The Sublime Alpine Experience: Reflecting on Adventures in Patagonia and Beyond

After over a year of uninterrupted living in a very flat country, I was finally able to slip down to the Argentine side of the vast austral wilderness of Patagonia for some hiking and rock climbing at the end of last year, which is to say I was reunited with my preferred geographical setting for exploration: the mountains.

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In Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi, near Bariloche, Argentina. (Click to enlarge photos.)

The case with many of life’s pleasures, you don’t know how important something is to you until you’re faced with its absence. I’d spent two summers living and working on the eastern slope of California’s majestic Sierra Nevada mountains, where I’d hike up steep trails from the Owen’s Valley desert on the east side, scramble up steep scree slopes, boulder-hop up to summits, and look out upon the vista for tens of miles all around me and feel an even more immediate — and more spectacular, it not being a simulation and all — feeling of the sublimity of vast spaces, how they remind us of the cosmic sense of scale, take us out of at least our physical ‘us’-ness. At the very least, it’s a reminder of the grandness of the natural world; on a higher level, they provide a window back into ourselves, an elevated awareness of both physical and figurative significance.

Between the end of college and the beginning of Peace Corps service I rambled about Washington’s North Cascades, Glacier National Park in Montana, Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, and a return to Yosemite in California. Then, 15 consecutive months setting neither eyes nor feet upon a single peak. But Patagonia was worth the wait, it being an ideal setting in which I could satisfy my recurring traveler’s wanderlust.

Living in Paraguay as a lone foreigner in a fairly remote slice of campo, there’s plenty of room for reflection, time and space ring the two things of which I have the most. So, naturally, when my mind drifts into nostalgic modes, back to those epic landscapes of summers past or even to my travels a month ago, I can’t help but wonder what the attraction is I and many others feel to that type of landscape in particular. What drives the appreciative and consequentially adventurous impulses?

So here I try to decode the attraction, not just in regards to witnessing the mountains as a visual spectacle but the interactions I’m drawn to as well, in the form of hiking, scrambling, rock climbing, etc… even hanging out in summit-top century old fire lookouts contemplating the significance and our definitions of nature.  My favorite activity is reaching the end-point of a trail, pointing to a peak and seeing if I can improvise a way to the top (mixed success rate given the humble state of my technical skills and gear).

Specific landscapes inspire various affects through their intrinsic qualities, which in turn result in a certain interactive experience based on the activities people can and are motivated to undertake within their limits. Our relationship with the landscape then espouses values which in turn create a feedback loop in our perceptions of those places, thus espousing glorification of national treasures like Yosemite, and in turn a codified wilderness ethic to preserve such settings. Which is a good thing! But why do we take to the mountains in the first place? The connection goes beyond aesthetics, and everyone has their own unique set of reasons, but below are a list of reasons I’ve thought up (so far).

Potential sources of the allure of adventures in the mountains, be it a trek or a full-scale technical climbing excursion:

Physical

  • Endorphins from the exertion.
  • Excitement from risk, adrenaline.
  • Distinct from usual conditions, e.g. Altitude, atmosphere, ecology.
  • Improved physical fitness from conditioning.

Mental

  • Challenge from strenuousness of task.
  • Enigmatic nature of destination, conditions, outcome. Never knowing exactly what is waiting for you on the other side of the ridge.
  • Placing self in a position of heightened vulnerability, or, moreover, the feelings such exposure provoke.
  • Element of conquering / accomplishment when climb or trek is completed.
  • The reflective space and relative solitude provided by a jaunt in nature.
  • The problem-solving aspects of route finding, technical climbing, etc.
  • Removed from (urban) civilization, immersion in a wilderness, dramatically different context. Thus contrast within environment and ‘normal’ life, and contrasts within the environment itself. A reminder of that lingering ‘other’.

Unique (and inter-related) aspects of the alpine landscape:

Scale

The modified / augmented shift in perspective due to vantage point if positioned at a prominent point. Beings awareness to the immediate vastness of the surrounding terrestrial realm and an appreciation of the open space and the characteristic influence of forcing one to pay heed to one’s own comparatively marginal dimensions.

The view from atop Mount Agassiz (13,891') in the wilderness of California's Sierra Nevada.

