Why climbing mountains is good for you

Words & Photos: Rachel Lang (www.bushboundgirl.com)

The thing about climbing a mountain is that you have to do it one step at a time. Like the way you would eat an elephant - one bite a time. Although it’s not clear why anyone would want to eat an elephant (unless starving with no other option), some folks may similarly wonder why it is that people climb high mountains. Why put yourself through all that physical pain and strain when you could be, say, reclining by the poolside? Instead of clambering up rocks, you could be sipping on a rock shandy, marvelling at the equally spectacular view of the mountains from below.

Photo credit: Rachel Lang

Here are six reasons why climbing mountains is wonderful, inspired by a recent hike to (almost) the top of Cathedral Peak in the exquisite Drakensberg Mountains.

1) To be silenced. About halfway up the mountain, I stopped. In an attempt to express my new-found freedom I decided to shout. I opened my mouth wide and bellowed,  ‘WOOHOOOOOOO!!! HELLOOOOO MOUNTAINS …’

But it wasn’t as satisfying as I had hoped. In fact, it just didn’t feel right. My voice was like the sound of a clanging kitchen pot in the middle of Mozart’s piano concerto. Humbled, I continued softly, delighting instead in the sound of the wind whistling off the wings of a jackal buzzard. The raptor swooped above my head, teasing me as it glided gracefully toward the mountain peak.

2) Endorphins! Those happy little chemicals that are released during exercise. Even if your legs are swearing at you and you feel exhausted, they squirm and wriggle inside you, rejoicing with happiness that you just can’t hide, especially when you reach the top!

3) To overcome negative thoughts. Bugger Gulch is the name of one of the highest, steepest parts of the Cathedral Peak climb. It’s a suitable name.

"Are you crazy Rach, you can’t do this, you’re not even that fit, you will NEVER keep up with Scott (my mountain-goat boyfriend), you can’t do this!" It took all my strength to say, "No, I can. Thank you legs for getting me this far, I know you can do it! Nearly there, you have come so far already, just one more step … I can do it, I can climb this mountain!" Being able to talk to yourself kindly and encouragingly is an important skill in life. Not always something I find easy.

Photo credit: Rachel Lang

4) To appreciate the small luxuries. Halfway up I ate a KitKat chocolate. It seemed like the most delicious thing I had ever eaten. In my tired state, water was like honey and to my dried cracked lips (the air is very dry here in winter) lip ice was like a gift from heaven.

5) To make discoveries. How incredible to think that the paintings, done by bushman on the wall of this cave with only natural materials, have survived for thousands of years. Wow.

6) To know your place in the world. There is nothing more humbling than turning to face a mountain as you begin your climb. With each step my heart beat a little faster, adjusting its rhythm to my determined feet.

To climb a mountain is to glimpse our rightful place as humans. As I watched two beautiful klipspringers bounding effortlessly along the rocky cliffs, I knew that I was just one out of millions of animals on Earth. I could tumble off a rock and be gone for ever, but the mountain’s spires would continue to praise the sky as if nothing new had happened that day.

Yet, I still have a place in the world. We all do. I realise how small I am. I am small and world is big. But my small heart beats even if nobody else can hear it, just as a flower opens during the day and closes at night, even if no one notices.

From now on I am determined to notice little flowers, just as I was determined to climb this beautiful, mighty mountain. I feel at home here in nature, it’s where I belong. Go out alone on the hills and listen. You will hear much. The winds will hold for you something more than sound; the streams will not be merely the babbling of hurrying water." The trees and the flowers are not so separate from you as they are at other times, but very near; the same substance, the same rhythm, the same song that binds you to them. Alone amidst nature, a man learns to be one with all and all with one." - Frank S. Smythe.