Mind (over) Mountains

Photo Credit: Talon Gillis

Mind (over) Mountains

🕔Feb 27, 2017

The cold clouds wrapped themselves around me, obscuring the epic views and my sense of direction. I was alone on a steep icefield, ascending an unnamed peak in the far corner of northern BC, separated from my climbing partner by only a few hundred metres at most. But with the unbroken sheet of white surrounding me, it was the most alone and precarious I’ve ever felt. All I could see were my crampon-clad boots clinging to the ice; I heard nothing but my breath. So that’s what I focused on—finding rhythm between breath and step. Endlessly upward into nothingness.

Many cultures around the world consider mountains sacred spaces, places where only the spirits dwell. Even those that don’t revere them in mythology or religion, hold mountains aloft as symbolically representative of an ideal, often connected with the human struggle to attain greatness. People who climb mountains are looked on as conquerors. And there is some truth to that notion. But no one conquers a mountain. Mountains are just there. Instead, those who go into the mountains come face-to-face with themselves. What happens next is up to each individual.

When Terrace-based photographer, Talon Gillis proposed a photo essay focused on the psychological aspects of exploring the mountains of northern BC, I didn’t have to think about it—I just said yes. For one thing, Talon’s photographs are deeply intimate and capture both the frailty and resilience of human nature. He has an uncanny ability to allow his subjects the space to open up and disclose their true natures. The other clincher is that he really knows the subject. He grew up hiking, climbing, and exploring the mountains of the north coast. His adventures have seen him “top-out” on innumerable peaks.

But most appealing was his intent. What he really wanted to convey, he told me, is the empowering idea that “everyone deserves to enjoy the mountains”. Experience, skill level, and athleticism are all secondary to mental strength. His primary subject in the following photos is Freyah Mackenzie. As an inexperienced mountain traveller, she was an unlikely hiking partner for Talon. “Freyha has one asset that is far more valuable in my opinion than any amount of experience or training, and even more valuable than physical strength,” the photographer explained. “She is mentally strong and able to overcome all obstacles. In other words,” he added, “she is really, really stubborn and that is just the type of person I want to spend time in the mountains with.”

But enough: as the iconic photographer Ansel Adams said, “A true photograph need not be explained, nor can it be contained in words.” — Matt J. Simmons