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Fall 2004, Volume 22.1

Essay

 

Pat AmentPhoto of Pat Ament.

Look to Your Soul, By Which You Might Be

 

Pat Ament has written poetry for forty years. In the mountaineering genre, his writing has produced 30 published books and over a hundred articles. His essays have been selected for various international anthologies of mountaineering literature. A pioneer rock climber, Pat was the first to climb 5.11 grade routes in the Boulder area and in Yosemite. Pat has won the "Best Spirit" Award at the Telluride MountainFilm Festival, and his films have won recognition from the University of Geneva. Pat lives in Fruita, Colorado, with his wife and three children.

"To Become As a Child" another essay by Pat Ament

 

Eldorado Canyon's arkose-conglomerate sandstone has an adhesive feel, as though when you press your fingers on a hold they begin to grow to the rock. My lips brush lichen, and my eyebrows touch the rock. It helps to be close to the rock. My eyesight has gotten worse in recent years. Footholds are a little out of focus. If I wear glasses to correct this, the handholds become blurred. I'm not deprived, however, of inner windows through which, during forty years as a climber, I've seen. I recall how, with fingers on holds and a foothold to start, I would step into the dance. The shaman in trance is said to be able to travel out-of-body across oceans to find a cure. Along a similar pattern of imagination, I travel back through time. Coordination, strength, and eyesight of past years stir in memory and help me through the next move requirement. On a ledge, I wrap a sling around a small pine for an anchor. I hold a pine peeling in my hand. The sandstone, the peelings, the sling, all have textures, and thus memories have texture. As I sit and belay, I imagine moves. I drift back through bright, good days in hope of a cure. I think back to when I had more energy and more physical talent. A climb is deeper than its holds, and a route is larger than Eldorado. There are fragrances of air, a smell of the wood of pines, the sandstone's heavy odors of pigeon, lichen, and mud. It's about dreams that have come to live in the rock and about sun that would burn a man away but for the cool refreshment of the canyon's air.

To visualize a climb helps a climber do it, yet to remember years of climbing helps also. I tend to think of distant days and to take their meanings to today's moves. In my mind, before I do a crux section of rock, I study what I think its moves will be. I also look backward and study what I think the moves might have been and what my life has been. Both directions hold all the keys.

I'm a slightly testy party who dwells a bit too much in the past. A storyteller, I am almost always in some private, inward effort toward description. I've a writer's pallor, my face somewhat sickly in hue. Fat hangs now from my cheeks in curtains that one could grab as handholds, were one to want, for example, to climb to the top of my head. Circus gymnasts and hand-balancers do such things. I wonder sometimes what would have happened had I maintained my gymnastic fitness, had I continued the intensity I once had for climbing, had I carried with me some small amount of that original directive that sent me with so much certainty and clarity up rock. At the start, I understood where I was supposed to be. I carry a pretense of ability still, but it has no crown to which it's drawn, no stroke of desire that once allowed me to draw into my bones, muscles, and fingers the power of the firmament and the four quarters of the world.

Whether we visualize forward or backward, the effect can be one of inspiration and learning. I'll tell you why I look back a little more than I look ahead. Some of the significance of climbing tends, with time, to drain out. I try with all the creativity in my skeleton to find the quiet, inner vision of all that has gone before, everything I wish could be saved, as memory, inspired moments that proved, in some subtle way, to be my saving. It's discouraging that childhood and youth were my energy high points; although, now I've insight I only could have wished for then. I feel in new ways, yet I remember the discoveries of youth and set them as a wonderful prize of the experience of life. Who I was forty years ago remains a little bit in action now, as I bring memories of such a person with me on climbs.

At one time I had a terrible urge to realize my desires as a climber. Now it's important only that I feel sunlight and the blue of sky, the green in trees, some tranquil afternoon, and friendships. I want to be in tune enough with such a setting to feel the peace and beauty in it. My goal is to be in some kind of harmony with the rock, almost as though my spirit and the rock's spirit merge, so that I'm allowed to play about the rock with ease and with a sense of safety. I don't often need to push myself physically. I demand only perception of myself. Simplicity is what my time requires of me, and this means, sometimes, that the most enjoyable thing is not to climb at all.

Sometimes people speak about having climbed a certain route, and they lack any feel for that ascent other than having made it past the crux or to the top. Another type of climber shows an artistic diction—a few words that indicate an awareness of small, obscure, least obvious aspects of experience. One hears gratitude in such a voice. The sweet, deeper revelation of a climb transcends, for such a person, the more physically demanding aspect of the art.

