The Sunday Nature Call, uke 40: False Summits
Autumn, has arrived: meteorolgical autumn, astronomical autumn, of course. But also the things that can’t be predicted to the second, gold and red leaves on the oaks, your breath in the morning stillnes, and birds that take their migratory cues from the winds around them. Yes, autumn has arrived.
I saw two new birds but if I was truly ambitious I would see more because the migration is gearing up. And each day brings the likelihood of newly arrived migrants from the north. We had guests from Iowa this weeks. One is a keen observer of nature and an eminent biologist without the entanglements of a formal education; i.e. someone who knows their birds, plants…because they’ve lived it. The guest observed several new species of birds without even trying, most were birds that haven’t yet crossed my path. Good for him (but just a little jealous of the skill).
Ramn (Corvus corax)
Hegre (Ardea cinerea)
Running serves many purposes for me in Norway. One, it is an intimate way to familize myself with a new area or town. Two, I get a little exercise. Three, it occupies my downtime. And four, it provides mental space to do some of my best thinking – must be all that blood rushing through the brain. Additionaly, running serves my obsession with tracking my life on a spreadsheet. Yes, all my kilometers are duely recorded.
Aldo Leopold wrote, “There are two types of hunting: ordinary hunting and ruffed-grouse hunting. There are two places to hunt grouse: ordinary places and Adams County. There are two times to hunt in Adams: ordinary times and when the tamaracks are smokey gold.”
For we outdoor enthusiasts who admire Mercury, “There are two types of running: ordinary running and trail running. There are two types of trails: cloistered trails and those with vistas. There are two types of visits: those that depress and those that inspire.”
Bergen makes it easy to run trails to vistas that inspire. On Thursday I set my sigts on the highest of the mountains surrounding Bergen, Ulriken: 643 meters (2,210 feet) above sea level. And since Bergen is at sea level, the intrepid runner must earn all of that height. But oh, don’t be lured into a false sense of confidence because your Ulriken isn’t really 643 meters. Like so much of life, things are not exactly as advertised.
One, there are not seven mountains surrounding Bergen. Two, when you are congratulated for making it to the top of Ulriken, you are not at the top of the mountain. Three, at the summit you are only halway to your destination, you still have to get down.
The look was familar but the sound and the setting were not. A large black bird winged overhead, a crow, I’ve seen those before. The bass “croak” that reverberated down to me in the valley between the false summit and the true summit was dense: that was no crow. I squinted. He was big, but it was the heavy and glossy beak that let me know I was looking at either Huginn or Muninn.
I wondered what message he had for me? Since I wasn’t a god, greater or lesser, I suspect I was the news. Odin would soon learn that some foolheartly flatlander was treading his high country kingdom.
Bergen sells its self as the City of Seven Mountains. It is an understandable and gentle homage of Rome’s claim as the City of Seven Hills. According to lore, a local writer, in admiration of Rome, thought that Bergen too could claim a magic number of seven promitories. I bet tourists never check, did you?
A mountain needs at least 1,000 feet of elevation, and should also be a separate gelolgical formation for other high points, otherwise we’re talking about different lumps on the same rock. The rocks surrounding Bergen don’t quite add up to seven when the science is applied. And one is short of the requisite height. But for affairs of the heart, science is a mere nicety but not a necessity. Oh, which mountain is the leaker? Well, there you have it, reader challenge number two, commenting winner gets a postcard.
I had been running for about 20 minutes. The trail from Hostel Montana started wide and smooth enough, and of course, uphill. It didn’t take too long for the trail to become for of a monstrosity of cobblestone that gave up on being manicured quickly thereafter. A jumble of rocks and puddles followed with the occational steps made of rock that suggested you were on a path.
Like a macho man I bounded up, wool socks, shorts, a very old (therefore authentic) Helly Hansen long-sleeved top and a t-shirt. Helly Hansen was soon wrapped around my waist, up and up. Higher up I came across a daycare group descending, maybe 4-5 years olds. We chatted, “Hva heter du? Hva heter du? (What is your name?)” No longer feeling so macho. Their teacher confirmed I was on the correct trail.
Up I ran, crossing into the the alpine zone with the loss of trees and gain of tundra. Low bushes, some bearing blueberries carpeted the ground, in a sheltered location here and there one could find spruce. Scrambling over ancient boulders bearing the scars of glaciers, fastidious as ever, I managed to keep my feet pretty dry despite the spongy terrian and well-trodden muddy paths. Up I came to a saddle, ahead and on my left was the communication tower and tourist center. An odd intrusion of modernity onto this ancient landscape.
Skies with enough sun let me see Bergen in its glory: magnificent. A smattering of tourists, who clearly took the cable car to the top, loitered. I got my turn for a selfie at a definitive landmark of achievement, the summit of 643 M.O.H.
From my position at the selfie station I was begining to realize my accomplishment was questionable. While I ran to the tourist center in a saddle between two promontories, I wondered which was higher. Now I could see this peak wasn’t it.
I walked to the giftshop and asked the wanna-be SoCal surfer which was the real peak, this one or the one to the east? He confirmed it was the one to the east. I cursed and then took off back down into the saddle to find a path to the cairn at the actual summit.
