Mountains seem to answer an increasing imaginative need in the West. More and more people are discovering a desire for them, and a powerful solace in them. At bottom, mountains, like all wildernesses, challenge our complacent conviction – so easy to lapse into – that the world has been made for humans by humans.
Most of us exist for most of the time in worlds which are humanly arranged, themed and controlled. One forgets that there are environments which do not respond to the flick of a switch or the twist of a dial, and which have their own rhythms and orders of existence. Mountains correct this amnesia. By speaking of greater forces than we can possibly invoke, and by confronting us with greater spans of time than we can possibly envisage, mountains refute our excessive trust in the man-made. They pose profound questions about our durability and the importance of our schemes. They induce, I suppose, a modesty in us.
I remember, very vividly, the first time I stood on top of Mount Ngauruhoe. I was fifteen, naive, and adventurous. I remember standing on the edge of the crater – a sheer drop on either side of my feet – to catch my breath after the exhausting hike up to the summit. The feeling of insignificance was overwhelming; the mountain was completely indifferent to my existence. I could fall and die, and the mountain would not weep. I could grow old and frail, and the mountain would remain just as rugged and staunch.
The wilderness played to rules of a different game, to which I was not an actor.
Being at the edge gave me an acute awareness of my own fragility. I could slip, my knees could buckle, the volcano could erupt. My vulnerability stood in stark contrast to the immutable permanence of the mountains. There was no sympathetic ear for me to tell my story and my fears. I was alone.
Last week I climbed Ngauruhoe’s brother, Mount Tongariro. A similar feeling of insignificance swept through me, except that this time – seven years on – I was a little less naive. A part of me was seeking that feeling of vulnerability and to question my fears and doubts. In such a deeply connected world – where things that are nice to have become things that you want to have, and things that you want to have become things that you need to have – it can be hard to be truly honest with yourself.
Today marks the turning of a new year by the Chinese lunar calendar (Happy Chinese New Year!) and it also marks my last day in Auckland. Time is, just like the mountains, unyielding and indifferent. It does not care whether I am ready to move on or whether I am ready to confront the changes and challenges that await. Each and every day, however spent, will always come to an end. And, without fail, a new day – full of promise and possibility – will come to replace it.
And so I ask myself: does it matter that I am ready? Does it matter that I might fail? Of all the complexities in life, what more can we really do as fragile beings… except to find the thing(s) worth chasing, and to then chase them until our heart is content.