I never go on a climb anymore because someone tells me it will challenge me. There are countless climbs beyond my ability. I'm attracted, on the other hand, to comments about how the sunset was, how a face of rock looked, how a certain hold feels. There are mysteries up there, a beauty that won't be found elsewhere in the universe. If the difficulty of a climb matches, in at least a small, practical way, my ability, I'll go up and look for that sunset and study the rock and view. I'll feel for the blessings, for the best grasp of a fourteen-sided crystal. I'll notice the viridescent lichens that change their green. These realms that throw out upon the world the fact of their tremendous grandeur communicate as much truth as one has the power to imagine. Rather than show the world the balance he possesses, a climber can let the rock instill in him something of its balance. I'll take whatever moment I find and glance into the heart of things, into the good, inner being of a friend who is with me.

As climbers today attempt to create a first vision of the world, and it seems a rather radical and inspired one at times, I feel no urge at all to be included in such a rush toward gold. The rock is radiant and gives to me a rationality. I no longer bring myself unflinchingly to climbing's edges of destruction. This is in part because my decreasing level of activity keeps me more and more out of shape and out of harm's way. I've other ways to do things now. I have the adventure of diabetes and serious neuropathy in my feet. I've had debilitating adhesive capsulitis, the total destruction of my left shoulder. There's a new grade about which I'm concerned, namely the number that comes up on my small blood-pressure device. The harder I climb, the lower the number goes. Since I'm depleted of will and don't climb much, the numbers go up. Strangely this feels good, since I've been brainwashed for years, as most climbers are, to think in terms of "the higher the number the
better."

The sandstone walls, their yellow light…

Amid a vast universe, somewhere at a small point amid an infinity of time, on sandstone formations, I found happy, sacred times. I found pieces of day and night that needed to be assembled. Rocks in moonlight, their spirit, captured my upward gaze, or I leaned out from the top and like a gargoyle looked down over them. The presence of the rocks of the western United States have haunted me as much as my presence has haunted them. I glance backward through the pages of my climbing with half-blindness. I've loved to climb. I've loved to reach with my hands outward and upward from my body, to map the next moves, like an architect. I continue to climb, even when I sit on a ledge or at a desk. Drops of rain sometimes fall from a blue sky. Clouds do not have to be present for moisture to be in the air.

Today as the rock and my physical being stand increasingly separate, my heart and spirit still are in communication with sunlight and rock. As I travel along the road of my best dreams, I hear the cool, golden wind. One afternoon, as I walked down from an Eldorado climb, I passed what appeared to be a nineteen-year-old. He was on his way up to climb. His eyes met mine. With strength and youth, he looked at me as though he wanted his own claim to Eldorado. I looked at him as if to reply, "Take it. I give it to you."

Life has not flickered out for me, by any means, even though I watch time pass and years move by. Will any part of the world I lived be saved, beyond some future, nostalgic, and curious description of some climb that bears my name? Will they get the facts right about that distant, indistinguishable past? Life remains aflame in my private wounds. Ways in which I was the measure of life, and other times when I wasn't, continue, always, as though there exists a perpetual return to them. Life deals out to one what one is worthy to receive. In my mind, to be worthy is to appreciate and to remember. An interesting line in the Bible (Matthew 6:27) has Jesus ask his listeners, "Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature?" In fact, I think I've gotten an inch shorter.

I seem to live with a strange memory of steep terrain high among the Flatirons above Boulder. At times I'm not even sure the places really ever existed. But I think of a time when I scrambled and climbed toward what appeared to be a natural opening, or gateway, of rock. It's difficult to describe.

Pines are all around. A few grow out of ledges or cracks in the rock. I move my body along the natural anatomy of the sandstone, and through air. An afternoon's springs of light drain my mind of any anger or sickness. The love I feel, as I ascend through this strange, steep ground, is stronger than adventure. The sun is warm. I feel with insatiable fingers. I smell rain, a small shower. The rock becomes wet, and where I stand, on a hold, is beautiful, a place of eerie, joyful adrenaline…

When I project myself upward into that lonely place, that memory, that past, I'm able to feel a relationship to those rocks and pines, man to stone, water to grass, sky to earth, clouds to empty space. To be there is the seed, if you will, of everything life has revealed to me and everything it will yet reveal. The pines, the rock, and I are being born, or we're resurrected from wherever we were. Life is something I get at in certain states of ascent, as when I peruse a book late at night with a tired mind. Thought creates better words and meanings than the page. Life carries me to lost places and returns me back again. Life must be, in part, to get to those holds, to strain and breathe, to have another beat somewhere in the chest, to find a hold the width and length of a shoe—to play with uneasiness.

