Mountain Walking: Physical, Emotional, Mental, Psychological Saturday September 11, 2010

In a recent article, mountaineer Ed Douglas challenged one of the central notions of Robert McFarlane’s book Mountains of the Mind (The Great Outdoors/TGO magazine October 2010). He doesn’t believe, he says, it was only when the Romantics appeared that we learned to appreciate mountains. I know what he means. While it’s no doubt true, as McFarlane notes, Wordsworth and others reframed public perception of mountains and contributed to their popular appeal as places of recreation and delight, the experiences we have there are not culturally conditioned. He considers the attitude towards mountains evident in rural Tibet to illustrate his point: that has no connection with Western Romanticism and it didn’t need “the intervention of Romantic poets and philosophers” to invent the uplifting sensations found in their high places or any others. Douglas then goes on to consider some British mountains as “spiritual”, comparable to the reverence found in the Himalayas.

The latter is where I disagree with Douglas. I know what he means – just – but I think his terminology and approach is rather silly. He expounds on mythological narratives associated with a hill in Pendle, Kinder Scout, the Black Mountains and the island of Jura, and says those places are “sacred”. While it’s certainly true such narratives exist, I think it’s ridiculous if we start calling mythological stories “spiritual” and the same applies with the Tibetan tradition. He says “This compulsion to name and dramatise geographical features and imbue them with some kind of spiritual power is a universal human habit“ but so are fighting, smoking, and burping. Reverting back to Mountains of the Mind, McFarlane notes how the geography in question is just inert rock. That’s all there is to it. It has no qualities apart from that; what meaning we ascribe to it is merely projection and invented narrative. This is not to diminish the textures and meaning of the latter; I myself enjoy dwelling on this as a pleasurable after-taste when I’m back in the city. But calling it “spiritual” or “sacred” is nonsense. In another recent article (TGO July 2010) outdoors writer Andy Stothert refers to this as “hamming up the human”.

The subject of how we experience mountains is worth some serious reflection and I’m going to propose a model by which we might do this, avoiding cliché and excess and “hamming up the human”. This partly concerns language but also goes further, whereby language habitually conditions and circumscribes underlying attitudes: it changes how we think. Some people call mountains “spiritual”, others use the same term for swimming, music, or lying in the bath with candles. When anything can be called “spiritual,” what exactly do we mean by this? The answer, I think, lies not in the predictable explanations from walkers, music fans and bath-lovers, but in a wider and more sophisticated consideration of the topic.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge refers to “the shaping spirit of imagination” in his poem Dejection, and this sums up many of the concerns here. Firstly, there’s a link between imagination and so called spirituality; Romanticism was in some respects an exaggerated emotional attitude whereby Nature, in particular, was ascribed the significance and power to elevate human experience into something “spiritual”. On examination what we find in the Romantics is merely heightened emotion, possibly of some interest but I think with too much tedious drama. In the film Trainspotting, the Glasgow drug addicts take a trip to the Scottish highlands and recoil from what they see. There’s nothing there, they say, and go scurrying back to the city. So why are mountains “spiritual” for one person and horrific for another? How does that make sense when the term “spiritual” means “spirit”, which implies an area of experience inherently common to all people? If one person’s “spirit” is another person’s nightmare, is it in fact “spirit” or something else? There is a way of answering these questions which simultaneously values the experience of being in the mountains while avoiding the semantic and linguistic traps of “hamming up the human” which get repeated so tediously and fatuously.


Mountain walking is an intensely physical experience, in the sense that both human locomotion and the rugged geography are its essential basis. The athletic nature of romping in the hills is part of the fun, as a satisfying method of exercise. Not for me the surreal experience of mindless bumping on a gymnasium running machine while you are stationary in space; even if I didn’t like mountains I would prefer to run in a park rather than pretend to run indoors. There’s immense positive feedback when you see great views and arrive at summits; mountain walking is a form of slow travel and sensory exploration that works the body while it refreshes the mind.

You have to be reasonably fit for walking in the hills. If you’re not, and you do it enough, you soon will be. It exercises the legs in particular by virtue of which, it’s a strong cardiovascular workout. Climbing up hills, it used to amaze me that my heart and lungs were working so hard, for prolonged periods of time, which I couldn’t manage in terms of other activities. In the Pyrenees recently the slightest uphill ascent would get me panting and that might last thirty minutes or an hour, many times a day. This is because of my heavy rucksack, which takes me to my next point.

When I first carried a heavy rucksack, by virtue of camping equipment, my back subsequently ached for several days. Your back – I came to realise though really it’s obvious – is an essential factor when you’re carrying a load. The effort is not immediately apparent as it is with pumping leg muscles, but the workout is comparably robust. Your back muscles keep you stable and aligned as you climb, descend, and adjust to undulating and rocky terrain. In the exercises of Pilates, I understand the stomach and its internal ‘core’ muscles are much of the focus, supposedly as the key to effective posture and muscular balance. A heavy rucksack strongly exaggerates the function of the back, though I think it also reveals what the back does and how it does it: and it’s more important than the stomach area.

