What I Lose and Find in the Mountains

What I Lose and Find in the Mountains

By Tyler Marshall

“You’re a runner?”

I shrug. “Yeah, essentially… I… Yeah. Yes. I’m a runner.”

They look at me puzzled. “Cool. You do like marathons?”

“No. I do long distance.”

They nod. Then their head tilts, and their eyes look to the right, then back at me. “What?”

Why am I like this?

In terms of my mountain activities, I don’t know how to identify myself. I love running trails. I train hard. At this point, I enjoy running an ultramarathon or two each year. But, what I really love week-to-week, day-to-day, is just being in the mountains.

I love the feeling of running in the mountains. Each foot hits the dirt quickly, making a crackling sound. The turnover of my legs starts to create a harmonious sound which makes me feel alive.

Yet, I thrive on all kinds of different movements. I love power-hiking up ridgelines at intense gradients. I love traversing across ridgelines. These include technical movements defined as bouldering, and/or scrambling. In the late winter, I love mountaineering -- the methodical, slow moving activities with crampons on my feet, and an ice ax in hand.

What I really love are long days in the mountains. It almost doesn’t matter what kind of movement I employ, as long as I’m up there moving. My sweet spot is 8-12 hours in one push. In 12 hours I can cover anywhere from 20-70 miles, depending on the terrain. The base of running makes this possible. Being up there is exhilarating, exciting, and calming. Time in the mountains emancipates my soul.


Jefferson and I are at hour 9.

I’m exhausted. I look back across the ridgeline to the north. It’s overwhelming to consider what we just traversed. What’s more overwhelming is to look west at the tall peak above us on the line. My breath starts to speed up, and I have to look at my hands and feet. The next step is all I can worry about. Anything too far in front or behind induces stress. There’s safety in the moment.

I look at the next step. It’s the crux of the entire ridgeline -- a technical fin with sheer drop offs on either side. Maybe there isn’t safety in this next step. If we can just get through this, we will be safe. We’ll be on our way home. If we can get through it…


Trail running. Mountaineering. Power-hiking. Bouldering, scrambling, and climbing. These differing activities are related. But none are in the same ballpark. Thus, I feel super awkward when someone on the outside tries to ask me about what I do. I can’t figure out how to reconcile these things as one entity. How can I explain any of it to someone who doesn’t know that they exist?

I don’t know what to call myself. I’m definitely not a climber. But, I’m not exactly a runner anymore either. I’m some sort of Alpine Frankenstein’s monster, composed of various bits of mountain movements.

What I’ve come to wonder is this: are harsh lines of identification actually helpful? Do I have to have an identity rooted in one thing? Is it productive to have an identity based in something I do at all?


Jefferson and I are exhausted. I look at our fin. It seems like it’s sizing me up as much as I am it. I breathe in slowly, trying to pretend I’m not stressed. I don’t see Jefferson exactly -- I’m laser focused on the problem in front of me. I’m somehow aware that Jefferson is watching me carefully. His silence is pronounced, careful. It’s careful like me as I approach the shelf below the fin. I glom my fingers onto holds at chest level. I think Jefferson is filming me. I have to commit, and go across. It’s only six feet to safety. I can’t think about the other side. I breathe, and slip onto the unknown.


I think that a preoccupation with identity is a shared human experience. Who am I? What am I? Where do I come from, and what does this say about me? What does it mean to be me?

In terms of moving in the mountains, who/what am I? The answer is beautiful. In the mountains, I get to do whatever I like. I am allowed to be whatever I wish. My time there is a holistic experience. I am able to pursue anything I want, in any manner I want. The only baseline that exists objectively  is a deep respect for the mountain, for others, and for myself.

What I want to be is myself. I don’t really know what this means. What I do know is that I love moving in the mountains. This helps me feel at home in my skin. This is true, even if I can’t define how, or why. Perhaps that’s what I’m pursuing up there: Pursuing the feeling of feeling like myself.



Jefferson watches, and I commit, stretching myself across the side of the fin. Jefferson is clearly apprehensive of breaking my concentration. I focus on the rock in front of me, and use my feet to leverage the weight of my body.

It’s only a few moves. I breathe carefully, and don’t look down.

My focus has paid off, and I’m across before I can realize the gravity of what could’ve happened if a hold broke, or if I slipped. Below the fin is a sheer drop into a steep glaciated bowl. In an alternate reality, I’m less tired at this point in the day, and I just scooch over the top of the fin.

In the actual moment, our judgment is impaired due to fatigue. This excuse isn’t acceptable. The mountains aren’t an abstraction. They’re a physical and mental testing ground. They must be respected.

Once across the fin, I’m grateful for my life. I watch Jefferson carefully traverse too. His safe arrival to this side brings giant relief. I’m grateful to be able to proceed on the line.

All I have is my ability to move forward. My identity is lost to the grandeur of the the mountains and the moment. Amidst all of this, I look back across miles of ridgeline. I smile. I’m somehow fulfilled -- happy even.

I’m pursuing the feeling of feeling like myself.

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