Beginning Mountains
or Destroying Preconceptions


WeÕve been hiking in the foothills of Santa Barbara, camping in the western Sierras, KingÕs Canyon, backpacking in the San Rafael wilderness, and the Eastern Sierras. Not exactly international, but I thought I knew mountains. It wasnÕt until I began making a three dimensional model of a topography map of the Eastern Sierras that I realized that it is only mountainÕs illusions that I recall, I donÕt really know mountains at all. This is the story of that discovery.

Backpacking in the Eastern Sierras

Driving north on the floor of the Owens Valley in the center of California we see the huge uplift of the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountain Range on the left. Wallowing in preconceived notion of mountain, I only see or think I see a series of intersecting mountains. Driving up into this awesome structure, my preconceived notions are confirmed as huge peaks tower over our puniness. Surrounded by mountains, I am humbled but still see these mountains individually, although I am bewildered by the complexity of their structure. Looking up I think I see intersecting giants, merging into each other at their base.

Preconceived notions of a range of mountains.


We arrive in Onion Valley; the ground is all on a steep slant. Odd. I dismiss this fact assuming the steep slope is a local aberration. To cool our feet and head, we hike down to Independence Creek from the campsite. It is smaller than Cold Springs Creek in the Santa Barbara foothills, small rivulets racing down the side of the mountain. Perplexed and amazed, you wonder, where are the huge rivers of the Western Sierras? Local aberrations is all.

The next morning after altitude acclimation we - my wife, two daughters and their two friends, begin hiking up the side of the mountain. Having read the literature on the trail, I assure the two ten years olds and the two fifteen year olds that after we reach Little Pothole Lake that it will be all downhill. Independence Creek gets shallower and steeper as we climb. I wonder what kind of lake could feed this tiny river. We finally reach a small ledge. Down from this is Little Pothole Lake. ItÕs easy to see how it got its name. It is a small, overgrown body of water, which trickles over the top of its ledges.

We have lunch. Everyone is relieved to have reached this small ledge, because I said it was all downhill from here. But the path keeps going up. Everyone is hating me. Morale is low. The rise is so sharp that Miranda, my youngest, experiences altitude sickness.

ÒI thought you said it was all downhill from Little Pothole. You lied.Ó

ÒI didnÕt lie. It was the map that lied.Ó

ÒBut you said it was downhill after Little Pothole,Ó they clamor, glaring at me as if I have committed a mortal sin.

We keep hiking up and up and wonder where are all the valleys? I have misread the map to support my conception of mountain, with individual hills, peaks and valleys. But I donÕt realize this at the time. I am still holding onto my conception of mountain.

After this incredibly sharp 100-meter rise, our party arrives at a rocky ledge. Rocks are strewn erratically over the landscape. This leads us finally to Gilbert Lake. I suggest that we go ahead to Flower Lake, telling them that downhill must be soon. But, my party, seeing more uphill, and my credibility already tarnished, vetoes my idea and settles at Gilbert. I wonder about this rocky ledge business, but dismiss it as local aberrations. At the back of my mind comes the question, ÒHow do these lakes form in the middle of the creek on their own ledge?Ó This is like nothing IÕve ever seen. But I dismiss these disturbing questions in support of my old comfortable conceptions.

At Gilbert Lake I still see mountains towering far overhead, rising from behind a small local ridge. Hiking beyond my exhausted party, I see a side path to Matlock Lake. I follow the path over a small ridge to see what could be seen. Passing over the top of the small ridge I find a hollowed out valley, still dripping with snow. I am awed and bow down and pray. I assume it must be of glacial origin, because IÕve never seen anything like it before. But I still hold onto my conception of mountain - imagining this ridge separating a small valley from another hill.

Three and a half ice-cold crystal blue lakes dot this valley-ledge with huge granite boulders erratically spread all around, as if a giant had played dice with them. Additionally there are some incredible trees that stand testament to the harsh weather. Their limbs are stubs and their trunks are gnarled, dense and wide, perhaps Bristle Cone Pines, the oldest living thing on earth.

The next afternoon I hike with my wife, Laurie, on towards Kearsarge Pass. These are no rolling valleys; the path keeps going up. We reach one lake after another, each higher than the one before. First Flower Lake, then Heart Lake, joined by the narrow thread of Independence Creek. Then we reach Big Pothole Lake, unconnected with the rest, sitting inside a huge deep pothole, with sharp unapproachable sides. Why? What for? Where are all the valleys that IÕm so acquainted with? Why are the rivers so small and shallow? How is it that the dripping of the snow feeds these small rivulets? These questions and others bat through my mind, but are suppressed in service of my conception of mountain. I see what I want to see and ignore what doesnÕt quite fit in. I am struck by a bewildering perplexity but cannot put my finger on why my psyche is so shaken up.

