Category Archives: Mountaineering

High Hopes: A World of Mountains Worth Saving

As vulnerable as tropical rainforests and just as endangered, the mountains of the world have received inadequate protection. Our mountains are crumbling, scientists say, and it’s high time we shore them up.

Summit Strategies

Hutchings Creek, Mt. Lyell, Sierra Nevada.
Photo by Peter Alpert.

FEW OF EARTH’S FEATURES APPEAR MORE ENDURING and immutable than its mountains. A relief map of Asia conveys how solidly they define the world: the Caucasus and the Urals form borders between Asia and Europe; the Himalaya isolate Tibet from India; the Tian Shan divide China from Kirghizia; the Altai stand guard at the intersection of Russia, Mongolia, and China. From adventure-travel accounts one gains the impression that the Andes, the Rockies, and other great ranges are fortresses all but impervious to assault. Unlike lowlands, where rainforests, rivers, marshes, and grasslands can be easily reached and destroyed, highlands seem aloof, secure in their immensity and sacrosanct in their beauty, mystery, and power.

But conservationists’ long experience in defending the Sierra Nevada and other North American ranges against the onslaught of irresponsible developers has taught us that the uplands are indeed vulnerable. While our species once feared and revered the Olympian heights, today we arrogantly and ignorantly reshape the gods’ former abodes. The “conquest of mountains” no longer signifies women and men striving to reach difficult summits. It now connotes the reckless human bent for blasting and molding mountainsides to accommodate resorts and egos; for removing a mountain’s insides and leaving tailings to poison streams; for stripping forested slopes of their trees and their dignity.

Though what’s happening to mountains under the crush of expanding populations is alarming, the damage isn’t yet irreversible. Hopeful voices were raised at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, where scientists from the International Mountain Society put forth a plan to save the highlands: they called for intensive alpine research and a vast array of conservation projects, and convinced all 178 governments in attendance to sign on to the program.

For the plan to succeed, the world’s mountains need a large and dedicated constituency. Brilliant dreamers and zealous defenders must give the peaks a voice. To that end I present a portfolio of words and images, some portraying enduring grandeur, others depicting tragic decline. My hope is to inspire not just sighs (whether of admiration or despair), but commitment.

Prosperity’s Price

Dorje Lakpa, Himalaya, Népal

THEY ARRIVE FROM ALL OVER THE WORLD — vacationers in ever-increasing numbers on pilgrimages to the mountains. Often in search of respite from urban ills, these sojourners are finding more and more that the troubles they hoped to leave behind shadow them up the slopes.

Mass tourism boomed after World War II as industrial economies recovered their strength and low-cost, long-distance international travel became readily available. Mountain areas closest to population centers have borne the brunt of this onslaught. Perhaps hardest hit have been the European Alps, where a persistent rash of ski resorts has spread across the landscape.

Nor are the highlands of developing nations immune to such infections, brought on by international-lending banks and aid agencies (such as the World Bank and the U.S. Agency for International Development) that cheerily help convert rural economies into ones that depend on cash from tourists. The resulting shift often disrupts  the cultural habits of centuries. Populations may boom, and the people may abandon their traditional stewardship of forests, water supplies, and wildlife to chase after vacationers’ dollars, marks, and

Unfortunately, thoughtless trekkers from well-heeled countries too  often generate not only currency but crises. They discard trash willy-nilly, encourage their guides to burn scarce firewood, and overwhelm local cultures, particularly at the height of the tourist season. At those times, the First World meets the Third in an all-too-obvious clash of lifestyles.

The Wellsprings of Life

Wedgemount Lake, Whistler Mountain, Garibaldi Provincial Park, British Columbia, Canada

THE WATER THAT MOUNTAINS CAPTURE, STORE, AND DELIVER to the lowlands has historically been the lifeblood of much of humanity. The first tribes migrating to North America flourished in Rocky Mountain valleys, supported by abundant streams and lakes. In the Old World, cultures thrived for millennia along Egypt’s Nile River Delta, depending on water that originally fell as rain in mountains as far away as present-day Ethopia and Burundi. Mediterranean civilizations developed rapidly where the Apennine, Atlas, Pindus, Taurus, and other ranges collected ample moisture.

Yet communities and whole regions can come to harm when timber-cutting and grazing denude the highlands, as has happened with disastrous results in Madagascar, Haiti, the Philippines, and other countries where populations have burgeoned. Rain pelting barren hills is shed quickly, gathering force and generating floods with greater destructiveness than natural circumstances would provoke. Topsoil may erode and wash out to sea. Silt may clog irrigation systems and foul drinking-water supplies. In dry seasons the lack of vegetation can aggravate water shortages, and streams and wells may run dry.

In the Himalaya and other ranges in the developing world, the main threat to watersheds is not from those living traditional lifestyles at subsistence level. Rather, it is from megaprojects pushed by the World Bank, or various regional development agencies, or both. Schemes involving heavy earth-moving equipment — roads, commercial logging, and mining — can exacerbate erosion and other disturbances, sometimes disrupting entire watersheds. Dams can drown rivers. The toll of human misery these projects exact can be equally severe as they force villagers from their valley homelands, in some cases driving them to till unproductive lands high on the slopes.

Abundant Losses

Mt. Kinabalu, Borneo

BY VIRTUE OF THEIR HEIGHT AND EXPOSURE TO THE ELEMENTS, mountains support an array of life zones that harbor remarkably diverse flora and fauna. The dramatic mix of habitats on many tropical mountains varies from pastureland and deciduous forest to rainforest, coniferous forest, tundra, and icefields. A single mountain in northern Borneo — Kinabalu — is home to as many as 4,500 plant species, nearly a quarter of the number found in all of the United States.

While lowland tropical forests rank as the most biologically diverse places on the planet, all mountain habitats sustain a treasure trove of endemic plants and animals. Countless montane species may be lost before biologists fully investigate their genetic material or determine how they might be used for producing new drugs or foods. In some areas, the intricate interweaving of plants, andimals, soils, and climate may unravel altogether.

Mass extinctions are sweeping across mountain ranges world-wide like Biblical plagues. Among the most threatened habitats are those of Madagascar, eastern Tanzania, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines, along with the forests of India’s Western Ghats, the Eastern Himalaya, and the lower slopes of the Andes stretching to western Amazonia. In North America, the ugly swaths being cut through wildlife habitat by irresponsible logging practices have left many species with no place to call home.

