Adventure, Spotlight, The Heroic Life, Travel

Guest Post: Why Climb a Mountain

This is a guest post from B. T. Newberg of Humanistic Paganism.

Borneo: December 26, 2004.

“Batu Punggul?” the sisters exclaimed. “Why do you want to go there?”

I forked noodles into my mouth.

“Because it’s about as deep into the jungle as a tourist can go,” I shrugged. “The idea of being that far from civilization is… comforting.”

They looked quietly at me.

“You should climb Mount Kinabalu,” Liana said. “That would be more fun.”

“I don’t want to climb a mountain,” I said.

I didn’t want to have fun, either. I wanted to be sad. I wanted to be angry. I wanted the stink of decomposing leaves to surround me. I was in love with a woman who was happier than ever and I had no place in the picture.

Mount Kinabalu shrouded in couds

Mount Kinabalu, the highest peak in Southeast Asia and legendary home of ancestral spirits

Why climb a mountain? What makes us, tiny creatures that we are, aspire to such heights? Why not wallow in our smallness, mere motes of dust in a cruel and empty universe?

These are questions at the very root of the Heroic Life. The fourth maxim of Drew’s blueprint for a heroic life is “Do amazing things” – but why? Before you can embark on any adventure, you have to confront that simple question: Why? That is the question which I hope this story will, in some small way, begin to answer.

The meaning of mountains

Victor Frankl, the psychologist, wrote of the immense importance of meaning in human life. As a Jew in a Nazi concentration camp, he witnessed how his compatriots coped with suffering. Those who managed to find meaning in their situation survived, those who didn’t succumbed. Frankl kept his spirit alive by recalling the image of his wife. Hermann Haindl, the painter, sustained himself similarly through a Russian POW camp by taking solace in a small birch tree growing outside the barbed-wire fence.

As for me, lost in love’s despair, I was experiencing a crisis of meaning. Something was needed to restore meaning to my world.

Liana was an ex-lover. And I had gone back to Malaysia to visit her. But she had kept secrets, I soon discovered – secrets which meant there was no way we could ever be together again.

I didn’t want to climb the stupid mountain. What for? I wanted to rot away like a broken coconut on the jungle floor.

“Well, you can’t go to Batu Punggul,” her sister Linda said.

“Why not?”

“Because no driver will take you.”

I asked why again and she explained that locals had been casting spells. The area was inhabited by the Murut tribe, and some didn’t want outsiders coming in. There was in that place a peculiar limestone formation sacred to them, which had of late been exploited by eco-tourists. To ward off the unwanteds they put a bit of poison in your cup and bade you drink.

“Your stomach swells up,” Linda described, “until you get all bloated, like your internal organs are exploding.”

I did, in fact, head toward Batu Punggul, and got as far as Tenom. But as the beads of sweat rolled down in the Borneo heat, and I ruminated over my lost love, something changed. I realized I could have been off in a different part of Sabah exploring caves or diving with turtles, but instead I was sitting in a coffee shop sweating disgust.

That moment, at precisely ten-thirty-five in the morning, I made a declaration. Amidst the tofu and coffee stench, I declared:

I will climb Mount Kinabalu.

Suddenly it was something I had to do.

Why? All of a sudden, the mountain called to me – why?

It was a symbolic gesture that assumed a world-stopping importance. Something inside me needed it. I had never climbed a mountain before, not even a small one.

There I was, a lovelorn twenty-something, feeling the cruelty of events bearing down and myself a speck of dust ready to blow away in the wind.

And then there was the mountain, looming over the whole island. It was a place of ghosts, local legend said. It was where you go after you die. Before it I felt insignificant. Somehow that relationship of power and powerlessness spoke to me like nothing before.

My energy returned. I busied about gathering the essentials I would need: a flashlight, a pair of hiking shoes, a wide-brimmed hat, and a rain poncho. For the first time in days I felt myself again.

The climb

The trail upward was a long, steady march. Droplets of sweat fell to earth like rain. I fell into a kind of trance. I only knew the next step, and the next step, and the next step.

By about three or four o’clock my heartbeat began to change. At first it was minimal, a gentle pounding that seemed faster than normal. Gradually it grew louder. Soon all I could hear was a single droning rhythm: thup, thup, thup… some two-hundred times per minute.

It was the altitude. I had never been this high in my life. I slowed my pace, placing each foot but a few inches in front of the other. Yet my heartbeat rang in my ears like hammers on a gong.

When at last we made the peak, just as dawn cracked over the horizon, a sense of accomplishment burst upon my being. Cold and exhausted, but ecstatic with joy, I knew I had pushed myself beyond anything before. It was a personal feat.

