[The following began as a rather long-winded response to a very good friend of mine, who had just commented on a summit photo by congratulating me on “conquering yet another mountain.” What started as a reply to a single person has, over time, evolved into an attempt to describe something that sometimes defies definition. It is my hope that this essay will never be completed in my lifetime, for that will signal an end to something that altered and continues to positively affect my life in ways that I never knew were possible.]
Your comment this morning about summitting, as a conquest, reminded me of a conversation I just recently had with a climber friend out here in Oregon. We were both on the Chemeketan club climb of Middle Sister, which was my very 1st summit and his 2nd (Chemeketan) club-organized one. As we reminisced about the experience, I remarked to him that I was surprised, about not feeling a sense of victory/elation/conquest that I had sort-of expected…upon reaching the top. In fact, the 20 minutes at the summit felt fairly mundane and subdued for me. There were other team members that clearly exhibited that victorious “high” and it was apparent in their reactions…ice axes held up over their heads, posing for pictures, etc. I certainly was happy about reaching the summit, but by my way of thinking, the day’s event was only 1/2-over. We still had the entire route to cover, just in reverse.
All of this got me thinking more introspectively about what exactly it is that appeals to me about climbing, and I quickly came to the conclusion that my attraction goes WAY deeper than just standing on the summit; it is the ENTIRE experience, from the planning stages, all the way to enjoying the shared camaraderie in the restaurant/pub on the return trip home. I’m not in this to carve another notch into my ice axe. I do this because in doing so, I get to experience moments like coming out of the treeline on the approach hike and feeling a rush of emotion/excitement upon seeing the climb objective, sharing stories with other team members as we prepare hot meals crouched behind stone windbreaks, crawling out of the tent to the most brilliant display of stars imaginable, roping-up and putting on crampons by headlamp, having the whole world be reduced down to the wind, the sound of crunching snow, seeing your breath with each exhale, the dim shape of the person directly ahead of you on the ropeline, the almost indescribable moment when the sun bursts over an eastern ridge, seeing the excited and determined expressions of the team, finding unbelievable comfort in plopping-down to rest amongst jagged stones and scree, the feeling of hot coffee as it radiates warmth from the inside-out, the weary but satisfied looks during the trek back to the trailhead. I could go on and on and on. My point is…that it is SO much more than peakbagging. The name of a mountain on a list is just that, but it’s what you carry inside that makes it all worth it. Even between team members on the very same climb, there are not adequate words to share exactly what it means…since every person reacts to the experience slightly different; as I have already witnessed.
I have no real desire to climb solo, but the reason that I climb is as personal as anything can really be. I do this because I’m fascinated with confronting my own doubts and fears…especially when I emerge from the other side realizing that they were mostly self-induced. My absolute favorite climbing quote is from Sir Edmund Hillary, “It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.” Until recently, I had gone so far down a path in my life, a path that led to a place where I no longer believed that I had the ability or opportunity to do the things that would fulfill and satisfy an unnamed need that I felt inside. A need to test myself…not so that I could check-off an accomplishment, gain recognition, or be able to boast. It’s much more about confronting and dispelling doubts and fears; and not just the physical ones, but doubts that permeate so many facets of life.. Each time I go out, I return with just a tiny bit more confidence and understanding about myself. I am doing things that tap into internal reservoirs that I didn’t know existed.
When I am climbing or hiking, there is an inevitable and pervasive focus to my actions; a clarity that enables me to set-aside almost everything else in my past/present life and simply be in the moment. The very act of climbing; of stepping up one foot in front of the other, 12 inches of horizontal movement and 8 inches of vertical gain is just the physical manifestation of something deeper that is going on. It can be tiring, uncomfortable, and tedious, but interwoven among all that, there is an underlying sense of purpose, movement, and mission. The moment is real. The air clearer. The sunshine brighter. Lukewarm water surpasses fine wine and a patch of just ripened huckleberries excites the taste buds more than an expertly cooked fillet mignon. The stars are more brilliant at night. Sleep (when/if the pre-climb excitement allows it to happen) is sweeter. The pungent smell of juniper or sage grass crushed underfoot never loses its magic. The flame red of just-bloomed Indian Paintbrush dispels gloom. Standing silently and listening to the wind move through the trees and swirling around the rocks washes away mundane cares.
