Exploring The Wilderness In Alaska
If there’s a plan, it’s an anti-plan. (Maximilian Guy McNair MacEwan/St)

Climbing Mount Nothing

Why reaching outdoor nirvana means journeying far from the beaten path

Exploring The Wilderness In Alaska
Leath Tonino

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The mental wilderness, the mindful wilderness, the landscape-meets-headspace wilderness that I’ve been exploring for two decades, always alone, always without a map, always motivated by this same curiosity, part fear and part excitement—here I am again. A subalpine basin in the backcountry of Colorado’s Elk Mountains this time, a rugged spot accessed by rugged bushwhack. It’s the first evening of a late-spring weekend that I’ll spend, for want of a better description, climbing Mount Nothing.

My bivy sack is spread out beside a shallow tarn, the teal surface of the water rippling with leaping trout that I do not intend to catch. Hanging in a stunted spruce, my pathetic kitchen bag (peanut butter, tortillas, instant coffee, gas-station sugar packets) inspires zero elaborate dinner ideas. I have no camera, no phone, no watch, no thrilling spy novel to read, no blank journal to fill with doodles and dreams and distractions. Half a dozen beautifully craggy peaks surround my minimalist camp, but despite the enticement, I will scramble precisely none of them tomorrow at dawn.

If there’s a plan, it’s an anti-plan. Sit patiently on this thin bedroll, rocks and roots digging into my butt, faint stars pricking the purple sky above. Challenge myself with the boredom, discomfort, and basic humming weirdness of an unattempted route on Mount Nothing. Gaze out from that rarely visited summit. See what there is to see.

My life of outdoor adventure—experimenting with it, creatively tinkering with it—began on the Long Trail, a 272-mile wilderness footpath that traces the spine of Vermont’s Green Mountains. I through-hiked it one summer, at 16, as a novice backpacker. Relentless rain, mud to the armpits, blistering blisters, ravenous mosquitoes, dismal lows and the infrequent, enlivening high—it was an education and a transformation, a proper rite of passage. After three weeks, I emerged from the tunnel of foliage, dead on my feet and utterly elated.

To borrow a term from the philosophers, that formative trek was purposive: a linear trail, A to B to C, and your task, young lad, is to reach Z, to sweat and swear and ultimately stand triumphant at alphabet’s end. Returning to school down in the Champlain Valley of western Vermont felt flat by comparison, and I incorrectly attributed the malaise to the absence of any raw wilderness in my daily existence. Another couple of years elapsed—time spent crisscrossing New England, ticking off traditional objectives on skis and bicycles, in kayaks and cramponed boots—before I realized that the actual source of my intoxication and addiction was clarity of focus, disciplined commitment to a well-defined goal.

During the winter of my senior year in high school, I grew concerned that in concentrating exclusively on the linear, goal-directed model of adventure, I was missing out on other variations of Earth and Self. To break loose from habit, I devised a quirky project. On a single-digit weekend in January, equipped with only a tarp, a foam pad, and an enormously puffy sleeping bag, I tromped into the thickety forest behind a neighbor’s house and set up shop on the plate of a frozen creek, then listened for 50-plus hours to the gurling, groaning, moaning, muttering, maddening, crazy-making water below the ice. Whoa. Is that my inner dialogue or the damn creek that won’t quit yammering? In either case, can somebody please lower the volume?

While the rigors of my project were profound (hands and toes burning with cold, belly begging for anything at all to eat), the psychological test was twice as severe. Trying to keep hold of the familiar human realm of language and logic, I studied the fine-print legalese of a Sugarbush ski ticket attached to my jacket’s zipper. When that ran its course, I obsessively inventoried pocket lint. Finally, I rolled a giant snowball and marched untold miles around it. It was a second rite of passage: the purposive, linear trail, A to B to C, had morphed into a circular path leading nowhere. This was my first pilgrimage to Mount Nothing.

Nowhere—going there, arriving there—is tough. Ditto for deliberately undermining the will: eschewing the agendas, schemes, designs, and framing devices (run the rapid! shred the gnar! snap the photo! upload the photo! establish the FKT!) that defend us against the existential ass-whupping of nature’s pure meaninglessness. Perhaps in this utilitarian, achievement-oriented culture of ours—one that celebrates Mount Something but seldom acknowledges its silent, shadowy twin—just loafing in the mental wilderness, the mindful wilderness, can be a worthy expedition. Maybe we ought to consider alternating the active, sporty excursions (I still love them dearly) with more contemplative outings. It isn’t my place to predict what exactly we’ll gain by embracing aimlessness. I’ll only suggest that once freed from the confines of our ambitions, the world has a tendency to grow, to expand. And so do we.

Mental, mindful. Those terms smack of pop psychology; nevertheless they’re useful. The former, to me, connotes a hog-tying, goose-chasing, gerbil-wheel-spinning brain, fidgety and neurotic, poking and poking and poking at the bonfire. The latter connotes Buddha-like peace—a calm, empty consciousness able to receive the present moment’s infinite gifts, whether that’s birdsong, a racing cloud, a pebble’s smoothness, a spiderweb’s silvery flash of dew, or the sudden scent of pine pitch. Typically, we conceive of these modes as polar opposites, but I suspect they are in fact two sides of the same coin—nay, of the same mountain. In my experience, the mental isn’t a barrier to overcome, beyond which awaits the bliss of the mindful. The climb involves both, and it’s their interaction that generates a fascinating adventure.

So here I am again. Sitting by a tarn, surrounded by craggy peaks, vacillating between WTF-confusion (a gang of buddies and an epic quest sure would be a lot more fun than this) and OMG-gratitude (praise be to the fading light, the glowing chartreuse lichen, the shivery breeze, the stupendous glory of all!). Even after these many years of prodding at Earth and Self, repeatedly braving the steep slopes and narrow ridges of Mount Nothing, nights remain hard for me, intense with doubts and cravings. What I’d give for the safety blanket of purpose, a telescope and a star chart, a straightforward reason for easing onto my back, reclining into the loneliness and the eerie quiet. The nights are best, though, too. That lonely quiet now a vast and mysterious unknown, deserving of my attention. Lying supine. Flying through the deep black gaps inside constellations and inside my own twinkly thoughts. Seeing what there is to see.