IN APRIL 2016, Marc-Andre Leclerc stepped off a bus onto the edge of a highway in the Canadian Rockies. Above dark woods, the stark-white snows and smoke-grey rock of Mt. Robson flashed cold against the sky. He was alone. Slowly, he walked closer. “I reminded myself that you only ever get to visit a place for the first time once,” the Canadian alpinist recalled on Alpinist.com. “I immersed myself into the environment, and took in all the sounds, smells and colors that give the forest its atmosphere.” Beyond the shores of Kinney Lake and the tumult of Emperor Falls, the Emperor Face, his objective, rose half-hidden by mist. Thousands of meters above his camp, gusts roared. “For the first time in a long time,” he recounted, “I felt deeply intimidated by the aura of the mountain.”
Marc-Andre didn’t bring a watch, and he fell asleep to the sound of the wind. He woke to silence and a pale glow. At first, he wasn’t sure whether it was dusk or dawn. Then he realized the light came from the east, and so he prepared to start climbing. Ahead, lay the fabled route that had taken one of its first ascensionists, Barry Blanchard, many attempts over thirteen years to complete, resulting in the name Infinite Patience. Marc-Andre soloed rapidly over a blue ice pillar and a grey flow, up a narrow passageway of steeply faceted stone and through a snow mushroom. Crossing the west face, he swung his axes again and again in identical motions until time seemed to stop. And yet, the sun continued along its westward arc, and the air deepened to gold.
He reached the summit just as dusk mirrored over a boundless frozen expanse. After a brief bivy, he descended into the predawn dark. Falling ice shards signaled the return of the sun, and he gazed back to see “a shadow of Mt. Robson extending forever into the horizon against a red sky.” By the time he returned to the road, he’d spent four days by himself:
My thoughts had reached a depth and clarity that I had never before experienced. The magic was real…. I was deeply content that I had not carried a watch with me to keep time, as the obsession with time and speed is in fact one of the greatest detractors from the alpine experience…. Climbing routes with an established track simply in order to attain the summit, or keeping time in order to set records reduces the adventure of alpinism to that of a sport climb….
Already I have been asked how fast I was, but I honestly cannot tell you how many hours the Emperor Face took me to climb. I began when I felt ready, and I reached the top at sundown. I also don’t know how long the hike back to the road took me, but I do know that while descending…back into the world of green lushness and deep blue lakes that I felt more at peace than I would have had I been counting my rate of kilometers per hour.
EVER SINCE I READ Marc-Andre’s account of his Robson solo, I’ve been intrigued by the idea that leaving behind a watch could seem like a rebellious act. From speed records, to alarms set for alpine starts, to notions of “turn-around times” and the logged data of fitness apps, climbers are often conditioned to think of keeping track of precise rates and minutes as part of the routines of alpinism.
Modern Western exploratory mountaineering developed alongside technological advancements that created new perceptions–and ambivalences–about chronology. In The Culture of Space and Time, American historian Stephen Kern recounts a simultaneous sense of the loss of undeveloped places and unrestricted time. During the late nineteenth century, steamships and trains enabled passengers to circumnavigate the globe even faster than the French novelist Jules Verne’s imagined “eighty days.” Railroad companies pushed for a standardization of time zones, completed in 1913, and maintained by wireless signals that pulsed around the world. Factories and armies alike relied on pocket watches to synchronize movements of large numbers of people. Even minutes seemed like valuable commodities, and pundits urged readers to be sure that each one was well spent. Much of daily life appeared to accelerate, while distances shrunk.
By the early twentieth century, as James Gleick recounts in Faster, scientists’ merging of space and time into a single, relative continuum reflected what many laypeople already felt. For mountaineers, venturing to distant ranges seemed a way to escape the insistent metronome of urban existence. In 1938 the British explorer Eric Shipton wrote in Blank on the Map: “Every time I start an expedition, I feel that I am getting back to a way of living which is now lost…before life was so mad a rush…and beauty itself exploited as a commercial proposition.” And yet, in some ways, the pace of their societies followed them into the hills: through the maps they made and the information they spread.
