While more renowned for their athletic prowess, endurance, and ability to negotiate large swathes of wilderness or gargantuan masses of rock, snow, and ice, hikers and mountaineers are also none too shabby when it comes to laying down the odd wise, witty, or inspiration one-liner.
1.“Mountains have a way of dealing with overconfidence.” Hermann Buhl
The take-home? If you’re gonna go, go humbly. While a touch of hubris may serve you well in many other pursuits, in climbing, hiking, or mountaineering it’s far more likely to get you killed.
2. “It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.”
Sir Edmund Hillary
The take-home? Everest’s joint-first summiteer echoes many a wise soul with his iteration of the fact that the internal battle poses the greatest obstacle to our success in any venture.
3. “Is this the summit, crowning the day? How cool and quiet. We’re not exultant; but delighted, joyful; soberly astonished… Have we vanquished an enemy? None but ourselves.”
The take-home? It is still unknown whether Mallory and his partner Sandy Irvine reached the summit of Everest in 1924, some 29 years prior to the success of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. What we do know is that he didn’t make it down and that his passion for the peak that would eventually kill him bordered on fanatical. His words, remarkably similar to Hillary’s, redouble the importance of identifying the true character of the “enemy” when faced with any challenge.
4. “Me thinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.” Henry David Thoreau
The take-home? Presaging the findings reached by science only centuries later, Thoreau knew that nature is the greatest lubricant to the mind’s creative mechanisms.
The take-home? The best our planet has to offer isn’t to be found a short stroll from the parking lot but more likely at the end of a long, lonely trail.
6. “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity.”John Muir
The take-home? Civilization has its merits but none worth denying ourselves time in the habitat our forebears called “home” for hundreds of millennia and which our bodies and brains still crave.
In the grand scheme of things, the places we ordinarily call “home” and all that we term “not nature”—brick-and-mortar buildings, offices, etc.—did not exist until very recently and, as a species, our more natural environment is not within the walled enclosures where we’re apt to spend most of our time but in the great outdoors. Given that our wild places and the natural environment are our “home”, moreover, they are something we should take care of and defend with all the zeal we would our beloved piles of bricks.
8. “In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks.”
The take-home? Nature is a gift that just keeps giving, whether it’s sightings of wildlife, self-knowledge, new friends, new skills, or just reams of glorious natural eye-candy.
9. “Because in the end, you won’t remember the time you spent working in an office or mowing the lawn. Climb that goddamn mountain.” Jack Kerouac
The take-home? While hardly groundbreaking these days, back in the late 1950s On the Road author and Beat Generation poster boy Kerouac’s words were pretty novel and certainly not cliche. And despite our familiarity with the sentiment, we all need a little reminding from time to time of the limitations of the status quo—all the better if that reminder happens to come from one of the 20th Century’s greatest authors and the man widely credited with instigating if inadvertently, the hippy revolution.
The take-home? We don’t have to hit the great heights or cover massive distances to enjoy nature’s many wonders.
11. “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”
The take-home? Although addressing his nation’s public on the eve of the anticipated Nazi invasion of Britain, then British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s words will be of equal comfort and inspiration to hikers, thru-trekkers, backpackers, and mountaineers when in the throes of any of the manifold hardships or struggles their pursuits are not shy in serving up.
12. “The mountains are calling and I must go.”
The take-home? Certain demands on our time and attention can be ignored or put off until later, but when it comes to the mountains, if you gotta go, you gotta go.
The take-home? Born into an impoverished Sherpa family in Nepal’s Khumbu region, it would have been all too easy for Tenzing Norgay to live out a life of simple husbandry and farming. Instead, along with Sir Edmund Hillary, in 1953 he became the first to successfully summit our planet’s highest mountain.
14. “Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread.” Edward Abbey
The take-home? All too many of us view the outdoors as an optional extra to be indulged when our day-to-day affairs are taken care of, but for the sake of our wellbeing we’d do well to rework the ratios to ensure there’s a little more balance between the daily grind and the time we set aside for forays into where the good stuff’s at, i.e. nature.