When I take the occasion to look back through some of the many photos that I or others have taken of climbs, I sometimes get the surreal sense that it is someone else in those pictures. That can’t be me. Climbing is something that other people do. It’s too dangerous, too difficult. Climbing was something that I looked at and read about in National Geographic. I suppose that there is a bit of defiance and rebelliousness that climbing brings into my life. It was not so long ago that I was living an extremely tame and mundane existence; reinforced and at times demanded by, the very person that in a healthier relationship should have encouraged growth and change…even at the price of risk This excessively safety-conscious life was an extreme response to and avoidance of even the smallest action that would change the comfortable, but numbing status quo. Climbing, for me, is the outward manifestation of an internal change that blew the doors wide open on that myth.
I fully acknowledge, that for some people, the thrill of risk is like a magnet. That is not me. The thrill comes from the sense of adventure, but I still have a healthy internal voice that both warns me when I am pushing my boundaries and chastises me when I emerge from a situation that carried the very real risk of serious injury. I will admit, however, that there is a very fine line between thrill-seeking and the enjoyment derived from adventure. What is to one person acceptable risk is to another recklessness. I think the following quote says it much more eloquently than I can.
“The pleasure of risk is in the control needed to ride it with assurance so that what appears dangerous to the outsider is, to the participant, simply a matter of intelligence, skill, intuition, coordination… in a word, experience. Climbing in particular, is a paradoxically intellectual pastime, but with this difference: you have to think with your body. Every move has to be worked out in terms of playing chess with your body. If I make a mistake the consequences are immediate, obvious, embarrassing, and possibly painful. For a brief period I am directly responsible for my actions. In that beautiful, silent, world of mountains, it seems to me worth a little risk.”
I truly like the person that I am when I am climbing. A positive self-image has always been a struggle for me. For most of my life, it was extremely rare that I felt like I measured up or was accepted by others. This was a by-product of trusting and then having that trust profoundly betrayed at a young and impressionable age. It is only very recently that I discovered how much that single act of betrayal tainted almost every relationship that came after that point. Climbing is not the reason that I’ve been able to break-free from those chains, but rather it is a constant reinforcement and reminder that I don’t have to hide who I am. I am more alive, open, honest, and unencumbered in those moments than I have ever been before.
Also, as a result of our recent discussion…without getting too philosophical, I believe that parallels can be drawn between climbing and relationships; or really many other things in life also. Like you alluded, there are those for whom the conquest/pinnacle is the goal and everything else afterwards is anti-climatic. For these people, it is only the obtaining that holds joy…and then they feel the need to leave the last conquest behind to seek the next one. (These are the conquerors, whose desire is only temporarily sated…forcing them to seek additional thrills and further conquests). Some are too frightened or unsure to seek the summit, even while secretly wishing that they had the self-assurance and courage to do so. They might try to console themselves that they are just as happy to enjoy the view from afar. Fear of failure will keep them at arms length and they will miss-out on the direct and full experience. (These are the people ruled by fear; the ones that often react by seeking absolute control over every possible facet of their lives and those around them.) There are those that will drive to the top or take a tram/gondola. This is nice and you get the same exact view, but you could look at a picture/photo and get almost the same shallow result as well. (These are the apologists that try to convince themselves that they don’t really desire the deeper experience.) The conquest mentality, safety/avoidance, and choosing the tame secondhand diluted experience. These are all barriers to obtaining a deeper experience. How much more will you appreciate the view if you have actively participated in reaching the viewpoint? The discomfort, effort, time, fortitude, and temporary set-backs make the achievement so much sweeter, memorable, lasting, and meaningful. A collection of summits will eventually fade in your memory. It is those unique and defining moments along the journey that will stick with you in a much more meaningful way and will be the ones that you remember fondly when the summit moments fade.
“You cannot stay on the summit forever; you have to come down again. So why bother in the first place ? Just this: What is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above. One climbs, one sees. One descends, one sees no longer, but one has seen. There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up. When one can no longer see, one can at least still know.”
~ Rene Daumal