When In Doubt, Go Higher

Looking out from the Lost Canyon Trail, Zion. Photo: Justin Roth / The Stone Mind

“When in doubt, go higher.” It’s the tagline for a classic outdoor publication called the Mountain Gazette. I worked at the paper briefly, once upon a time.

“…Go higher.” It’s a fun little phrase, though, if not one apt to get you into trouble. (“When in doubt, go down” might have better served many an unfortunate climber or backcountry skier, alas.) Still there’s something to it. It resonates with a certain type of person.

When I was young, I unintentionally lived by this dictum. I went too high up the giant conical pine trees in our front yard and came down covered in insoluble sap. No more than six years old, I chossaneered up short, exfoliating shale cliffs in the ravine by my house in what felt like Honoldian feats of soloing.

“When in doubt, go higher” was knocking around my head this weekend as my wife and I plodded up Zion National Park’s steep Hidden Canyon Trail. What makes going up so damned appealing, I wondered?

I’ve been reading a book called The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease, by Daniel Lieberman, which offers evolutionary explanations for many of our traits, from skeletal structure to mental issues and food tastes. The book, in theory points towards a possible answer to the above question.

Maybe many of us feel an unconscious pull towards higher ground for the same reason that bodies of water are almost universally attractive: at some point, they might well have been instrumental to our survival.

According to The Story of the Human Body, our evolutionary ancestors of 5-8 million years ago—our last common ancestor (LCA) with chimps, its believed—lived most of their lives at height. The LCA, a primate, sought out high perches for sleeping as a means of protection from predators. Most modern monkeys and apes sleep in trees, and chimps even build comfy nests there. Gelada baboons spends their nights like big-wallers, dozing on cliff faces.

Human ancestors not only sought shelter high above the earth, but they found sustenance there, too. Sub-Saharan Africa, where the LCA lived, was a warm and wet place around 10 million years ago. Rainforests there would have been abundant sources of nutrient-rich fruits.

But between 10 and five million years ago, a cooling climate caused the rain forests to recede. In their place grew up woodland habitats where ripe fruits became, as Lieberman puts it, “less abundant, more dispersed, and more seasonal.” To cope, the LCA started walking more and more on two legs, venturing out in search of additional sustenance.

Obviously, we humans still walk on two legs and no longer live in trees. But like many old, seemingly outdated biological traits picked up along the evolutionary way, a love of getting up off the ground has stuck with us. One might call it a vestige of a former life.

So then maybe “When in doubt, go higher” is a phrase born subconsciously from an ancient pull towards a vantage point that offered some comfort in a wild and dangerous world. Go higher for a view of any large carnivores lurking on the horizon. Go higher for those pulpy fruits that fuel a hungry metabolism…

Go higher for a sense of peace and freedom that many of us to this day seek on the cliffs and mountains, despite the enormous changes that have made the modern world all but indistinguishable from the one our ancestors navigated millions of years ago.