Land - Symbol and Metaphor - Part 3 - The Mountain in Nature


Previously we looked at the roles of mountains in nature, to get a sense for the reality as it is. This can be helpful before looking at how Mountains are used as a symbol in Primary Scenes, to represent aspects of our human experience.

We looked into the collisions between titanic slabs of earth, caused by plate tectonics. Processes with immense forces, that can raise colossal chunks of rock, from deep below the ground, to unbelievable heights.

We delved into the remarkable powers that mountains posses, to make it rain on one side of the mountain, and to turn the showers off, by creating a rain shadow on the other side.

Now we pick up where we left off, starting with the ability for mountains to change ecosystems.

Changing Ecosystems

When mountains affect the weather, they also affect the ecosystems in the surrounding region, and even beyond.

If rain falls on one side of the mountain, then temperatures tend to be hospitable for plants and animals of all kinds. There can be forests and food webs involving everything from insects to carnivorous cats.

On the rainy side of the mountain, plant life can thrive. Flowers can bloom, trees can grow, and thickets can coalesce. Grass can spread, and roll out the green carpet, to the greatest stage on earth.

On the dry side of the mountain, things are quite different. Very few animals can survive in areas of low rainfall. Since plant life generally requires a large amount of water to grow, food webs based on plant life, cannot easily bootstrap themselves into existence. If the forest on the rainy side is an all-you-can-eat buffet, the desert on the dry side is a smash and grab, looting expedition. On the dry side, in the rain shadow, every drop of water, and every spare calorie, must be captured and conserved, at all costs.

Mountains can have this night and day effect, of transforming the ecosystems surrounding them, into starkly contrasting biomes. What’s more, the effects that mountains have on the human species, can also become pronounced, in dramatic fashion, as day turns to into night.

Changing Us

We have seen how mountains can change the weather, we have looked at how mountains can change the ecosystems, but now we delve into how mountains have changed us, as a species.

One of the most surprising examples can again be seen emanating from the Sierra Nevada mountain range, in the western half of the United States.

It may not be so obvious during a daytime flyover, or from looking at a map of America on the wall, but mountains reach out beyond nature, to influence the world of human civilization. The Sierra Nevada mountains, provide a great example of this, in the way they have dramatically altered the settlement and organization, of the most powerful country on earth, the United States of America.

There is one particular view that demonstrates this the best, and it is quite unexpected. High above the ground, as day turns to night, when the whole continent of North America is going dark, the man made constellations of artificial lights, illuminate just how influential mountains have been to humans.

From roughly the East Coast, to Ohio, we can see the glow of our own human galaxies, known as cities at night. Then, going all the way over to the other side of the country, we can spot another cluster of human galaxies, going up from California and in to the northwest corner of the country.

Something strange happens when you start to look from the west coast, towards the area of the Sierra mountains, to the east. Suddenly, the light density stops. It’s as if there were a black hole in the middle of the country, sucking in all the stars from the nearby cities, into an inescapable void.

This was not planned, nor is it any kind of regulated boundary. Yet there it is, an almost perfect bifurcation of country into zones that are rich with constellations of night lights, and those without.

Here the mountains reach out to usher us through time and space, into neat settlement corridors. The rain shadow of the natural world, created by air descending on the east side of the Sierras, created a shadow of darkness, in our world of artificial lights. It’s almost as if the mountains took a country sized can of Vantablack paint, and splattered it all over the east side of the mountain range. Only then, could the mountains have some respite from the bright lights, of human hustle and bustle.

We don’t think about it very much, but it takes a lot of water to live. It takes a lot more water for a city of people to live, and much more for the clustering of cities and suburbs that we see on the coasts.

Without the consistent and sufficient supply of rain to the east of the Sierras, human populations did not take root in the same ways they did further towards the coasts. So, this is what we see as the pattern of city lights, leaves the fingerprint of the mountain, over the continental United States, for all who know it, to see.

It’s almost as if the mountains were gods saying “let there be light” here but not over there, and we humans were all too powerless, to do otherwise.

Where The Land Meets The Sky

The border between the land and the sky is a unique and awe-inspiring place.

Unlike the hospitable coasts, where the land meets the sea, and children build castles made of sand, the place where the land meets the sky, is a highly restricted zone.

