Conquering Mountains is Bad For Your Mental Health
Back when an American shopping mall represented my ideal Saturday, I thought that people who hiked enjoyed nature because nature was pure. Perhaps, I thought, nature was an alternative reality where competition and mean emails didn’t exist, where one could get away from it all, where one could be free from worry. Nature was like the TV ad for Corona Extra in which a blissful, vacationing man throws his ringing cell phone into the turquoise oceans of Bali. My dad, hoping to escape the misery of being a lawyer, thought John Muir was a saint but the rest of humanity was generally awful, that humans were separate from nature, and that nature was the only escape we have. This aversion to industrialization and human development is not uncommon, especially now that we face the consequences of decades of frequent flyer miles, McDonalds and plastics. Nature is a vacation from all that capitalism.
Reading Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind, a book about human consciousness and psychedelics, I realized that Pollan was also inadvertently offering a valuable claim about why people continue to climb mountains. It is the experience of one’s own smallness in the natural world, rather than the escapist fantasy, that broadens our perspective and makes us freer and wiser. In the book, he explains that magic mushrooms temporarily deactivate the brain’s default mode network—what is essentially the part of our brain that gets us into ruts, like depressive thinking and addictive behavior. As he writes,
One of the challenges of treating the addict is getting him to broaden his perspective beyond a consuming self-interest in his addiction, the behavior that has come to define his identity and organize his days.
According to Pollan’s research, turning off the default mode network, at least temporarily, means developing a fresh perspective: some child’s-eye view of the world, a sense of the mystery of everything. He continues:
Awe...has the power to do this…[because] awe is a fundamental human emotion, one that evolved in us...We are descendants of those who found the experience of awe blissful, because it’s advantageous for the species to have an emotion that makes us feel part of something much larger than ourselves. This larger entity could be the social collective, nature as a whole, or a spirit world, but it is something sufficiently overpowering to dwarf us and our narrow self-interest. Awe promotes a sense of the ‘small self’ that directs our attention away from the individual to the group and the greater good.
Broadening perspectives, feeling overpowered by something larger than ourselves, something that makes us feel small. Reading this, I thought about how I always felt tiny in the Sierras, but couldn’t explain why the experience of being dwarfed by a mountain was mystical and even spiritual, especially when our culture normally associates “feeling small” with weakness.
As Pollan writes, psychedelics are one way to repress the default mode network, but not all mystical experiences have to come from pills or mushrooms:
The mystical experience may just be what it feels like when you deactivate the brain’s default mode network. This can be achieved any number of ways: through psychedelics and meditation...but perhaps also by means of certain breathing exercises, sensory deprivation, fasting, prayer, overwhelming experiences of awe, extreme sports, near-death experiences, and so on.
Pollan even writes about one such mystical experience that a smoker named Charles Bessant had while hiking, one that made him quit smoking:
Bessant, a museum exhibit designer in his sixties, found himself standing on a mountaintop in the Alps, “the German states stretching out before me all the way to the Baltic...My ego had dissolved, yet I’m telling you this. It was terrifying.” He sounded like a nineteenth-century Romantic describing an encounter with the sublime, at once terrible and awe inspiring.
It makes sense to me that, before hiking regularly, I considered nature to be an escapist fantasy. Yet nature, even devoid of human interference, isn’t pure at all. One needn’t look much further than a basic BBC documentary to learn that animals also compete for resources, kill for food, kill for sport, and must possess a strong ego in order to survive. And even then, a destabilized rock or a naturally-occuring wildfire could come along and destroy everything in a moment. It is a ruthless world. Beyond the physical pain of an uphill climb, those of us who have had at least one humbling experience like spraining an ankle in the backcountry or being ill-prepared for the cold know just how unrelaxing the experience of hiking can be. Sometimes we find ourselves wondering why we do it at all.
The arguments in Pollan’s book about mushrooms, when applied to hiking, suggest that the true benefits of climbing mountains have not been properly named. Our culture might explain away our fascination with hiking as 1) a blissful escape from reality, like a vacation or 2) a great achievement for having bagged another peak. But perhaps the experience is more akin to taking psychedelics in that it makes us feel like Alice in Wonderland, at once in awe and terrified. Pollan points to the writings of Huston Smith, a scholar of religion, who once described a spiritually “realized being” as simply a person with “an acute sense of the astonishing mystery of everything.” Drastic scale shifts, steep cliffs, and vertigo could, in that case, turn us into spiritual beings.
Becoming viscerally aware of how small we are in a massive world can be surprisingly uplifting. Most of the world’s religions tout the spiritual value of surrender and even the first step of any twelve-step program is admitting one’s own powerlessness. For the more secular among us, being dwarfed by a landscape may be the closest we ever come to a truly mystical experience here on earth. “I had always assumed access to a spiritual dimension hinged on one’s acceptance of the supernatural—of God, of a Beyond—but now I’m not so sure. The Beyond, whatever it consists of, might not be nearly as far away or inaccessible as we think,” Pollan writes. And the benefits of such experiences are evident in various studies of human behavior:
Keltner’s lab at Berkeley has done a clever series of experiments demonstrating that after people have had even a relatively modest experience of awe, such as looking at soaring trees, they’re more likely to come to the assistance of others. (In this experiment, conducted in a eucalyptus grove on the Berkeley campus, volunteers spent a minute looking either at the trees or at the façade of a nearby building. Then a confederate walked toward the participants and stumbled, scattering pens on the ground. Bystanders who had looked at the trees proved more likely to come to her aid than those who had looked at the building.) In another experiment, Keltner’s lab found that if you ask people to draw themselves before and after viewing awe-inspiring images of nature, the after-awe self-portraits will take up considerably less space on the page. An experience of awe appears to be an excellent antidote for egotism.
All of this suggests to me that the egocentric language we use to describe mountain climbing could and should be rewritten. We insist that mountains are to be “conquered” and peaks are to be “bagged”, like we’re slamming back the last beverage of a juice cleanse or lifting weights at Tobin’s house. Standing atop a mountain is supposed to make us feel “proud,” which it should I suppose, in so far as we feel proud when we finish up at the gym. And yet I’m not usually reflecting on my accomplishments when walking across the Great Western Divide, and the word “proud” seems to miss the point.
For the self-obsessed, it can be blissful to realize that if we are small, our problems and worries are, too. Mountains give us the overview effect much like psychedelic consciousness does. We can “zoom out”, experience self-transcendence, and perhaps even laugh at ourselves. As Pollan writes, “the overwhelming force and the mystery of awe are such that the experience can’t readily be interpreted according to our accustomed frames of thought.” By destabilizing those conceptual frameworks, hiking has the power to change our minds.
All photos taken in Sabrina Basin in the Eastern Sierras, September 2018.