The Sacred Profaned

Mt. Ngaruahoe, New Zealand

A VEIL OF MYTH AND LEGEND HAS LONG SHROUDED MANY of the world’s mountains, adding mystery to their features while obscuring them from trespassers. Centuries ago on New Zealand’s North Island, Maori warriors crossing the high plateau at the base of Mt. Tongariro avoided looking directly at the volcanic cone. They feared insulting the peak’s spirit and being punished with a blinding snowstorm.

For many devout millions, mountains continue to signify far more than agglomerations of stone or mere recreation sites. They are the dwelling places of supernatural beings either benevolent or malign, or are gods themselves. The traditional Quechua people of the Andes commune daily with mysterious apus who reside in even the smallest hillocks. The larger an apu’s domain, the more formidable its power. Many of the world’s 600 million Hindus regard an entire, might range as one god: Himalaya, father of Parvati, the wife of Shiva. In the Xishuangbanna Mountains of Yunnan, China, the forests are considered holy, and are protected from disturbance

These traditions crumble as industrial society fosters a technocratic attitude toward mountains that is far from reverential. It is difficult to imagine any mining engineer invoking the gods, or asking for forgiveness before blasting away a hillside.

The Dispossessed

Mountain-Top Removal in Appalachia, U.S.

MOST TRADITIONAL MOUNTAIN CULTURES REGARD AS ALIEN THE modern Western concept of nature as something apart from and subservient to humans. They see the natural world as encompassing and supporting them while demanding their respect. Given the freedom to live as they have for many hundreds or even thousands of years, highland societies typically exact only minimal toll from the land, farming on terraces to minimize erosion, practicing shifting cultivation to preserve soil fertility, collecting medicinal plants, cutting trees selectively, and utilizing animal dung for fuel.

Topography often combines with traditional feelings of kinship with the land to promote conservation practices. Before the Spanish conquest of western South America in the 1500s, natives of the Andes had successfully adapted to their vertical world by developing a highly specialized form of agriculture in which varied crops — including the first potatoes — were grown on small parcels of land spaced out up the slopes like patches on a quilt.

Today the vast majority of native Andean people — like indigenous mountain people in developing countries around the world — live in abject poverty. They have little choice but to work on large plantations given over to cash crops. The imposition of foreign land-tenure and farming systems has proved disastrous for the Andean environment. Indian families produce as many as a dozen children in desperate hope of extra hands to provide for the table. The population crush has forced a mass migration of campesinos from the highlands to such sprawling coastal cities as Lima and Santiago. There millions live in squalid shantytowns, breathing the fouled air that piles up against the mountainsides like trash against a curb.

In Appalachia, communities suffer as the landscape around them is scarred irreparably through mountain-top removal, a pernicious affront to the sensibilities of the people, not to mention a travesty for wildlife.


Towering Monuments

Mt. Huascarán, Cordillera Blanca, Andes, Peru.

IN 1972, MOST COUNTRIES ATTENDING A UNITED NATIONS conference in Paris agreed to identify their outstanding geographical areas and nominate them for consideration as World Heritage Sites. Once approved by an international committee, the delegates decreed, the places os designated would be safeguarded in perpetuity through the cooperative efforts of the world community.

To date, 25 mountain areas in 15 countries have been inscribed on the World Heritage List. Such designation has helped to modify road proposals for Mt. Huascarán in Peru, discourage mining on Mt. Nimba on the border between Guinea and the Ivory Coast, and limit ski-resort development on Bulgaria’s Mt. Pirin.

Many spectacular areas nominated for the list still await approval; of even greater concern are those areas not yet nominated but eminently deserving of protection. Though an urgent case can be made for protecting all mountains — even those celebrated only by the people who dwell in their shadows — it is heartening that the nations of the world have concluded that some peaks and ranges, at least, are so distinctive that preserving them is clearly in the interest of all.

The Unspoken Reason: Into the Wilderness

From Into the Wilderness: An Artist’s Journey (Artisan/The Greenwich Workshop; 1995). Artwork by Stephen Lyman. Text by Mark Mardon.
“Cathedral Snow,” painting by Stephen Lyman

The wilderness holds answers to more questions
 than we yet know how to ask. — Nancy Newhall


On an especially clear morning in Yosemite Valley, on the north bank of the Merced River, Steve Lyman awakes from a night of slumber and for a long while remains stretched out in his sleeping bag, meditating on the scenery surrounding him. A sublime daybreak, he thinks, especially with craggy old Half Dome already exuberantly awake and busy catching and pitching back the first rays of a new spring sun. It is an image the artist has absorbed again and again on visits to Yosemite—this is his 35th trip to the national park in the last 17 years—but one that, as usual, fills him with an eagerness and anticipation verging on giddiness.

Why the feeling of such elation is hard to say precisely. Perhaps it’s that the monolith’s wise, wrinkled face, beaming down at him, beckons him to begin yet another backcountry adventure, promising myriad discoveries along the way. Or maybe it’s that after too long a period of winter dormancy in his northern Idaho home, he will once more be shedding the trappings of the artist’s workaday life to run and climb free in the wilds, reveling in the majestic Sierra Nevada landscape, testing his mountain-climbing reflexes, regaining his bearings, stretching his senses to the limit.

His body is groggy at the moment, not from sleep but from a winter spent tending to work, family, and community. But soon he will rebound as he treks cross-country toward hard-to-reach places recommended to him by Yosemite National Park historian and good friend Jim Snyder, who has explored pretty much all of the park and knows which hiking challenges will earn Steve the greatest scenic rewards.

Within hours after embarking on the trail, he’ll once again become fully alert, attuned to the subtlest natural phenomena: a tiger swallowtail butterfly emerging from its chrysalis after a long winter spent dangling from a twig, newly resplendent in its lemon-yellow and black-striped gossamer apparel; blossoms of dwarf huckleberry livening a stream side, that will soon be yielding sweet berries for hungry black bears; the long, noisy kaaaaa of a Clark’s nutcracker, flitting from tree to tree in search of a mate, its black-and-gray plumage stark against the snowy ground at timberline.

