Why travellers are drawn to mountains and skyscrapers

"I can see my house from here!" Shouted while clinging to the wind-tossed branches of a tall tree, could there be a purer expression of the urge to transcend our ground-level lives?

We grow up, and keep climbing. Maybe not trees, but other high places that constantly beckon us, particularly when we travel. 

Church spires and Eiffel-like towers, rooftop bars and revolving restaurants litter the world's cities like inviting exclamation marks. 

A high point of my pre-9/11 visit to New York as a backpacker was taking a high-speed elevator to the Top of the World, the observation deck on the 107th floor of the World Trade Centre's South Tower. Standing atop what was then the world's tallest building (Dubai's Burj Khalifa is now twice as high) I was struck not just by the miniaturised Manhattan below, but by the sight of office workers at sky-high desks in the adjacent North Tower.  

We ride chairlifts, T-bars and "magic carpet" snow escalators up mountains, and not always to ski down them. At a ski resort in Hokkaido one summer I caught an early morning gondola to see a cloud-waterfall pouring over the landscape; there was also a "cloud walk" on a cantilevered walkway up there and a hammock-like steel structure called a "cloud pool" you could climb onto for the sensation of floating amid clouds.

We glide over migrating wildebeest on the Serengeti in wicker baskets under hot air balloons. Was there ever a more genteel mode of transport? Quite unlike being strapped to the front of a handsome Swiss paraglider pilot, as I was once, and running Forrest Gump-like down an alpine meadow to get airborne. After that it was relatively serene soaring over chalets, eye to eye with the Eiger, and I can say this for paragliding in such surrounds: it offers mountaineer views without the need for crampons or ice axes.

PEAK EXPERIENCES

Not that I'm averse to scaling mountains when necessary, even in the dark. In tropical Borneo I struggled out of bed at 2am, put on thermals, a beanie, gloves and a down jacket and joined a conga-line of head-torches shuffling up to the 4095-metre summit of Mount Kinabalu. Four hours later we were rewarded with … an unscheduled sea of cloud obscuring the promised dawn panorama.

I don't remember much about the two-day trek to the 4040-metre summit of Mount Cameroon, one of Africa's largest volcanoes, except that only our guide Adolf was physically prepared for it, my two friends and I having just spent two months travelling in the back of an overland truck. The descent was the unexpected highlight, thanks to a rising euphoria the four of us shared as the air warmed and thickened around us and barren volcanic rock morphed into living rainforest in a matter of hours – it was like witnessing the beginning of life on Earth. 

Some people like to count their climbs, to quantify their adventures. Then again peak-bagging may be just an excuse to keep climbing, whether your objective is the Seven Summits, the 14 eight-thousanders (the world's 8000-metre-plus peaks), the 12 fourteeners (Californian peaks higher than 14,000 feet) or the modest Munros (282 Scottish hills above 3000 feet). 

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Of course there are other reasons to push on – and up. "Because it is there" was enough for George Mallory. To immerse ourselves in nature is another. 

"Climb the mountains and get their good tidings," wrote American naturalist John Muir in 1901. "Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees."

Stopping only when you can't climb any higher isn't always the point. Some summits even save us from our own goal-oriented selves. In New Zealand, respectful mountaineers stop a few metres short of the top of Aoraki (Mount Cook), as a nod to the Maori gods. Closer to home, no one will be climbing Uluru after October next year, since the recent Anangu decision to finally close the climb, and that's not the only Australian peak off-limits in Indigenous lore (Wollumbin-Mount Warning in northern NSW is another).

WHY GET HIGH?

Ever since we roamed the grasslands of Africa, we've looked to elevated locations for safety, for advance warning of predators – or invaders. Visit any castle or fortress from Bhutan to Balmoral (in Scotland), not to mention China's Great Wall, and you'll get a visceral sense of this strategic advantage. 

Sometimes getting high is about escaping the cloying heat of the lowlands. Think tea plantations in the hills of Sri Lanka, the temple-dotted Himalayan foothills of northern India, the snow-caked peaks of Equatorial Ecuador (although Ecuador's highest peak, the 6263-metre Chimborazo, has long lured climbers for another reason: it's the world's highest mountain when measured from the centre of the Earth, not from sea level).