The legs and back are the main areas to get exercised when you walk, together with the cardiovascular response to intense and sustained effort. This effort tends to harmonise hormonal activity, balancing the adrenal reactions typical of stressful living which might not be properly discharged in activity. Our body can react to the work place as if a sabre tooth tiger is a dangerous threat, but instead of balancing this by running away (pumping the blood vigorously) we have to return to our desk and continue working. Hormonally too, endorphins are released in the process of hard mountainous work which takes me to the next part of my model.


Endorphins make you feel good and the exercise/attainment/feel-good cycle is for many people the primary satisfaction of the hills. If the skies are grey, certainly in Britain where this is statistically common, many people are stoically resigned to this to the extent that ‘bad weather’ is not, for them, a reason to avoid walking. This is laudable philosophy in regard to predominantly cloudy skies where we might argue we have to make the best of what we have – and just get out there and walk. But I don’t agree with this; not as an intellectual idea but as an emotional predisposition: I find grey skies depressing, mountains drained of colour dreary and dull. If I were motivated by the heat of exercise and the challenge of the summit, it would be different; I’d have a satisfying workout, get an endorphin rush, and feel great. But my appetite is for beauty and aesthetic reward and while I acknowledge even under grey skies walking is great exercise, so it’s a positive experience, I’m always disappointed on a grey day – even in the Pyrenees. The clue here lies in my photography: if I’m getting rewarding photographs that means it’s a good day with colour, light, and aesthetic interest.

Many studies have found nature soothes and balances the emotions. In a city the existence of parks, trees and grassy areas contributes to the emotional health of its inhabitants. An American university researched this in Paris; it’s described in an old American magazine I have called Utne. In another TGO article by Robert McFarlane, he refers to a man on America’s infamous Death Row who sees the ocean on a rare outside trip to a hospital. He feels “everything was right” again when he sees the untamed water, after the incarceration and squalor of his cell. Similarly, the inmates treasure wild flowers they capture very carefully through a wire fence; and in his book The Wild Places McFarlane refers to writer WH Murray and how, imprisoned in the war, dreaming about the Scottish Highlands sustained him and gave him hope. Viktor Frankl refers to this more general topic in Man’s Search For Meaning: how concentration camp inmates survived the experience, or not, depending on a dream, person or project they might have to look forward to. If they didn’t have this, they gave up and died. Frankl kept himself going with the aim of writing a book about the terrible experience and what he’d learnt from it: that meaning sustains us, and can literally keep us alive. McFarlane describes how mountains and the natural world are one such source of meaning.

City buildings have ‘sick building syndrome’ where the materials, electronics, angles and confines of their design undermine office work and plants have been found to counteract this. Part of us, from our ancient nomadic past, is perhaps hard-wired for living in big open spaces where we can see approaching threats and feel a delicate seamless link with the sun, moon, weather and seasons; the grass, skies, and trees. There’s a phenomenon, and a book, with the name of Nature Deficit Disorder.

There’s a relaxation response associated with mountain walking as an environment devoid of the noises, smells, and frequently ugly sights of a city. Landscape – mountains or otherwise – soothes and consoles us i.e. nourishes our emotional nature. When this is particularly heightened it gets called “spiritual” but I suggest if it concerns emotion it is not, by definition, “spiritual”. I’ve had wonderful moments in the hills and like to recollect and expound on this; I understand very well what the experience is like. It needn’t be dramatic; one of my best memories is lying on hilly grass just a fifty minute walk above the Lake District’s Buttermere. What matters is the quality of the moment rather than the situation as such and, as the saying goes, whatever turns you on. My ‘Buttermere moment’ or similar gets called “spiritual” thousands of times, and I don’t agree with this. It was a feeling – one of contentment, peace, and solace, such that despite the modesty of the scene it stands out as memorable after years of walking, much of it far more dramatic and thrilling. I don’t think feelings are “spiritual”.


Part of the pleasure of the hills is immersing yourself amongst them. Physically, psychologists recognise what they call body armour as a muscular correlation of psychic tension. This is similar to the common experience of being physically tense when we feel (emotionally or mentally) tense, but to a greater and more complex degree. There are systems of psychotherapy working directly with the body, to address psychological issues. Wilhelm Reich pioneered some of this, followed by the work of Alexander Lowen and what he called Bioenergetics.

