The mountains as temple: A pilgrimage to Alberta's Rockies

“It is a place that opens the mind to introspection, awe and an ever-expanding sense of wonder.” Paul Karchut journeys to the mountains, to talk to people about how they experience it as a place of awe. A sacred space.

The faithful discuss how moments of stripped-down clarity can come while being buffeted on a windblown peak

Finding meaning in the mountains is why many people routinely journey to remote and sometimes risky places. (Paul Karchut/CBC)

It's a weekend ritual.

Car after car funnelling from residential streets to feeder routes and on to main arteries. Thousands of Calgarians making a pilgrimage.

It's not a trip to church, synagogue, temple or mosque, but west. For many of us it is a journey to our sacred space. A weekly routine into the jagged crags and peaks of the Rockies.

You can marvel at the simplicity (and perhaps stupidity) of it. Putting ourselves in harm's way to slide down frozen water on polished and waxed planks of wood. But this is a form of observance — for many, a compulsion. Each weekend, it's another chance to explore a little further, dig a little deeper, fall in love a little more with the rawness and vastness of it all.

It is a place that opens the mind to introspection, awe and an ever-expanding sense of wonder. Moments of stripped-down clarity while being buffeted on a windblown peak. There is an intensity which, at times, can be deeply spiritual. To stand back in reverence at a mountain as your own temple.

And then, we slip back into our places in a long line of traffic home along the Trans Canada. A hot coffee steaming the windows, our sacred space in the rear view mirror. We are replenished.

Cam Deller, Calgary

Cam Deller says being in the mountains makes him feel connected. (Paul Karchut/CBC)

"For me, not having a lot of church in my life, I think it's filling the same void. Maybe void is not the right word. But it's a feeling of being connected."

"Funny though, it's fairly solo, too. I think of a church being a congregation and people around. But at the root of it all, you're connecting with something. You know, counting your steps on a skin track and just feeling the sweat drop off your nose. That's connecting with the Earth and with myself at the same time."

"Everybody needs a reason to remind us why we're here. And distilling it down to 'these mountains are here for a reason', I can't think of a better way to celebrate them than getting out there and having fun in them."

Tannis Dakin, Golden

Tannis Dakin says the sense of 'otherness' in the mountains is what keeps her coming back. (Submitted by Tanis Dakin)

"There is absolutely no doubt that people will feel a sense in the mountains that is 'otherness' or 'greater' or 'bigger'. You take it for granted when you're a kid. It feels good to be out there, but you don't wonder why it makes you feel that way."

"You can call it religion or spirituality or power or whatever. I think to some degree, they might all be the same. People have different definitions for that, but it just works so amazingly well together, every little tiny bit of it. It's an uncontrolled, natural environment that you have to adapt to. You can't change it."

"If life was just safe and happy and warm and dry all the time, it would be absolutely boring. We'd never learn anything about ourselves or about anybody else we were with. If you don't ski a little farther or a little faster, or climb something that's a little steeper than you thought, or survive some really bad weather, you don't know that you can." 

"I think there's more of an awareness as you get older about how you actually feel about things."

Mario Trono, Calgary

Mario Trono sees nature as 'the first church.' (Paul Karchut/CBC)

"I think we're always, in the back of our minds, thinking about the fact we've only got one life to live and time is short. And I think the body and the mind are just drawn to places from time to time where you can think these things through. Even if it's just on a subconscious level while you're skiing and enjoying a really nice day."

"You got out there. You got out there to the elements. You felt your body moving around in space and time because you know time is short — especially when you start thinking how high the glaciers once were and the fact that these mountains exist in deep time and we just don't."

"It's splendour and awe that kind of bring us together and that's what the function of churches, especially in cities, used to be. Just think of the great cathedrals of Europe. You were ushered into an extraordinary environment that wasn't this dirty, old city … because not everybody could get to the Swiss Alps. So the church has recreated this sense of enormity and splendour and painted human meanings over it — all with the stained-glass windows or the art on the ceilings."

"If you don't have that in nature, you need a church to do it for you. And I think [nature] is the first church. Yeah, the churches came later."

Sue Shih, Banff

Sue Shih recharges in the mountains. (Paul Karchut/CBC)

"It's like a gas station for me."

"You get energy, you get fuel from being out here. And you carry on with your day and everything else just makes sense. And where the spiritual comes in — I feel like I'm more connected with everything else that is out there."

"So, for me, the cliche: when you see the sky, you have the moment where you go, 'Aaaaaaah!'"

"That moment happens a lot when you're up in the mountains, and you feel like, 'This is what I'm supposed to be doing.' … I think that, as human beings, it is one of our needs, whether we realize it or not. We need to feel small in order to achieve the bigger things in life."

Rhonda Jewett, Calgary

Rhonda Jewett describes the Rockies as a 'sanctuary' of sorts. (Paul Karchut/CBC)

"I'm addicted to skiing and being outside and hiking and mountain biking. It's sort of a sanctuary for what I like to do. And for other people who might go to church, that's their sanctuary for what they like to do."

"Quite honestly, the mountains in Alberta are unlike anything else in the world. They're exquisite. It's where I get my energy. It's calm and quiet and so it allows me to think. And I think that would resonate with someone who goes to church."

Allen Reese, Calgary

The mountains are where Allen Reese finds himself to be most comfortable. (Paul Karchut/CBC)

"To quote Toni Morrison, I think that's what the mountains represent for me. They are the 'temple of my familiar.'"

"They are where I'm most comfortable. If I broaden the definition of what spirituality means, it is where I feel most connected to the Earth. And so it's the smell of pine needles or the spruce in the forest, and the greens. So many shades of greens. And the light dancing off the trees."

"It's when you feel your heart rate drop. It's when you feel your thoughts per second slow down. And you just feel this overwhelming sense of relief. It reminds of me Carl Sagan's Pale Blue Dot … have you ever watched that movie? All the kings, all the tyrants, all the beautiful people who have ever existed, all that has ever happened, has happened on that one tiny, pale blue dot.

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Paul Karchut

CBC Calgary

Paul is the host of Daybreak Alberta, heard across the province every weekend. He's been with CBC since 2005, twelve years of which were spent as the director of the Calgary Eyeopener. You've also heard his national car column, Karchut on Cars, on morning shows across the country for years. Join Paul weekend mornings across Alberta from 6-9.


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