Perhaps the simplest way the artist can explain his high spirits is to recognize his intense attraction to mountains and all the living things that abound in them, like that of John Muir, his spiritual mentor. Through his explorations and paintings of the wild country of the American West, he exults in the variety and depth of feelings evoked by the Range of Light and its rocky kin in Oregon, Idaho, Alaska, and other rugged states.

Steve never ceases to marvel at the way a Yosemite landscape can emerge and vanish and re-emerge again as clouds and fog roll in and out of the valley. “It’s rather like a dream sometimes,” he says. “You turn your back, and the mountain’s gone.”

Stephen Lyman at work in his studio.

With his artist’s eye, Steve sees the mountains and valleys as Muir did, vivid in shadow and light.

“Pale rose and purple sky changing softly to daffodil yellow and white,” Muir wrote of a sunrise in his first summer in the Sierra: “Sunbeams pouring through the passes between the peaks and over the Yosemite domes, making their edges burn.”

But even the urge to partake of such visual nourishment cannot in itself adequately explain why Steve so eagerly takes to the heights. It’s that old question: Why climb a mountain? The answer is not something that can be adequately expressed in words. The only way to understand what motivates a mountaineer is to seek out and engage the wilderness, for only in climbing the mountain does the answer becomes clear.

Many people have many ideas about what wilderness signifies. To those with a grasp of ancient history, it is the threatened remnants of the disappearing, primeval landscapes that once dominated this earth–Eden before Adam and Eve. For others of a scientific bent, it is a vast research library, field museum, and living laboratory all rolled into one. Legalistic minds tend to conceive of it as roadless areas undisturbed by motor vehicles, harboring particularly fine scenic or biological values worthy of public protection–areas where, as The Wilderness Act of 1964 puts it, “the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Mining, timber, and grazing interests eye public lands as a free meal ticket, a commercial bounty ripe for the picking. Certain politicians beholden to those interests see wilderness protection as an outmoded idea, a prime target for budget cuts. Romantics in the tradition of Muir look upon mountains, forests, deserts, prairies, and wild seashores as conscious, breathing entities, sensitive to the way humans and other creatures touch them. This surely gets close to the heart of the matter, the artist nods to himself, else why would so many people run to the wilderness with such a yearning, as though it were their lover?

For Edward Abbey, wilderness represented nothing less than liberation. “It is my fear,” he once wrote in his journal, “that if we allow the freedom of the hills and of the wilderness to be taken from us, then the very idea of freedom may be taken with it.” Thoreau, who Abbey revered, put it even more concisely: “In wildness is the preservation of the world.”

For some unlucky souls, wilderness is no comforting companion. Nature appreciation is a fine art that requires tutoring. Those who have never experienced the solace and grandeur of such untamed wonderlands as Yosemite, Alaska’s Denali National Park, Oregon’s Columbia Gorge, or any of a thousand other untrammeled places may all too casually shrug off the importance of wild country, or even come to fear it. They may consider undeveloped landscapes to be environments separate from and uninviting to human society, places alien, remote, harsh, and inhabited by fearsome creatures.

Such thinking is as old as civilization itself. The very idea of securing hearth and home from the forces of barbarism came about from people’s struggle with a wilderness vastly more powerful than themselves, that seemed always on the verge of overwhelming them. Prior to the marriage of science and technology in the mid-19th century, which gave rise to the industrial age, humans may have shaped the land–as did the Romans, Egyptians, Hollanders, and even Native Americans, in different ways and to varying degrees–but they never never became divorced from it in pursuit of their livelihoods. As individuals went to work in factories and started consuming packaged products, however, many became estranged from it., to the point that they grew increasingly indifferent to it or even contemptuous of it.

Great writers of that time, Thomas Hardy and Joseph Conrad, warned us against our new found sense of superiority over the wilderness, but not against our impending alienation from it. Ultimately, man was an animal and the wilderness a great, untamable beast. Try as we might, it was something we would not overcome.

Technological optimism has changed that idea dramatically. As farmer and philosopher Wendell Berry observes in The Gift of Good Land, until the industrial revolution, the dominant images in people’s minds were organic: “they had to do with living things; they were biological, pastoral, agricultural, or familial.” Now, he laments, people are referred to as “units,” the body as a machine, food as fuel, thoughts as “inputs,” and responses as “feedback.” In such a lexicon, where does the wilderness survive? Ours is a society that thinks it doesn’t need wilderness anymore, that believes people can invent their own life-support systems and artificial environments rather than having to put up with the inconveniences of nature’s cycles.

Yet we are also living in a time when people feel increasingly that something spiritual is missing from their lives, that the natural rhythms and cycles that formerly sustained humanity are breaking down. Correspondingly, there has been a noticeable rise in the number of messengers and their manifestations: Angels, The Light, and even extraterrestrials. Their message, however, is, at the core, always the same: something has been lost, and without it people’s lives can never be full.

To Steve Lyman, once again enjoying the freedom of the hills, what civilization truly needs in order to shore up its crumbling foundation is a universal acknowledgement that wilderness, in the final analysis, may be the ultimate salve for psyches wounded by humanity’s alienation from the nature that gave it birth. Muir himself expressed the notion that wilderness, like poetry, music, art, and religion, nurtures that part of us for which science cannot account. In the mountains, he observed, there are times when a person’s soul sets forth upon rambles on its own accord, without consulting first with mind or body. On such occasions, “brooding over some vast mountain landscape, or among the spiritual countenances of mountain flowers, our bodies disappear, our mortal coils come off without any shuffling, and we blend into the rest of Nature, utterly blind to the boundaries that measure human quantities into separate individuals.


To spend time in the wilderness, observed Marion Randall in The Sierra Club Bulletin of 1905, is to touch something vital at the core of the universe:

For a little while you have dwelt close to the heart of things. . . . You have lived day-long amid the majesty of snowy ranges, and in the whispering silences of the forest you have thought to hear the voice of Him who “flies upon the wings of the wind.” And these things live with you long after the outing has passed and you are back in the working world, linger even until the growing year once more brings around the vacation days and you are ready to turn to the hills again, whence comes, not only your help, but your strength, your inspiration, and some of the brightest hours you have ever lived.

