St. Bernard of Montjoux, Patron Saint of Mountaineers and Skiers

I’m not catholic, what do I need a patron saint for? For not falling off a mountain or into a crevasse? A good climbing partner and solid technical skills should take care of that! Neither do I believe that a prayer will cause some higher entity to change the course of the world for me, other than providing a good discussion topic on the meaning of prayer for a drive across Sonora Pass to a climbing destination. So, why am I not writing about my last mountain excursion instead?

It must be the time of the year; short days, long nights, meh outdoor conditions, all of which create plenty of time to reflect on  adventures last year and setting climbing goals for next year. I talked about my physical fitness goals in a previous post. In today’s post, I want to focus on some mental/spiritual aspects of the peak climbing way of life.

What motivates you to make time in your busy life to trek to the mountains and climb? What helps you to overcome a scary crux, a frustrating day, face the inevitable setbacks, accept your limits while pushing to expand your skills? I believe we all have our inner drive, the passion for the mountains, to motivate us. Otherwise, we would not be doing this. Still, we will get to a point where our own inner strength needs a belay. Some mental walls we cannot ascent as a lead, but which are within reach if we can follow someone. So how do we identify our spiritual lead climber(s) to help us push beyond our boundaries?

Gretchen Rubin (Happiness Project)  wrote a blog entry on self-knowledge about finding the way to who you want to be through people who have become who you want to be. The Catholic Church happens to call them saints. Facebook calls them “People who inspire you”. 

Mountains inspire me. The desert does. Mountains in the desert: bliss. I did not discover the way to the mountains and deserts all by myself, though. The longing to be outdoors, to be with and in nature, has always been part of me. How this longing found its expression in my passion for high peaks, deep canyons and remote places is a story of people who inspired me to go find these places.

Good morning, canyon walls! I feel inspired by thinking about wilderness mornings.

In the country I live in, John Muir, Ansel Adams and Theodore Roosevelt should be the trinity of patron saints for all outdoor folks. Without them, the National Park system, the many wild places left wild, would not exist. John Muir’s writings about the places he visited educated city folks about the value to preserve them. Ansel Adam’s pictures provided images of places the East Coast population could not have imagined to exist in their wildest dreams. Theodore Roosevelt laid the legal groundwork for our National Park System.

Other inspirations are found in my family. While standing on Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park a few years ago, I was enthusiastically telling my Aunt Regina about all the trips and climbs we could see. She was amused by this, and concluded my mountain madness wasn’t really my fault, given the genes I inherited: Opa Wilhelm, the adventurer, parachuter, curious explorer. Opa Georg, the mountaineer and hiker. Oma Marie with her strong frame and endurance. My mother, with her love for the Swiss Alps.  All have long returned home to Mother Earth, but I feel their heritage in me when I put on my pack and go.

Tante Regina in Sequoia National Park.

Lastly, nine years of Catholic Girl’s School left their mark: I decided to google the patron saint of mountaineers: St. Bernard of Montjoux. Quite a character! Sneaking away the day before his wedding to become a priest (I should have done that – ditched the wedding, not the priest/nun part!). Next, he found his calling in missionary work to convert the mountain-dwelling pagans of Lombardy to Christianity (I disagree with him there as well). What I absolutely admire him for, though, is his work in aiding and protecting travelers who had to negotiate the dangerous trans-alpine route, now called the Great and Little St Bernard pass in the Pennine Alps, on their way from Germany to Rome. In short, he founded and ran the first mountain rescue unit in recorded history, aided by the Valais herding dogs which later were developed into the St Bernard breed. His monastery and hospice also served as as much needed resource for locals who did not have access to healthcare before.

The story resonates with me because it reflects a deeper relationship to the mountain environment and its people than just going there to enjoy, relax, and be physically active. Rather than only taking in what the wilderness gives us, Bernard found a way to give back. Taking the big question of “What can you give the World?” down to a smaller level, in 2012 I want to ask myself the question: “What, in the spirit of St Bernard, can I do to give back to the mountains and its people?”.

I do have a few ideas. First, I would like to become more active in leading trips for the Peak Climbing Section or private trips to inspire others to explore. After five years of learning so much from the trip leaders, it is time for me to grow up and start passing on the expertise taught to me so generously. Right now, I do not have the time to actively join organizations such as the Bay Area Mountain Rescue Unit, but I will keep it in my mind whenever the opportunity may present itself.  I am still dreaming of training search and rescue dogs some day … or rescue a St Bernard?  I also want to pay better attention to financially support local businesses in the mountain communities I travel through. If I can afford to stay in a locally owned motel, I should. Or plan to buy food supplies at local markets. If I can wait to buy climbing equipment, do it in a local store in places such as Bishop, CA. Lobbying for protection of our national resources and wild places are other opportunities.

While I am still not 100% clear about who I want to be as a mountaineer and climber, I am finding my way by thinking about my patron saints, paying attention to where my inspiration is coming from. I hope my post encourages you to think about who inspires you on your path to become the mountaineer/climber you want to be.

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3 Responses to St. Bernard of Montjoux, Patron Saint of Mountaineers and Skiers

  1. pahaloalto says:

    I would discourage you from rescuing a St Bernard until you find yourself a larger dwelling place. Perhaps a Mountain Chihuahua instead!

  2. While a Mountain Chihuahua would certainly fit in the ultralight category and my cats would enjoy yet another toy to chase around, I am just not feeling it ;-)

  3. Your post was a success for me – thank you for the inspiration!

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