The years, the silence, the wind, their solid flesh…

Waves of limbs swan down from white sky. My thoughts are steps, stories, like air, like fledgling eagles moored high up on rock by their inexperience. My thoughts are veins that lie hidden beneath the surface, behind the appearance, of the rock. Fingers worn, body tired, old, and shriveled in my sins, I feel for warm, immaculate images of stone. I feel for what life is in them, the molecules that still have of the grace to move. I feel for the cool of the stone, for the mysterious stone upon which I've staked so much of my soul. I feel for friends. Those friends with whom I've survived the years seem hardly in my world enough now, in a physical sense, for me to speak about them or to have ever climbed with them. Yet they're there. I feel them. Perhaps we looked for each other, in the first place, because we knew, on some mystic level, we were there to be discovered and would vanish just as quickly. When we met, it was as though we already were aware of the better part of each other. Our eyes indicated places we knew in some future we would share. We knew that cosmic knowledge.

These rocks might soon fall away forever to the other side of memory, but for a few moments one evening above the city of Boulder I line up in sky, a silhouette, a soul sallow-faced in twilight. Why did I not go to that foothold? Because another dream, another childhood, wrapped me in its peaceful light, a different set of pines or a darker blue sky led to some other hold, another place, or angle. One world lets go, and another comes over us. All there is to survival, really, is to go where we're guided. A climb is most beautiful, perhaps, somewhere around a certain hold.

The beautiful, ancient, natural gateway of rock, where a mind is drained empty of sickness by an afternoon's springs of light, is a working of images that strike me with light and rushes of emotion. Upward through broken timber, the rock in late sun has in it various journeys. Some, I know, I'll never take. We're always unfinished. There's a kinesthesia in that.

I read an article not long ago in the Colorado University Daily, by one Matthew Boroson, titled "Getting in Touch With Your Subtle Body." He talks about the "second body behind the body." Apparently, a distinction can be made between the body and the "kinesthetic body." This is what I've been saying about the mind—that there is a "subtle mind" behind the regular, usual old mind. I'm not speaking of the unconscious mind, or of dreams, or of the creative unconscious, rather something akin to imagination. It may be the ultimate place.

I've become acquainted with the phenomena of the subtle mind, or the imagination, if that sounds better, and, by way of it, have known, and my body has known (but not as well as my mind), an inner experience as vivid, as direct, and mysterious as any physical counterpart. I believe a dancer who has grown old and is too atrophied or injured to perform well is able to envision the dance and to live it out, with adequate beauty, while not being there in fact. He or she is there in a hidden way.

Boroson concludes eloquently: "Play your way into new awareness." Climbing teaches kinesthetic truths, without trying to trick the body or mind with any false sense of transcendence. There's enough natural transcendence in the lone, simple move on a rock, as one is taken upward, or across, hold to hold. The mind educates the body over the course of a few minutes, a day, a few days, or forty years, and then re-educates it. Kinesthesia, defined by Boroson, is "the sense of motion along skeletal muscle"—a much more localized, physical definition than I would give. He states that kinesthesia comprises a third of our "system of proprioception," the means by which we stay aware of ourselves. I can't imagine how he arrives at the fractional breakdown, but to play in his thinking, I call the subtle mind itself a kinesthetic factor. Boroson states that our rhythm, sense of time, orientation in space, and perception of pain all are located in the realm of kinesthesia. Perhaps some of who we are in a spiritual sense also is dictated by kinesthetic awareness.

Nostalgia is not the legacy I would have imagined I would leave, but much of who I am—as a climber—seems to be rooted in reflection. I'm glad I have what eyesight I do. I'm glad I'm able to remember. Many climbing friends tell me they
cannot recall much of anything at all.

I had a small dream one night recently. I made a point to wake up from the dream, at about three in the morning, and write down words in the dream. The words formed a short sentence and felt precious. They seemed to hold important meaning—almost the whole meaning one could have in a world. The sentence was, "Look to your soul, by which you might be." That didn't make much sense when I later rose at the normal hour and saw what I'd written. For several weeks I glanced at the sheet of paper that held the mysterious phrase. I resisted throwing it away. I wanted to know the inside of those words as well as their outside. Some of the mysterious feeling of the dream, rather than amounting to a meaning I might find the power to speak, began to fuse to my soul almost as a warning. Inherent in the warning were a few thoughts about climbing.

Those places where I'd climbed to my salvation were in the feeling. Moments of revelation were there, as were lost corridors of a dream-past. Deep in me, and close at hand, and far away… were rocks. There was a freedom, as though my soul might lift out of the mire and soar among the friendships that tie people and rocks together. I cherish the good people who have understood me and who, for a writer, are subjects. An increasing number of my friends are dead, not from climbing but age. Some of their old fire is safe with me, in good keeping in my arteries, in memory, imagination, and my inner being… to which I look, that I might be.

