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11 The Sharp End: The Art of the Approach

“The history of walking is an unwritten, secret history whose fragments can be found in a thousand unemphatic passages in books…a vast library of walking stories and poems, of pilgrimages, mountaineering expeditions, meanders, and summer picnics.”–Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust, 2001

[Photo] Forest Woodward

TWO SHADOWS RAN DOWN A CANYON in the summer dusk. A voice cried out in Hindi through the darkening mist, above the echoing din of the river: Bahut achcha! For days, a small group of British and Sherpa mountaineers had searched for a passage through the Rishi Gorge, scrambling up and down an elaborate labyrinth of grassy slabs, narrow walls and wild torrents. Now, finally, Ang Tharkay and Bill Tilman found a way beyond the last dim buttress into the Sanctuary of Nanda Devi.

A few days later, the climbers ambled in a hidden basin of meadows lit by the snows of unclimbed peaks. “Every few hundred yards,” Eric Shipton recalled in Nanda Devi, “some new feature would reveal itself–here a side valley to look up, and to speculate as to where it would lead, there some graceful ice-clad summit appearing from behind a buttress…. There again, a herd of wild mountain sheep.” With each footfall, Shipton felt childhood memories arise: an old dream of roving at will through an unfamiliar valley; a sense of moving through pages of faded books, of becoming, step by step, a part of every marvel seen.

It was 1934, nearly two decades before the first ascent of Everest, a time when merely puzzling out how best to reach the base of a Himalayan peak could involve years of reconnaissance. Hugh Ruttledge, who had made four previous attempts to enter the Sanctuary, described the Rishi Gorge expedition as “one of the greatest feats in mountaineering history.” Yet something else pulsed through Shipton’s writings, beyond the mere progression of exploratory climbing: a vision in which time and space took on an intricate and expansive quality, shimmering and gradual like the passage of light across a distant mountain range.

In Blank on the Map, a few years later, Shipton decried the relentless acceleration of his society, the tendency “to run riot in a craving for sensation.” By slowing down, he hoped to reimmerse himself in the realities of nature; to pursue alpinism as a “recreation of the spirit,” in which what mattered was not the rapid acquisition of summits or the dominion over terrain, but the many long, meandering paths of the approach.

SINCE SHIPTON’S TIME, THE PACE OF LIFE has only increased. Many of us have little time or means for the protracted voyages that he and his contemporaries undertook. Yet over the years, I’ve found that the depth of my absorption in a climb still depends on some quality of the hike I took to get there–as if the downbeat of footsteps awakens a more vivid, tactile, grounded perception of the world.

In the 2001 book Wanderlust, Rebecca Solnit declares, “Imagination has both shaped and been shaped by the spaces it passes through on two feet.” For centuries, the history and literature of walking and climbing have intertwined. In 1689 the Buddhist poet Matsuo Basho roamed for some 1,500 kilometers across Japan, until the last boundaries between him and the world seemed to fade, and fragments of mountains flowed into luminous haikus: the white snows of a summit burning through the mist; the silver sheen of a waterfall glimmering into a dark pool. More than 100 years afterward, the Romantic poet William Wordsworth pieced together rambles through the British countryside and the Swiss Alps into the autobiographical “Prelude.” In lines that echoed the cadence of steps, he marveled at how the rhythm of walking shook off the constraints of the city and the burdens of an “unnatural self,” summoning up “trances of thought and mountings of the mind.”

Decades later, Wordsworth’s readers sought their own sublime visions on Europe’s highest peaks, just as cog railways, trains and steamships made long walks appear atavistic. In The Railway Journey (1977), the historian Wolfgang Schivelbusch describes a disorienting sense of “annihilation of time and space.” Old roads intended for horses, stagecoaches and pedestrians had undulated with the natural contours of hills and valleys. The new railroads shot across the land in straight, sharp lines. Through the windows, passengers experienced a series of rapid, fleeting views–blurred forms and colors of fields, flowers and mountains all rushing by in some separate, glassed-off realm. Entire countries seemed to shrink to the size of a metropolis. Individual places began to seem detached from what the philosopher Walter Benjamin defined as the “aura” of art and nature, their original and unique presence in the world.

By the mid-twentieth century, as Solnit points out, the spread of highways, superhighways and air travel amplified this sense of dislocation. Automobiles became a mechanism for both the expansion of urban areas and the desperate desire to escape them. The mythic allure of the road trip mixed with a sense of unease: in the 1974 Ascent, Lito Tejada-Flores described a crowded route as “an ugly thoroughfare”; David Lovejoy evoked the “threat of a rock-climbing sprawl.” Today, the phrase “you can belay from your car” appears as an enticement in guidebooks. At times, videos portray the hikes to climbs with hyperlapsed, machine-like motions, quickly flashing forward to the crux. Digital communication and wearable technology offer ever-faster forms of cyber-transportation. Vast hinterlands of the mind diminish, consumed by pressures to market everything within sight and everything within the self.

By isolating the act from the environment, the ascent from the approach, the summit from the means, we can lose the “aura” that makes climbing into art. Often, we’re left with the paradox in which everything seems closer and more accessible, yet our relationship with landscapes grows more distant. All too easily, we forget the timeless pathways back to the wildness we’ve lost.

