the magic of the mountains

The sense of the sacred awakened by mountains reveals a reality that has the power to transform our lives. Whatever that reality is, however we may conceive it – as a deity, the ground of being, emptiness…the Self, nature, the absolute – our encounter with it frees us from our usual conceptions of ourselves…
Edwin Bernbaum, Sacred Mountains of the World)

Allover the world we can find sacred mountains and mythical stories about mountains. For example, Machapuchare, the fishtail mountain, which towers 6000 meters over Phewa Lake near Pokhara, is very sacred to the people of Nepal. Machapuchare is the pyramid in the middle of the picture, placed in front of the Annapurna Range, which is visible to the left and to the right in the background.

Machapuchare and Anapurna Range

Believed to be one of the homes of the Hindu god Shiva, its isolated summit sits alone in the sky – unclimbable and untouched. Officially, Machapuchare has never been summited, making its ethereal heights one of the least-visited places on Earth. In the late 1950s, a British expedition ventured to within 500 feet of the summit before doing the gentlemanly thing and turning back – having agreed with the king that they would not set foot on the sacred summit. Machapuchare’s peak remained untouched thereafter, but of course someone always has to ruin a good thing. That someone is rumored to be New Zealander Bill Denz, an accomplished solo climber with the proven skill to attempt such a dangerous climb. It’s widely believed that he made an illegal ascent of Machapuchare in the early 1980s, becoming the first and very likely only person to ever set foot at the sacred mountain’s summit. Since he died in an avalanche elsewhere in the Himalayas in 1983, we’ll never know the full story.
(quoted from

In 1977 I was staying for a few days in a lodge at Phewa Lake. The sight of Machapuchare was overwhelming. One night I dreamt that I was a mountain. It was amazing, to be so strong, firmly resting on the ground. Nothing could shake me, people and animals crawling on my belly were mere grains of dust. Avalanches and landslides were noticeable, but did not affect my calmness and well being at all.

In the dream a very different perception of time was happening. Summer was like breathing in, the heat causing a small expansion and in winter the contraction felt like breathing out. So one mountain breathing cycle equaled one human year.
Since then I see mountains as beings like humans and animals, only living in much bigger time and space frames.
If one second (once breathing in and out) in mountain time equals 1 year in human time, the Himalayas would be still babys in mountain time, not even two years old now. The Alps would be 4.3 years and the Andes 4.8 years old. All three mountain ranges are still growing slowly but steadily. The senior member of the worldwide mountain family is the Barberton Greenstone Belt (the oldest known mountain range located in South Africa), having reached 114 mountain years, equaling 3.6 billion human years.
Wherever I hike now, my being is feeling with the big mountain beings, their ancient wisdom and incredible calmness. When I was circling the Kailash in Tibet in 2003, I felt like the mountain and with him the whole earth became my master. While this attitude may sound a bit weird in our modern hi-tech-world, it has been a long tradition with many shamanic and animistic practitioners and is still alive in many places around the globe.

In various mythologies from very different geographical areas mountains play an important role: some have been regarded as the abodes of gods (i.e. Mt Kailash, Mt Olympus, Kilimanjaro, Haleakala). Often the mountains themselves are venerated as manifestations of deities (i.e. Arunachala, Nanda Devi, Popocatépetl). Many Mountains have been a refuge for mystics throughout the ages, where they could find undisturbed silence, solitude and receive divine inspiration. Zarathustra supposedly wrote down the Avesta on Mt. Sabalan in Iran, Milarepa lived in a cave close to Kailash for some years and composed his songs. Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Mohammed all went on a mountain in the desert, where they had visions of God and received guidance from him. The Lakotas and other American natives left their tribe for a few days and lived in solitude on the mountains to receive visions from the Great Spirit. Many indigenous people, who live in a wide range of altitude zones, like in Bali, Tansania or Colombia, see the mountains as sanctities, whereas the oceans are predominantly occupied by demons. They turn their houses and altars towards the mountains and away from the sea.

It is said, that yogis and mystics are experiencing inner freedom, wherever they are, and do not depend on outer circumstances. But apparently some environments are more favorable for the embodiment of the Divine. It seems that in remote mountain regions the percentage of awakened beings within a population is higher than in the plains. Just look at Tibet, Ladakh or Bhutan, countries, where achieving enlightenment has even become the official concern of the state. The average elevation of these countries is above 3000 meters.

Additionally there are are some practical physical reasons for the magic of the mountains:

Change of Breathing Patterns

At higher elevations, there are fewer air molecules above a given surface than at a similar surface at lower levels. The atmospheric pressure decreases with increasing height and we have to adjust our breathing. The lungs need to breath more in order to get the same amount of oxygen, which makes us breath deeper and more consciously. The change of our breathing patterns influences our thought flow. This might be a bit scary in the beginning, but after a while the thought traffic in our brains calms down, which we experience as well being.

Air pressure and altitude

Less Noise and Light Pollution
The air on mountains is mostly very clean and clear. Provided it’s not cloudy, you can enjoy views as far away as 300 kilometers in the daytime and a wonderful night sky with far more stars visible than from the plains, where most of us are embedded in cones of light from our cities. As an example you can see the light emission of Tehran (altitude 1200m) in the early morning hours in a distance of about 60 km seen from Mt Damavand camping ground at 4000m.

Pollur (bottom left), a village with a few hundred inhabitants in about 10km distance, and Tehran with 9 million inhabitants in 60km distance.