The snowmelt on the rim of Yosemite Valley, Steve observes as he packs his gear and prepares to set out on his trek, has hardly swollen the Merced. The river’s low water line and placid current are what he would expect during summer rather than early spring. But in the wilderness, expectations are often confounded. That’s part of the backpacking allure: the surprise, the serendipitous discoveries. Indeed, Steve has come to understand that the best journeys are often those arrived at spontaneously, without the burden of detailed planning. Rather than plotting every leg of a hike from start to finish and then attempting to follow the route step by step, he prefers to arrive at the edge of the wild country with no clear itinerary, to camp there for a night and let the mountains’ spirit embrace him during his sleep. That way, in the morning, he can embark on a more spontaneous, free-spirited, and fulfilling adventure. The wilderness itself will point the way. He likes to let the mountains be his guide.



The Fall of A Mountaineer Artist
Monday, April 22, 1996
Stephen Lyman

Wilderness painter. photographer, and philosopher Stephen Lyman, with whom I had the honor of collaborating on the book, Into the Wilderness: An Artist’s Journey, died in Yosemite in April, 1996, having met with a freak storm and an unlucky fall from a perch in the Cathedral Rocks area of Yosemite Valley. Yosemite has known many exceptional painters — Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Hill, and William Keith among them — and great mountaineers, from John Muir to David Brower. Steve Lyman ranks among these stellar personages for his love and devotion to the Range of Light, and for his ability to express that love through his art.

Into_The_Wilderness_BOOKAbove is the opening chapter of our book, Into the Wilderness: An Artist’s Journey. The chapter’s title, “The Unspoken Reason,” reflects Steve’s reluctance to say precisely why he journeyed into the backcountry. Such sentiments, he felt, could never be adequately expressed in words. “The Unspoken Reason” also, I feel, speaks to the question of why Steve, at too young an age, met his end in the valley that held such a claim on his heart.

My gratitude to former Sierra Magazine Editor-in-Chief Jonathan F. King for connecting me with The Greenwich Workshop and Steve Lyman.

A Peak Affair: “Ansel Adams at 100” at SFMOMA

“Bishops Pass, Kings River Canyon, 1936,” part of “Ansel Adams at 100” at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

I like my mountains to look like men — rugged, hard-bodied, and a challenge to mount. When I see a peak, I see potential routes up to a dramatic climax. The more difficult the climb, the more orgasmic the experience. Of course, prior to any attempt at conquest, the way up must be carefully surveyed, so typically I accord photographs of peaks, whether in mountaineering journals or on the walls of SFMOMA, the same loving scrutiny straight men give pictures of Playboy models. While I’m at it, I also closely inspect the surroundings — the windblown trees, the ice-encrusted streams, the lichen-covered stones — as any man will do in the boudoir of his lover.

Ansel Adams has provided more mountain centerfolds than probably any mountaineering/nature photographer ever, and you can see them all nicely (i.e. conservatively) displayed at the SFMOMA exhibition, Ansel Adams at 100, which opened August 4 and runs through January 13. The work was curated by a great eminence in the photo-art world, John Szarkowski, who was director of the photography department of New Yorks MoMA from 1962-1991.

In his prime, when Adams was most active in the outdoors, he brought a zest for mountaineering to his photographic work, and consistently turned out images of superior technical quality as pure, pristine and crystal clear as the wilderness landscapes themselves, as Adams demanded. He was a master technician, and the key to his success was not just in being the first to photograph a particular peak, but the one who captured the best shots of those peaks, and then developed his prints to the highest possible standards of perfection. His forms are sleek, sensuous, seductive, and presented in all their naked glory at SFMOMA. Adams loved those Sierra Nevada peaks I imagine as women, if he sexualized them at all and worked tirelessly at capturing every nuance of their delicate, subtle forms. Seeing his original prints spread out with great dignity and formality on the walls of SFMOMA reminded me, for some odd reason, of classy peep shows where one views gorgeous body after gorgeous body, the display of beauty leaving you panting.

At times I also like my mountains soft and willowy, warm and completely enfolding. That sort of temperament can only be come upon by chance in the great outdoors, and capturing it on film is an art of the highest order. Adams routinely captured that and countless other mountain moods, as well or probably better than any mountaineering photographer before or since. His name is revered in circles of mountaineering photographers, virtually all of whom in the past 60 years or so owe a debt to Adams. He, more than anyone except writer/naturalist John Muir, conveyed the character of mountains in a way that moved people both spiritually and emotionally, without hammering them over the head with religion. Especially in the early years of his long career, he was exquisitely subtle in his mountain portrayals; in his renderings you could perceive traces of femininity and masculinity where others found only stone and wind-swept vistas.

The problem with Ansel Adams is that his work has become thoroughly cliched and cheapened in value through gross overexposure especially because his images have spread widely among those who have little or no personal connection with the places Adams worshipped. His art is not abstract, it’s enormously concrete, attempting to signify universal truths through attention to specific places and objects. He, like Muir, treated the wilderness as a spiritual home, and mountains as cathedrals. He worshipped idols.

Adams was conflicted, like so many conservationists of his day. On the one hand he worked taking photographs for mining companies and other industrial interests. At the same time, he worked to preserve and protect the wild places he truly love. His art developed to its fine degree because he was driven, as all mountaineers are, to conquer peak after peak, to be the first to a lofty place from which he could look out across creation and claim it as his own. But while his friends and contemporaries David Brower, Dick Leonard, Glen Dawson, and Bestor Robinson were making all the notable first ascents, Adams was making the even more notable and enduring images of the peaks being conquered.

To truly appreciate Adams, you must appreciate how difficult it was, especially in the 1920s, 30s and 40s, to journey deep into the Sierra, often with pack mules and a hundred or so fellow backpackers on a Sierra Club outing, carrying a full load of photographic gear. You must be familiar with the old Sierra Club Bulletins in which Adams work first appeared, with their quaint mountaineering essays and black-and-white plates. You must know that Adams tangled famously with his editor at the Sierra Club, David Brower, who was as wildly liberal and daring in his way of doing things as Adams was conservative and cautious. Together they rocked the conservation world, built a lasting environmental movement, and carried on the spirit of John Muir.

While I adore all the Adams images now on display at SFMOMAs big centennial retrospective of the San Francisco natives work (Adams was born here in 1902), and appreciate them being nicely organized in one section of the museums 4th floor, in that sterile environment, they dont generate a lot of heat. Its hard to look at Adams photographs there without thinking about the publishing/marketing decisions that have led to Adams photographs being massively reproduced and disseminated for decades, so out of context so out of touch with the wilderness realm that inspired them that today they work almost as much as nostalgic kitsch as inspiration.


