Taking Flight, Up a 14,000-Foot Mountain

Commentator Craig Childs began scaling mountain peaks in the Rockies as a child, and his enthusiasm has not subsided. He describes the exhilaration of reaching mountaintops and compares the feeling of defying gravity to that of flight.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Commentator Craig Childs can choose between two Colorado mountains to climb whenever he leaves his house. He lives in the West Elk Range between Saddle Mountain and Lands End Peak.

CRAIG CHILDS:

My mother used to take me into the mountains of Colorado. She taught me how to climb 14,000-foot peaks and how to slide back down into the valleys below on steep banks of half-melted snow. I fell in love with these castles of earth all shunted up around each other. When we moved to Arizona, I began obsessively drawing mountains in my notebooks. Instead of paying attention to math or English, I invented jagged summits and tortured ridge lines. My grades waned, but I had whole mountain ranges to myself.

As soon as I was on my own, I moved back to Colorado, to a small mountain town with a general store, post office, and a theater of snowbound summits closing in from all sides. But there were several hundred people living there, and I felt penned in. I built myself a teepee up higher where snow falling on the canvas sounded like a gentle all-night surf. I put on snowshoes or skis every morning for the half-hour commute to my truck beneath mountains of crystal and white, slopes marked by fresh avalanches.

In the summers I set off on foot, sleeping in tundra basins and climbing peaks for the sheer exhilaration of standing like a lightning rod in the sky. My body, the highest pinnacle for miles in all directions. The most famous thing ever said about mountain climbing is that you climb it because it's there. I don't think that's true. Climbing to the very tips of mountains seems as close to real, physical flight as a human might ever come. I have stood breathless upon many of Colorado's highest peaks, gravity only affecting me through a slender spire or crag just beneath my boot soles.

Once, climbing along a dead-end ridge at 13,000 feet, I teetered like a skydiver, heart racing over the vast exposure below. Near the abrupt end of this ridge, I found the skeleton of a mountain goat. With no obvious injuries to its bones, it seemed to have died of natural causes. It was as if the mountain goat had journeyed onto this ridge for the sole purpose of dying here. I knelt, thinking that in some way this animal must have been like me, it must have felt the same urge to fly, so much that it carried its last breath along a dead-end ridge with a spectacular view. I thought of it resting here as it dwindled, spending its final moments here in flight, high above the earth.

This is why we climb mountains. They rise beyond the confines of our daily pedestrian lives. They are huge beyond our ability to grasp. And when we stand on them, when our shoulders lift above everything around us, we finally know what it is to be unbound, set free into the world.

INSKEEP: That's commentator Craig Childs. His most recent book is "The Way Out: A True Story of Ruin and Survival."

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