“Real adventure is…not the result of some marketing budget…. It burns brightest on the map’s edges.” –Kyle Dempster, The Road From Karakol
In recent years as watches give way to smart phones, frenetic networks of instant communication increasingly fill the inner spaces of drifting and dreaming. Industry swallows up moments of once-disconnected “leisure” and “free time.” In a 2014 High Country News article Christopher Ketcham noted that much of mainstream adventure media now resembles a form of “corporate accountancy,” with new athletic feats promoted like products on a factory line, always “faster, more.” But there are other ways to interact with the mountains, beyond measurements. And there are other concepts of “ascents” that remind us of all the wild places we might go–off route, and seemingly, out of time.
LEIGH ORTENBURGER and Renny Jackson’s classic guidebook, A Climber’s Guide to the Teton Range contains the tantalizing words: “Overlooked for decades because it is usually not easily seen, Moxie Tower is readily visible from the valley given the correct lighting conditions. Even the map neglects this tower, as no closed contour is depicted on the Grand Teton quadrangle sheet.” Some years ago, my climbing partner, Dylan, and I set out for Andy Carson and Paul Horton’s rarely visited route up the southeast corner. I remember little of the climb itself: apart from the constant clatter of loose rock that made me wonder if we were lost. It’s the approach that stands out in my mind: the way the spire emerged from what seemed like a solid canyon wall, how it felt to clamber across meadows toward something that–only shortly before–had been invisible to us. It was as if we’d entered a hidden world.
“A mountain has an inside,” Scottish writer Nan Shepherd explained in her 1977 memoir The Living Mountain, an underground cult classic for climbers, its story an inversion of mountaineering formulas. During the final years of World War II, she set out to explore not the summits of the Cairngorms, but the plateau and the depths. “To know [the mountain’s] essential nature,” she recounted, “to know, that is, with the knowledge that is a process of living…. It is a tale too slow for the impatience of our age.” In place of athletic training, she honed her senses to try to glimpse the real mountain in its totality–snow and meadow, rock and ice, sound and silence–to lose herself in those moments when the boundaries between her perception and the landscape seemed to fade. To find one’s “way in,” as she defined it, is a form of ascent that takes not hours but years and is never fully complete.
Thirty-nine years later, in A Place in Which to Search (2016), Wyoming climber Joe Kelsey wrote of his own decades-long quest to learn to experience, truly, a single place: the Wind River Range. After years of editing alpine journal trip reports, he explained, “I became increasingly detached, disinterested in deeds of derring-do, in bolting ethics and the legalistic definition of free climbing, while at the same time becoming more interested in simply being in the mountains.” Wandering to obscure, uncharted and erroneously mapped heights, he kept track of minute images: an arrowhead on a summit ridge, a flower in a stone crevice. “Simply seeing–seeing clearly, seeing detail–could be the ultimate gesture of reverence,” he concludes. At night, he had recurring dreams of an invisible, unattainable peak, concealed behind a dense maze of contour lines. “I, who consider intimacy with the landscape to be the goal of our wanderings, believe that the ultimate intimacy is being so lost that I have not the slightest idea where I am,” he writes. “I am not somewhere on a map; I am simply there.”
IN 1939, AFTER GETTING off route in the Italian Alps and erring his way up a summit that didn’t exist on his map, the poet Michael Roberts imagined compiling a humorous compendium of disoriented climbers’ accidental ascents, The Climber’s Guide to the Wrong Mountains. By losing our path, however, we sometimes find something more valuable: regained memories of how to navigate beyond predetermined locations, experiences akin to explorations of earlier times.
