Book Review: Becoming A Mountain by Stephen Alter

How does one talk about a mountain? It is as much an uphill climb as a mountain rising up and beyond the edges of conception. The only possibility is to give up utterly trying to describe it, and by saying everything else, arrive at a shadow image. Stephen Alter begins his profound journey in his multi-layered book, Becoming A Mountain, with the same divine inadequacy of words, which, when felt in the depths of one’s heart, is the joy of wonder:

“I have looked at this mountain all my life, sometimes at dawn, or midday, or dusk, even by moonlight, yet there is no way that I can accurately describe its presence, whether I use poetry or the contentious languages of religion and science. Both the mountain’s myths and its natural history have an enigmatic quality. I have sketched it in pencil, pen and watercolour, but each time I have failed to express a convincing vision of what this mountain represents. Over the years, I must have photographed those twin summits several hundreds of times, but none of my camera images seem to capture anything more than a faint suggestion of the mountain, mere ghosts of light. I know it stands there but what it means is beyond my comprehension. Yet, constantly, I see myself in this mountain and feel a part of its immensity, as well as a greater wholeness that contains us all in the infinite, intimate bonds of eternity.”

Dreaming of Blue Mountains (Zahir, 2019)

Becoming A Mountain is not only about the sublime questions that mountains evoke, but also about a journey into the process of transcending one’s inner peaks of fear and pain. With a direct gaze and an honesty as compelling as a river set upon its course, Alter recounts his miraculous escape from a brutal attack on his and his wife’s life by four assailants, in his very home in Mussoorie, setting the stage for a deep quest of being and belonging. Describing the deeply unsettling feeling of estrangement that followed, he writes:

“I never felt that I belonged anywhere else, despite my American passport. Whenever I left the Himalayas, an instinctual urge pulled me back, a sense of surety that this was home. Only in the recent years have I begun to experience doubts and discontentment, the uneasy, persistent ache of alienation. …The indelible experience of our attack still evokes a sense of violation and loss…as if I have become a stranger within the sheltering mountains of my birth.”

There lies Alter’s provocation for the task ahead. In the struggle of the spirit against being subdued, altered by fear. In the urge to feel the fullness of life. He writes with the certainty of an animal limping out of his cave, driven by his instinct to feel life to the same degree, if not superbly more:

“As soon as I was able to take the first few steps from my hospital bed to the window of our room, looking across at the steep ridgeline of Mussoorie, I began to convince myself that I would be able to walk again…”

Some accidents become turning points in people’s lives, where the herculean task of re-living and re-loving becomes a source of awakening into a world, fuller for its evanescence. Thus, in search of that familiarity and to feel it replace the fear in his limbs, Alter embarks on a journey that goes from the revered Nanda Devi, to the sublime Kailash and, finally, to the awe-inspiring Bandarpunch. But his first trek alone with his vulnerability begins closer home with Flag Hill. He shares with us his simple love of the place, a rousing call to any lover of mountains or nature.

“Almost every time I went to Flag Hill, I heard the alarm call of a barking deer and often saw these small ungulates with ruddy brown coats browsing in the clearing. The northern slopes of Flag Hill are part of a reserve forest, where I often go with my binoculars to watch goral, a species of goat-antelope that live on the grass covered cliffs. Leopards prowl the paths around Flag Hill and, occasionally, in winter, bears come to feed on acorns. Rhododendron arboreum bloom in spring, setting the slope ablaze with scarlet blossoms. During summer, before the rains, forest fires ignite the pine needles. From mid-June to mid-September, the rain is constant and the hill is clad in ferns and mosses, overgrown with wild ginger and peacock orchids. But autumn is the finest time to climb Flag Hull, when the monsoon mist has finally dispersed and the air is so clear it feels as if you could inhale the sky in a single breath…”

His urge to share his experience turns vibrant as he exhorts his listener to go beyond words and feel out the connection for himself:

“And yet, the most important step towards becoming a mountain is to close the books that others have written and read only those texts imprinted on rock and ice or in the forests and streams that cascade from above.

…If we were to break down our bodies into the basic elements out of which we are made, we would understand that we are simply a resurrection of chemicals in the earth we tread. And the ashes that remain after cremation are no different from ancient carbons in the soil. In turn, those carbons are reconfigured into an organic whole every time a living plant or creature is conceived.”

A Path In Munsiyari, Uttarakhand (Rakhi Varma, 2014)

Ridges rise and fall, changing names and features as the topography changes, evoking wonder, reverence, chaos and peace, often in confusing order. Alter’s voyage from fear to fearlessness takes on newer meanings as he hurtles across the waters of great rivers, past terrain as varied as the faces on earth, to the markets and temples of Nepal, and out into the snow-sand deserts of the mind-altering Tibetan Plateau. It is a journey that shakes off even the pretense at being in control, at making the slightest sense of what change and transformation is. It goes beyond words that have man-made meanings, into silence — which is when man falls quiet, having had a glimpse of the ultimate truth. A page from Alter’s experience of Kailash describes his own surreal acceptance of it, just as it is:

“Climbing the winding path, I feel no religious narratives guiding my feet, no songlines carrying me aloft, no divine coordinates centering my soul. At the same time, irrepressible emotions well up inside of me at several points along the trail. My vision blurs with tears and my throat constricts, not from having altitude, but from a sense of having arrived. Several pilgrims, coming down the path, greet me with repeated cries of “Om Namah Shivaya!” but I am speechless, unable to respond. It could be awe or reverence that evokes these emotions, or a sense of release at having accomplished the simple goal of being in the presence of Kailash.”

Charged with a number of brightly lit moments of profundity, Becoming A Mountain is also an anthology of the experiences of those others who have walked these mountains and have been so altered by their experience as to share their best, most riveting moments with the world in the form of timeless books. It is an account of mountaineers who survived the fight between crippling fear and lofty daring, as well as those who strove and perished in the arms of this inexplicable of all loves. It has entries from the history of mountaineering attempts on various peaks of the Himalayas, throwing a torch on how old man’s obsession with the mountains is, whether yogi or explorer, or conqueror. It is a gaze into deep time, into the origin of tectonic collisions that created these young pyramids, as well as a botanical diary bringing alive the flora and fauna found at various altitudes. And running below it all is the main thread: An ode, a hymn offered from the heart to the sublime grandeur and beauty of the world’s most gorgeous range of mountains.

At last, one finds more than healing within the body of this book. There’s the freeing wisdom of surrender. And the realization that simply walking the mountains in acceptance, wherever one might be in relation to them, is enough. We leave you with a passage from this elegant book, a true gift for the restless and the curious.

Wandering in the mountains, our senses are attuned to other species around us, each of them a strand of life, woven into a web of eternity. We recall the names of plants and birds, or give them new names from our imagination, a personal taxonomy both whimsical and precise. Each species is a god, a living image of creative forces that invite devotion but never dictate faith. The sounds we hear need no translation; they speak to us at a deeper level than human language or words of scripture. Walking is a ritual that recognizes the divinity in nature, what animists have known forever, the undefinable footfalls of being.”

 To this, we kneel and kiss the ground.

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