Climbing into Balance
By Jeff McCarthy, Phd
Arctic Mountains and the Westminster Environment
There’s a moment I love in every climbing expedition when the glacier pilot nods goodbye and rattles into the air, dwindling first from sight and then from sound. That’s it. There you are. Whatever you brought is in a pile at your feet, and whatever you forgot is too far away to matter. At that moment, it’s the end of lists and the end of plans, it’s the end of preliminaries, and it’s time for doing.
Last July that favorite moment put me in the Arctic. When the engine faded into the river’s long song and the wind sighed through tattered willows, first it was beautiful; then it was plain cold. Three friends and I were deep in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), a vast and vulnerable wilderness area where
wolf and caribou, wolverine and grizzly have danced for 10,000 generations beside the braided rivers and big peaks of the Brooks Range.
The Hulahula river was named by nineteenth century whalers a long way from Hawaii. Beside us, it was no wider than North Temple, and not much deeper than a bathtub, but we had big plans for it. Usually, I just carry climbing gear, but this trip we had a raft, and the idea was to float down to the big peaks, stop to explore and climb, then float further to some other peaks, stop to explore and climb, then float to the Arctic Ocean.
I know this sounds like a complicated way to spend my summer break. I mean, shouldn’t professors be at a British library or smoking a pipe or something? But, really, it’s all much simpler in the wild. Once you digest the rhythm of backpack and ice axe, storm and float, then you find the weeks weaving you into the cloth of the landscape around you. Plus, my research and my teaching are about wilderness, so I need an adventure now and again. For me, the troubling aspect of this chunk of Arctic Alaska isn’t the wind or the steep ridges or even the grizzly bears: it’s the oil underneath it all.
The grand tapestry of ANWR unfolds around me and on south past the horizon. Russets and tans, reds and ochres, and in every direction I’m looking at a weave of lichen and watercourse, alder and rain. Beyond are the mountains, demanding attention in serrated summits and shining glaciers as bleak and nameless and beautiful as any flame to a moth like me. From that glorious perspective, the plan to drill for money seems a singular insanity.
It feels even crazier to be climbing in this battleground between big oil companies and environmentalists. You probably think of climbing as unpolitical, engaged only with clouds and ice and the occasional trespassing. But here’s the thing. American climbers have had their noses in environmental battles for a long time. Consider John Muir, David Brower, Yvon Chouinard, and even Henry David Thoreau—they all went to the mountains, and then they all devoted themselves to environmental causes. Look at it: Thoreau and Muir invented what we know as environmentalism, Brower created modern environmental action, and Chouinard shaped the prototype for the green corporation—all this from climbers.
Arctic mountaineering is geographically a long way from Westminster College, but intellectually ANWR and Sugar House are neighbors. It’s beautiful here in Salt Lake City, and everything we do here, we do in the shadow or near the glow of big peaks and luminous desert. That matters. If prominent climbers have been moved to environmental awareness by the powerful places they’ve climbed, it follows that our students are positioned for a similar inspiration here in the Wasatch—not that they should all be activists, just informed citizens. Lately, Westminster has seen pronounced excitement for green ideas on campus with a variety of popular campus initiatives boosting awareness about the place in which we live. These include an environmentally sensitive landscaping master plan, a green design for the new science building, the establishment of Westminster’s Environmental Center, and, maybe most strikingly, the backing for a major in environmental studies.
What all these have in common with Arctic tundra and the Hulahula River is the active desire to know our physical setting intimately. Twenty-first century careers in business, law, medicine, science, and education will be knotted to environmental conflicts and, most of all, solutions. Westminster students are better positioned than ever to study their physical world and all the forces that shape it. How? By investigating the chemical, historical, biological, artistic, philosophical, and economic forces that make the earth they inhabit. Westminster students can learn from their reading, of course, and especially from the grand and wild Utah landscape where we set their class projects, field trips, extracurricular adventures, labs, and internships. They don’t need to go climbing to care about the environment, but for me, climbing is an intriguing way into some fundamental issues in America’s environmental story.
Drilling in the ANWR reenacts the formative tension in American environmental history between those who see wilderness as a resource to develop, and those who see wilderness as an inherent good, with no need to pay its way in pieces of silver. It’s a conflict as familiar as cats and dogs. This archetypal American struggle can be summed up as conservation versus preservation and appeared first in the 1890s when the United States began to designate the exact places we climb today as national parks or forest reserves. Interestingly, it was on the high tide of conflict over use in these new areas that John Muir’s power as an environmentalist first sailed. Muir came back from the mountains with the message that they were holy places, and that wilds like Yosemite and Hetch Hetchy were vulnerable realms to be defended for the sake of humanity’s spiritual and physical well-being. John Muir wrote: that mountaineering was its own way to fuller living: “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.” For Muir, being in the mountains affirmed the best parts of being human, and any weather was good for climbing because climbing was about wildness itself, not just summits. In this exploratory mode, the climb was the assembly of 1,001 perceptions about landscape, weather, animals, and ice. Somehow, that broader net of interpretation brings me closer to Muir in both experience and attitude.
I’m starting to believe it’s climbing that has made me care about the natural world. That’s because climbing big peaks makes a person recognize nature’s interconnections—wind, snow pack, temperature, rock quality, aspect, even humidity. If I’m going to keep going up the mountains and coming back down too, I’d better read those features as readily as I write these words. Everything connects out there, if you know how to look. Knowing the connections in the alpine world informs direct physical decisions about snow gullies and ice pitches, and, most important to this conversation, I think it shapes the formation of an ecological consciousness.
Here I’m reminded of an essay I sometimes read with students, Aldo Leopold’s “Thinking Like a Mountain.” In it, Leopold traces the story of a mountain face where sportsmen poison wolves and the deer overpopulate to graze the flora into dust, so the deer die too and the mountain ultimately erodes in great arroyos. It is an ecologist’s fable, a cautionary tale about the need to recognize and preserve natural balances. To think like a mountain is to bring an informed awareness to decision making about natural systems. For Westminster students, the environmental studies program (and the multiple environmental initiatives on campus) will emphasize experiential learning that takes classroom concepts and applies them to where we live. To climb mountains is to know them personally, as our students know ecology when they float the Jordan River in a canoe, wade in the warm Great Salt Lake, feel the wind in Albion Basin, and pull a water sample from Emigration Creek. When Thoreau said, “Thought is nothing without enthusiasm,” he could have been describing Westminster’s new environmental initiatives or the climber’s confidence that direct connection with where you are leads to ever grander perspectives.
In the Arctic we were buffeted by storms, jumpy about bears, and splashed by cold water. But the sun never set, and day after day we found new corners to look around and new ridges to scramble over until it was time to come home. Back in the land of cars and factories, stoplights and smog, we’ve worked to tell people about Arctic Alaska, about the caribou crossing the river and the wolves behind them, and about the balance in that refuge which oil rigs and roads and helicopters will erode. Here in twenty-first century America, development and big oil and profit are powerful forces we need and value, but that doesn’t mean they should expand into every nook of our country.
Balance is ecology’s lesson and, now that I think of it, climbing’s lesson too. I’m inspired by the wilderness I visit, and by the ideas we study. The climber Galen Rowell wrote, “At the heart of the climbing experience is a constant state of optimistic expectation,” and maybe that optimism is the complement to a climber’s grit that empowers someone like John Muir or Yvon Chouinard or a Westminster student—even against the steep walls of a society fixed in its views. So climbing is above all physical, but the fingers reach beyond the rock and the boots push beyond the snow into hard questions about economics and politics and the role of human beings as either exploiters or maintainers of the great harmonies this world hums all around us when we learn to listen.