Pyrenees Mountains: Psychological Perspective Monday March 1, 2010

One of the distinguishing features of mountain walking is the elevation it provides, and how psychological perspective changes with the geographic. Mind and feelings change as an inevitable consequence of environments; mountains are both aesthetically and psychologically refreshing.

To understand this dynamic, its interesting if we look at remarks made by astronauts. I think this is even more pertinent than anything spoken or written by Everest mountaineers, because the experience of summiting the highest point on earth is embedded in a grueling, arduous, and dangerous physical situation battling against cold, oxygen deficiency, changing weather and the immediate need to return. Reaching Everest and coming back is a struggle against the clock in terms of physical energy, supplies, settled conditions and daylight. You can’t stay at the top for more than about twenty minutes because above eight thousand metres you’re in the Death Zone: your body is slowly dying at an altitude that does not support life. Climbing Everest is arduous and painful. Would I go if I had the means to do it when it also costs many thousands of pounds? Yes I probably would. Kit me out, get me the Sherpas, buy me the flights, give me months of free time for climbing and altitude training, and I’d find it irresistible. But given the option, I’d use the money and resources to finance years of pleasurable walking elsewhere: the Pyrenees, Picos de Europa, Dolomites, and the vast possibilities of North America.

The astronaut situation is beyond the mountain experience, but more pertinent and psychologically revealing in regard to the underlying factors of both: the elevation of height. It’s not easy to get into space either, but when you see astronauts peering through portholes or floating across the moon’s surface, you see human beings protected with a large amount of technology. They are more safe than someone who stands on Everest, and the reflections that follow concern the greater majesty of seeing Planet Earth hanging in space. The dynamic though is the same: astronauts have a revelatory psychological experience similar to the process of mountain walking, a change in psychological perspective which occurs as a consequence of geographic vision. I empathise with all of the following, particularly in regard to my Pyrenees walking in 2009.

A Chinese tale tells of some men sent to harm a young girl who, upon seeing her beauty, become her protectors rather than her violators. That’s how I felt seeing the Earth for the first time. I could not help but love and cherish her (Taylor Wang).

For those who have seen the Earth from space, and for the hundreds and perhaps thousands more who will, the experience most certainly changes your perspective. The things that we share in our world are far more valuable than those which divide us (Donald Williams).

The colours are stunning. In a single view, I see – looking out at the edge of the earth: red at the horizon line, blending to orange and yellow, followed by a thin white line, then light blue, gradually turning to dark blue and various gradually darker shades of gray, then black and a million stars above. It’s breathtaking (Willie McCool).

In outer space you develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, “Look at that, you son of a bitch” (Edgar Mitchel).

If somebody’d said before the flight, “Are you going to get carried away looking at the earth from the moon?” I would have to say “No, no way.” But yet when I first looked back at the earth, standing on the moon, I cried (Alan Shepard).

Some philosophical thoughts occur when a person stands on the surface of the moon and looks back at the earth a quarter of a million miles away, what a beautiful planet it is, what a fragile planet it is… limited resources, all these things automatically flash through your mind (Alan Sheperd).

In her book Earth Shine, Anne Morrow Lindbergh says

No one, it has been said, will ever look at the Moon in the same way again. More significantly can one say that no one will ever look at the earth in the same way. Man had to free himself from earth to perceive both its diminutive place in a solar system and its inestimable value as a life -fostering planet. As earthmen, we may have taken another step into adulthood. We can see our planet earth with detachment, with tenderness, with some shame and pity, but at last also with love.

Mountain walking is not on the same scale as seeing the Earth from space, but entails a similar physical-psychological reorientation which I find fascinating as a natural and inevitable occurrence, with no effort or will required. The walking itself requires both, but its effect on the psyche is automatic.

Finally, the comment of astronaut Loren Acton recognises the sublimity of space but also its impersonality, not so much hostile towards life but lacking in life:

Looking outward to the blackness of space, sprinkled with the glory of a universe of lights, I saw majesty—but no welcome. Below was a welcoming planet. There, contained in the thin, moving, incredibly fragile shell of the biosphere is everything that is dear to you, all the human drama and comedy. That’s where life is; that’s where all the good stuff is.

