Not much is known about the Inca tribes of the Andes, except that they chose to build their vast stone cities on some of the most precipitous mountain peaks in the world.
I have been to Peru and climbed among several of these ancient sites: the mysterious citadel of Machu Picchu, the Pisac ruins that lie at the end of hundreds of narrow, exposed steps a thousand feet above the Sacred Valley, the Temple of the Sun in Ollantaytambo with its bare, windswept alter of rock high above Urubamba.
The mountains in Peru have personal names, like Old Man Mountain (Machu Picchu) and Young Man Mountain (Huayna Picchu). Sacsayhuaman sounds a lot like “Sexy Woman” but actually means Night Constellation of the Hawk. These great peaks have their own spirits as well—Apu—and it was common for our guides, and for us, to refer to and address the Apu directly. Through “conversation” of sorts with the Apus, one had the sense of being able to judge the moods and intentions of the mountains. I recall standing as close to the edge of a terrace as I dared at Machu Picchu, looking out at the sweep of immense peaks before me; I could perceive them shifting and moving, I understood more deeply how ancient they were—and how fleeting and impermanent my own life was in comparison.
Why do we go to the mountains? Despite my fear of heights, I was quite determined to see these places in the Andes. I imagined what it would be like to be so high up, to be able to see such great distances. To be in the midst of so much light. The shamans in Peru invoke the power of the great Condor who flies among the mountains, high above the earth and wing-to-wing with the great spirit, and ask for wisdom and the ability to be far-sighted. I wondered if—I hoped that—by walking among those peaks, I would gain a greater perspective, a more clear sense of my own place in the bigger picture of things.
Perhaps that is a clue to the significance of mountains for many of us—time spent in the mountains allows us to “see” something. In Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, which recounts a climbing expedition up Mt. Everest, we see something of both the fearlessness and the folly of human beings. Climbing amongst the Himalayas in search of the Snow Leopard, author Peter Matthiessen perceived at last that it is in the searching, rather than the discovery of what is searched for, that we find our way home to our own true nature.
From just about anywhere you look in Summit County you see mountains. They loom up in front of you, and from a certain perspective create the ragged edges of a great big bowl that circles most of the way around wherever you happen to be standing.
I did not come to Breckenridge for the mountains, but for love. It was winter, and even in the midst of the delirious first weeks and months of romance, there was, at the edge of my awareness, an impression of the Rockies as desolate and indifferent. How could one relate to mountains with names like “Peak One” and “Peak Two”? Could these hulking forms possibly be animated with their own Apus?
The Ten Mile range rises up behind our house. On some days those grey jagged mountains can look cold and ominous. On a warm summer morning, they seem more benign, like the walls of some great fortress that encircle and protect all the creatures living and going on about their business in the woods and fields below them. Including us.
Over the weekend we decided to go mountain biking along a path that runs high above Lake Dillon. As I rode up from the parking area and out onto the narrow trail below a slope of blooming lupine, an immense sweep of mountains, lake and sky came into view. Before I could begin to analyze or take apart the scene in my conscious mind, the Apu of the mountains spoke to my heart. And in this message came an understanding of belonging and not belonging. And how these are both the same. These mountains have been here forever, they were here before us and will be here long after we are gone. They belong to no one in particular, but also to all of us. We are all part of the same whole. Under the gaze of the mountains, we—plants and animals, rocks and water, humans and mountains too—are all one.
“The secret of the mountains is that the mountains simply exist, as I do myself: the mountains exist simply, which I do not. The mountains have no ‘meaning,’ they are meaning; the mountains are. The sun is round. I ring with life, and the mountains ring, and when I can hear it, there is a ringing that we share.” – Peter Matthiessen
Spirits of the Mountains first appeared in the Summit Daily News on June 21, 2016.