All that work, on my part to achive something. All that work by the tourist bureau to invent something. How can you achive something that doesn’t exist? How many false summits do we climb in our lives?
Now the trail was thin to non-existent. I picked my way up, avoiding breaking my ankles by luck on several occasions: running plus slippery rocks, and lots of holes in the tundra are bad combinations. Abandoned now was all hope of keeping my shoes dry to say nothing about keeping them clean.
My Uncle Gary, no, my other Uncle Gary, said that mountains are best viewed from the bottom. As a lad I remembered that causal quip. He had just returned with this family from an epic Pacific Ocean family roadtrip in their very cool green and white SUV (way ahead of the curve). Among many places, they went to Pikes Peak and drove to the top. He thought it was prettier from the bottom.
As a flat-lander, mountains are a mystery to me. My comfort point with mountains is from the bottom, there the calculus is easy: bottom – top. Even climbing is not too bewildering; keep an eye on the peak and keep going up. But at the summit my physics are distorted. Big things below are small, distances are difficult to calculate. And the way down looks nothing like the way up.
I rather enjoy running up hills, even steep ones with such rocky and unpredictable footing. The body’s gait and lean against gravity make it a challenging yet achievable effort. Aggression is rewarded.
I did my best to pick a path towards the true summit and the cairn. Trails were braided, there was no clear route. One misstep off a path meant a footfall into the tundra, a cold and wet sponge. I developed tunnel vision and a rushed sense of urgency. “I’ve got to get up there quick. Why don’t I sense other people here on a such a nice day? What if I get hurt? I’m getting cold. Keep going, you’re so close.” all these thoughts, coursing through my brain like my blood under this strain.
Success. The wind was howling at this highest point. This peak was the first impediment for that North Atlantic wind, I bet the wind was mad to have its flow interrupted. The cairn was big and looked precarious, I didn’t dare touch it for fear a single shove could topple the pile onto me. But I also needed to participate with the cairn, so as I approached a plucked a small rock and tossed it onto the heap. Balancing as best I could for a couple of pics, my fingers were stiff with cold, and then reversing course.
This is the point where I best understand Uncle Gary’s sentiment. When you’re are victorious in reaching the top of a mountain you are mistaken. I my case, I had to climb two summits because the advertised peak was not the true summit. But for any trekker, the top of the mountain is only halfway. The summit isn’t really the goal. The goal is to return safely from the summit, quintessential flatlander logic.
The change of the goal is a subtle but important change. In the case of the mountain, you have to first ascend to begin your work towards the goal. Such change in logic may help bring new perspectives to so many of our human struggles. It’s not that you want to graduate from school, it’s that want a good job, and to have a degree is the true first step. You aren’t looking for the love of your life. You’re looking to spend a life with another you love.
When you change the way you think of the goal, I know you will come to appreciate how hard, how demanding the true goal is. School? School is easy, teachers tell you what to do, check enough of the boxes and you graduate. Making a life for yourself as a working adult based on your education – now that is a challenge! When you change your perspective your change your life.
My run down the hill was nothing like the ascent. I was a little tired and a little cold, in the back of my mind I knew there was no relief from the former. I ran through the saddle again seeking a route from the visitor center down, but I couldn’t find one. “It has to be here!” I thought, my mind racing with anxiety. Fatigue, desperation, and unfamiliar terrain are also bad combinations.
“Unmentionable, I’ll go back the way I came up,” I huffed. The romantic mountain climber in my mind wanted a new route down, a “hard” one as labeled on my the map. A forth time through the saddle and then onto that familiar path. Except it didn’t look familiar. I couldn’t see a clear way down. There was a trail with climbers ascending just over there but I didn’t see anyway to join that trail without wings. With this new downward looking perspective nothing looked the same.
Down and down, following some trail. There were clearly footfalls from today, hopefully I was following a knowing local. Down and down, and slowly, with increasing rebellion in my knees and ankles. The view down the mountain was confusing, and the gravity was punishing. “Maybe it would be easier to re-climb and just ride down on the cablecar?”
I passed two climbers, young women ill clad for the task and complaining in American english. One, I was now confident I was on a path towards the bottom. Two, I had no interest in saying hi. I slid past them down a long smooth boulder and met an increasingly formal trail. Still a viciously rough jumble of stones and mud, but clearly the path down.
Hello gravel, hello trailhead, hello single-family homes with shiny black ceramic-tiled roofs. I still had about 4 Km to go but my worst enemies were now diesel exhaust and dog droppings. I didn’t care how tired and sore I was, a soft bed in the hotel would be mine.
Two and a half hours laters I was done. I had achieved my goal: the safe return from the summit of Ulriken. On my way I had to ascend two peaks. First the false summit, with all its charm and allure. Then the true summit that held the key to the goal.
Wishing for you wisdom and discernment between false summits and the true. Hoping for you courage to investigate all that is advertised. Praying for you the health to traverse all the mountains of your life in pursuit of the real goals.
Looking ahead, looking up, and keeping my pencil sharp. -jlh