On the Electric and the Sublime

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An adventure and accompanying photos by special guest Patricia Franco @alpinefish43


"An experience of the sublime “is produced by the feeling of a momentary inhibition of the vital forces followed immediately by an outpouring of them that is all the stronger,” making it an emotional response to an object one is not necessarily attracted to, but also repelled by .  The chaos presented to us by the natural world invokes a feeling of the sublime, as does its “magnitude and might”—so long as we can view such might from a safe distance."

After having an experience of the sublime from a less-than-safe distance yesterday, I decided to go back through my notes on Kant’s essay, “Observations on the Feelings of the Beautiful and Sublime.” I remember back in my undergraduate days when asked if I had had an experience of the dynamically sublime, I kind of stumbled through a brief explanation of my experience climbing Mount Katahdin at the end of my stint on the Appalachian Trail. I felt so absolutely doltish after opening my mouth because I immediately realized as I was saying it that it was absolutely not a sublime experience. Perhaps an ecstatic one, but not sublime. There is an element of terror in the sublime that Kant was explicit in pointing to, while he was also insistent that one view this spectacle that simultaneously attracted and repelled our sensibilities from a safe distance. Kant held the belief that viewing the sublime from a distance would make us “recognize our physical powerlessness,” while simultaneously judging ourselves as rational beings independent of nature (and thus superior).

The summer following my semester studying Kant, I got dropped off in a small bush plane somewhere in the middle of the Frank Church Wilderness in Idaho to do trail work on trails that I saw very little proof of anyone using. Sometime amidst the drought and heat of that summer, the wildfires started flaring up, presenting me with my first real experience of the sublime.

We’d been spending days with handkerchiefs wrapped around our faces, coughing up black soot, and watching the bloodied sun and moon shine through the black clouds of smoke that billowed up from the acres of burning forest. We kept doing our assigned tasks, making our way closer and closer to the burn until one day we came face to face with it. I heard what sounded like a freight train roaring from about a mile away which only grew more intense and more deafening the closer we got. We suddenly began to receive orders on our walkie talkies to turn around from some helicopter that was dropping off hot shot crews above us, but my coworker and I felt we had to see it with our own eyes before retreating. We finally reached what seemed to be the edge of oblivion. It was too loud to talk, but we stood awestruck watching entire ponderosa pines be consumed by the fiery tongues of flames. The hissing of the sap catching fire, the crashing of trees to the forest floor, the magnitude, the might, the chaos, the indifferent destruction – it was a sight I’ll never forget. I did not feel independent or superior to the forces of nature then, and still don’t to this day.

The smoke laden forest of the Frank Church Wilderness of No Return

The smoke laden forest of the Frank Church Wilderness of No Return

There is an inherent risk when travelling in the backcountry, just as there is an inherent risk in opening your car door and driving down the road. There was a time in my life when I made the decision that there were certain risks that I personally found made life worth living. I’m not by any means telling anyone that they should go out running in bear or wolf country, or should go out to watch a forest fire, or even climb a mountain if you find that to be a risk not worth taking. However, I’ve found that my life has been most rich when I am combining a slight risk with insights and preparations that I feel help me mitigate any seriously life-threatening situations.

The other day I was arriving back at my truck after summiting Mount Princeton and a woman was circling around it, peering in as if she was going to find someone in there. When I ran up to my truck and inquired what she was doing, she expressed concern because a storm was rolling in and she was wondering where the owner of this truck was. She then asked me if I had summited and when I affirmed that I had she said, “You are hands down the most unprepared person I have ever seen on a 14er.” I found that comment to be misinformed for a few reasons. One being that she assumed that there was something in her 20L Osprey pack that could actually protect her from a lightning storm above treeline, while the only thing one can actually do for themselves is to get down, and to get down as fast as possible. Another being that she assumed that everyone travelling in the alpine zone needs the same set of gear, the same amount of food and water, the same layers, etc. For those who travel fast and light, the best “preparation” is being fit enough to get oneself down the mountain quickly and safely, which is something I’ve spent a great amount of time training my body to do. While this may make my water bottle and compressed rain jacket look like I’m taking mountain travel lightly (no pun intended), that is absolutely not the case. It is an endeavor I take with the utmost seriousness. Mountain travel is something I’ve devoted nearly all of my time and energy to, and it’s something that I’ve given up most modern day amenities for in order to pursue it as deliberately as possible.

That being said, the more time one spends above treeline, the more often one puts themselves at risk for being caught in a storm, no matter how much one tries to mitigate that risk. Similarly, the more often one base jumps, climbs, rides their bike, skis, etc., the higher their chances are of accident, injury, and potentially death. For those whose lives are devoted to athletic pursuits outdoors, the risks are known and do not act as a deterrent but as a means of informing their decisions and responses to unforeseen situations.