IN 1902, AT AGE SEVENTY, LESLIE STEPHEN, former president of the Alpine Club, looked back to Wordsworth’s ideas as he penned his essay “In Praise of Walking.” At the beginning of the twentieth century, writers like Stephen–jarred by the abrupt changes of modernity–saw foot travel as a way to regain a continuous sense of narrative and place. “The walks are the unobtrusive thread of other memories,” he mused. “Even a walk in London often vaguely recalls better places and nobler forms of the exercise. Wordsworth’s Susan hears a thrush at the corner of Wood Street and straightaway sees ‘A mountain ascending, a vision of trees.'”

During the last few years of Pete Schoening’s life, as the legendary American climber struggled with cancer, he and his friends regularly hiked through the tangled forests of the Cascades, talking and piecing together recollections of past climbs. “His pace slowed,” Tom Hornbein recalls, “but the essence of these walk-talks seemed to crescendo, even to within just a few weeks of his death [in 2004]. We created small adventures. For example, Pete was unable to resist uncertainty: when a hint of a way trail disappeared into the jungle off our main route, he had to find out where it led, most often to nowhere.” Now eighty-four years old, Hornbein finds keener pleasures in alpine approaches than he did in his youth. Unable to move so quickly, he says, he notices more: “The beauty of the Parry primrose tucked into the rock cliff beside a tumbling cascade…the lilting song of the ruby-crowned kinglet…. All these are gifts I flew by, barely noting not all that long ago.”

After I’ve spent hours driving to the White Mountains of New Hampshire, the landscape seems, at first, like an unreal haze. Slowly, through the soles of my feet, I regain the memory of contact with the world. Placing my hands on rising slabs, I relearn the feeling of air beneath me, the sense of hope and fear pressing down on fingertips. Gradually, I start to cross that threshold between the horizontal and the vertical, between my distracted and my present self. The route itself, when it appears behind a bend in the mountainside or a curtain of trees, seems like a revelation, shadowed cracks and sinuous ridges combining into a sudden, unexpected whole.

Partway up a granite face, I look down at the spreading green of the forest and the silver thread of a distant road. I recall other lines that Stephen wrote: that we can best perceive the beauty of a view, “placed in its proper setting” by the intricately woven experiences of a journey; and that for those willing to abandon the regimented lanes of tracks and roads, new solitudes might unfold. Even here, in densely populated New England, above less than a mile of trail-less woods, my partners and I have just climbed sweeps of empty, sunlit stone.

IN THE PRACTICE OF THE WILD, THE SIERRA MOUNTAINEER AND POET GARY SNYDER described foot travel as one of many ways to dissolve the rift between humanity and the wild: “The wilderness pilgrim’s step-by-step, breath-by-breath walk up a trail, into those snowfields, carrying all on his back, is so ancient a set of gestures as to bring a profound sense of body-mind joy.” During the summer of 1998, I walked the Camino de Santiago from Le Puy-en-Velay, France, to Finisterre, Spain–a centuries-old pilgrimage of some 1,500 kilometers. Eventually, each step began to seem part of a single rhythmic line, connecting the ragged edges of cities to the rolling spines of ridges; the westward arc of sunlight to the cloud-white path of the Milky Way; the Medieval pilgrim art to the modern trail blazes; the narrow mountain paths to the foot-worn highway shoulders. In 2012, after her husband, Jack Roberts, died in an ice-climbing accident, Pam Roberts carried his ashes along this same trail. And while she walked, echoes of their past drifted up in her mind, merging with the present, she says, “like a piece of beautiful music that moves you to tears, yet leaves you feeling somewhat full, somewhat purified.”

In a way, all approaches are like pilgrimages and like songs: a restoration of a sense of the sanctity and presence of place; a recollection of a steady cadence that runs through human history, now quiet, and now loud. “Walking,” the alpinist Kyle Dempster says, “allows us to find our own tempo with the landscape; it is unrestrictive of our focus. When we are walking to a climb, our surroundings contribute to the symphony of the experience.” The beat of soles on earth and snow. The leitmotivs of frost on gnarled stone. The long chords of shadows under dark trees. We perceive, once more, how we shape the spaces we pass through: the russet smudge of a careless step on the delicate red heath of alpine tundra; the thin white lines of crampon scrapes on ash-grey rock. And how these small, hidden geographies, in turn, form the shifting patterns of our waking dreams.

A walk, of course, doesn’t always have to be a physical journey; rich ambles also take place purely in the mind. “The slower you go, and the more attention you give,” the climbing novelist Jerry Auld says, “the deeper the wonder that is revealed.” Step by step, we recall what it’s like to wander through the world at the pace of footfalls, the lifting of a hand, the progress of a gaze across a line of words, the gait of solitary, unfettered thought. To find unmarked paths through boulderfields tilted like giant mazes. To plunge into thickets of alder and spruce and skitter across pale, mossy slabs. To seek out rarely visited ravines and climb routes without remembered names. Until, at times, below a sudden rampart of towers, amid the mirror flash of water on rock, all existence seems poised on the touch of a hand or a foot, on the curve of a granite swell, on the texture of thick lichen, and climbing begins to feel like faith or like love.

[David Stevenson, Kyle Dempster, Tamotsu Nakamura, Jerry Auld, Tom Hornbein and Pam Roberts all provided advice and research assistance for The Sharp End.–Ed.]