I didn’t lose my breath until I started to make my way back down. Everything at the top was peaceful, if not a little anticlimactic. It was off-season, so there were no tents set up. The only thing elevated above the barren plain was a hulking, misshapen rock, bearing a weather-beaten banner with worn writing scrawled across it: “Everest Base Camp.”
Over a year had transpired since, and yet, this moment was all I could think about as I clung desperately to an uncooperative cliff face, suspended high above the ground with mere footholds to support me. This alone was capable of capturing the beauty of the phenomenon, the sheer brilliance of being isolated and desperate. Recognizing that my hands would give out long before I summited, I decided to make my way westward to an overhang protruding from the rock. After a moment’s respite, I resumed my ascent, and as the peak opened up, I saw it before me: the Owa Daim Shrine.
It’s always like this. The end of the odyssey is quiet and sublime. As I bore witness to the curious sanctum, something clicked. I couldn’t feel the bite of cold air. My hair sat neatly, undisturbed by the wind. I could see the shrine, and I could hear life’s natural score, but I couldn’t smell the grass jutting out from the crevices cracking the crag. It didn’t matter. Although it was just for a moment, the peak of Breath of the Wild’s sierra reminded me of how I felt when I physically pulled myself up a Himalayan mountain.
I remember gazing upon faraway forests from atop the Great Wall of China, observing the world below in silence. Like a portal to a painted world, the trees stood distant but almost tangible, surreal and yet there, corporeal and breathing. It reminded me of a poem by Sylvia Plath: “I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead / I lift my lids and all is born again.”
At this moment, while we are besieged in our homes by a pandemic, our surroundings are sufficiently mundane as to make Plath’s surreal blink seem impossible and far away. And yet, at this moment, I am struck by a vague, unplaceable sense of familiarity. The conscious act of remaining upright and steady is visceral and consuming. It is best to focus on the inclines, which are not steep, and the obstacles, which are not cruel.
Conquerable as the peak is, I tumble sideways and plummet to a lower jutting, barrel-rolling my way to injury and discontent. I lose some cargo and damage more. I pick myself up and hammer the triggers again. I am determined to scale this mountain. It’s off the beaten track, and nobody lives at the summit. But I’ve heard about the cryptobiotic ring at the peak, the living, breathing flora surviving despite uninhabitable harshness. I know I will fall again, but eventually, I clamber over the crowning ridge and land on a lone, level meridian. A track from Silent Poets’ album Dawn plays to mark the occasion. “I find my own completeness,” sings Leila Adu. “The darkness and the weakness / The light, the fight, the quietness.”
The monotonous, methodical climbs in Death Stranding resemble their real-life counterparts in absolute mimesis, at least atmospherically. Your lungs will not beg you to stop. Your calves will not cramp, cry, or deaden. Your expensive hiking boots will have no impact on your ability to put one foot in front of the other. But you will be alone, insignificant, and constantly on the verge of complete and utter powerlessness.
This is what makes you capable: the small, inconsequential agency you own makes you both an infinitesimal and a colossus. You are humbled by the sublime scale of the natural world and blessed with the opportunity to explore it in its entirety. You are required to climb with full concentration, to be attentive to the triggers at all times, and to sever that connection is to fail. The lonely meditation on momentum is perhaps even more intense than its real-life counterpart because the real world becomes invisible around the screen. This virtual hike is genuine as they come.
The physical exertion of trekking is what ultimately separates the real from the digital. When I was halfway through my first marathon, I thought my lungs were about to combust. When I make the character I’m controlling sprint in a video game, the rhythm of my breathing is smooth and regular. The difference is immediately delineated.
I have never stood at the apex of a climb or sat in the aftermath of a race and thought, “I can’t breathe.” All else fails to intervene when you are experientially invested in emerging victorious from self-imposed hardship. Whether the cramp is in your index finger or your hamstring, the part of the journey that remains the same in both real and virtual odysseys is its tranquil and calming capstone. At that moment, you feel deific and undefeatable.
Reaching Everest Base Camp took me six days. Reaching Hawk Peak took me 45 minutes. The latter, existing exclusively in A Short Hike, constituted a substantially less challenging enterprise, but it resulted in a similarly evocative emotional experience. There’s a fundamental difference between buying cheap gear in Kathmandu before hiking through Himalayan mud and embodying a bird named Claire who is desperately trying to get a phone signal on her Aunt May’s island. But spectacle doesn’t discriminate. As the credits rolled on A Short Hike, I felt warm and accomplished. My mind was focused and clear. I had beaten the mountain and earned the view from its summit.
At times, the world feels far away. This is particularly true in the present moment, during which our worlds must shrink before they are allowed to grow again. The four walls of my house have become the precipices that fall off the edge of the world. I will not move past them, despite knowing that they are nothing compared to the boundless, untamed forests outside.
This renders the ability to see the world at its most raw impossible, and the lack of natural quietness can be disarming. If you can’t hike, or run, or swim, or bike, however, there is still a way to attain the meditative somnambulance you seek. You have a historically unprecedented ability to experience nature without having to venture dangerously outside. The cliffs of Breath of the Wild are anticipating your challenge. The mountains of Death Stranding are there to be defeated. And the summit of A Short Hike is awaiting your visit.
Virtual hikes can be as vividly reflective as real ones. The end of the odyssey is, and always will be, quiet and sublime. This reflection explains why we rarely remember the journey so much as we do the conclusive triumph. Earned, unparalleled solitude and clarity are the goals of self-imposed hardship. This is why the art of meditation is so jarring to some: it does not gratify quickly or indifferently. It presents you with the opportunity to embark on a long and arduous journey, one that can feel pointless at times. Only at the end will it make sense.
This is why I treasure my virtual milestones alongside their more physically demanding counterparts. They will not improve my fitness, and they are not accolades that a stranger would be impressed by. But they remind me of my ability to overcome meaninglessness in pursuit of meaning. That is why I climbed 5,365 meters above sea level to look at a hulking, misshapen rock. And that is why I still wander the snow-capped mountains of Death Stranding.