15. “Our imaginations may be awed when we look at the mountains as monuments of the slow working of stupendous forces of nature through countless millenniums.” Leslie Stephen
The take-home? Mountains are impressive enough when taken at face value, but when we take into consideration the countless contingencies that have wrought them into their current form they become all the more impressive by far.
16. “Walking is a man’s best medicine.” Hippocrates
The take-home? Another man ahead of his time, the Greek physician responsible for bringing the world the Hippocratic Oath knew back in the 4th Century BC what scientific studies have only in recent years come to appreciate in full—namely, that nature time equals a good time for both our physical and mental wellbeing.
17. “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Henry David Thoreau
The take-home? A mindful and meaningful life is most easily lived where the distractions and frivolities of urban life are least in evidence.
The take-home? We live in a society and age where mental stimuli are everywhere and one of the few remaining places where we can truly give our brains a breather and reconnect with our “souls” are the wild spaces that Scotsman Muir—who would later be branded the “Father of the National Parks”—spent the vast majority of his life exploring.
19.“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.” John Muir
The take-home? Nature, as many studies are now beginning to reveal, has a regenerative effect upon our wearied minds and bodies.
The take-home? Coming from a family with a long history of heart disease, “The Real-Life Forrest Gump” Robert Sweetgall became one of the world’s greatest exponents of hiking in a career that saw him walk the US coast-to-coast seven times, all 50 states in 365 consecutive days, and publish 17 books on the health benefits of walking and active living. And one of the greatest benefits he identified throughout his works? It slows us down…
21. “Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.” John Muir
The take-home? Concrete has its merits, but rarely does it lead to anywhere truly worth getting to.
22. “Those who travel to mountain-tops are half in love with themselves and half in love with oblivion.” Robert Macfarlane
We mountain-goers are all really just a bunch of egotistical suicidals (!)
Owing to the risks involved, mountaineering is a pursuit that demands a mindset blending a dark mixture of selfishness with a (perhaps subconscious) wish for self-destruction.
23. “Chasing angels or fleeing demons, go to the mountains.” Jeffrey Rasley
The take-home? Mountain-going can serve as both a means of escape from the grim and into the glorious.
The take-home? There will always be a second chance to reach the summit of any mountain—something which can’t be said of reaching the bottom and getting home safely.
25. “I didn’t go up there to die. I went up there to live.” Reinhold Messner
The take-home? Legendary Italian mountaineer Messner knew a thing or two about living. He made the first solo ascent of Mount Everest, the first ascent of Everest without supplemental oxygen, was the first climber to ascend all of the worlds fourteen 8,000-meter peaks, and the first person to cross Antarctica and Greenland on foot. Speaking of his solo ascent of Everest in this quote, he reiterates the sentiment expressed by many mountaineers who extol the intensity, fullness, and purity of life at high altitude and in extreme environments.
26. “Climbing a mountain represents a chance to briefly free oneself of the small concerns of our common lives, to strip off nonessentials, to come down to the core itself.” Mateo Cabello
The take-home? It’s hard to care one iota for such trifling things as who failed to “like” your latest Instagram post or which of your colleagues pilfered your break-time brownie when you’re surrounded by awe-inspiring mountain scenery or tackling testy terrain in which any distraction could land you in trouble—or a few hundred feet down the way!—in a hurry.
27. “In a civilization of wage slaves, where people seek to survive more than to live, mountaineering is an enigma.” Erhart Loretan
The take-home? The high risk involved in mountaineering poses an enduring riddle: why do we do it? While many struggles to offer any verbal response to this question, the fact that we continue to do it without adequate logical justification suggests it’s one of those things—like love, you might say—that needs no justification and that we do without any agenda or ulterior purpose than the activity in itself.
28. “Because it’s there.” George Mallory
The take-home? Often referred to as the most famous three words in mountaineering, Mallory offered this barefaced trio to a reporter when asked exactly why he was so keen on climbing Mount Everest. If doing for the sake of doing alone every needed a catchphrase, this is surely the best there is…
29. “It isn’t the mountain ahead of you that wears you out; it’s the grain of sand in your shoe.”