Increased Body Awareness
In high altitude not only the breathing requires increased awareness. Moving on rugged and bent surfaces requires more attention and body awareness. Sudden temperature changes from very hot to very cold and vice versa may require frequent adjustments of movement and speed. The sudden appearance of thunderstorms or heavy rains can turn a harmless walk into a risky adventure. In short, the outer circumstances often force the mountaineer to be in the present moment.

mount olympus (greece)
Abode of the ancient Greek Gods

the mani (greece)
The Taygetos Mountains on the middle finger of the Peloponnese

chimborazo (ecuador)
The mythical father of the Quechua people

ritacuba blanco (colombia)
Sacred mountain of the indigenous U’wa living around the Sierra Nevada del Cocuy

haleakala (hawaii)
Sacred mountain of the indigenous people from Maui

el teide (teneriffa)
The sacred mountain of the Guanches

mt ararat (east anatolia)
A sacred mountain of the Old Testament and the Armenian people

arunachala (south india)
A manifestation of Shiva, towering above the ancient Indian temple town Tiruvannamalai.

The Dance of Nature – Clouds, Creeks and Marmots in the East-Alps

From Leh to the Summit of Stok Kangri and Back

Ten Days in Northern Iran, climbing Mt Sabalan, Alam Kuh and Mt Damavand. Mt Sabalan is the legendary abode of Zarathustra. Damavand is the sacred mountain of Persian mythology.

A trip to the South East Part of the Alps in 2014

Mt Kailash – the Holiest Mountain of Hindus, Buddhists, Bön people and Jains

Mount Kailash is located in the Transhimalayan mountain range in one of the least accessible areas of the planet. To the South the Himalayas are stretched out, separated only by a narrow plateau. In the proximity of Mt. Kailash four great rivers are originating, Indus, Sutlej, Brahmaputra and Karnali.
The Kailash area is thus the main source for the life veins of the Indian plains, in which human settlements have been existing for thousands of years. Therefore the mountain is regarded as the center of the world and a very holy place by many religions. Every year many Tibetans, Hindus and Jainas are visiting the mountain on a pilgrimage.
The Tibetan mystic Milarepa describes the mountain in one of his famous poems:

That which is called the White Snow Mount Kailash,
Before seeing it, you hear of its widespread fame.
People say, “It is like a white crystal stupa!”
When you get there you see
It is a peak covered with snow.
This snow-covered peak is a mountain prophesied by the ancient Buddha.
It is the center of the world.
It is a place where white snow lions frolic.
This white crystal-like stupa is the palace of the glorious Chakrasamvara.
The snow mountains encircling are the dwellings of five hundred arhats.
They are an offering support for all the eight classes.
The hills and turfs surrounding it are fragrant places,
Which produce medicinal nectar that heals terminal illnesses.
It is a great meditation place.
It is a place where non-deteriorating samadhi is discovered.
There is no place more wonderful than this.
There is no place more marvelous than this.

Magical Moments – A Journey to Mt. Kailash in 2003

This video documents my pilgrimage through Nepal’s “Wild West” and some remote areas of Western Tibet in July 2003 with five other pilgrims and our Nepalese crew.
We start trekking from Simikot in Nepal to the Tibetan border through scenic valleys alongside the rapid Karnali. We encounter mysterious Tibetans and Chinese officials. The ruins of Guge tell us a tale of ancient times.
The culmination of our trip is circling around Mt. Kailash and staying at Lake Manasarovar.
Finally I return to Kathmandu via the Tibetan Plateau and witness a big temple celebration.

Lake Manasarovar

According to the Hindus the Manasarovar Lake was created by God Brahma, in order to accomplish the ritual cleaning during the pilgrimage to the Kailash, which is Shiva’s abode.
According to the ancient Buddhist legends this lake is the king of all holy lakes in the world.
Because the lake is fed only by the melting snow from the Kailash region, the water is particularly clear and transparent. On its banks many picturesque Gompas and monasteries have been established.

The Kingdom of Guge (Tsaparang)

Nearby the ruins of the capital of Guge, almost forgotten today, give a great impression of the Tibetan past. There are many reports of the cultural and ritual life at the court. Once powerful rulers lived here, but in 16th century the king lost a war with the neighbouring kingdom of Ladakh and the city was given up.
Lama Govinda relates the following story in his book “The Way Of The White Clouds”:

The king of Guge, who was then residing in Tholing, sent a delegation to Bengal to ask the famous pandit Atisa to come to his court. Atisa declined the invitation, for his services were equally needed in his own country.
The King thought that his presents had been too small and therefore organised an expedition to the northern border of his country, where gold could be found. But unfortunately he fell into the hands of his enemy, the King of Garlog, whose country lay across the borders and who demanded a huge sum as ransom.
His son thereupon collected funds for the release of his father; but when he reached Garlog, it was found that the amount was not sufficient. Before returning, in order to procure the missing sum, he met his father. The King, however, exhorted him not to spend all his gold on an old man like him, who at the best had only a few years more to live, but to send it instead to Atisa and to tell him that he prized his visit more than his life, which he would gladly sacrifice for the cause of the Dharma. The son took leave from his father with a heavy heart. He was never to see him again.
Another delegation was sent to India. When they told Atisha all that had happened, the great teacher was deeply moved and exclaimed: “That king was really a Bodhisattva! What else can I do but obey the will of such great a saint!”

East Africa: Mt Kenya & Mt Kilimanjaro

Mt Kenya, the throne of the god of the shining mountain (Ngai wa Kirinyaga)

Mt Kilimanjaro, sacred mountain of the Chagga people

A trip to Mt Kenya and Mt Kilimanjaro in 2016