Partly from the lateness of the day, partly from an approaching storm, partly from wanting to get back to the kids before sundown, but mostly from fear, we turn back before reaching Kearsarge Pass. Prior to this point the path weÕd been hiking had been enclosed by vegetation and rocks. Now the path is completely exposed as we move along the side of the mountain with sandy, dirty, slippery sides. My perception. I see the path moving towards the exposed ridge. I decide that IÕve seen enough and need to get back to the kids in camp.

Constructing a 3D Topo Map of Kearsarge Pass

Coming home I am awestruck, stunned, and curious. What were these landforms that IÕd just experienced? But more importantly what did I miss by turning back? I begin coloring the topo map of the Onion Valley area. But it stops at the ridge that separates the Eastern and Western Sierras, right where Kearsarge Pass is. I rush out to get the other half. I continue coloring. IÕm just trying to come to terms with this beautiful structure and what I missed out upon. The colors help tremendously but are not quite enough.

Something just doesnÕt quite fit into my conception of things. Trying to put everything into my boxes, certain elements just donÕt quite fit and have to be squeezed in, shoved in, and the door forced closed. Still it sticks out the edges, warping the door. I grin sheepishly, beg to be excused, and change the topic.

I donÕt really want to change. I like my old self. Even though the world, my planet, has shown a side of itself I never knew; even though this vision does not fit into my box, IÕd rather squeeze it in where it doesnÕt fit. IÕd rather forget those edges sticking out. Most of it is inside my box. ÒThatÕs all right,Ó I say to myself. ÒItÕs important not to get too anal retentive about this.Ó

But still those nagging thoughts keep rising trying to uproot my mind from its comfortable rocker, with just a few uncomfortable lumps. But if I just sleep around the lumps, it is fine. I like myself the way I am. Things are fine as they are. Besides you canÕt teach an old dog new tricks.

However, on the Path, I canÕt help myself. My brain is telling me to continue writing; my heart is telling me to sleep outside, and my body begins building a 3 dimensional topo map of the Onion Valley/Kearsarge Pass area out of architectÕs foam core, as my mind makes other plans. My eyes want to see it and soon my fingers want to feel it.

When do the mountains begin?

The first few layers are cut, beginning at 2200 meters. I think that I am beginning at the base of the ÔmountainsÕ. Very soon IÕm sure these foothills will break into individual mountains. I know mountains. IÕve been in the midst of many different types and they all fit the same pattern. DonÕt they? Say yes and humor me.

I keep drawing, tracing, and cutting these 100 meter layers out of 1/4 inch foam core, getting higher and higher. I reach Onion Valley at 2800 meters and still no individual mountains have broken out. Now Lake Gilbert at 3100 meters and finally Kearsarge Pass at 3600 meters. At last our individual mountains begin to break apart from the base. But the break occurs at nearly 12,000 feet only 1,000 feet from the peaks. Also the break is no valley between mountains. It is the most shallow place in the North-South Ridge. It is a pass. It is Kearsarge Pass.

What a headache as a foam core specialist. It is the narrow shred of material separating two huge masses, like the Panama Canal between the two American continents. The next topo form up, it has broken into two. It has gone through mitosis. The next topo form down, the pass is a little thicker and so not quite so fragile. So the Kearsarge Pass topo form is the most crucial layer in the whole structure. So IÕve traced it onto foam core and now IÕve cut both sides out. All that is left is the narrow strand of spaghetti, acting like an isthmus between two huge continents. Ruin this skinny piece and this piece must be started over with uncertain results. Anyway I hold my breath, ease carefully through and success! Then I must paint the sides black. Hopefully I donÕt break that slender thread. Finally the top is painted, taking care all the time to not stress out the pass. Now to glue it on; sigh with relief! IÕve successfully placed a fragile piece in its permanent resting home. By itself, it wouldnÕt have survived the year. Now properly placed, it will last a lifetime as the focal point of this topo-sculpture.

I finally understand why the Pass is so special. It is the only place through the ridge for miles. I come to understand ÔpassÕ for the first time. Along with this realization I begin to understand that the whole thing is one huge mountain with a few ridges and peaks on top. In building the sculpture, I am struck with the massiveness of the rock underlying the surface. These mountains donÕt start at 8000 feet or below. The peaks become individual and begin to rise above the ridge at 12,000 feet. I begin to understand a new conception of mountain. ÒNow I know mountains,Ó I say to myself.

