I cannot recall a single instance I can point to where I had first decided to climb the mountain. Looking back, there seemed to be no epiphany, no moment of clarity or certainty. It seemed to come upon me bit by bit, something that accumulated slowly until it had built itself into something within me that demanded attention. At some point I acquired a kernel of longing within me that attracted like minded sentiments. Around this kernel, ideas and ambitions began to wrap themselves the way a pearl is built upon a grain of sand. Evidently, there was some romantic notion of the mountain and man’s relation to it that appealed to the imagination of a young child. If you lean towards the metaphysical, then perhaps that seed was always in me and that it was destiny leading me since birth. At any rate, while there is no particular moment that I can say was the defining one, there are memories of moments that moved me in the direction my life has taken.
I have no memory of seeing the mountain for the first time; it has been there always in my life and in the lives of all those who live or ever have lived in the village of my birth. It towers in the western skyline, defying and denying for much of the day even the mighty sun. It is a boarder to all that lies beyond it, as defining and limiting to our pursuits as is the ground beneath or the sky above. But I can remember moments of seeing the mountain as something other than a backdrop to my existence, as something more than a limiter. I was quite a young child when I heard stories of the mountain and it significance to our world. I remember listening to a group of elders sitting around my parents table telling stories of the mountain. They spoke in reserved tones about the tales that they had heard, many which had been passed down from generations long forgotten. It was then that the idea of reaching the top first came to me as a goal worthy of pursuit. This mountain, as we all knew, was where the gods dwelt, or at least it touched the heavens where they made their home. It was taller than any other peak in all the world. It was jokingly said that even the mighty sun would scratch its hind side when it attempted to climb its peak. From the stories, I became impressed with the greatness of the mountain, and somehow the idea occurred to me what a great quest it would be to conquer it. No, not conquer, that is too foolish a world. Any man who scales a mountain is still but a man, a transient speck compared to the immensity and permanence of a mountain. Nevertheless, the thought of reaching the height of the mountain appeared to me equal to reaching the heights of human accomplishment.
Another moment comes to mind, the time when I heard that there were those who had already made the attempt to reach the summit. Many returned unsuccessful, many never returned at all. The legends also spoke of those who had reached the top and had returned to tell the tale. Some claimed to have seen the gods, others said they received revelation and instruction from the gods themselves.
It was clear that many of those who claimed to have reached the top were either liars or madmen. They preached things that made no sense or, worse yet, their words were meant to enrich their own power, prestige, or wealth. Still others were enigmas who went their own way in silence, or were driven away from their village when what they had to say was too unpopular. So although the legends had much to say on matters concerning the mountain, no one could say with any certainty what one could find there.
As I grew to adulthood, this question still possessed me. While some shared my interest, most among my village seemed quite unconcerned. Their work and family and holidays seemed to fill their time and interest well enough. I, however, gravitated towards people of like mind, and we discussed together what we had heard of the stories and legends relating to the mountain. We devoured whatever source we could find on the subject, and conjectured on the rest. Until, one day, the inevitable occurred; having exhausted all other forms of information, we decided that we would ourselves have to make the climb if we were ever to gain more insight. After long months of careful planning and preparation, we set out to find the answers to our questions, a small group of true believer with only that which we could carry. I can still clearly remember that day as we stood at the foot of the mountain and looked straight up at what we were about to embark upon. We had already lost three of our members before leaving the village, people who had decided they were needed where they were. Two more left us while still at the base, claiming the thunderclouds and lightning that encircled the mountain-top at that moment to be an ill omen. I myself almost went with them, not because of any omen, but because of the fear that clenched at my stomach at the thought of the trials that surely lay ahead.
The first part of the climb was perhaps the purest, for we neither looked toward what lay ahead nor what we left behind us. So dedicated were we with the climb that everything else was blocked from our sight—absolutely everything, including, paradoxically enough, the goal itself. It was too far away and our immediate concerns too pressing. Perhaps it drove us at some deep level, but it did not enter our conscious minds. It was almost as if the end of our journey were a thing we felt pushing at us from behind, if that can make sense. But whatever was working in our hearts, our minds and bodies were intensely focused on the tasks at hand. Any great accomplishment requires this disciplined approach to the task at hand, and we pushed ourselves to limits we did not know existed, which only inspired us to push further. To be young and to experience the feeling of being alive is a sweet feeling. To feel alive and to have a purpose and a goal to that life is better still.