I feel the warmth of a world, the sun-heated sandstone, the bright white of clouds, their radiation. I didn't come all this way not to know what it is I feel. As inadequate as a word is, let me use the one that now seems to depict what I feel: Trust. I feel it in my fingers, in the beauty of friends, in rocks, in all there is to look at and feel. The sound of breath, a scrape of shoes against rock, a rush of air at my shirt, all of these seal me to my species of being—one that disappears upward into simple, beguiling realms and keeps them as memories. Love echoes over great spaces and thoughts. I thresh experience into dreams and allow myself to feel that I stand a little higher than the damned and the doomed.

Carl Sandburg wrote, "A bar of steel—it is only smoke at the heart of it, smoke and the blood of a man." The climber becomes aware of himself, yet at the same time is self-forgetful, as he peers into rock. Holds are alone in their places, quiet against his claims of personality. He's scaled down by the solid rock, by its expanse. The moment to moment quality of rock is as varied as air, and as promiscuous—if I may attribute a human quality to the rock. There are many possibilities in climbing for personification. A crack exhales its cold air. Ragged edges of rock release their energies. Rock is organic, like an El Greco painting that lifts the figures, distorts them, and gives to them strange perspectives, tempestuous and emotional. For me, every view of or from a rock gives a sense of elevation and being. Yet my body is sprawled over the rock in a fashion more primal. There's enough earthy, raw interaction with the rock to counterbalance any pretension or excess of dignity and poise.

Peculiar thoughts plague the moves of a climb. I wonder if my daughter, Maren, will be able to keep any memory of me, should I die. What will she become in life? Will I be able to see her from the other side? Will she comprehend, at any moment in her life, how deeply I love her, how precious she is to me?

I wonder what lifted the Flatirons. Geologists seem rather speculative in their attempts to explain how Boulder's Flatirons were formed. The current explanation is that sand and various stony materials were transported by rivers and seas to a place where they became beds and, over centuries, began to harden. These beds were then lifted up. Some argue this was a catastrophic upheaval. Others say it happened over time, lots of time, an inch per millenium. Shattered boulders, the talus at the bottom of the rocks, suggest violence. The depth of Eldorado Canyon is said to have been carved by water. It is working on its next inch in twilight. We're told seas and weathering carried a whole land away and left what we now have. The top of Longs Peak, a flat place at over 14,200 feet, is the last trace of that ancient plane, the level at which everything was… at one time.

How quiet things are on certain evenings. How easy it is to hear the deep things of the rocks, how well they've stood their positions. How softly wind sails downward from the west into the pines. From Flagstaff Mountain is an amazing view of the houses of Boulder, a wide view of plains and fields that extend eastward. There are clouds and sun. Pines are not very close together, and lots of sun pours in and over the stony grasses. The boulders have not gotten steeper because of the latest surge of geological lift, rather from the next jolt of middle age. I'm weaker, heavier, absolutely unable to do a thing about it.

Over the years, the elegance of the rock has destroyed in me any wish of dominance and left only a feeling of my body as it climbs. I feel my body tense and relax. The game now is more to live in a body than to be its master, as I once pretended to be. A naturally improvident soul, with notoriously high creativity combined with equally notorious bad judgment, I was, in younger years, an unusual spirit. If I knew anything about life, it was that. Something always seemed to wrench my inner being, and now I'm able to identify such power, incomprehensible though it is, the emotion of love. With so much to feel, I was not able to control very well where my mind took me. There was, after all, so much to look at. I had an eerie color, elongated and emaciated, placed as I was in a spatial organization my reasoning intelligence did not have, altogether, the ability to comprehend.

That there seemed to be so much to know, by comparison to the little I did know, and ever would know, caused me to suffer from self-doubt… which evolved into a struggle to find what there was of the world in every person and in every idea and hold of rock. There had to be in a climb some assurance that I was, indeed, an indispensable part, a part that, if suddenly absent, would cause some part of everything else to disappear. People played with my sense of worth and threw it around in their conversations, misinterpreted it as ego. I think as a protection I turned to the rock for a friend. The rock always did seem to receive me as a friend. My eyes scanned the rock, beginning at the hilltop of an innocent joy and ending now at an indignation that there should be such a circumstance as age.

To climb was not so much to go to the world and look outward from a high place. It was to express a meticulous art. When sun, or the light of a moment, overflowed, I could see myself as lichen, or color, melted like blood or beauty into the rock. It still is my tendency to measure the years in rock. Sandstone works against any kind of conventional coherence and blazes, like heaven, into my head. A new, gorgeous day is spread out before me, vast and open, luxuriant, filled with sunlight and gifts. It's a good world we live in. The gift of life is large. The goal becomes to raise the mind and make it greater, push it to a few extremes and air it out. One climbs to introduce a sense of realism, a feel for space, but also to arouse imagination—that land where often we find what is most important about anything. Intense, idyllic, the moods of climbing are to execute life, like art, to move closer to the mystery, to become almost inherent, to inhere, to such beautiful creation.


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