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Mountaintop Experience

November 25, 2013

DSCF0169Who can climb

And remain silent?

Arthur Schopenhauer, 30 July 1804, on descending Schneekoppe mountain

IMG_2077A little more than a week ago my son, Eric, grandson, Erick, and I set out to climb Old Rag Mountain, in magnificent Madison County.  We got a somewhat late start–noon had already passed when DSCF0153we set out on the Ridge Trail, at Nethers, for the five and a half hour trek–meaning that our return by the Saddle Trail, along the gentler, south slope, would be completed in a steadily descending dusk.  The autumn cool was perfect for hiking, with pale sunshine coming through the haze as we trudged the ascending trail–until the haze deepened into mist and the mist into cloud.

DSCF0178At 3268 feet, Old Rag is not the highest peak in the Shenandoah National Park; that would be Hawksbill, at 4050 feet, aptly named for its sharply curved face.  Hawksbill stands a couple of miles southwest of Old Rag, and hosts the Appalachian Trail.  But Old Rag stands apart.  Instead of the smooth contours of the  long Blue Ridge, it is capped by crags and huge DSCF0167boulders.  No wonder Old Raggedy is such a popular climb–not a bother but a blessing, to have fellow-climbers at some of the wildly steep-and-tight spots, ready to give you a hand or a fanny-boost.  DSCF0166Son Eric, a serious runner, scaled the rocks handily.  Grandson Erick scrambled and leapt, scorning my warnings about the dire consequences of a sprained ankle.  I labored along, as steadily as I could–what was Goethe’s motto?  Oh yes: “Without rest, without haste.”

DSCF0173The sun disappeared as we ascended.  A chilly breeze moved me to don my previously discarded sweater once again.  I had been up Old Rag several times before, but had never ascended into a low-lying cloud, as we did this day.  So, no grand views of the valleys far beyond and below?  Just all this fog?  I knew the mountain’s way of fooling you into thinking you were almost at the summit, only to discover that another summit, and yet another, lay somewhere beyond those massive rocks.  What playful, superhuman forces put them here?  (And how can we help personifying them?)

DSCF0174On the last ascent we came into the sunlight again, as if emerging from Plato’s Cave into another, a brilliant, world. DSCF0158 We were set afloat.  Arthur Schopenhauer, who crafted a whole philosophy out of pessimism, had his mountaintop experience by reaching the peak at sunrise: “Like a transparent ball and much less radiant than when one views it from below, the sun floated up an cast its first rays on us, mirrored itself first in our delighted glances. . . .”

DSCF0184One suspects that old Schopenhauer, who as a young man felt he could not “climb and remain silent,” came to recognize that language reaches its limits in the face of our most profound experiences.  Bone-deep weary, I felt at once exhilarated and quieted.  Schopenhauer has been compared to another Teutonic sage, Ludwig Wittgenstein: “What one cannot speak about one must remain silent about.”

DSCF0154The descent from the mountain top remained before us.  Again the sun faded into the fog, as we negotiated the long, darkening, rocky path, step by step by step.  Now Johann Wolfgang von Goethe seemed more sensible than Arthur or Ludwig: “Ohne Hast, aber ohne Rast.”

DSCF0165GKB, 25 November 2013

One Comment leave one →
  1. Howard Stoodley permalink
    November 26, 2013 6:38 am

    A life time of experience in one afternoon. Keep on climbing.


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