Altitude gain can also help us face our fears, give us a thrill (and sometimes vertigo) and let us see where we are and where we're going, and not just cartographically. 

"Looking down on the CBD from a penthouse apartment can give the same sense of satisfaction as standing above a toy village," Sydney environmental psychologist Rob Hall says. "It lets us take in the relationships between things, more than we can in our daily lives, and finally get a sense of how the world works." 

Maybe that's one reason drones are booming – there are as many as 100,000 in Australia now. They give us big-picture views without us having to exert ourselves.

The irony of those big-picture views, of course, is that they can be humbling, as Neil Armstrong famously observed: "It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn't feel like a giant. I felt very, very small."

UP IN THE AIR

Until space travel and voyages to Mars are dangled within reach of the rest of us, however, the highest we can get is a cruising altitude of 35,000 feet (10,600 metres).

A record 4.1 billion of us flew on scheduled flights last year, according to the International Civil Aviation Organisation. 

Maybe that's why flying has become a means to an end, an experience to be endured rather than enjoyed, particularly when we fly economy as most of us do. But it doesn't have to be that way. 

Being up in the air, no matter where in the plane we sit, can press "pause" on our lives and give us a little perspective, even peace. 

Imagine this: you've run the gauntlet of check-in counter, baggage-drop desk, immigration and security and boarding gate and finally flopped into your seat. The closing of the cabin door seals your fate. What happens until you breathe real air again is out of your hands. You might as well relax. 

Besides, sitting thigh-to-thigh with people you don't know, propelled by science through air space and across time zones, there's liberation in anonymity. For the next umpteen hours you're a seat number, a vegetarian meal request and the movie you're watching. 

Of course a view can help pass the time. Aisle seats might be convenient, but a window seat is a ticket to a show that might run for one flight only (provided your flight attendant hasn't asked you to close your window shade). 

It could be a scenic flight over Sydney Harbour on a summer's day. You might see snaking rivers, folded forested ranges and, higher still, the heavenly field of cotton-wool clouds. I once saw a humpback whale alone in a turquoise sea as I took off from Exmouth, Western Australia. 

Then there are those red-earth hours on the second half of any flight back to eastern Australia from, say, Singapore. Sure I live on the lush coastal anomaly fringing our desert continent and it's still hours until we land, but as soon as I see all that outback spaciousness I'm home.

THE LONG VIEW

I cried when I saw Mount Everest for the first time, flying to Kathmandu. All I'd read and heard about it, the people I'd met who had climbed it, the photos I'd seen of it from various angles all welled up on seeing it with my own eyes, as if fable had become fact. Still, it felt like an illicit privilege: I hadn't earned that view by training or trekking to the hem of Everest's snowy skirts, just chanced upon it like a $20 note in the gutter.

Flying between Perth and Johannesburg more recently, I had a different kind of view. Stretching my legs near the exit row seats, I glanced out the nearest window expecting to see clouds or the Indian Ocean and saw, far below but unmistakable, ice. Snow, crevasses, glaciers, the works. I rushed back to my seat and nudged my travelling companion awake. 

"Dad, look!" I said, sliding up our window shade, "Antarctica!" 

Like kids on a car ride we pressed our noses to the perspex to take in as much as we could before the clouds returned, then sat back in our seats to absorb this reminder that the world isn't a map but a globe and the shortest distance between two points can be an unexpected polar flight. 

Another thing I've learned: some cities look better from the air, particularly at night. 

Kolkata, that chaos of crowded streets when you're standing in it, is from above all twinkling lights and land-locked constellations made by cooking fires and fairy lights. 

Take off from any Asian metropolis, in fact, and watch the grime and confusion recede until it settles into a topographic version of itself, a landscape unshackled from human settlement.

The descent can be just as enlightening. Coming down from a vanilla sky – above the clouds you could be anywhere – the spangled blanket resolves itself into well-lit streets, the windows of cosy apartments, streaming roads, a people-sized place waiting for you to explore.

We might be lowlanders by necessity, building our cities on river valleys and harbours and coastlines, but perhaps we're highlanders by nature, always looking up, seeking refuge in high places, choosing window seats and imagining ourselves up where the air is clean and our minds are clear.

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