Finished? or ÔOnly the peaksÕ

Having reached the peaks at 4000 meters, I am relieved to have finished. I have spent a month of my life cutting, painting and gluing, 3 to 4 hours per day, to construct this monstrosity. Not really, I love it like my child. But unfortunately my peaks in 1/4 inch foam core are fragile. They keep getting knocked off. I decide to begin cutting the foam core in half to get more precision - Ôon the peaks onlyÕ. I decide to do the peaks with more precision in order to achieve more stability. ÒOnly the peaks,Ó I tell myself, while my body is busily making other plans.

I now cut a topo piece every 20 meters instead of the 100 meters that I had been doing previously. Although I am cutting the pieces in quarters width wise, which is an enormous hassle, the pieces are small and the results are addicting.

When placing the 1/4 inch topo forms - 100 meter increments, the original topo map had to be consulted to get an exact placement. Now there is no need to consult the map, because the parts ÔfeelÕ into place. Closing my eyes and only relying on my sense of touch, the pieces find their natural place. This is remarkably satisfying. Older daughter, Serena, says that it feels like fingerprints. It tingles all the way up the spine. Bubbling well prickly, the gateway to heaven begins to throb. It turned me on.

ÒIÕm finished,Ó I say jubilantly. Having taken each of the peaks down 200 meters in 20 meter increments, I feel satisfied.

Miranda, youngest daughter says, ÒWhat are you going to do with the bottom. ItÕs too extreme.Ó

Serena: ÒWhat happened to that peak? It looks weird.Ó - pointing to an odd-looking peak close to Kearsarge Pass.

Me: ÒWell those are the 100 meter altitudes, the peaks are in 20 meter chunks because they are more refined.Ó

My wife, Laurie: ÒWell at least you need to do that peak Serena was talking about.Ó

Me: ÒThatÕs just part of the ridge. ItÕs not a real peak.Ó

Serena: ÒIt still looks weird.Ó

Body power

My mind is telling me to start writing again.

Mind: ÒWhy you need to make a difference. You are a writer. DonÕt you remember? I wonÕt let you forget. The only way to become a writer is to write. How are you going to publish anything if you donÕt get it out? WhatÕs your problem?Ó

Victim Me: ÒIÕm psychologically scarred. I was closeted at two for speaking out. I found peace within the darkness.Ó

Meanwhile my body is doing it. I tackle the strange ridge peak that irritated SerenaÕs sense of aesthetics.

Serena: ÒBut Dad. I really donÕt want you to do that peak because then youÕll have to go all the way down.Ó

Laurie: ÒNo dear. He can stop there.Ó

My body in subterranean thinking, beneath consciousness, whispers, ÒNo, he canÕt.Ó

My fingers have begun to lobby heavily to continue the Great Art. Besides the tactile quality of the finished product, the hands enjoy doing the work. My eyes join in, relishing in real shadows in the late afternoon on the mountain peaks. My brain still wants me to begin writing again. In the quietude of TÕai Chi, my body wins out.

I look at the strange peak that was so jarring. Thinking to myself, I wonder, how the rounded ridge becomes a square peak? I finish drawing, tracing, cutting, blackening, painting, and gluing the intermediate ridge peak. Its transition is gorgeously natural. It feels like the bubble gum that I used to sculpt as a child. Again tingles throughout my skin organ. My brain is electrified by the natural transition from round to square.

This recalls within my mind the Taoist alchemical symbol of a square within a circle, which according to Liu I-ming, means ÒMerge with the ordinary, in order to harmonize illumination.Ó I look at the peaks and realize that the reason they can go so high, is because they are so rooted in their base, with a nice natural, relaxed curve down. So my mind is stimulated, now. He is a convert. Everything has been so full of surprises. My mind wonders what is around the next corner.

I canÕt stop now. My body knows that, but my mind tells everyone that I am finished or will finish soon, because of natural limitations, i.e. cutting very large pieces of 1/4 inch foam core in half thicknesses.

Brain argues, ÒThere is a point when I will not be able to proceed any further. Besides, I am not, I repeat, I am not going to cut another 50 large pieces in half. I canÕt, even if I wanted to.Ó

Body smiled patiently, knowing there would be a way.

I keep taking my peaks down in five 20-meter increments - 200 meter layer, 300, 400, 500 meters. It is getting more difficult with each layer, as the sculpture a cross between lopsided and capsized. The pieces donÕt fit so evenly and need a lot of internal trimming. It takes a full half hour just to trim the bottom of each topo form. I am getting neck-aches, backaches, and headaches. All the signs are ripe for a change as my body is collapsing.


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