Review of Becoming a Mountain: Himalayan Journeys in Search of the Sacred and the Sublime by Stephen Alter
Most days I can catch a glimpse of Mt. Hood even though it’s an hour and a half away by car. Its snow-covered peak shows up when I least expect it, and always takes my breath away with its massiveness and other-worldly aura. Over the last four decades I’ve read a lot of books about climbing mountains, and the men who risked their lives to conquer them. It’s been a major obsession in my reading life. Strangely, I’ve never gotten around to climbing to the top of a mountain. I’ve contented myself with casual hikes, though twice I’ve climbed high enough to experience altitude sickness, once in Colorado and another time in Switzerland.
This week I finished one that showed me what most of the other books I’d read had been lacking. Something it turns out I’m very interested in: mountain mythology, the beauty and science of the flora and fauna, and the psychological effect of being in the presence of a mountain. It made me realize that I never wanted to conquer a mountain by reaching its peak; I only wanted to know the mountain. This book is what I’d been looking for all along.
The book is Becoming a Mountain: Himalayan Journeys in Search of the Sacred and the Sublime by Stephen Alter. It was written by Alter after he and his wife were the victims of a home invasion in 2008. They were brutally stabbed, beaten, and left for dead. It happened in the Himalayan hill station of Mussoorie, India where Alter was born and raised. Understandably, the event left them feeling shaken and vulnerable.
Feeling estranged from his home and surroundings, and reeling from the mental and physical violations he endured, Alter embarked on a series of treks through the Himalayas—to Bandar Punch (the monkey’s tail); Nanda Devi, the second highest mountain in India; and Mt. Kailash in Tibet. The book is an account of his journey and his attempt to release the anger and evil that had invaded his soul, and heal the wounds that had left deep scars across his physical body.
Along the way, and with exquisite detail, Alter brings to life the local culture, mythology, and plants and animals that he encounters. Although Alter is an atheist, he is spiritual and philosophical. On the first page, he says,
“I have looked at this mountain all of 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 elusive, enigmatic quality…I know that 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.”
There is also plenty of tension as Alter encounters physical challenges that make him doubt his mission. At one point he is ready to turn around when he feels the trek has gotten too dangerous both for him and the porters that he was forced to bring along.
“After every five steps, I stop and gasp for breath, as much from fear as exertion. I do not have the courage to look down anymore. If I slip, there is nothing to stop me except an intervening rock or two and then the boulders far below.”
Alter liberally references a wide range of writers such as Emerson, Barry Lopez, and Peter Matthiessen who have expressed the mysteries of nature with great eloquence. He also weaves in the mythology of the local people which deeply enriches ones understanding of their culture. Here’s a tidbit:
“Tibetan mythology and folklore explain that the land itself has many guises. Rainbows represent the auras of saints and teachers who have passed away, or numinous markers leading to promised lands. What we see around us is only the surface, beneath which lie hidden realities—lost cities, subterranean lakes, and buried treasure. In one account, the undulating highlands of the trans-Himalaya are actually the body of a female demon (some would call her a goddess) who lies asleep beneath our feet.”
Becoming a Mountain is a beautiful personal narrative of a man’s journey to regain his inner compass after tragedy has struck. It is a tonic for the soul, and should be read slowly and deliciously.
Alter will read from Becoming a Mountain at Powell’s on Hawthorne on March 23rd, 2015.
Arcade Publishing, 2015
Stephen Alter is the author of sixteen books of fiction and non-fiction. For ten years he taught creative writing at MIT and, before that, was the director of the writing program at the American University in Cairo. He is founding director of the Mussoorie Writers’ Mountain Festival, which has become an influential and unique event attracting some of the world’s top climbers, naturalists, and authors. His honors include a Guggenheim fellowship and a Fulbright award. You can visit his website at www.stephenalter.net.
Now, it turns out, I’ve developed a fear of heights. A few years ago, while climbing the Marin Headlands that hang over San Francisco Bay, I experienced a full-out panic attack. It was a rough trail with nothing between me and a long way down on one side, and a sporadically placed railing on the other. The wind was blowing wildly. Halfway to the top I discovered I could neither continue up, nor go back down. I was frozen in place. As I was trying decide what to do, two young women in flip flops ambled by talking excitedly about who knows what. They were oblivious to the nearness of their mortality. I was just starting to feel silly about my predicament when suddenly one of them slipped and began tumbling down. Her foot disappeared over the edge, but her quick-thinking friend grabbed her arm and pulled her back to safety. I dropped to my knees in shock. Then, having just barely escaped death, the two began chattering again and continued on their way. With a light head, I tried as nonchalantly as I could to crawl back down to level ground. I then found an interior route which I took back up to a designated viewpoint. Oh well.