But it is human nature that from time to time we stop to take a look around to assess where we are going, where we have been. We first halted from our labors upon reaching a vast plateau. We had known of its existence all our lives, had seen it from down below, but had no idea how huge it was. My first impulse was to look down rather than up to measure our progress. It is more encouraging to see what one has accomplished that to see what one still has to accomplish.
Looking down, we were amazed at how far we had come, how separated we were from our village that looked so small down below. The village below did not look as we had always thought. The distance seemed to rob it of its distinctions. And looking at last towards each other, we noticed that we too had changed. But it did not matter for us because we had taken so much of what we held dear with: friends, family, dreams, purpose.
Looking around we realized how different the land was around us. The air was so much purer at this height, the birds and animals more innocent of man’s threat to them. The madness and injustice that can exist amongst mankind seemed not to touch us upon this sacred mountain. So beautiful was this plain we had reached that when it was time to continue our journey, many of us wished to stay where they were. “This is good enough for us”, they said. “We have found something beautiful, and need ask for nothing more.” Whether they were right or wrong in their decision was not a question that came into my mind at this time. Had I stopped to think, I may have wondered whether they were daunted by the climb yet to come. For we had as yet only finished a small leg of our journey, and our effort and sacrifice had been great. Or, had I stopped to think, I may have wondered if they were not right in staying in this beautiful place. To be given all this and not be content was perhaps arrogant, and arrogance unto the gods is not a thing to be treated lightly. Perhaps, if I had thought, it was a fear of what they would find if they continued—a fear of failure—that made them decide to stay.
But I did not stop to think. My life I regarded as a small thing compared to my purpose. I was driven by this purpose, and was renewed by my rest in this idyllic place. For if such beauty could be found so low, imagine what awaits us as we ascend to the realm of the gods.
And so those of us who wished to continue our journey left our friends in this place. It was not easy saying goodbye, because we had already shared so much in dreams, work, struggle, and love. Those of us who continued felt no blame or bitterness towards those who stayed, anymore than we did to those down below who never desired to accompany us at all. It was our vision; those who did not share it had their own.
Of those who left the plain, there were those who turned back when the way became too hard, the obstacles seemingly impassable. Some perished in the climb. Some died saving others. Some escorted back down the mountain those who were too injured or ill to continue. We the survivors could do nothing to honor the dead but continue onwards. Our ranks continued to thin, until I alone said farewell to the last of my companions, a dear friend too weak and injured to endure. But my mind was set; for all of us, it was up to me to achieve the dream or perish in the attempt. Although alone, I knew no loneliness, for my vision was my comfort, my hopes were my warmth. Working without looking above or below me, I climbed. And in time I neared the summit, the place of countless stories and legends. For all I knew, I alone of all mortals had ever reached this height. And there above the entire world I found…
At the top of the summit I stood and looked at the heavens from this elevated spot. But to my complete disillusionment, the heavens were no closer than they had ever been. The sun was no larger, its radiance no warmer than it was to any human on the face of the world.
The force of my despair fell upon me. All that I was was pulled out from under me. For all there was of me had become but a surge toward this moment, and all my life had become false. Ah, how much better to be my companions, who did not live to see this moment, or to have stayed with those on the plain who could still aspire to more. Far better to be like those who had never felt the need to climb, who contented themselves with legend and myth and daydreaming. I alone had no hope, because I had killed hope for myself. With all the desire and all of the strength that I had, I had succeeded only in killing hope. I raged against the gods because they did not exist, or else were forever above me, indifferent to my plight. I wept like an abandoned child, feeling my total isolation. Overcome with emptiness I sat down at the edge of this, the top of the world, to look down at a world full of deluded people.
And looking down I saw all that was, stretched out before me. From the height to which I had ascended, the word was quite different from the one I had always known. I saw the world free from myopia, free from my prejudice and the ignorance of those who had taught me from the arrogance of their small beliefs. I saw a world without the borders that I had seen on every map I had ever looked at, a constant flow of forces unbound by the constraints that our tiny minds try to force upon the real. I saw man’s place in the world, so small. I saw lands never before seen by man, awaiting his arrival. I saw below me my friends I had left on the plain, indistinguishable from all the other people who lived on this earth. For the first time in my life I saw it all at once as one who is both distanced from and one with the world. I was the world’s eyes, regarding itself.
I sat and watched the beauty of all that is until the sun’s rays faded and darkness covered everything. And when no rays were left to aid my vision, I began immediately to descend, to share with others the vision I had glimpsed.