Gone was the person who longed to blow away in the wind. Born was a man who could conquer a mountain.

On our descent, the mists parted and the sun came out. The light of dawn warmed the stony peak. I could see every inch of the mountain, everywhere on the island, and all the way out to the sea. The lush green hills spread out before me, and the sea was afire with scintillating light. Birds cruised the warm air currents. Life was everywhere.

At the peak of Mount Kinabalu

At the peak

Why climb a mountain?

Mountains outscale us. They tower, they loom, they put us in our place. In their shadow, we feel insignificant. There is a sense of majesty and awe.

When we climb mountains, we participate in that awe. It’s not that we become greater than the mountain, but that its greatness becomes part of us. Some part of its aura enters our life story, and imbues it with meaning. That power which loomed over us at the foot goes inside us at the peak. Before we climb a mountain, it is an alien force. Afterward, it is an ally.

On that trip to Borneo, my question was answered. Why climb a mountain? Or, to phrase it in terms of the heroic life: Why do amazing things?

One answer is to restore a sense of meaning. It shows you who you really are. What you can do. Even in the throes of despair – especially in the throes of despair – climbing a mountain reminds you of the significance of life. It reveals that in a vast universe, with events that don’t always go your way, there is power inside you.

And that power, though far outscaled by the mountain, is not insignificant.

But not everyone is a climber. Your mountain may not be a mountain at all; it may be traveling the world, writing a novel, or proving a theorem no one thought possible. It could be any number of amazing things. Whatever it is, it pushes you beyond your limits, beyond what you ever thought you could do. And it shows you the meaning of existence.

What is your mountain?

Like what you read here? Download Love and the Ghosts of Mount Kinabalu by B. T. Newberg from

B. T. Newberg portrait

B. T. Newberg

B. T. Newberg is the editor of Humanistic Paganism, a community blog for naturalistic spirituality. Travel lust has led him across the globe, living in England, Malaysia, and Japan. He currently resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with his wife and cat, where he runs an SEO content writing service.


18 thoughts on “Guest Post: Why Climb a Mountain

  1. BT, I just want to say that the grin on your face in the “At the peak” picture lifts my heart. I know the exactly feeling you must have had and seeing it has me beaming.

  2. No kidding! It was a great experience. If you ever make it to Borneo, I highly recommend it. No climbing skill needed, just sheer endurance. Busted ankle be damned!

    I recently got back in touch with a friend from Kentucky who I’d met in Malaysia, and who has since climbed the same mountain. He liked the Love and the Ghosts of Mount Kinabalu story enough to give it a review over at

    Thanks again for agreeing to the guest post. It looks great.

  3. Being a Capricorn, I can appreciate a good mountain climb! However…

    I hope I’m not being too much of a curmudgeon here, but do we *have* to always do something over the top to prove to ourselves we are empowered? Why do anything amazing at all? Why not be inspired by what is amazing in nature, become one with its energy, open the self to its power, and achieve balance and harmony, not tackle or conquer it. Yet is the way of conquest purely part of the manly, heroic experience? Even at times the talk of travel as a means to heighten awareness seems like escapism at times. Sure, it is not for everyone, but there needs to be balance. Let me explain…

    I am not opposed to the very positive and meaningful aspects of Drew’s ongoing quest to fine tune the basic tenets for the Heroic Life, in fact I support him and agree with him on several points. But I sense a few things missing, or to be more perfectly frank, not finished. The one thing I find that is most intensely emphasized is the outward journey, travel as a means to change the mind and open awareness. This should be balanced with the inward journey, one that begins and ends with home. I believe Drew has written about starting from a foundation or home base — one cannot just take off without some kind of security. Be that an actual physical place or a sense of confidence. Yet I find this is not often emphasized as much and therefore seems less important.

    I found it disturbing at first that there seemed to be a grudge against a woman for not being with you, so you climbed a mountain in desperation. Dear B.T. Newberg, during this story you were undergoing the loss of a love, so I thought I was about to read about your suicidal plunge into the unknown, not necessarily a quest for empowerment. Oftentimes our friends and lovers become our world. I know that feeling. When we are in despair we can become locked, just like when someone is in the heat of rage we can’t see reason, this includes meaning. I believe you lost a sense of meaning and purpose because your lover abandoned and discarded the importance of what she meant to you. Without that person in your life, it can feel like your life is basically over and there is nothing left to work on or look forward to. It took me a little while to understand that. It is then that we have to find a way to bring meaning back to ourselves in order to heal.