Like many aspects of nature, the mountaintop is rife with contradictions. Though it may not seem so in pictures, it is every bit as lethal, as it is beautiful.

Between Heaven and Earth

The mountains in nature seem to tie the whole landscape together. They connect the ground of the earth, to the heavenly clouds above.

As one ascends the mountain, it can be easy to forget how different the bottom is from the top. The temperature and air pressure go down, as you travel up. Phenomena that seem commonplace on the ground, take on an entirely new character and significance on the mountain.

The wind, the cold, the terrain, all may seem similar to what they were on the ground, but there is a much different intensity to these things on the mountain.

Whereas at the ground level, these ordinary aspects of nature were primarily a matter of comfort, on the mountain they become a matter of survival.

Many have sought to climb great mountains, and plant their flags on the summit, most figuratively, and some even literally. They come from all around the globe, drawn by the desire to reach unfathomable heights. Some in search of what discoveries the mountain has for them, others in search of what they have yet to discover, inside themselves.

Where Death and Beauty Coexist

There is a special distinction given to the 14 highest mountain peaks in the world. They are sometimes referred to as the “eight-thousanders”, as they all shoot up from the ground and reach 8,000 meters above sea level.

Many people yearn to explore the world's highest peaks, only to find that the alluring beauty, was only matched by the brutal and unforgiving reality. Here we take a look at some of these peaks, through the lens of data up to 2018 from the Himalayan Database,, and charts that can be viewed at the link in the footnotes1.

All 14 of the “eight-thousander” peaks have a death rate above 10% for the expeditions that venture to reach the top.

The lowest death rate belongs to the mountain known as Makalu, which has a height of 8,485 meters, and a death rate of 13.6% for the approximately 353 expeditions documented as of 2018. This is already pretty substantial, as it means more than 1 in 10 expeditions suffered a fatality.

Mountain climbers often consider K22 to be the most fatal ascent, due to a high propensity for avalanches, and brutally steep passages. It stretches up to 8,611 meters above sea level, and has a death rate of 22.9% for the 367 documented expeditions. Here again, is another stark gut check. This means that more than 2 out of every 10 expeditions suffered a fatality.

It may come as a surprise to most people that Everest, probably the most well known of the 14 peaks reaching 8,000 meters in height, is not the deadliest. That said, though it may not be the deadliest, it is surely no walk in the park. The highest peak on our earth, reaches 8,848 meters into the sky, and has a death rate of 14.1% for the 2,191 documented expeditions.

If you look at the death rate for Everest, when combined with the number of expeditions, it begins to suggest an interesting possibility. It prompts us to consider if there is more than meets the eye, when it comes to the fatal statistics. It’s possible that the death rate is not only correlated with the physical characteristics of the mountain and its weather conditions. Perhaps death on the mountain, may also be correlated with the amount of experience and knowledge, that has been gained and passed down, from expeditions over time.

When you look at the two mountains in the eight-thousander club, with the highest death rates, you notice that they do not stand out because of their height. Instead, they stand out because of their expedition count. In particular, the low number of documented expeditions on those mountains.

Kanchenjunga has the 2nd highest death rate in the 8,000-meter club. It measures 8,586 meters in height, with a death rate of 29.1% for 175 documented expeditions.

The deadliest mountain, Annapurna3 reaches a height of 8,901 meters, and has a death rate of 29.5% for 244 documented expeditions.

What we see when we look at the data is that the two deadliest peaks above 8,000 meters, also happen to be the two with less than 300 expeditions. Now, it's important to note that a correlation is not always a cause. In other words, all we can say is that there is an apparent correlation, but we should not infer from that immediately, a causal relationship one way or the other. It could be that fewer expeditions actually do cause the death rate to be higher, due to lack of experience and knowledge for how to navigate a particular mountain successfully. At the same time, it could just as well be the case, that the most treacherous mountains dissuade wise expeditions, from attempting to climb those mountains. As a result, they might naturally choose mountains that have lower death rates. If this scenario happens, then you can see how it could create a reinforcing feedback loop. The least climbed mountains, could be attempted less due to lack of experience, and lack of collective experience could increase the death rate for subsequent attempts.

It could also be some wholly different factor or set of factors that is influencing both the number of expeditions, and the death rate, but is not accounted for specifically in this particular set of statistics. Lastly, we should always consider the possibility that we are just being “Fooled by Randomness”, as Nassim Taleb so often points out.