Last summer, when Anna Pfaff, Lisa Van Sciver and Rachel Spitzer arrived in the Zanskar region of India, the only map they could obtain was inaccurate. Carrying just a photo of a mountain, they traveled by bus and horseback only to discover they’d entered the wrong valley. Giving up their original objective, they kept wandering until they noticed a silver-granite peak, bright with patches of snow, which they referred to as Tare Parvat (“Star Peak” in Hindi).
Under a starlit sky, they set out over flows of thick ice and stacks of loose rock, placing knifeblades for protection in small seams. Fifteen hours later, they completed the first ascent of the 5577-meter summit. On Alpinist.com Pfaff explained the name for their route: “Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines unattached as ‘not assigned or committed (as to a particular task, organization, or person). Since we traveled halfway around the world to climb a peak that we didn’t find, then made the best with what we had, we found the name suitable.”
DURING THE MID-TWENTIETH CENTURY, a group of French writers began exploring the connections between landscapes and human minds, assisted by practices they called derive, “drifting” and detournement, “rerouting.” Through various walking games–such as using the map of one city to navigate another–they sought to break free of predictable patterns of travel and perception, to ignore demarcated routes and boundaries, and to find a more intimate, personal and inward sense of place.
“The detailed exploration of the world is very far from complete,” wrote Shipton in 1939. Even small mountains have infinite fastnesses. This summer, seeking my own form of derive, I scrambled a few hundred feet from a crowded trail, until aretes and ravines enveloped me, and all sight and noise of other people vanished. Already, I was invisible, lost within the mountain’s folds, the tangles of krummholz trees and jagged boulders. Somewhere, traversing diagonally across a buttress that didn’t exist in my topo, I became committed. Below me, forests sunk into the blue of distant valleys. A distant lake shrunk to an eye. Above, the way was clean and sharp: lines of white quartz and dark cracks, ramparts of stone and air. I made imaginary maps in my mind–this rock horn for one hand, the side of this wall for a foot, this crevice so sharp it tore my fingers and would not let me fall. Beyond the top of the buttress, I regained the trail, the sense of a secret folded inside my mind: a fragile, perhaps forbidden, realm encountered by accident, never to be visited again.
Choosing longer, slower or otherwise unaccustomed approaches also restores a keener awareness of the nuances of a land. In the winter of 2002, French climber Lionel Daudet attempted a solo enchainment of three hard routes on the great north faces of the Alps. Instead of relying on a helicopter or a car to ease the kilometers from peak to peak, Daudet traveled by foot, ski and bike. He climbed without bringing any means of technological communication. “Then, I am in a world that’s off the scale,” he recounted in Alpinist 1. Days of storms and cold unfolded “like a slow-motion film.” He turned back, frostbitten, below the summit of the Matterhorn. Eventually, he lost eight of his toes. As he recovered, fragments of remembered experiences coalesced into the image of a shadowy mountain–this was the true goal, Daudet realized, the dream peak he’d unconsciously sought on each climb, without ever getting closer. “The interior mountain is the mountain that doesn’t let itself be climbed,” he wrote in La Montagne Interieure. Instead, it vanishes “into the mists, the same mists that will seize me in my turn.”
LOOKING BACK, MONTHS LATER, at his Robson solo, Marc-Andre Leclerc now says:
It’s hard to put my finger on what the magic ingredient is…. Kind of like it is hard to recall the exact feeling of being a child discovering something wonderful and new because it is a feeling too removed from our “adult” state of mind to actually grasp in a tangible way.
Beyond the steady beat of a watch hand or the sharp ping of digital apps, we move by mysterious and archaic rhythms: the gradual unfolding of the day’s colors; the sidereal sweep of the night; the recollection that we may encounter immeasurable things in the span between living and dying, between the inexorable approach of darkness and dawn. And in those moments of climbing when all existence seems to compress back to single points of light–a flash of crystal on a granite ridge, a star flickering to life above a couloir, a sudden memory of places and people long vanished–recall dreams of how everything, in the end, might be both lost and found in time.