The view from atop Mount Agassiz (13,891′) in the wilderness of California’s Sierra Nevada.

Magnitude

Branching off as a value judgement of scale, magnitude invokes a sense of awe at the physical grandness such as vastness of earth or a particular feature in general — peak, canyon, glacier — like an alarm stirring up realizations of magnificence.

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Walking down from Cloud’s Rest in Yosemite National Park.

Visibility

From a prominent vantage point, the ability to see a great distance away, survey the landscape without obstruction, until the farthest perceivable reaches of the horizon. Through visibility comes appreciation (which can never really be fomented without direct sensation) — of scale and ultimately magnitude. The perception of the environs perhaps inform one’s own self-awareness — physical presence, and through that, carving existential notions as well into the visual domain — an office, a yard, a car — is stretched out to encompass a haven as far as the eye can see and this lack of obstruction, in turn, forces the eye inward. The perspective of one’s self as such a minute part of the vista, an expansiveness that reminds us of the world’s grandness and thus our finiteness. The unobstructed view from the peak summit… something that can be provided uniquely by the vertical relief mountain geographies provide (well, canyons too, I suppose).

A sheer drop-off on the narrows section of the Keyhole route of Long's Peak (14,259') in Colorado.

Exposure in the narrows section of the Keyhole route of Long’s Peak (14,259′) in Colorado. Looking down a ~2,000′ sheer vertical drop.

Excitement

The thrill of new places, horizons; radically differences between inclines, changing geography and ecosystems, the contrast between them. With every thousand feet of gain the flora, fauna, atmosphere can change drastically. If trails are scorned with controlled acts of spontaneity, that willful succession of foresight and intent. Submission to the circumscribed procession of surrounding atmospheric forces. Then again, to forge ahead, to even find yourself in this situation, in the first place, would require a solid forged intent. Being lost in the obscure depths of a place — and finding your way back, that primal homing signal. Vulnerability and confusion find their counterpoints in the inexplicable comfort founding that place that serves as both start and endpoint.

Exposure

Realizing the significance of life through placing yourself at its precipice. A raw consciousness. Your foot slips; you ponder the abyss; your life flashes before you in shots of adrenaline. A riskier or sensationally riskier shade of excitement. Autonomic reaction to exposed spots, vertigo. The inherent attraction some people feel to such a position (“adrenaline junkies”). Sweaty palms and brushes with mortality.

Rock climbing in Patagonia.

Rock climbing in Patagonia.

Cultural Valuation of Distinct Landscapes: Recreational and Aesthetic

Alpine activities like climbing or skiing require landscapes tailored to their needs, i.e. mountains, and are valued for their ability to provide entertainment. Then there’s walking, which might often be considered more of a chore, but becomes hiking once one is within the mountains or another notable geography. People flock in droves from the shelter of their homes to release a bit of the alpine wildness captured within them, and stored in turn for the next adventure.

Incidentally, while mountainous landscapes are often valued for their beauty and recreational possibilities, they’re also difficult to develop for uses such as agriculture or logging, thus making them easier to designate as protected areas such as national parks. In turn, contributing to their categorization as wilderness aiding in the preservation of their natural state. Often their distinct value comes from the potential for recreational activity (skiing, hiking, etc.) and an aesthetic valuation due to their beauty as a consequence of their grand scale, visibility, etc. Mountain landscapes are an example of the natural space we often value for protection due to the emphasis we place upon their intrinsic qualities. Not many people feel the same way about a prairie land or a marsh in terms of their aesthetic and recreational value because they lack the intrinsic valuations of beauty and the consequential valuation of recreational use.

View from atop Wynn Mountain (8,409') in Glacier National Park, Montana.

View from atop Wynn Mountain (8,409′) in Glacier National Park, Montana.

One’s ability to embark upon such excursions is dependent not just upon accessibility, for, as I’ve experienced, it’s hard to hike in the mountains when there aren’t really any nearby, but also cultural inclinations to explore, as it seems like adventurousness isn’t just an issue of economic capacity (i.e. having the money to travel) but cultural disposition (i.e. having the value of wanting to explore / not) as well. But that’s a subject for a future essay on comparative cultural perspectives of environment, and intrinsic ties between landscape and affect…

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