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Whether climbing small cliff faces or scaling tall peaks, being among boulders and stones is a truly ...
2023-05-23 09:00:00

Rocks Rule
The Energizing Power of Mountains

Albert Bierstadt, “A Storm in the Rocky Mountains, Mt. Rosalie,” 1866, Brooklyn Museum. Wikimedia Commons (public domain)
Rocks Rule
Rocks Rule

We think we can conquer them, but in fact, they dominate us. They bring us into a state of natural, blissful balance. They imbue us with energy—the smaller ones briefly, the giant ones for weeks at a time.

Read in 11 minutes

I can already see them coming. With license plates from Silesia and Warsaw, flocking to this epicenter of Lesser Poland. They leave their cars by the roadside, because there are no parking lots near the rocks, and they head skyward. They’re starting the season earlier than me, again. I can see them from the window of my house overlooking the limestone cliff. Ever since I’ve been looking at it, I can’t shake the feeling that it’s already in the future—which, after all, will take the same form. Anyway, the problem with rocks has been going on for centuries. People either admire them, or wonder why God created them in the first place.

Rather than readying my harness, I look out the window and philosophize.

On a Human Scale

The locals are impeded by the rocks in the fields. I have often admired the precision with which the tractor drivers maneuver the plow to get as close to the cliff edge as possible, not to waste the land. It’s a wonderful sight in spring: silvery clods poking up from the black slush after the snow thaws, dripping with water. On the whole, though, the land is deemed barren. Nothing edible will grow there, perhaps with the exception of hawthorn or wild rose. But who harvests those in the countryside nowadays? City folk on an excursion, maybe. In karst landscapes, monadnocks can’t be missed—they’re hardly inconspicuous. They shine in the sun like precious metal. Cobalt in winter. Chalky in autumn, among the fury of red leaves. Bruised blue in spring, like the old shacks at their feet. Sometimes they seem to appear from nowhere. Last summer, I was showing a friend around the Sąspowska Valley, full of hollows and small rocks. He asked me the name of one of them. I was stunned. I’d never noticed it before, hidden among the trees, and I’d walked that way dozens of times. In a rocky labyrinth, a distinctive ridge is a landmark; a lifebelt in fog or snowstorms. I know this from experience—once, in the middle of the night, I found myself a couple of miles off course and was saved by the sight of a familiar shape.

For a long time, I didn’t understand why, centuries ago, many rocks were perceived to have human or animal features. Once, however, after climbing in the Skały Rzędkowickie rock formation, I set up camp at its foot. I lit a fire and lay on my back with my rucksack under my head. There, I saw a spectacle. The glow of the moon and the fire accentuated the three-dimensional nature of the formations in the middle of the plane. The black patches of charred minerals resembled sick, sunken eyes; they were hypnotizing. No wonder they bear names such as Peeper, Dog’s Cage, Chickadee, and Glove.

Human language slips from them like a snowflake. The rock doesn’t allow it to cling on, besides a word or two in the form of a man-made name. For example, the Guillotine I can see from my window. I look at it every day, and I couldn’t describe its shape in such a way that it could be easily identified. Most likely this can’t be done with human language at its present stage of development. The rock doesn’t submit to it, composed, as it is, of thousands of ostensibly repetitive recesses and protuberances. More appropriate is the language of mathematics, which reaches much further than human language and imagination. Seemingly dead, and yet, it is a dwelling of water and life; seemingly inaccessible, and yet, people climb it. I’m always intrigued as to why. For a long time, I thought it was only mountain lovers. But that’s not the case at all. I’ve realized this over the past few years, since I’ve been living near a towering rock. It is also climbed by locals, often elderly people. The countryside and all its harsh realities remain down below. Somehow, up high, it hurts less. The air is cleaner because the veil of smog disperses beneath the peaks. Sounds reaching the ears from below are stretched or contracted, chased away by the wind. There, a different melody flows.

If it is impossible to describe a rock’s appearance, one can at least try to decrypt it. There is a saying in the climbing community: read the rock. It’s a fairly common sight: someone stands in the shadow of a rock face, arms folded, staring up at it, calculating. They carefully examine the material, every tiny crack, every single grip. Those who are experienced read a rock like a page in a book—they devour it almost entirely, instantly combining sequences of obvious and hidden meanings. The subject of this piece is rationality.

