The World from Mountain Tops – Our Relationship with “Nature”

The happiest, most amazing moments of my life have possibly exclusively been the relatively few days I’ve been in big, high mountains, alone. True happiness I think happens at around 1800-2000m altitude. The feeling of being surrounded, all around, above and below, by air; of reaching the spikey peak of the highest mountain in the area and seeing the world drop out below you with a rush of giddy vertigo, is incredible. It is only amplified by the lack of others. The most special moment is on a quiet day, hearing the deafening sound of some kind of silence that you only get in these very remote places, which you end up trying to quieten your own breathing, heart and movements to listen to more deeply. Then – pure peace. 

This time, after running for over two months to even GET to the mountains, it was even more exciting. I ran out of Zurich (Switzerland) having planned the most mountain-y route I could get between there and Bregenz (Austria). For two days I could see them in the distance, huge and rocky, and pretty much bounced towards them. The day I finally reached them, I climbed (after being given breakfast by a lovely farmer lady who let me camp in her field, and a very cold skinny dip in the river) up into muddy mist. I had planned all 30km days for this week, which meant – along with the first mountains of the whole trip -, it was going to be TOUGH… but when there are good hills, it gives energy. The hill gradually turned into a ridge, including a few bits of fun Via Ferrata scrambing. The first mountain (1800m+) was still swirling in mist, although I could see the spikey edge of the ridge was now like a dragons back, and a cliff swooped down on one side. There was a quick chat with a few walkers who found it utterly hilarious that I was running to Mongolia, and threw energy bars & Swiss choc at me in support, then I jogged down the ridge and started the next climb. Just as I was coming to the top of it, the mist cleared. Bumpy ridges swooped towards the bigger rocky mountains, and on the top was a huge diagram to show which huge ones I was heading up the next day. The mist swirled up the cliff face to the left and curved back in a spiral, occasionally showing the valley below, and on the right the Alps opened up. As usual when views get this beautiful, I wait, relax, faff and delay as much time as possible before heading on, only to stop to stare again a few minutes later. It was a great day, but the next was going to be greater, bigger, better, more beautiful, AND… sunny. 

Säntis was the biggest mountain in the area, at just over 2500m, and from the view that day I could see an incredible, spiney ridge climbing up to it which was the most airy, technical and therefore the most fun option. The next day I dropped down to the valley from my camp, ate loads, then started the climb from the valley bottom at about 800m. As usual with the Alps, sensible people get the cable car most of the way up first… but there is NO CHEATING on the #newstoryrun!! It was sad to be at 1600m and still be walking on a tarmacked road. Finally, I was on the very rocky ridge making very slow progress up the mountain. I’d hugely underestimated how long the day would take, and also how little water there would be. I ran out at lunchtime and it was ridiculously hot for being so high up in October, and it slowed me down even more. I arrived at 2000m and realised there was a cable car here so people could just do the last section – and it was surprisingly busy, especially considering it was past 4pm. By now I could see the huge hulk of building that was perched on top of the mountain, crouching like an oversized thing trying to fit somewhere it shouldn’t be. 

Huge pods of people grundled past above in big round lifts heading to the summit, or where the summit once was. As I reached the last section I tried to block out the horrible building and enjoy the stunning sunrise over the rocky mountain tops, and enjoy being eye level and even above the huge birds of prey swooping in the warm air. But, the wineing of drones above me spoiled pretty much any sense of peace and wilderness that could have still been preserved. 

The building was boiling hot inside, had a huge fancy restaurant, guest house, a gift shop and massive windows. Why do we humans have to commercialise and sell out on all wonderful things the world has to offer? Why do we presume we have the right to take every deepest, highest, furthest corner as ‘ours’, and then totally destroy it, instead of respecting its own right to be there without us? I worked through the “is this a good thing, to make such experiences accessible to those unable to climb up here’’ argument, and decided it was BS. There was no way this place was designed in any other way than to make money. There was clearly some ‘educational’ aspect for kids, and I would imagine (or HOPE) that the lift was wheelchair accessible, but no doubt this was an ‘add on’, or used to help the whole thing go through the planning process… at the end of the day, it was about making cash. If it was genuinely made for a ‘social accessibility, opportunities for all’ purpose, it would have MUCH more accessible prices, perhaps have a low key place to get a meal, be focused on education and designed to allow those up there to really feel as close as possible (given safety etc), to how it feels to be at 2500m+, on the highest piece of rock in the area. Nothing about this stuffy monster did this. It was heartbreaking. 

From my dissertation research last year I tried to dig right into where the root cause of this – relatively recent – climate catastrophe came from. The world of research is flawed in how siloed it’s pods and bubbles of terminology and discussions are, but from summarising maybe a hundred papers there was a pretty exclusive agreement that at some point around the industrial revolution, our relationship with nature got seriously flawed. We became obsessed with measurements, of separating processes into smaller and smaller parts, and of course this leads to reducing everything to numbers and pounds, whether it’s the wonderful natural world, people’s lives, or social care. This process is called ‘rationalisation’, and is what our current ‘worldview’ in the ‘Western World’ is based on – affecting everything from what we value, how we think, how we interact, how we believe ‘knowledge’ is found, etc. And so, we separate ourselves from nature, even though we ARE nature, and then attempted to understand the world through seperating and measuring tinier and tinier parts… meaning that the connections and relationships between things are ignored or undervalued. For example, some people written off as ‘hippies’ have said for decades that funghi and trees talk to each other through a kind of ‘secret network’, and it’s only recently that scientific evidence has caught up and found this to be true.

What is the problem with this? It’s unarguably clear that science and this rationalisation has brought us many great things, and listening and acting on science is ever more important right now – especially considering the amount of lying, fake news and misinformation there is nowadays! But we can’t “science and technology” our way out of the climate crisis. We have a worldview and culture in our society (in the ‘West”- US & most of Europe, I can’t speak for other cultures) that is deeply flawed and responsible for a huge amount of destruction. We need the ‘sticking plasters’ focused on emissions cuts ASAP, but it’s just as important to start challenging how we think, and how we place ourselves in the web of life and world around us.

We are acting like one big arrogant, selfless control freak. The world doesn’t belong to us. We need to get down off our high horse and start playing as a supportive team member in the community of living things, respecting others as well as places, spaces, mountains etc. Ethics and philosophy needs to take a key role in all decision making. Equality issues of all kinds – between different groups of humans, as well as humans and other species or parts of nature – need to be absolutely central to the discussion.

We feel like our worldview is so deeply ingrained it would be impossible to change. But lot can happen in 20, or 40 years – think how recently a world without mobile phones and Facebook existed, something which seems unimaginable now! We need to start challenging everything about ourselves. The most important thing is a questioning of this destructive worldview, an openness to big changes, and the willingness to make them – something that anyone and everyone can start doing. 

These were my thoughts as I headed down the now-dark mountain side, eventually finding a flat place to camp outside a mountaineering club hut at 2000m. A totally dark valley with seemingly no light pollution. A huge spread of stars, and finally, the long, LONG awaited deafening silence. Not a single whisper of human chatter, buzz of electricity or roar of traffic. Just the sense of a blurring at the edges of being human and being part of something much bigger, deeper and infinitely wiser than all of our own usual rubbish. Something immeasurable, but – to me at least -, more important than anything in the world.

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