Peakbagging: From the Vantage Point of W32/35 *

With a title like that, there goes half my readership. The dog people are scratching their heads, the writers are shaking theirs, and the yoga crew are standing on theirs (sorry, I couldn’t resist). Fear not, this isn’t an “insiders only” chat intended to be exclusively for those hip to mountain jargon (woods lingo? peakspeak?). This blog is still one size fits all.

Peak bagging is an acquisitive sport. I get my mountains. I collect them, much like birders, I’m guessing, collect species for their life lists. I pursue a list and the attainment of any list begets the pursuit of the next acquisition. It’s a game but the object is a moving target: decide which list, hike the list, finish the list, decide upon a new list… Sometimes all of these simultaneously. Sometimes it feels like the list maintenance aspect of all this really is the object of the game, but sometimes it feels totally irrelevant.

Maybe for me the goal is to spend as much time as possible in the woods. Or maybe the point is to come up with an artificial structure for my time in the woods because without a list I might just go hike wherever I feel like hiking (a.k.a. hiking listlessly). I’m pretty sure that for me, at this point in time, the object of this game is threefold: 1) to push myself to do things in the woods that I find difficult, 2) to exercise my dogs as much as possible as far away from most people as possible, and 3) to indulge in as extreme a sensual experience of the Catskill forest as I possibly can (visual, tactile, aural, and so on). I‘m pretty sure that the object of Flammeus’ game is to spend as much time in the woods with me as possible. Preferably on the trail behind me so that he can look at my butt.

But part of me stands apart from the lists and the game and the playfully absurd notion of the acquisition of mountains and watches it all. And snickers a little. It is silly. This is a silly way to spend time, to obsessively list topographical high points, walk up them, walk back down, hurry home and write down that I did it on this date, and then go do it again as soon as possible. It is a little silly to chase the lists and care about the numbers (how many mountains did I hike this winter? Will I finish my winter goal this year?). In yoga one of the “ten commandments” (the yamas and niyamas) is all about dealing with acquisitiveness. Aparigraha. In yoga terms, “non-covetousness” or “non-acquisitiveness.” Don’t covet what others have, don’t over-identify with stuff (your own or other people’s), and don’t lust after stuff. I guess not lusting after people or turning people into stuff to acquire is a combo: aparigraha and brahmacharya. Don’t be a hoarder or a collector because ultimately it is all just stuff.

Out in the woods, I am in the woods. I’m not in my list or in my acquisition mode. Well, not entirely, anyway. I might start there, but no matter what else happens, at some point the mountain anchors me in the present, in my body, and in my senses. I fall, I get out of breath, I get hot and sweaty and then I get cold: it is a bonanza of embodied experience. I turn a corner and am faced with a rock wall or a ravine or a 50 mile view or an amazing bracket fungus and my eyes bug out and do a happy dance because I am changing my focal length. Whatever other games I play, it is those moments when I am most fully in the game and not in the game – playing for real.

I’m not particularly good at hiking, nor am I anything special when it comes to practicing my yoga. I’m just plugging away with it all. I play the game of acquiring mountains because I’m a doofy human with a monkey mind: I like games. I like competition. I like pretending that I’m getting away into the spiritual sanctuary of the woods, but I know better than to imagine that I didn’t sully this pristine forest with my number-crunching mountain-hoarding behavior. I am here in the fullness of my being – the stupid annoying parts of me along with the silent and less annoying parts of me. And the parts of me that are parts of everything.

I am almost finished with a list – so close I can taste it. Three left. It is too soon to write the finishing essay, the one that reflects back over the process of collecting these mountains, of amassing My Winters. The final push to bag these last three peaks will take me right down to the wire, the deadline. This late winter hiking is tough – conditions change daily as snow, rain, wind and wildly fluctuating temperatures wreak havoc on snowshoe highways. These are the hikes where I’m changing my footwear three times in a mile, glad I finally get to use my crampons since I’ve been carrying them around since December. The tank top snowshoe hikes become a possibility. An ill-timed storm or a conspiracy of illness or injury to keep me out of the woods one weekend too many and the winter will be over: no patch this year. Will I make it? Roll the dice. Three left.

* W32/35 is peakbagger code for “I have hiked up 32 of the 35 mountains needed to earn my winter patch.”

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