Before I tell you more, a brief confession: I don’t like rock climbing as a sport. I have long tried to convince myself otherwise—because mountains, I love. In the end, though, I had to admit, I often get bored among rocks. Rock climbing is a sequence of repetitive processes, and I prefer constant movement in one direction. With climbing, you put on a harness, climb to the summit, then start your descent, and spend the next fifteen minutes in the same place, spotting for a partner who’s battling along the same route. And all the while, you’re surrounded by buzzing insects.

That’s the reason I start a bit later in the spring than the tourists from Silesia. I need to get myself into gear a bit. Get used to thinking vertically. There’s no way out. This inner compulsion came to me slowly, over the years, because I didn’t know its cause before. It certainly wasn’t a family tradition, nor did I have any sporting ambitions. So what was it? Now I know. I remember this every time I come home from the rock. Scrubbed on the inside, though covered in dust on the outside. Returned to equilibrium. Nothing can piss me off after a good climb. I’m like a happy Buddha holding a banana. People can shout, provoke, or reprimand me, but nothing has any effect. It’s as if the rock has infected me with its features through touch.

This sense of strength and harmony comes from my conviction that I have met in the rock a form of tangible rationality, so clear in nature and undefined in the world of morality, where it is only a hypothesis. The rock dictates the terms. It effectively exposes posers and braggarts. Yes, you can approach it—after careful reading—in various ways, take to it with one grip or another, but its physicality sets the limits beyond which one must not proceed, because it will end in a fall. In fact, it forces humans to submit, even if they have masterfully climbed to the top. It narrows the possibilities for action, provoking an order and discipline that are often lacking at ground level. There, sometimes, everything falls apart, unwilling to mesh. Therefore, for many, the rock is synonymous with life—an escape from entropy; a cycle; a rule—the fundamental principle of existence, its essence. This feeling stays with me for a while. When I close my eyes to sleep, the whole world seems to make sense to me.

Sometimes I know I shouldn’t go to the rock because I’ll hurt myself. Friends call and I turn them down. Better to skip it when your head’s not working properly. You can’t count on a rock to heal you when you’re feeling low. It might work once or twice, but more often it results in tragedy. Climbing requires precision of mind and body. It forces both to keep their balance. When things go well at the rock face, I feel like I should take the same approach in life: precision and confidence. Then it’s joy that follows me home. Climbing might be able to set you vertical, but you can’t come to the rock in complete disarray.

I don’t like sport climbing, but I like being on the rock. Hanging at the top by the belay and listening to the different melody of the wind. Reaching the scents that rise up from the valleys along with the heat, and circulate, transformed, beneath the overhang. There’s no other time I feel closer to nature. Even crawling in a tropical swamp… The light cleanses my whole body. Small creatures sneak past on a rocky ledge, watched with childlike curiosity. Things become suspended. On the rock, I think of nothing but the rock. For this moment, it’s worth getting a little tired—bored, even.

I climb quite regularly, but not excessively. However, I know people who have spent their entire lives in the mountains. I think it changed them—year after year, crevice after crevice. I like to watch their eyes, especially when they’re reading a rock. Sometimes they’ve seemed inhuman, because they were icy and indifferent—as if scoured of fear. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the source of the impotence experienced by mountaineers when asked why they climb. Human language is of a different order. It only allows us to talk about the mountains to a certain extent. Rather than rambling on, better to remain silent—or to head off on an expedition.

Go Beyond Yourself

Just before the latest protests broke out in Iran, I decided to climb Mount Damāvand.

The rocks are on a human scale, while the mountains serve as a reminder that there is something bigger than us. Seeing matter of these dimensions regularly restores my faith in the Creator. Where did it all come from? How could so many stones have been gathered there? Volcanoes often rise vertically several miles from the foot and occupy half the sky. Symmetry of this magnitude is fascinating, but also overwhelming, because it goes beyond the scale to which the human eye is accustomed.

