Ron Dart on "top of the world." He spends at least 100 days a year in the mountains.

It is in the trek from the lowlands and hurly burly of the valley to the barren rock ridges on the peaks that an ascent from lower to higher desires, from ego to self becomes clearer and cleaner.

All of the demons must be faced when the distractions are gone, and in weeks of silence one enters the inner odyssey. Much can be seen far from the madding crowds on the white crowned summits that cannot be as easily seen when enmeshed in the demands of valley life.

There are rock jocks, of course, that turn to the white diadems to bag yet another peak, to add another feather to the cap. This has not been the classical way of approaching the mountains, though.

The journey up also entails a journey down to the valley again. The inner trek must always give way to the pilgrimage to the outer world.

It is significant that many Canadian mountaineers have been at the forefront of creating parks and protecting the environment. Parks were created and continue to be created to protect a common space so that one and all may enjoy and delight in the bounty of Nature.

Mt. Baker, Washington. It often can be seen from the Lower Mainland

Parks are also a way of opposing corporations that merely see the earth as a natural resource to exploit. The Alpine Club of Canada and the British Columbia Mountaineering Club have been at the cutting edge of ecological commitments through political means decades before the inconvenient truths about Nature were being told.

I spend about 100 days in the mountains each year, and it is oxygen for my soul. Much is revealed in such ancient and time tried places. A realness and dependency exists between people as they are roped together on glacier treks as crevasses loom on all sides.

There is little room for façades and false faces when each and all are pushed to their limits and breaking points. There cannot help but be a vulnerability and transparency when we are reduced to the basic elements of the soul on the rocks and soil.

It is fifty years this year since "Beat Generation" poet Jack Kerouac's The Dharma Bums was published in 1958. The final few chapters of The Dharma Bums unfolds Kerouac's two months of solitude in a lookout cabin on Desolation Peak in the North Cascades on the border of Canada.

Kerouac went to many a hard place while living in the lookout, surrounded on all sides by white towers, rock slabs and ancient serrated ridges. All distractions and diversions were gone, and he had to go much further within to find deeper wells of life.

Jack Kerouac dedicated two poems to Thomas Merton. Thomas Merton was born in the mountains in France, and he died near the towering crags in Asia near Kangenjunga.

Thomas Merton

Merton made it clear in his initial autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, that there is a close connection between mountains, monasteries and the contemplative quest and pilgrimage.

The Seven Storey Mountain played a pivotal role in confirming yet another American poet of the Beat Generation, Gary Snyder. Snyder's vocation was to turn to the Eastern contemplative path, and he worked out such a vision in the inviting peaks of Japan and the Pacific Northwest.

Kerouac, Merton and Snyder all sought, in their different ways, to challenge centuries of western rationalism and activism. They attempted, in their turn to the ancient citadels, to hold high the contemplative path and way. It is in the silence and stillness of such rugged terrain and wild places that an inner centre and core can be found.

It is forty years since Thomas Merton died. Merton spent some of his last days in North America in Alaska in the McKinley (Denali) area. Thomas Merton in Alaska: The Alaskan Conferences, Journal, and Letters recounts and records his fondness for the lure of mountains and McKinley.

I plan, this autumn, with Angus Stuart, to go on a pilgrimage to Alaska and staywhere Merton gave his final retreat lectures in the area.

Jack Kerouac called his lookout on Desolation Peak a pagoda that taught him much about himself. Merton's constant turn to the mountains pointed the way to the other side of the self and society. Snyder was aware of the danger on peaks but the stone elders and forests could yet teach much.

There are messages in the mountains that reach into the deeper recesses of the soul.

When we learn to think like a mountain, as did Kerouac, Merton and Snyder, our altered eye will alter much.

Ron Dart has published three books on mountaineering: The Beatitudes: When Mountain Meets Valley, Thomas Merton and the Beats of the North Cascades, Mountaineering and the Humanities. Ron is on the executive of the Thomas Merton Society of Canada. He will be co-teaching a course on Thomas Merton this summer at the Vancouver School of Theology.