On Climbing La Lance

I have to admit that I’m not much of a mountain climber, or even a pleasure walker. Which is strange, because I’m normally very much into “goal-directed activities.” One of the reasons I used to dislike taking walks, or at least the excuse I frequently cited for not taking part in them, was that I didn’t see the point. You’re not actually going anywhere when you take a walk, you’re just taking a walk. That’s not a goal-directed activity, you see, so I wasn’t interested. (I have been woefully wrong about taking walks for years now–walks do have goals, often extremely worthwhile ones, like conviviality–and goal-directed activities are way over-rated anyway, but more on that in a separate posting.) Climbing a mountain is fundamentally different from taking a walk in that there is a very clear goal from the outset: getting to the top. I have my wife to thank for finally convincing and cojoling me into getting to the top of La Lance, a modest mountain in southern France, and thereby opening my eyes to the wonders of walking.

Fortunately, no ropes, pulleys or ice picks are involved in getting to the top of La Lance. There’s a nicely maitained path, steep and very rocky but navigable, that goes all the way to the top. In early spring you can see the path from a distance, criss-crossing the mountain like Harry Potter’s lightning-shaped scar. From the other side of the valley, my daughter called it “the writing on the mountain.” The path is like one very long sentence that tells the mountain’s story. You read it as you walk it, the way young children run a finger along each word as they move down the page. La Lance has an old story to tell. Embedded in one large slate slab in the middle of the path is a fossil, a partial impression of what once must have been an enormous ammonite. Millions of years ago La Lance was underwater. A more recent chapter in the mountain’s history is found near the summit: an old farmhouse perched on the edge of a lush green field that was once grazing ground for sheep, back when people still kept sheep around here.One of the paradoxes of climbing a mountain is that the very nature of the task forces you to look down while the whole point of the exertion is to look up. To get up that steep ascent I crouched into a kind of hunched position: my upper torso was almost parallel with the path while my legs were still perpendicular to it. It felt kind of like leaning into a strong wind; the mountain wasn’t going to make it easy for me. In that posture I crunched my way slowly up the path. On few occasions have I been as acutely aware of the muscles in my buttocks. If I hadn’t assumed this position I would never have noticed that ammonite fossil. Or the various animal tracks that were preserved in the soft earth beside the path. Or the strange feces on a flat rock from a species none of us could identify. In short, if I hadn’t been climbing La Lance I would never have noticed what was right there under my feet.

The Dutch aphorist Frans Hiddema has a great aphorism about climbing, which is slightly strange for a Dutchman since the only thing flatter than the Netherlands is a poorly delivered speech by President Bush:

He who is always climbing sees less and less of more and more.

Occasionally, I paused and looked up from the climb, remembering my goal. And then I was stunned at all I could see: mountains and pastures, vineyards and villages for close to 50 miles all around; in the furthest distance, the silver sliver of the Rhone. It was awesome. Climbing a mountain has a dual effect: it rubs your nose in the earth, making you work hard for every step, then unfurls a majestic vista that stops you in your tracks and can only be appreciated from a distance. During the climb, you get the mountain in close-up. When you stop, you get the big picture.