    I am not commenting to advertise my own beliefs and personal philosophy, but if you keep looking outside of yourself to find power, you’ll never hold on to it, much less find it. It’s only when you find it inside of yourself that you have empowerment. You can’t get the power from the mountain. The mountain and the spirits that live there didn’t give you power. You gave yourself the power you needed. The mountain ceased to be just a mountain to you after that, and it wasn’t just a new friend. You let the mountain come inside of you.

    When I look at your photograph, B.T. Newberg, both of your younger self and your current self from your blog, I see someone who is weathered some storms and has come back to tell the tale. Forgive me if my reaction to your story seemed to over step boundaries, I am trying to be careful with my words, but as I hope my old friend Drew will attest, they are sincere. I wish I had the physical stamina and endurance to climb real mountains, the mountains in my life are more mental and emotional ones, ones I may never win accolades for like a hero would, but the rewards I’ll reap will be just as meaningful.

    And, Drew, forgive me if anything I have written seemed out of line. I do not intend to be rude to your guest. I hope my questions and comments show my appreciation instead.

  4. Valentina, actually I couldn’t have said it better myself. Almost all of what you say is 100% true. It is an inward journey, always. Even when it is also an outward journey. The only thing I would clarify is that the ego is a fragile thing, and our beliefs about ourselves are formed first and foremost by observing what we do in the outer world (i.e. outside our own minds). Thus, doing something dramatic in the outer world has the power to change us in the inner world.

    You absolutely do not need to always do this. In fact, you do not need to do something dramatic at all, ever, in theory. You can make the necessary changes just by paying close attention to your inner thoughts and feelings. And whenever you can, you probably should. In fact, my whole personal spirituality is based around becoming good at doing so right from where you are, not from a mountaintop.

    But the catch is, you have to be aware that something needs changing before you can intentionally initiate a change. Often we find ourselves so submerged in our beliefs and emotions – as I was – that we are unaware or only dimly aware of them, and struggling to bring to light what is felt only as a vague intuition. It’s those times, when you are up against your ego’s limits, and the unconscious is pulling you down like one caught in an undertow, that dramatic action in the outer world is most effective.

    I don’t recommend climbing a mountain for most of these times. Or walking across two continents. But when you’re really struggling with something – you know not what – it may end up that it unleashes the necessary transformation.

    As for the questions about the grudge against the ex-lover, I didn’t have room in this post to explain the nature of that entanglement, but it was quite dramatic. It was an experience I wouldn’t give up for the world, though it was bittersweet. And I still keep in contact with her, having long-since forgiven her (actually, now it’s more her struggle to forgive herself). The whole story is told in my ebook, Love and the Ghosts of Mount Kinabalu.

    Last, in response to the question of whether heroism is man thing… It may be, at least partially. If an evolutionarily biologist found evidence that males were prone to such dramatic seeking, questing behavior, I wouldn’t be surprised. But one thing is certain: it is absolutely not limited to males. Some of the most heroic and profound journeys have been undertaken by women. For example, Susan Retik and Patti Quigley, having lost their husbands in the 9/11 attacks, felt the need to do something dramatic in the outer world to right their inner worlds. They decided to ride their bicycles from ground zero to their homes in Massachussetts to raise money for war widows in Afghanistan. Instead of seeking revenge against a faceless Muslim “Other”, they identified with those in similar situations on the other side of the fence. Then they actually journeyed to Afghanistan to meet their counterparts and deliver their charity. It is all movingly told in the documentary Beyond Belief. For her work, Susan Retik received the highest civilian award, the Citizens Medal, from Obama in 2010. So there’s an example of heroism of the most dramatic kind undertaken by women.

    • I really liked what you had to say, B.T., and thank you for your insightful reply.

      ” But the catch is, you have to be aware that something needs changing before you can intentionally initiate a change. Often we find ourselves so submerged in our beliefs and emotions – as I was – that we are unaware or only dimly aware of them, and struggling to bring to light what is felt only as a vague intuition. It’s those times, when you are up against your ego’s limits, and the unconscious is pulling you down like one caught in an undertow, that dramatic action in the outer world is most effective. ”

      A radical shift in consciousness needs a dynamic action to set it in motion, true, or a catharsis that happened beyond our control that shakes us out of complacency. That’s why I think sometimes bad things happen to good people, not because the Gods aren’t smiling on us, but because in order to live fully and meaningfully, honorably, something needs to happen to wake us up. Like what happened with Susan Retik (thank you fro reminding me about that story!) and Patti Quigley, how they transformed/transmuted the terrible loss into a beautiful, life sustaining thing that would support the widows in Afghanistan. I believe those women took their power back and shared their power with other women, all of it very inspiring and an example of humanity at its best.

