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The Art of Climbing Mountains

by René Daumal

My observations are those of a beginner. As they are completely fresh in my mind and concern the first difficulties a beginner encounters, they may be more useful to beginners making their first ascents than treatises written by professionals. These are no doubt more methodical and complete, but are intelligible only after a little preliminary experience. The entire aim of these notes is to help the beginner acquire this preliminary experience a little faster.

Alpinism is the art of climbing mountains by confronting the greatest dangers with the greatest prudence. Art is used here to mean the accomplishment of knowledge in action.

You cannot always stay on the summits. You have to come down again . . .

So what’s the point? Only this: what is above knows what is below, what is below does not know what is above. While climbing, take note of all the difficulties along your path. During the descent, you will no longer see them, but you will know that they are there if you have observed carefully.

There is an art to finding your way in the lower regions by the memory of what you have seen when you were higher up. When you can no longer see, you can at least still know...

Keep your eyes fixed on the way to the top, but don’t forget to look at your feet. The last step depends on the first. Don’t think you have arrived just because you see the peak. Watch your feet, be certain of your next step, but don’t let this distract you from the highest goal. The first step depends on the last.

When you take off on your own, leave some trace of your passage that will guide your return: one rock set on top of another, some grass pierced by a stick. But if you come to a place you cannot cross or that is dangerous, remember that the trace you have left might lead the people following you into trouble. So go back the way you came and destroy any traces you have left. This is addressed to anyone who wants to leave traces of his passage in this world. And even without wanting to, we always leave traces. Answer to your fellow men for the traces you leave behind.

Never stop on a crumbling slope. Even if you believe your feet are firmly planted, while you take a breath and looking at the sky the earth is gradually piling up under your feet, the gravel is slipping imperceptibly, and suddenly you are launched like a ship. The mountain always lies in wait for the chance to trip you up.

If, after climbing up and down three times through gullies that end in sheer drops (visible only at the last moment), your legs begin to tremble from knee to heel and your teeth start to chatter, first reach a little platform where you can stop safely; then, remember all the curse words you know and hurl them at the mountain, and spit on the mountain; finally, insult it in every way possible, swallow some water, have a bite to eat, and start climbing again, calmly, slowly, as if you had your whole lifetime to undo this bad move. In the evening, before going to sleep, when it all comes back to you, you will see then that it was just a performance. It wasn’t the mountain you were talking to, it wasn’t the mountain you conquered. The mountain is only rock or ice, with no ears or heart. But this performance may have saved your life.

Besides, in difficult moments, you’ll often surprise yourself talking to the mountain, sometimes flattering it, sometimes insulting it, sometimes promising, sometimes threatening. And you’ll imagine that the mountain answers, as if you had said the right words by speaking gently, by humbling yourself. Don’t despise yourself for this, don’t feel ashamed of behaving like those men our social scientists call primitives and animals. Just keep in mind when you recall these moments later that your dialogue with nature was only the outward image of a dialogue with yourself.

Shoes are not like feet—we are not born with them. Therefore we can choose them. Let yourself be guided in this choice first by experienced people, then by your own experience. Very quickly you will be so used to your shoes that every nail will seem like a finger, capable of testing the rock and gripping it firmly; they will become a sensitive and reliable tool, like a part of yourself. And yet you were not born with them; and yet, when they wear out, you will throw them away and remain what you are.

Your life somewhat depends on your footwear. Care for them properly, but a quarter of an hour per day will be plenty, for your life depends on several other things as well.

A climber far more experienced than I told me, “when your feet will no longer carry you, you have to walk with your head.” And that’s true. It is not, perhaps, in the natural order of things, but isn’t it better to walk with your head than to think with your feet, as often happens?

If you slip or have a minor spill, don’t interrupt your momentum but even as you right yourself recover the rhythm of your walk. Take note of the circumstances of your fall, but don’t allow your body to brood on the memory. The body always tries to make itself interesting by its shivers, its breathlessness, its palpitations, its shudders, sweats, and cramps. But it is very sensitive to its master’s scorn and indifference. If it feels he is not fooled by its jeremiads, if it understands that enlisting his pity is a useless effort, then it falls back into line and compliantly accomplishes its task.

~ • ~ ~ • ~ ~ • ~

This excerpt is from René Daumal’s Mount Analogue: A Tale of Non-Euclidian and Symbolically Authentic Mountaineering Adventures, Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press, 2004, pp. 105–108, and is used here with their kind permission. Copyright ©1981 Editions Gallimard, Paris. English translation Copyright © 2004 by Carol Cosman. For more information contact The Overlook Press, One Overlook Drive, Woodstock, NY 12498.

Traditional Studies Press has published a recording of Dr. William Welch reading René Daumal’s Mount Analogue. Dr. Welch saw this book as a many-facetted jewel, and appreciated its poetry, its humor and its truth. He reads it with great gusto and delight. Look for it at:

This webpage © 2007 Gurdjieff Electronic Publishing Featured: Spring 2007 Issue, Vol. X (1) Revision: June 1, 2008

Some wise words from alpinist Rene Daumal. His reflection on mountain climbing spoke to me on this Transfiguration Sunday. Because as William Willimon would say, this gospel story is best be savoured rather than explained. What mountains have you climbed this week? Where have your steps taken you? If there is anything I leave you with today it is that I hope you walk with through this world with an open spirit. That you experience moments of transfiguration, of heightened beauty that give you awe and take your breath away. To notice the ice breaking up into jigsaw like pieces on the lake….a bird’s nest intricately woven in the branch of a bare tree, exposed for all to see. May you venture forth with grace, tenacity and wisdom so that you might encounter the luminous qualities of others, faces shining. The divine lives and moves among us, lifting us from our sorrow, our anxieties and our doubts. Be a light to one another as we face the next mountain before us.

Amen and Amen

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