Breath of Clarity

Into the Wild

Into the Wild (Chapter Fourteen: 142-144)

All that held me to the mountainside, all that held me to the world, were two thin spikes of chrome molybdenum stuck half an inch into a smear of frozen water, yet the higher I climbed, the more comfortable I became. Early on a difficult climb, especially a difficult solo climb, you constantly feel the abyss pulling at your back. To resist takes a tremendous conscious effort; you don’t dare let your guard down for an instant. The siren song of the void puts you on edge; it makes your movements tentative, clumsy, herky-jerky. But as the climb goes on, you grow accustomed to the exposure, you get used to rubbing shoulders with doom, you come to believe in the reliability of your hands and feet and head. You learn to trust your self-control.

By and by your attention becomes so intensely focused that you no longer notice the raw knuckles, the cramping thighs, the strain of maintaining nonstop concentration. A trancelike state settles over your efforts; the climb becomes a clear-eyed dream.

Hours slide by like minutes. The accumulated clutter of day-to day existence-the lapses of conscience, the unpaid bills, the bungled opportunities, the dust under the couch, the inescapable prison of your genes-all of it is temporarily forgotten, crowded from your thoughts by an overpowering clarity of purpose and by the seriousness of the task at hand.

At such moments something resembling happiness actually stirs in your chest, but it isn’t the sort of emotion you want to lean on very hard. In solo climbing the whole enterprise is held together with little more than chutzpah (boldness), not the most reliable adhesive. Late in the day on the north face of the Thumb, I felt the glue disintegrate with a swing of an ice ax.

I’d gained nearly seven hundred feet of altitude since stepping off the hanging glacier, all of it on crampon front points and the picks of my axes. The ribbon of frozen meltwater had ended three hundred feet up and was followed by a crumbly armor of frost feathers. Though just barely substantial enough to support body weight, the rime was plastered over the rock to a thickness of two or three feet, so I kept plugging upward. The wall, how ever, had been growing imperceptibly steeper, and as it did so, the frost feathers became thinner. I’d fallen into a slow, hypnotic rhythm-swing, swing; kick, kick; swing, swing; kick, kick when my left ice ax slammed into a slab of diorite a few inches beneath the rime.

I tried left, then right, but kept striking rock. The frost feathers holding me up, it became apparent, were maybe five inches thick and had the structural integrity of stale corn bread. Below was thirty-seven hundred feet of air, and I was balanced on a house of cards. The sour taste of panic rose in my throat. My eyesight blurred, I began to hyperventilate, my calves started to shake. I shuffled a few feet farther to the right, hoping to find thicker ice, but managed only to bend an ice ax on the rock.

Awkwardly, stiff with fear, I started working my way back down. The rime gradually thickened. After descending about eighty feet, I got back on reasonably solid ground. I stopped for a long time to let my nerves settle, then leaned back from my tools and stared up at the face above, searching for a hint of solid ice, for some variation in the underlying rock strata, for anything that would allow passage over the frosted slabs. I looked until my neck ached, but nothing happened. The climb was over. The only place to go was down.

— — — —

May Friedman EN 280: Literature and Nature April 24, 2016

Mindfulness Functions as Survival Mechanism

The scene depicts Jon Krakaur’s solo climb at Devil’s Thumb. The terrifying epic landscape brings danger to Krakaur’s voyage. When Krakaur copes with the rough conditions, the reader witnesses the relationship between the mind and body. The comprehensive account of the climbing trip effectively portrays the way nature’s spontaneity empowers people who get close to it.

The scene originally personifies nature as a dependable weight bearer. Krakaur explains, “all that held me to the world were two thin spikes of chrome molybdenum stuck half an inch into a smear of frozen water” (142). However, experience teaches Krakaur not to rely on nature’s love. When the author states a person is “balanced on a house of cards,” it signifies the individual is deceived to feel safe. The author warns the listener, “it isn’t the sort of emotion you want to lean on very hard” (143). Later when “the glue disintegrates with a swing of an ice ax” the author contrasts the natural material’s strength with “frost feathers” which “had the structural integrity of stale corn bread” (143). The journey reveals we cannot depend on nature as an abundant commodity when Krakaur illustrates “searching for a hint of solid ice […] but nothing happens” (144). The author depicts nature as indifferent to human desire.

In its engagement with a deserving protagonist such as Krakaur, the account demonstrates nature as immoral. Even the glacier base contains the description “reasonably” to qualify nature’s inconsistent stability, implying its subjection to spontaneous shatter (143). The personification as the caregiver weakens as the quality is no longer unconditional. Instead, the supposed caregiver is inherently unpredictable.

Krakaur asserts humans must build self-reliance to battle nature’s inconsistency. The author advises, “you don’t dare let your guard down for an instant” (142). The scene promotes solo expeditions because it requires the individual to exhibit total bravery in a dangerous world. The cruciality implicitly demonstrates the strong connection between body mind. The adventurer “constantly feels the abyss pulling at [his] back [and] to resist takes a tremendous conscious effort” (142). The author implicitly claims human nature as essentially social. So, solitude contains a super tough burden of loneliness, which manifests physically. Krakaur articulates, “the siren song of the void puts you on edge; it makes your movements tentative” (142). When the individual’s perception is rattled, it results in the equal consequence of instability external circumstance can necessitate. It’s evident when his “eyesight blurred, [he] began to hyperventilate and my calves started to shake” (143). While resorting to self-reliance holds potential for self-destruction, it simultaneously offers potential for people to successfully exercise agency.

The scene effectively portrays nature as a space for liberation, as the thrill to survive empowers Krakaur to practice mindfulness. When Krakaur is “so intensely focused, [he] no longer notices the the strain of maintaining nonstop concentration” (142). Instead, the climber’s consciousness extends outside the self, originally “the inescapable prison of [his] genes” (143). With this in mind, nature is depicted as a healer and gateway to salvation because the character creates feels an “overpowering clarity of purpose” as a response to “the seriousness of the task at hand”. The way we respond to nature completely influences our relations with the outer world. When we aim to exploit materials as tools, we classify ourselves as exceptional to nature’s gravitational force. Eventually, the materials are insufficient in both quantity and quality without viewing them as ends in itself. Walking into the wild entails entrance into a graceful state.

The scene reveals Krakaur’s definition of wilderness: a state of being. To be attune with nature, the individual must acquire “a slow, hypnotic rhythm-swing” that abides with the physical space’s energy waves (143). Krakaur illustrates the collaboration is only attainable when humans are mindful. To develop skills to coexist with inconsistent external conditions, individuals must practice placing the self in particularly unstable external conditions. So, acquiring the wilderness state of mind is a skill humans can practice and use even in the front country as long as the external conditions somehow mimic the discomfort experienced living in the woods. The discomfort is the key to evoking mindfulness and Krakaur demonstrates that clearly when he faces the obstacle climbing. What attracts people to climb natural structures is the opportunity to overcome the struggle and hold a capable self-image. Nature challenges humans to thrive and be the strongest version of themselves.