big Mountain skiing (climbing up a mountain in ski boots, and then skiing down). Though inviting, the region has been nicknamed “death-sport capital of the world”, it’s enticing glacier, home to hidden crevasses, the peaks hiding potential avalanches. Many of the Big Mountain pioneers remain buried here.

(Whistler is 2181 meters)

Despite this morbidity, I cannot but let my mind wander, imagining staring down a 100 foot couloir, and the potential rush of adrenaline that might accompany it. It has also led me to reconsider my perception of skiing…and the mountains I grew up admiring. Is Whistler child’s play next to Mont-Blanc? Perhaps one day I will find out.

The Inca people regarded the Andes as Sacred; the citadel of Machu Picchu was a way for them to sanctity. The Sherpa people of Tibet and Nepal believe the mountains to be the dwellings of gods, making an offering before climbing, as a preemptive apology for intruding. To some extent, I think I see where they’re coming from…

Though a picture is said to speak a thousand words… indulge yourselves in the following knowing that they fail to really capture the grandeur of the featured mountains.

(Machu Picchu, Peru, 2400 meters)