Many people make the mistake of thinking that being in shape, at the ground level, is the same as being prepared for the mountain. At first glance this seems like it should translate pretty directly, but tragic tales, alert us to the fact that this is not the case. When it comes to human survival, the mountain should not be treated like merely an elevated piece of the land, but rather, like a hostile planet in outer space, that just so happens to be accessible from the earth. It is this kind of attitude that may keep you safe on the mountain. Otherwise, you could get lost in the beauty, and lured to your demise.

There is something undeniably poetic and poignant about death on the mountain. There is the irony of having climbed so high literally, to fall so low physically. In addition, consider, the narrative crescendo, of being so close to “heaven” as it were, and yet being snatched from great heights, by the skeletal grip of death. There is also a supreme beauty in the idea that, in a sense, one willfully sacrifices himself or herself, to the mountain. In exchange for a view worthy of the gods, you will give up this mortal coil, that binds you, to the world of men. I think it is this last sense, in which the mountains in nature, teach us about how to live bravely, and how to die in the pursuit of our highest purpose.

Closing Thoughts

Here and in previous writings, we looked at the mountains in nature, to get a sense of the real entities, that are used as symbols in Primary Scenes, to represent aspects of human experience.

We saw that mountains start their journey, below the ground we walk on. The titanic plates that form the outer shell of the earth (the lithosphere), ride on a much hotter and deeper layer (the asthenosphere) that is constantly near melting. This produces hell on earth, in the form of magma, nature’s own napalm.

We learned how mountains posses powers worthy of the gods, rivaling and in some cases surpassing myths and legends. They can change the weather. In the places where air is forced to rise over a mountain, we can get tremendous precipitation. In the areas where the air falls down the mountain, we can have arid rain shadows. Mountains can also change the ecosystem, by creating the conditions for lush vegetation and animal life in the rainy regions, and creating large dry desert lands where water and life are sparse, and in constant danger of being wiped out. We also found a remarkable example of mountains changing us as a human species. We saw how the Sierra Nevada mountains, divided the United States into neat corridors. On one side, the lush and populated regions of the upper west coast. On the other side, the dry and less habitable regions, in the rain shadow, east of the Sierra mountains.

Finally, we explored some of the highest peaks in the world, where the land meets the sky. We found that death and beauty, go hand in hand, on the mountain. Everyday elements of nature, like wind, cold, and fog, turn into life and death challenges on the mountain. As a result, we gained a sense and appreciation for the ultimate price that many people have paid, in pursuit of the summit. We learned that surprisingly it is not the highest peak of Mount Everest that is the most lethal, but over the past 100+ years, it was Annapurna, only the 10th highest peak on earth. That said, K2 has very recently just surpassed Annapurna’s death rate, and may cement itself as the most deadly, if current trends continue.

It is only right that mountains, these great titans of the land, that began in the smoldering bowels of earth’s true hellfires, and ascended to touch the heavens, would themselves be bringers of unmatched death and beauty.The fact that so many people over the years have been willing to leave this mortal world, for a chance to stand in the heavens, is something of a cautionary and honorable tale. It is an inspiration, to live with wonder, and to die with purpose. This perspective can help us to move onward and upward, for whatever mountains we may climb, in this brief human experience.

  1. has a nice chart that summarizes the number of deaths as a share of all expeditions for mountains above 8,000 meters. At the time of writing, it can be found at the following link. ↩︎
  2. It is worth noting that in the years sine 2018, Annapurna has had a slightly lower death rate, and K2 has had a higher death rate. As a result, K2 may technically be the 8,000 meter peak with the highest death rate, depending on the time of reading. The Himalayan Database goes all the way back to 1905, so even with recent fluctuations in death rates, it seems that over long periods of time, Annapurna has been the most lethal. We would have wait for many more years of data, to see if K2 truly has become the most deadly over time. ↩︎
  3. The Annapurna mountain range, technically the Annapurna Massif, has many peaks. Strangely, several of the peaks are named “Annapurna”, and distinguished only by number. The peak we are speaking of here, and in general the mountain people are referring to when they say “Annapurna”, is the highest peak of the range. It is known as “Annapurna 1 Main” though you often see it written with a Roman numeral. It is the only peak in the massif that reaches 8,000 meters above sea level. ↩︎