This article originally appeared in the August 9, 2001 edition of the Bay Area Reporter


Climbing as if there were no tomorrow

This essay originally appeared in Climbing magazine, February/March, 1991. It has been slightly revised.

Carl Henderson

It was during a torrential downpour nearly two years ago that I got the notion to climb with Carl Henderson. I was helping my friend move from one San Francisco flat to another when we were forced by the storm to take cover inside a rented moving van; that’s when I noticed, on top of one of his boxes, a coiled climbing rope and a pair of old E.B.s.

When I suggested doing a route together Carl was ambivalent. He hadn’t climbed in years, and the rop0e and shoes had been gathering dust in closets since he moved to the Bay Area in 1980. He let the offer pass with a shrug and a “maybe.”

Two months later, however, he gave me a call; he wanted to get back on the rocks. Little did I realize I’d soon be struggling, and eventually failing, to keep up with him as he pursued climbing zealously, like a man possessed.

At first I didn’t recognize the source of his devotion; after all, many people climb as though their lives depend on it. But now I think Carl drives himself so fiercely because he clearly sees his life’s horizon, even if he’s not at all convinced the sun will dip below it anytime soon.

In action, Carl is neither the most graceful of climbers, nor by any means the strongest. He’ll tell you that more important than strength on most climbs is balance. His main climbing exercise is something he calls “centering,” which I take it involves grabbing hold of wildly flung emotions and bringing them under control, to attain that crucial balance, not just on the rock, but in life generally.

I think I understand what he’s talking about, though I suspect his effort in bringing his emotions under control is stronger than mine. I do not have AIDS. Carl does.

Carl is also gay; we both are, which makes us anomalies in the largely heterosexual, male-dominated world of climbing. I presume most people know that being gay is in no way a precondition for having AIDS — that while the disease in the United States has hit the gay population the hardest, in other parts of the world it has stricken primarily heterosexuals. I hope most climbers also understand that AIDS is communicable only by the exchange of body fluids, primarily blood and semen. So climbing with a person with AIDS poses little risk of infection.

Some prejudices about gays die hard, of course. A few rude boys still deride other climbers as “homos.” They do so with a tiresome regularity and a carelessness born, I suppose, of outmoded habits or sheer rotten natures. And homophobia, if not rampant in our sport’s literature, is at least common; for example, a well-known guidebook to the Bay Area warns that while climbing at Beaver Street Wall, located in San Francisco’s most gay district, “you don’t want to walk around in your lycras …”

Experience tells me, though, that the climbing world is for the most part a remarkably open-minded, non-bogoted society. On a one-to-one basis, neither Carl, nor I, nor any other gay climbers I know has experienced homophobia among the straight climbers we hang out with. Not only are we open to them about our sexuality, but we mix freely in their social lives, and they in ours.

As it happens, I climb mostly with straight partners. It strikes me as odd to find myself explaining such a thing, because to me the issue of my partner’s sexuality is incidental. Cimbing itself is the goal.

But if I didn’t already have gay climbing friends, and wanted to make some, I’d have little difficuty in doing so. A nationwide network of gay, lesbian, and bisexual climbers exists, founded in Boston by Mark Mueller. Stonewall Climbers, as the group is called, takes its name from a Greenwich Villiage bar where patrons resisting police harassment in 1969 gave impetus to the modern gay-liberation movement.

Yet homosexuality is nothing new among climbers. The name John Menlove Edwards is familiar to only a few, but to his biographer, Jim Perrin, Edwards was the greatest British rock climber of the 1930s, the “father and prophet to the modern sport, one of its greatest innovators.” Perrin also describes Edwards as a “homosexual who preached openness and tolerance at a time when the laws against deviation from the sexual norm were harshly punitive.”

For those reasons, Edwards is a hero to me; I try to honor his spirit when I climb. In that same spirit, I hope, openly gay climbers will emerge at the forefront of the sport. But I also hope that climbers of all persuasions wioll take inspiration from Edwards, to continue striving to overcome barriers, to push to new levels of accomplishment, all the while reveling in the freedom that climbing brings, and appreciating the diversity of its practitioners.

I don’t know if straight climbers everywhere are accepting of gays among them. I’ve climbed in relatively few places, and with a limited number of people, mostly in the Andes and in California. My experience can hardly be considered representative of all climbers.

Instinct tells me, though, that I’d find a comfortable home among climbers in just about any place I decide to visit. In part that’s because climbing is such an anarchic scene, an ongoing rebellion against social strictures. Its practitioners seek solace in the liberating wilds from encroaching, smothering civilization. They’ve had enough containment; they want to use their muscles and wits to climb away from the stiff collars, the stuffed shirts, the passive beasts of burden who daily crowd in and try to mold them into one of their kind.

Few people living in cities and holding regular jobs keep more rigorous climbing schedules than Carl Henderson does, now that he is back at it. On most weekends, even on the coldest, most blustery days, he can be found at one of the local crags, setting up one toprope climb after another, chatting endlessly with other climbers, behaving professorially with first-timers by telling them where they’ll find their next fingerhold, or how they should turn out their toes in order to make it through the next, seemingly impossible move. Carl knows what he is talking about, having studied ballet for 12 years.

He was 19 when he moved from the washington, D.C., area to San Francisco with his first lover. Their relationship lasted a year and a half. In the early 1980s, Carl says, “I was a hippie after hippies were dead,” a classical-music freak who listened mostly to Bartok and string quartets, and whose favorite composition was Mozart’s Requiem. He lived in a group house in the middle of San Francisco’s gay ghetto, the Castro, slept on the floor, worked in fast-food restaurants, too computer-programming classes, and was always broke.

One day on Castro Street in 1981, he saw an article clipped from The New York Times and taped to the window of Cliff’s Variety Store. It had something to do with the discovery of a “gay cancer” that was killing people and had no known cure.

“People I knew started dying,” he says. “They would get sick, go in their houses, and close the door. Six months later, you’d hear they were dead.”

He went for his first AIDS test in 1987, and the result was positive: he had HIV, the virus that eventually leads to full-blown AIDS, in his bloodstream.

“I was disturbed, but not shocked,” he says. “I had been sexually active for 14 years, and only two of those were safe.”

Now he’s nearly 30, and though he foresees a cure being found for AIDS, the disease makes him live differently.

