One reason I am enamored with altitude may well stem back to airplane trips taken early, early in my life. These started in the 1960s, when my mother, sometimes accompanied by my father but frequently on her own, would take my brother and me to England to visit our grandparents. In my earliest memory, I was four and my brother was two. I don’t remember much of that trip but from then on, I have much firmer recall. By the time we were six and four, my brother and I had realized that the coloring books dispensed by the flight attendants – then called stewardesses – made fine swords and the little Pan Am wing pins were potentially even better weapons to use against each other.
But, fast forwarding to the 1970s, my interest in how to torment my brother on long airplane trips had ceased to be my major in-flight activity. In those days you had to pay for headphones, which would enable you to listen to the single movie being projected on a drop down screen or the few “radio” channels assembled by the airline. This was an expenditure my parents saw as completely needless. Undaunted, however, my brother and I soon learned that if you pulled your armrest up to your ear you could actually hear the movie and the music – albeit risking a crick in your neck and not a very good sight line for the movie.
That particular flight – we must have been returning to the United States because it was day – the sun shone through the plane window, there were a few layers of fluffy clouds below us, below all that the Atlantic Ocean stretched as long and blue as my eyes could see, and the Steve Miller Band’s “Fly Like An Eagle” was playing through my armrest. I must have been somewhere in my teens. There above the clouds I felt safe – yet utterly free, unleashed of whatever cares pulled at me from far below. I was conscious, even then, that I would always remember that moment.
And to this day, when I board an airplane – despite the waits on the Tarmac, the ever narrowing plane seats, and the ever broadening list of things you have to pay for – I still hope that once above the clouds I’ll recapture that same feeling of serenity. Very occasionally I still do. But maybe that’s really why I climb mountains. Looking down from the summit at the rolling surf of clouds below gives a lightness to your soul that rarely happens anywhere else.