Robert W. Service
The take-home? On a practical level: make sure your gear is fit to task and sand-free prior to setting off (!). Taking a more metaphorical interpretation: take care of the small things and the big things will come more easily. Alternatively: know thy enemy!
30. “My father considered a walk among the mountains as the equivalent of churchgoing.”
The take-home? Author Aldous Huxley’s father belonged to what later became known as the “Golden Age of Mountaineering”. At this time, society came to view the mountains as no longer something to be feared and avoided but laudable bastions and preserves of the sublime.
31. “Mountains are not stadiums where I satisfy my ambition to achieve, they are the cathedrals where I practice my religion.” Anatoli Boukreev
The take-home? When you go to the mountains, go as a pilgrim as opposed to a would-be conqueror, seeing your surroundings as a sacred space rather than just another arena in which we might puff up our egos.
32. “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Lao Tzu
The take-home? Don’t be daunted or overwhelmed by the size of any journey or obstacle ahead of you. The first step is always the hardest—once that’s taken care of, you’re already well on your way.
33. “Society speaks and all men listen, mountains speak and wise men listen.” John Muir
The take-home? The social norms, mores, and values we often take to have such grave importance count for little compared to the lessons we can learn from nature.
34. “No matter how sophisticated you may be, a large granite mountain cannot be denied – it speaks in silence to the very core of your being.” Ansel Adams
The take-home? Photographer Ansel Adams shot some of the most remarkable mountain landscape photography ever known. His words remind us of that feeling, known to most who have ventured off the beaten track, of nature’s ability to communicate things that our books, technology, and greatest thinkers never will.
35. “The bizarre trend in mountaineers is not the risk they take, but the large degree to which they value life. They are not crazy because they don’t dare, they’re crazy because they do. These people tend to enjoy life to the fullest, laugh the hardest, travel the most, and work the least.”
The take-home? We’ll let you choose:
A) Mountaineers are nuts
B) Mountaineers are nuts but in a good way
C) Mountaineers are among that minority of people who actually live life as it deserves to be lived
D) All of the above
36. “The mountains have rules. they are harsh rules, but they are there, and if you keep to them you are safe. A mountain is not like men. A mountain is sincere.” Walter Bonatti
The take-home? In a few words: mountains don’t mess around, but a wolf dressed as a wolf is preferable to a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
37. “For me, the value of a climb is the sum of three inseparable elements, all equally important: aesthetics, history, and ethics. Together they form the whole basis of my concept of alpinism. Some people see no more in climbing mountains than an escape from the harsh realities of modern times. This is not only uninformed but unfair. I don’t deny that there can be an element of escapism in mountaineering, but this should never overshadow its real essence, which does not escape but victory over your own human frailty.” Walter Bonatti
The take-home? Don’t view the mountains as a place where we can escape the hassles and woes of the city or town but one where we might test our limits and achieve what we never thought possible.
38. “Everyone has their own Everest to climb.” Wanda Rutkiewicz
The take-home? We needn’t conquer the world’s highest mountain in order to achieve our own greatness.
39. “He who climbs upon the highest mountains laughs at all tragedies, real or imaginary.”
The take-home? There’s nothing little a little bit of altitude to give you some perspective.
40. “Human life is far more important than just getting to the top of a mountain.”
Sir Edmund Hillary
The take-home? In this age where the pressures of corporate sponsorship, client success rates, and the tight schedules of guiding agencies threaten to turn hiking and mountaineering into businesses as cutthroat and ruthless as any other, the words of a mountaineering great who did his climbing in a more conscientious time are a welcome and timely reminder that the wellbeing of our fellow mountain-goers should take precedence over our ambitions and the mighty $.
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Sam Hardy is an outdoor enthusiast with a penchant for survival skills. He writes about the great outdoors and his favorite equipment here.