“There is no tomorrow,” Carl says. “I live for today.”

He still plans for the future — “I’d like to go traveling,” he says wistfuly — though not without some inconvenience, like having to take regular doses of the drug AZT, which interrupt the life cycle of the AIDS virus, and causes him extreme nausea in the process. Only by smoking marijuana can he ease the drug’s side effect and not continually feel sick to his stomach.

Fortunately, when all about him people are losing their heads over the tragedy that surrounds them, Carl keeps his by climbing.

“It’s a way of relieving stress,” he says. “It teaches me to overcome pain, physical limitations; to be calm, precise, accurate; to go through extreme motions when my brain is telling me, ‘People don’t do this sort of thing.’ Climbing is more than fun. It’s a necessity.”

Not long ago, four of us reached the top of Tuolumne Meadows’ Fairview Dome late in the day after a tiring climb. Trying to descend in the moonless night, we lost our way and had to downclimb exposed granite slabs in the dark. The long night ended with a stumbling thrash through the woods to camp. One of thoughts coursing through my mind during our ordeal was that the strain of our endeavor would weaken Carl’s already compromised immune system. It might even send him back to the hospital, where only a few months before he had struggled to overcome a bout of pneumocystis pneumonia he had contracted — rather foolishly, he admits — by running barefoot through the snow in Yosemite.

My fear then reflected how much I still have to learn about AIDS. Carl bounded back as quickly as any of us, and later we arranged for a November climbing trip to Joshua Tree: a sure sign that he has little intention of letting AIDS interrupt his plans.

. . . . .


Carl Henderson finally succumbed to AIDS in 1993. Shortly before his death, he wrote the following verse:


Nothing More


Masses of air on all sides

What a sight to see

It glides to and fro

With the wind

But it is just a cloud

Noting more


So lovely a shape

I have never seen

Smooth on all sides

Round and perfect

Light strikes it

And it dazzles my eyes

But it is only a stone

Nothing more



No worries left

No pain to feel

An existence of


This is death and

Nothing more


— Carl E. Henderson

Kay Pacha: Quechua Spirituality

The power of the earth is infinite and encompasses all. That which has no roots in the earth is not sound, has no worth.

 saying in the Quechua Indian community of Pinchimuro.

Kay Pacha, by Rosalind Gow and Bernabe Condori; preface and index by Henrique Urbano (Center for Rural Andean Studies, Cuzco, Peru; 1976). Bilingual edition in Quechua and Spanish, 200 pages, paperback, illustrated.

Earthly Gods: Quechua Indian Spirituality According to Kay Pacha


Reviewed and translated from the Spanish by Mark Mardon

kay-pachaIN THE QUECHUA LANGUAGE OF THE CUZCO-COLLAO REGION OF PERU, Kay Pacha means “earthly world, inhabited by living beings.” The spirits and demons that inhabit this world are of the earth and close to the people, not remote and of the sky as with the Judeo-Christian god.

The book is a collection of legends, anecdotes, and spiritual beliefs of the inhabitants of the tiny Peruvian community of Pinchimuro, which lies within the shadow of towering Mt. Ausangate. Replete with a pantheon of gods, spirits, demons, and witches, the book is a serious anthropological study of a traditional Andean society.

Authors Gow and Condori, who assembled the stories and elaborate on their meanings, never introduce us to the story tellers, who remain nameless and faceless. Yet this seeming lapse is explained by the fact that the stories we read in Kay Pacha belong to the community, not to the person who transmits it to the researcher.

“The individual relating the story,” writes Urbano in his preface, “assumes the collective word to express the sentiments, desires, aspirations of the whole community.”

Ancestors, rocks, rivers, and mountains all command reverence from the peasants of Pinchimuro. The people exist at the mercy of nature, to which they attribute divine powers, sometimes benevolent, sometimes cruel and avaricious.

Most of the book’s legends and anecdotes, taken by themselves, are far too sketchy to be easily appreciated by the uninitiated, but Gow and Condori divide the book into several sections and provide an essential and enlightening introduction to each. These cover such topics and concepts as mother earth, regional history, Apus, divinities, and festivals.

These help the reader learn the names and characteristics of the various spirits that exert influence over the land and people of the community.

Omens and portents, offerings, cures, and witchcraft are all the domain of paqos, human shamans within the community. If their ability is keen, they command respect and wield authority. They look for omens among the stars, in the temper of the mountains, in the direction of the wind, in the rain and the hail, and above all in the leaves of coca, divining the necessities and desires of Pachamama, mother earth. It is Pachamama that is revered above all: “Pachamama lives. As she begets the worms of the earth, so too are we begotten.”

Apus are spirits of the hills and mountains, whose powers increase with the height of the landform they inhabit. Thus Apu Ausangate, god of the snow-capped, 20,906-foot peak, is the most powerful Apu, and the one most pervasive throughout the community’s folklore.

A similarity with other native religions is evident, and Christianity has had an influence, especially in that aspect of the Apus‘ nature that serves as a moral guide. Yet the Christian god plays but a minor role in Pinchimuro cosmology. The forces most removed from the earth — God, the sun, the moon, the stars, and the majority of saints — have very limited powers. The campesinos say: “They live in the heavens, they are not like us, how can they affect our lives?”

The campesinos divide their history into five periods: creation; the first men; the period of the Incas and the Spanish Conquest; independence; and the future. The story of the first men is especially interesting: called the “Gentiles,” the first men were few but physically and spiritually very powerful. Giants reaching great ages, they knew no infirmity. Having no gods they were their own authorities, acting themselves as gods. They cultivated potatoes and cared for animals; nonetheless, they lived in constant darkness and their only fear was light. Their epoch ended when the first sun appeared over the horizon and the rooster crowed; they realized there was no time to escape, so they buried their gold, silver, weavings, tools, and adornments. Accompanied by pumas, llamas, and alpacas, the Gentiles dashed for the darkness of the jungle, cursing the sun. Some reached their goal, but most were immobilized when the sun struck them and burned them or turned them to stones.