My personal undertakings in the alpine zone put me at risk of being caught in storms. This risk can be attenuated by starting summit attempts early in the morning (this is sometimes easier said than done when you have two jobs, are sleep deprived and sick, and have the knowledge that you can probably get away with starting later than most people due to general physical fitness). This is the situation I found myself in just yesterday on Mount Elbert. Ryan and I had plans to go up Black Cloud and down Echo Canyon, but we both woke up overtired from multiple days of pre-work summits to rainy skies that dissuaded us from jumping in the car and driving over to the trailhead. Instead, we drank our coffee with leisure, I read a few chapters of my book, and when the rain subsided, we decided that we’d give it a go; albeit later than we originally anticipated.

La Plata peak in the background, from Black Cloud.

La Plata peak in the background, from Black Cloud.

All was well and I couldn’t have been happier to be heading back up that route for the second day in a row. The skies seemed clear above us, though a storm seemed to be moving in from over La Plata, but not at any sort of threatening rate. When I got about halfway across the ridge I saw Ryan running down from the summit and I felt the wind pick up something fierce. The clouds started making their way more quickly toward Elbert now and I decided that when I made it over to Ryan I’d just turn around and run down with him to avoid getting caught in the oncoming storm. As we ran along we tried to make conversation over the loud gusts of wind about what a beautiful day it ended up being and how this had to be the best way up Mount Elbert. While Ryan stopped to perhaps reinsert his headphones(?), I ended up slightly ahead of him, hopping along the ridge’s talus field until I was suddenly struck with a debilitating feeling all over my body.

Ryan dashing down from Mt. Elbert, making the fastest route to treeline.

Ryan dashing down from Mt. Elbert, making the fastest route to treeline.

My ears were suddenly consumed by the overpowering sound of what I can only describe as a circuit breaker that had water poured onto it and was now short circuiting inside of my body, concentrated most noticeably in my head. My fingertips felt as though they were on fire and I began to shout incoherently. As I looked back at Ryan, I saw him shaking out his hair as if there were hornets attacking his head (which I later came to find out is exactly what he thought was happening). This went on for what I am guessing was about one minute – and then it stopped.

From what I could remember back to a lecture about high country storms during staff training for Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, the electrical current that you feel in the air and the rocks usually precedes a more violent lightning strike. During this lull of electrical current pulsating through my body, I mentally prepared myself for a lightning bolt to strike down on the two tallest things on the ridge: Ryan and myself. I looked at Ryan for what I assumed would be the last time – and then the electric current came back with full vengeance.

I felt crippled again. The sound in my head combined with the electrical current moving through all my extremities and my core was more than I could take. The moment of zen acceptance I just had quickly faded back into screaming “What do we do?!” along with other obscenities. Ryan’s answer was obvious “We need to get down!! GO!!”. I started haphazardly plowing through snow fields that I’d so carefully skirted around on my way up. I couldn’t think and I certainly couldn’t make my body respond to the common sense idea that I should go down the exact way I came up, probably because every rock my feet touched only amplified the feeling that I had just grabbed a hold of an electric fence.

Then it stopped again, this time for long enough for us to run back to treeline through the painful deluge of graupel that stung my face and legs beyond belief, but which was preferable to the electricity.

Needless to say, we made it down safely. There was never the spectacle of thunder or lightning to accompany the black clouds or the electrically charged talus field, a spectacle which I had seen many times above treeline with no physical consequence. Sometimes when you take a risk – when you are forced to confront the sublime – you merely experience the emotional response of fear or awe and thus you can remain on your pedestal of assumed superiority. Fear does make you feel certain things, as Kant suggested, it can make one feel “a momentary inhibition of the vital forces.” Yet he continues on to say that a sublime experience will be “followed immediately by an outpouring of [the vital forces] that is all the stronger.” The instinctual flight for life that followed the acceptance of death before the ‘magnitude and might’ of the natural world was, for me, the strongest outpouring of vital forces I think I’d ever experienced.  

While I’d experienced plenty of moments of fear during lightning storms, I had never truly had to feel or embody the repercussions of any risk I had taken in the mountains to that sort of extreme. The pain was immediate and debilitating, the noise was powerful and overwhelming, and I was disoriented and light of breath in ways that I’d only felt after extreme exertion (which I would not call my efforts yesterday). Nevertheless, I would not change anything we did yesterday. I think we made the most informed decisions we could have, given the circumstances of both our lives and the weather. I made the conscious judgment back when reading Kant a few years ago that while viewing the sublime from a safe distance can be enough for some people, it is not enough for me. While I love watching a storm from the comfort of my teardrop, I’m willing to risk being caught in one, all the while calculating ways to avoid that. There are certain choices one makes every day, and my choices in the summertime are often choices based around which summit I’ll be attempting, always accepting that I can turn around if, or when, things go wrong. While some people may make their choices around the weather, which I absolutely do in extreme circumstances, I try to make choices what will allow me to risk encountering the sublime, but hopefully from the relative safety of treeline or the trailhead.

Special thanks again to Patricia Franco @alpinefish43 for contributing this story.