      I am aware of the heroism — both the legends and current media stories about women — but there are times when I, as a woman, feel left out of the adventure, or I feel I can only play a supportive role. I am looking for ways I can find my own way to participate, also to find my purpose, to contribute and make a difference, I just do not know how yet.

      Sometimes some of us are here, like me, in support of our friends like Drew, but secretly planning our own great adventures, even if we don’t yet know in what shape they’ll take! Thank you for understanding my words, B.T. Newberg! You are welcome to visit my humble little blog anytime. May this new year bring us all more discovery and insight in all of our journeys great and small!

      • >I am aware of the heroism — both the legends and current media stories about women — but there are times when I, as a woman, feel left out of the adventure, or I feel I can only play a supportive role.

        Why is that?

        • I believe it may be my own personal experience. I was bullied a lot by guys in the comic book industry — talk about dealing with concepts of heroism, right? I never made it into that business, or at least the part of the business where I worked for the big publishers like DC and Marvel. I got bitter.

          I also grew up in a very conservative religious household where female roles had to be strictly obeyed, yet I rebelled a lot. I used to sneak out to play with the boys in the neighborhood because they got to do all the more adventurous things like go hunting for snakes and explore abandoned buildings! But when we got to be high school age, the boys no longer invited me along because that’s when girls were then something more different and we were no longer equals.

          After my bad experiences, I’m trying to make up for all of that as a 40-something woman, but sometimes I battle with the jealousy and anger I still sometimes feel towards the men who picked on me, ignored me, and left me out. Lucky for me I met a friend like Drew. We got to do a lot of things I always loved doing when I was a girl!

          I need more guy and woman friends like that in my life.

          • That makes sense, Valentina. I can identify with many of those struggles, even as a guy, having experienced relatively severe gender constraints but in terms of what’s acceptable behavior for a male.

            • I’ve come late to this discussion, so I just want to say this exchange is one of the most touching things I’ve seen on Rogue Priest. Thanks to both Valentina and BT for a fascinating & honest discussion.

              • Thank you, Drew, for bringing in such an insightful guest blogger! This has made me very much consider writing more about my adventures when I was a girl and also about the sexism I had to overcome when I was a teen and young adult. You and B.T. have given me a lot of food for thought!

                I’ve spent the last two weeks sketching down some outlines for quite a few subjects on the matter. I love writing about this and responding to it. It was lovely to get B.T.’s perspective. So, thank you, too, B.T.!

  5. I liked this post a lot. There’s something to be said for doing things physically strenuous to work issues out of our bodies, and for high places giving you both real and metaphorical perspective. Thanks for guest posting!

  6. Beth says:

    What I appreciated the most about this post is that you do describe a physical journey for yourself, but your final paragraph makes it clear that “amazing things” does not necessarily have to mean “climbing mountains” or “travel” or even anything physical. I agree with Val that not everything has to be “amazing” or outward, and I also agree with you that sometimes you need the outward thing to propel you forward. I’ve taken plenty of inward journeys; and I’ve also had times that an outward journey gave me the new perspective I needed to make the final inward change, or pulled me far enough out of my comfort zone to allow me to see from a new angle. The outward journey, for me, has been one of many, many tools of transformation.

    • That’s right, Beth! Now that I think about it more, the outward and inward form the entire journey of transformation which, in itself, is pretty damn amazing in many ways.

      I even think that even attaining a new comfort zone after spending too much time out of an old comfort zone is essential. Drew talks about how travel changes the mind and increases awareness. B.T. talks about how meeting a great challenge and climbing mountain helped him get outside of a stagnant state, find meaning, and connect with the awesome. Both writers suggest stepping out of the comfort zone to shake them out of complacency, but I’ve also noticed that once shook a calm seems to fall and a new comfort overcomes these men after the change takes place.

      Do you think there’s something there in that? That comfort is also the goal as well as change?

      • Thanks Beth & Val. I also agree. I just want to make clear that “amazing” does not always mean “athletic.” This blog is about deliberating seeking out personal challenges to improve yourself – that is the Heroic Life. Whether today’s challenge is climbing a mountain or losing 30 pounds, the point is the challenge itself.

  7. Pingback: Three Transcendents, part 1: Naturalistic transcendence « Humanistic Paganism

  8. Pingback: Three Transcendents, part 1: Naturalistic Transcendence

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