The book gives a glimpse into the kind of ritual offerings still practiced within traditional Andean societies. On the 31st of July of each year, for example, the campesinos of Pinchimuro supplicate their individual stars with offerings of 12 k’intus (bunches of three leaves of the coca plant), the fetus of a pig or of a guinea pig, the fat of an alpaca, sweets, tiny lead stars, and carnations. They are rewarded with a sacred rock, inkaychu, in the shape of a vicuna, an alpaca, a sheep, or a cow that contains the essence of the vital force of the Apu. In celebrating the rites of the festival of The Lord of Quyllur Rit’i, many campesinos believe the Lord desires human sacrifice. It is felt the celebration has been a failure if during it no one dies.

Kay Pacha’s greatest achievement is the insight it gives into the campesino’s view of the world. In one instance that view encompasses what the campesinos view as the follow of mountaineering gringos who attempt to scale Ausangate, one of the world’s great climbing challenges. In a tale called “The Lion of Ausangate,” oral tradition in Pinchimuro recounts the predicaments of foreigners attempting to scale the peak. Alas, they encounter the mountain’s guardian, The Lion:

Nevado Ausangate, Peru

Well, then came the gringos from other nations. These gringos upset him [the lion]. Climbing halfway up Ausangate they watched, but the lion didn’t let himself be seen. He does not want them to see him easily. It angers him. Even Ausangate himself would not let himself be seen by the gringos. Dense clouds concealed him. Then came the snow. 

All this happened to the poor gringos. Weeks and weeks they were there suffering. They say they wanted to climb Ausangate and see the lion. They were not allowed to see. Then, erecting their tent above the lake, the poor gringos became unhappy. They took photographs of the viscachas [a type of rodent].

There they were passing their lives. The never were able to climb Ausangate. They climbed halfway. There they became ill. At times they returned on a stretcher. At times they came back tied to a horse. The gringos suffered greatly in this remote corner. They hiked Ausangate saying: “I will go up.” They were not able. Flags were raised.”

When they wanted to climb to the top, Ausangate caused two golden bulls to block their way. Because of this they could neither climb upwards nor remove the golden bulls. Nor could they see the lion. For pleasure, they suffered there. They did everything possible, but neither could they climb nor see. 

At the time they became ill, they saw that their provisions were finished. Now they had nothing to eat. They lived for weeks sucking candies, nothing more. A few times, shortly after they arrived, the inhabitants of that remote place robbed them of their sleeping bags and supplies — they robbed them of everything. The poor gringos suffered a lot in that remote place.

So they returned to their land because they had nothing more to eat. Carrying photographs of alpacas, rocks, and snow, they returned.

This is the account of the riches of Ausangate they desired.


The Cosmology of Pinchimuro

Kay Pacha means “earthly world, inhabited by living beings.” 

Pachamama is Quechua for “Mother Earth.”

“Pachamama lives. As she begets the worms in the earth, so too are we begotten. She has bones and blood. And hair too. The pastures are her hair. She has milk as well. She lives in August from the first to the sixth. After Christmas she lives no more. She receives offerings. Wine and drink for her ceremony of pouring liquor, this is what Pachamama wants. Pacha Tierra [another term for “mother earth”], like us, knows how to masticate coca; she knows how to drink. The offering must contain feed, incense, sugar, fetus of vicuna, fetus of vizcacha, and the wool of the vicuna.”

Urbano makes clear Pachamama’s importance to the people of Pinchimuro: “Isolated, exploited, dominated, the man of Pinchimuro lives with hunger, illness and death at his side. Pachamama briefly comforts the hunger, the hills protect against the dangers of an ungrateful nature, the rivers and the rains provide the water necessary for the farms, the sweet coca makes one forget the pain and the harshness of the work.”

The forces most removed from the earth — God, the sun, the moon, the stars (except “las Cabanillas”) and the majority of saints — have very limited powers. According to Gow and Condori: “The campesinos say: ‘They live in the heavens — they are not like us — How can they affect our lives?'”

Apus: gods of the hills and mountains.

Apus have three levels of existence:

1. In the first level, they are human beings, appearing to the campesinos as men, children, or women. They are treated as members of the family with the same needs and behaviors. In the past, they appeared frequently in the pueblo. Apu Ausangate, most powerful in the region, appeared frequently as a mestizo child, with blond hair and clear skin, wearing white clothes and adorned with ferns or a white headband, and mounted on a white horse. The human aspect of Apu Ausangate is important: he suffers and is happy with the pueblo, loves and is loved by all.

2. In the second level, the apus, especially Ausangate, are symbols of ideal life. Moral guides. They punish those who commit incest with an eternity of living in agony and desperation, dragging their chained, naked bodies to the frozen slopes of Ausangate, where they are obliged to devour friends and neighbors, like it or not.

The campesino must select the star that represents the affinity between his destiny and that of his closest apu. Without altomisas — intermediaries — he must select on his own. He must certify his selection is correct. So, on July 31st, he makes offerings to his star, including 12 k’intus (bunches of three leaves of the coca plant), the fetus of a pig, or of a guinea pig, the fat of an alpaca, sweets, tiny lead stars, and carnations. If his selection is correct, he is compensated with a sacred rock (inkaychu ) in the form of a vicuna, alpaca, sheep, or cow that contains the essence of the vital force protected and created by the apu.

3. In the third level, the apus are all-powerful gods, above and beyond human understanding. They accomplish miracles or heroic actions or may be bad and cruel. This explains Ausangate’s two names: Apu Ausangatesymbol of virtue, benevolence, and peace; and Inca Qahasymbol of the passing, the destruction, and the insecurity of the future.

Ausangate is the name given to a group of mountains that include Kayankati, Hawaykati, Qulqi Cruz (5,960 meters), and Ausangate itself (6,372 meters). These apus exercise little influence over the fertility of cultivated lands. The second level of lesser mountains do this.

Rugales: divinities of the rocks, lakes, and hills.

Hail, snow, and lightening: demons living in dangerous and isolated high altitude lakes where they form a family. The snow is the grandmother, the hail is the daughter, and the lightening are the grandchildren. They are cruel, avaricious, and their homes are full of the animals, harvests, and people whose vital forces — souls — have been robbed.

Elemento — The rivers whose sources are in Ausangate are called Elemento. In a region where the water inundates the land half the year and the other half the animals lose weight and go hungry for lack of water, Elemento is perceived as an all-powerful but irrational god: a semi-god and semi-demon. 

Rocks, in campesino cosmology, are the domicile of ancestors and have the power to control the fertility of the earth and the destiny of the campesino.