Relaxing in a swimming pool or on a sunny beach is in some respects similar to immersion in the hills, whereby the body pleasurably abandons itself to an environment i.e. relaxes. I’ve seen this discussed as a feminine trait and while I concur with the general idea contrasted against the ‘masculine’ attitude of ‘attacking’ or ‘conquering’ the hills, it’s absurd to literally describe this as a propensity of women – as people once did in TGO magazine when they discussed it. That in turn was based, I understand, on an article written by Jim Perrin whose words, for me, fit the ‘emotional excess’ objection I apply to the Romantics: hamming up the human. Here’s an example; it’s in regard to a conservation campaigner: “Work like that is angel-gifted – a person’s shoulders don’t need to sprout feathered wings to carry the burden and express the holy intent”. Literary nonsense! I recoil from Perrin’s monthly writing. I find it almost unreadable, like Wordsworth done badly: the tone of a small world country vicar, with clumsy and tortuous expression. McFarlane’s writing expands your outlook like the act of walking; ponderous emotional excess does the opposite. An American writer called Joyce Carol Oates criticised nature writing for what she described as a “painfully limited set of responses: reverence, awe, piety, mystical oneness.” A nature writer called David Gessner said he was “sick of nature” and imagined livening up the genre by getting Thoreau drunk. And MacFarlane wrote in the Guardian (July 14th 2007) that “So much nature-minded art suffers from the tonal sins of polemicism, piety or plangency.”

I ‘immerse’ myself in the hills all the time. The last time, notably, was wandering the Carneddau in Wales and being absorbed in the experience to such an extent I forgot about planning and navigation. Then I saw a lake, didn’t know what it was or where I was, and had a brief moment of panic. I wasn’t thinking, I was feeling, and that’s potentially a dangerous state when you walk the hills.

Paying concerted attention to navigation cuts you off from immersion; when the mind is active and calculating there’s a degree of tension and control. I’ve experienced this most clearly in the Pyrenees. Undertaking one of the days Ton Joosten describes as ‘extreme’ in his book Pyrenean Haute Route, I had to be very focussed. Technical challenge requires this, and I’d just descended a vast and steep snow field which was one of the hazards of the day. The skies were then darkening as was forecast, and I was moving towards an area where navigation would be extremely difficult in poor weather: Joosten said problems would be “inevitable”. It was, as he described it, a “granite wilderness” and while marked with cairns they disappear in an instant if cloud and mist are sufficiently dense. I had to stay alert: there’s the cairn, there’s the next one, looking as far ahead as possible, that’s the valley I have to get to (minutes later it was totally obscured by cloud) and it’s bearing east; if I aim for those lakes (and remember they are there and I have to pass them) that’s some part of the way I can probably manage even if I deviate from the cairn marked route. And so on. It was, potentially, quite hazardous. Getting lost in the Pyrenees in bad conditions is more serious than getting confused in Wales, the Lake District, or Scotland.

Mental ability – being able to read and understand the landscape and navigate accordingly – is an aspect of mountain walking. There’s some satisfaction in it; I felt this on the Pyrenean day above, that you exercise your abilities and feel some accomplishment. But such activity, like being concerned about reaching a peak for the sake of doing so, means you’re not immersing yourself in the hills.


This, in my opinion, is a more accurate and useful term for what commonly gets called “spiritual”. I differentiate it from the ‘mental’ as a more subtle and encompassing term, using it slightly differently from its normal meaning. It describes the process whereby we experience a greater perspective and concomitant release from habitual patterns of thought and feeling, and the reorientation that follows: psychological, not spiritual. Life could be different. The universe actually is like this. I’m not separate from Nature. My problems are still there but I’m not bothered. All of this before me (the Pyrenees, Wales, Scotland, the Lake District) isn’t just random phenomena but has meaning and design. And I’m part of it. I’m calm and relaxed. Everything is clearer. I feel humbled by this but also stronger.

And so on. Psychological.

These states of mind, feeling and body – for that’s what they are – are lovely, memorable and worthwhile, and mountain walking is a rewarding way of finding them. They point towards the possibility of a different kind of living where they are more enduring and consciously accessible: not as a reaction to being in the hills but driving in the heart of London, meeting deadlines, paying the bills, dealing with obnoxious behaviour from other people: the situations of daily life.

The reality is, few if any of us fail to react adversely to the pressures of life and we are constantly manoeuvring complex environments – physical and social – which condition us and create tensions, frustrations, and dissatisfaction.

Life was simpler there. On that hill. Lying beside the lake. After reaching the summit. Everything was different. I felt so fit and calm and healthy.

Nothing could touch me. I was part of Nature. I was Nature. My heart was more open. Everyone I met was happy and friendly. I didn’t meet many people and the solitude was lovely. I’m alone. And that’s OK. Alone is different from lonely. I’m so relaxed in the hills.

I miss it. I can’t hear the river. The air is bad. There’s too much noise. I can’t move freely. I feel trapped. I hate my job. I feel like a slave. I’m tired of making myself understood. Everything is so complicated. There must be more to life. These mountains have been here for millions of years and who am I in this situation?… more importantly perhaps, how am I any different from merely thinking these thoughts, and here’s a clue: what difference does it make to these mountains, what I am thinking?

I think “spirit” implies a clearing of the mind, not embellishing it with ornamental narratives. There’s a Zen meditation technique where you gaze at a wall, which reveals the unending flow of thoughts. We can’t control this; it’s automatic like the pumping of the heart and the in and outflow of breath. It can be slowed however, also like the heart and the breath, and therein lies the possibility of transcending it – which is real discovery, rather than fanciful feel-good narrative which changes nothing.

Pyrenees Photographs

Pyrenees Book