I don’t entirely agree with this last point. It’s a fine reminder of our humanity but says nothing about the conflict, wars, violence, greed, stupidity and suffering you also find on our planet. Reframing our perception of Earth as astonishingly beautiful is paradoxically tinged with the Buddhist notion – whether we recognise its origin or not – that to be born is to suffer. I suspect, though I’ve found no writing to support this, astronauts also ponder the facts of mortality when they float in vast space still tethered, psychologically, technologically and socially, to our distant planet. We are born, we learn, we grow, we die, we see others around us die; how, in such conditions, is happiness possible within fundamental impermanence? Such thinking summarises and encapsulates the human experience which is incomprehensible when we are young, seems irrelevant when we are older, and meets us as insoluble fact – tinged perhaps with sadness and resignation – in our later years. It’s like the entirety of a novel and weighing it up for its value, compared to the survey and experience of its constituent parts. As I understand it, though I’m no expert on this, Heidegger also used this point as the basis for much of his work: because we know we will die, concern with our mortality is a constant feature of human experience and the only genuine question is why we exist at all. He criticizes the tradition of Western philosophy, which is nihilistic in the sense that it obliterates the question of ‘being’. Mountain walking in a big area like the Pyrenees is a kind of existential playground, subtly presenting us with such issues. We play at being explorers, wanderers, adventurers when the reality is thousands have been here before and will come after you, in the same summer. But this doesn’t matter: in big, wild places, it doesn’t degrade the experience.

Space, for all it provides in experiential terms, is not home. I can therefore understand the great longing of Loren Acton. Being in space an astronaut is paradoxically and uncomfortably confined in a suit and space ship, whereas walking in the mountains is geographically and physically liberating with a feeling of greater self possession and self awareness: you inhabit yourself, in mind, feelings and body, to a greater degree than is normal in the confines of daily living. You walk long pleasurable miles, and this sensory bodily experience is part of the fun. This is why taking a cable car to a peak is disappointing, as you might do in the Alps. In addition to the altitude, the views, the beauty of mountains and how they make us feel humble from which comes a kind of wisdom rather than powerlessness, it’s also pleasurable to feel self reliant and independent with survival trappings pared down to a minimum, worn or strapped around the body. Then off you go, on a self willed journey.

Astronauts float in space with a high degree of dependence on others. They see something very grand indeed, and have powerful feelings, but the nature of this is that of a precarious snapshot rather than a process one can return to and dream about. Of all the moments I had in the Pyrenees mountains, reaching 3,000 metre peaks, surmounting vast beautiful valleys, sleeping peacefully in my little tent, seeing the area unfold in both my imagination and my understanding, I remember the poignant beginning. Here’s my tent after sleeping at the Lescun camp site:

It’s a lovely site, though what you don’t see here is the multitude of people around me. A few metres away, there was a French family from whom I borrowed a mallet: the ground was rock hard and difficult to penetrate with tent pegs. To my rear, a huge camper van was parked and hooked up to a power supply. There was a water tap nearby, and five minutes away the facilities of showers, toilets, and a small but convenient shop where I’d bought bread, cheese, and a fruit pie for dinner the previous evening. When I was packed and ready to go, as I left the camp site I felt a delicious mixture of feelings. Frankly, I would have liked to spend a day there to sleep in the sun and enjoy the valley. I was very tired. I felt insecure and apprehensive. And now this was it. I was on my own, in France, setting off, tent in my rucksack, into a mountain range far larger and higher than British hills and not knowing how difficult it might be.

But I also know, such feelings are alchemised in the process of walking. They inevitably arise at certain moments in the hills, and the solution is not to solidify or get trapped in them. The walking is itself the key, the release, and the practise, and I was setting off…I was a walker, starting a journey, that was simultaneously imaginative, psychological, and physical. As I said a few times when I was there, “J’aime le Pyrenees”.

Pyrenees Photographs

Pyrenees Book


  1. david · Jul 13, 03:55 PM · §

  2. James Lomax · May 15, 11:32 AM · §