The Virgin of Pinchimuro, Mamacha Concebida: came down from the heavens and, according the thinking of many, lives in the temple, acquired certain power linked with the earth. As a woman, she is associated with Pachamama and helps to assure the fertility of the fields.

El Señor [Lord] de Quyllur Rit’i: each year attracts some 10,000 faithful campesinos to his sanctuary. Identified by many of them with the rock in which he disappeared, and on which he had previously painted his cross.

Spirits and demons:

1. The anchanchu live in the rivers.

2. The quwa live in the wind.

3. The sirinu live in the lakes.

4. The Incas are waiting in the earth, but must make their presence felt by means of tapados , sacred stones and manifestations in the form of animals.

5. The deadly soq’a — tumor — is a spirit of ancestors, living in the earth, appearing frequently at nightfall in search of living souls.

In the belief system of Pinchimuro, according to Kay Pacha, “One must care for the dead members of a family as if they were living, and even more, because they are dangerous, they must not be irritated. These dead live, and during the year they must be remembered with respect, by making offerings of their favorite foods and beverages, and in this manner all can live together in peace.”

The First of August: This date lives, and all the men make Vespers on the night of the thirty-first. At dawn they leave in search of idols (inkaychu ); every rock lives, every crag and cliff lives, and every spring lives. From these places they look and inspect the pampas. On this day the pampas live. Everything lives. The Pachamama lives too. For this the Pachamama makes presents of idols to the lucky people. What is more, on this day the cow has its stone, the sheep has its stone, the fish and every one of the animals too.

Las Cabanillas: A constellation, probably the Southern Cross. Depending on which of three stars — Collari, Incari, and Mistiri — shows first after the new year, the people say the year will be bad, good, or regular, respectively.


The Community of Pinchimuro

“A small community of 65 families, Pinchimuro belongs to the district of Ocongate, province of Quispicanchis. . . . Undulating and naked earth at 3,900 meters above sea level, it is adorned by valleys to the north and south, while to the east it is dominated by the majestic Ausangate, Cayancate, and Qolque, snow-capped mountains a few hours away by foot.

Preparing chuño on the Andean altiplano.

“Life is hard in these remote regions. The community possesses only 250 hectares of poor land that permits only the cultivation of potatoes and the lowest proportions of cereals in the most sheltered places. Rotation is made every six years. Each family cultivates more or less a half hectare and in that rears a few animals. The majority of these only manage to survive thanks to the sale of meat and wool (for one or two ponchos a year), and to money acquired in possible migrations to the jungle, their only sources of income. The potatoes are generally small and worm-ridden. For the most part there is a resistance among the commune dwellers to employing fertilizers, cause by the loss of 17,000 soles suffered by the neighboring community that tested them on a field of garlic. Before the harvest of the potatoes, from January to April, chuño [freeze-dried potato] is the only food.”

In Pinchimuro there were formerly two levels of shamanism: the Altomisa, with superior powers, who eventually turned prideful and so lost the faith of the people and had his powers limited, and the pampamisabetter known as paqothe most important person in the community.

Paqo: a person who looks for omens among the stars, in the temper of the mountains and the lakes, in the direction of the wind, of the rain and of the hail and above all in the leaves of coca, divining the necessities and desires of the Pachamama, of the hill-gods, and of the demons of the hail and wind. The election of a good paqo is supremely important. The paqo is many times a political leader, or justice of the peace.

Paqos come in three classes:

1. Those who cure human illnesses.

2. Those who make offerings to gods and demons for the prosperity of crops and animals.

3. Fearsome witches who bring death or illness, who fashion images of their enemies, attaching them to a cross and interring them in a cemetery.

El Ararihua: the person responsible for the protection of the farms.

Qollana and Kaywa: conductors of the daily communal tasks.

Los carquyoq: functionaries. They provide food, beverages, and coca as necessary, but haven’t the wisdom or power to diving the meaning of agricultural evens or strange climatic changes.


The Folk History of Pinchimuro

The people of Pinchimuro divide history into five periods:

1. Primordial time and creation. A time of chaos that terminated with the creation of all the elements. The Creation is attributed to God. For many campesinos this is His only important role. After creating the world, God entrusted the Pachamama and the apus to govern as they saw fit.

2. The time of the Ñawpaq Machula, also called Gentiles and Machu Inca. The Ñawpaq Machula were the first men to inhabit the earth. They were few, but physically and spiritually very powerful. Giants reaching great ages, they knew no infirmity. Having no gods, they were their own authorities, acting themselves as gods. They cultivated potatoes and cared for animals; nonetheless, they lived in constant darkness and their only fear was light. Their epoch ended when the first sun appeared on the horizon and the rooster crowed — they realized there was no time to escape, so they buried their gold, silver, weavings, tools, and adornments. Accompanied by large rocks, and by pumas, llamas and alpacas, the Ñawpaq dashed toward the jungle cursing the sun. Some reached their goal, but the majority remained immobilized when the sun struck them atop their heads and they were burned or transformed into stones and rocks where they still dwell.

3. The Age of Gold; the time of the Incas and the Spanish Conquest. The Incas lived in order, love, and harmony among themselves as well as among the gods.

4. Modern period: from the hacienda to independence. There is no community record or relatings of the period from Conquest to 1870. Reports about life on the haciendas is a mixture of rage against the abuses of neighboring hacendados who robbed great extensions of Pinchimuro’s land, and of respect and fear towards the hacendados, and yearning for the order and control of this period. With the disappearance of the haciendas, older generations lament the breakdown of the strict social-political hierarchies, of obedience, respect, and equality. They try to live as of old, fulfilling their obligations and being respectful, and they feel resentment of the shift of the youth towards independence.

5. The future. The future is still unclear.

Each period, epoch, or chapter has been described similarly in Catholic terminology, with epochs 1 and 2 corresponding to Dios Yaya (the Father), epochs 3 and 4 to Dios Churi (the Son), and epoch 5 to Dios Espíritu Santo (the Holy Spirit). But this merely chronological division does not reflect the manner in which the campesinos consider their history.

According to the campesinos, each chapter has something in common with the anterior and the posterior. The past always lives and a part of the present and the future exists now and has always existed. The vision of history, then, is at once cyclical, in which a catastrophe closes one cycle and inaugurates another, and accumulative, in which the anterior cycle has not been destroyed but integrated and continues exercising powerful influence.