The sky beyond Tehran shone like a bell. Only this one crater refused to reveal itself, still hidden behind a thick, motionless cloud. I felt excited because I hadn’t climbed higher than 16,000 feet above sea level in a long time. Most hikers ascend the summit of Damāvand from the south. That’s why I decided to strike from the west. I asked the local guides in the village of Polur if I would meet anyone at the base. They said I probably would, although none of them had climbed from there so far that season. A jeep with broken windows took me to a mountain pasture, from where the trek to the base camp began. By the time I had sorted out my climbing gear, the vehicle had vanished. I was left alone; the wilderness stretched all the way to the Caspian Sea. The acrid smell of herbs hung in the air. I set off with my heavy backpack toward the base. Once again, in the emptiness of the mountains, the uncertainty of the first days in a new country subsided. I smiled to myself. I enjoy solitude in the mountains. I feel secure because there are no people around. The sense of space, which many find overwhelming, soothes me. However, a problem emerged at the base.

There was no one there, which meant I would have to climb to the top by myself. I was counting on joining a group for the summit push. Unfortunately, my camping stove also broke, so I couldn’t cook anything to give me the strength for the challenge ahead and to enable me to acclimatize gradually. I lay down in my warm sleeping bag to think it over. There was no time to return to the village and repair the stove. I decided to leave before dawn and hope that the mountain would accept me.

Mountains are as clean as deserts. They consist mainly of minerals. After sunrise, the volcano sparkled like a celestial torch. It’s a good idea to be high up by that point, as I was on that occasion. The darkness hides the scale, the danger of the altitude. One climbs as if in a cave hollowed out in the sky. The first light in the mountains, rather than bringing cheer, exerts pain and is somewhat discouraging. It reveals cracks on the lips and frozen skin on the body which, like a stubborn worm, keeps thrusting its ice ax and crampons into the figure covered in tuff.

In the pass at the summit, the wind almost blew me away, but I dragged myself those three- to six hundred feet. At the edge of the crater, I turned around and saw that the edges of the long valleys, which had converged when I looked at them from my tent, no longer met. I had a bird’s-eye view. This only occurs on volcanoes that rise several miles above the surrounding area. Perhaps the first people to explore here believed that at this point, the Earth was connected to the sky.

The script of a return from the summit of a great mountain is predictable. This usually happens in the afternoon, when it’s warmest. No one is strong enough to evade imminent sleep. The tension has subsided. Even the hardiest people get soft and lose their vigilance, which is when accidents happen. By the time I realized it was coming, it was too late. It’s impossible to go on. You just sit down in the snow and doze off. Eventually, I came round. My red tent seemed so close, but the route took me many hours. When I was close to the base, I realized something was missing: a pouch with my camera and passport, which looked uncannily similar to the millions of stones that made up the volcano. I ascended again for almost two hours and strained my eyes like an animal, finally finding my lost item at dusk.

Nothing compares to that day—I felt fully alive because I was tending toward madness. Happy that my body and mind were still willing and able to fight. In the evening I drank ice-cold water and ate a handful of nuts. That was enough, because even though I was exhausted, I was imbued with pure energy. I was certain that state would last for several weeks, long beyond my descent from the rocks. I curled up in my sleeping bag and listened to the wind.

I can’t bring myself to a state of purity via the stillness meditation recommended by various gurus. Cycling and walking don’t help either. I have to exhaust my body in order to forget, for a moment, that I exist. That night, I lay in my tent and watched my hand, which seemed to be someone else’s. It took me a long time to fall asleep. I stared out into the darkness and took steady breaths. I don’t remember any thoughts. My sleep was long and restful.

Many people think rocks are odorless. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s a scent so old that we can’t smell it. When I’m sitting in a tent, I’m reminded that the world still exists. It becomes more familiar in the mountains. Most intensely so at dawn, when I’m lying with my head on a mat next to the damp ground. In this position it is easier to accept the fact that the stones were first. We are of them. I drank some water and bit into a frozen fig. I stepped out into sky-blue light dripping down the black boulders. I washed my face in the stream and climbed down to a field of red poppies.

Daniel Mróz—drawing from the archives (no. 1286/1969)
Daniel Mróz—drawing from the archives (no. 1286/1969)

Translated from the Polish by Kate Webster

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