Mountain Thoughts: The Irresistible Call of Summits

Some of us see a hill or a mountain, and we’re compelled climb it. I’ve often wondered why that is. The call for moving forward, going higher, discovering what’s behind the next bend or ridge can become an almost uncontrollable urge. What is it about summits? That’s a question I can answer.

This summer I was lucky enough to roam the mountains around Breckenridge, Colorado. Summits are aplenty here: steep, round, small, and very tall, many above 14,000 feet.

On the eastern side, there is Bald Mountain, Mount Guyot and Mount Argentine. On the western side looms Quandary Peak, one of the Fourteeners, Crystal, Pacific, Atlantic Peak, Fletcher Mountain and Peaks 10, 9, 8, 7 and 6.

You might think, if you’ve seen one summit, you’ve seen all of them. But here’s the great thing about summits: they never get old, they are never the same and they always put the rest of the World into perspective. Every summit bid is a journey of discovery, even summits climbed multiple times.

A summit climb often begins deep in the pine trees. It’s quiet and safe; you’re surrounded by green giants who have seen it before and will see it long after you’re gone. The flora and fauna change with every step; it’s like climbing an apartment building and meeting the different neighbors. In the trees, moose, deer, foxes, and squirrels live. Higher up, where the trees are replaced by low bushes and lichens, marmots, pikas and, higher still, bright white mountain goats make their homes. It’s amazing they survive the winter exposed to the elements, but they do, better than any of us ever could.

The views change every few steps, above and below. The middle of the climb becomes limbo between where you’ve been and where you’re going. This is the allure of the summit. You catch glimpses of your destination, and the more visible it becomes, the more you want to reach your destination. Perhaps you want to see what the summit looks like, perhaps you want to see if you can complete your bid. More metaphorically, perhaps you want to discover yourself.

As the views change, so too does the weather. No matter the season, it’s always changing and never the same. On the summit, the cold is colder. The wind is stronger. Clouds look bigger and more alive. Precipitation comes in all shades between liquid and solid: rain, hail, sleet, snow. You must always be prepared while on a summit, because weather can change in minutes.

Summits are dangerous places, and the higher they are, the more dangerous they become. They suck strength, will, and, above a certain altitude, life away. With every step higher, you drop a piece of yourself. The question is how much can you lose before you reach the top.

When I rest, I feel utterly lifeless except that my throat burns when I draw breath… I can scarcely go on. No despair, no happiness, no anxiety. I have not lost the mastery of my feelings, there are actually no more feelings. I consist only of will. After each few meters this too fizzles out in unending tiredness. I let myself fall, just lie there. For an indefinite time I remain completely irresolute: then, I take a few steps again. ~ Reinhold Messner

Whether you’ve climbed a Fourteener or Mount Everest, you know what that feels like: the utter abandonment to the climb and the simple, single thought of putting one foot in front of the other. Everyone should experience that at least once in their lives.

Once you reach them, summits never disappoint. Summits always take my breath away, because the expanse tends to do that to my heart. I have reached the end of my journey. There is nowhere to go but back where I came from: that’s accomplishment in a nutshell.

Francesca Conte

Francesca Conte is a professional runner, race director, and co-founder of Bad to the Bone Endurance Sports. She has won numerous 50K, 50 mile and 100 mile races. Born in Italy amidst the Alps, Francesca is now a proud U.S. citizen and splits her time between Virginia and Colorado.