Death in the mountains…Is it what you want even though you’re doing what you love?
Why do we always want to nullify the tragedy of someone’s death – especially someone who died climbing or in other adventure pursuits – by putting it in the box of “doing what he or she loved”?
Dougald MacDonald – a great writer, climber, and all-around guy – wrote a brilliant post yesterday about the tragic passing of climber Craig Luebben. In it, he discusses at length the commonly-heard phrase: "Well, at least he died doing what he loved."
In his post, Dougald mentions the also-recent passing of famed alpinist Riccardo Cassin, noting that "Craig died young and Cassin lived to 100 and died in bed. It doesn’t seem fair."
Why do we always want to nullify the tragedy of someone's death – especially someone who died climbing or in other adventure pursuits – by putting it in the box of "doing what he or she loved"?
Does the fact that Craig was killed while climbing – something he not only excelled at, but also dedicated his life to and thoroughly enjoyed – make it any less tragic for his wife and daughter? I doubt it.
Dying is dying, death is death, no matter how it happens or where it happens. It is always tragic, and no one ever truly wants it to happen to themselves…even if they're doing what they love.
So, then, why do we climb? Why do any of us pursue goals, dreams, or ambitions that have elements of risk in them? Simply put, because that is the fuel of life. To avoid all risk, to shy away from anything that could cause death…well, to do that, we simply would not be living.
As I cover in my motivational keynote presentations, it is only by pushing ourselves, by stretching out limits and moving upward toward greater challenges – and thereby assuming some degree of risk – that we realize how much we can accomplish in our lives. It's not the risk we are after, but rather the growth that comes only through pushing ourselves to the point where we inherently assume some degree of risk. As George Mallory once said, "to refuse the adventure [of climbing] is to run the risk of drying up like a pea in its shell."
While on Everest this spring, I wrote "The Hardest Part of an Everest Expedition", an article about the risk and the inherent inner-dialog which goes along with climbing. What I wrote at the end of that piece echoes what Dougald wrote at the end of his article:
So, tomorrow, as I once again ascend through the Khumbu Icefall, I'll have my pictures of Wende and Lila in my breast pocket, close to my heart. I'll feel them through the miles, and think about them every step. I'll minimize the risk, climb safe and steady, be both inspired and humbled each moment along the way. I will, as my wife and I always urge each other, live each day as if it were my last, and take inspiration from that perspective. And, I'll know that, even though I miss Wende and Lila terribly and they are missing me, we all understand.
I couldn’t agree more—the risks, the difficulties, the frustrations, and the joys of climbing shaped Jonny and shaped Craig, and they’ve shaped me, too. But I don’t want to die doing what I love. I want to die like Cassin, looking back on a lifetime of doing it. The lesson for me in Craig’s death—and Jonny’s and Micah’s and John Bachar’s, and so many others over the years—is not to quit climbing. The lesson is to focus more intently when I’m doing it, so I can draw even more from climbing’s infinite trials and gifts, and so, with great care and a bit of luck, I won’t die in the process.
I remember when I first started guiding at Rainier Mountaineering in 1993, my friend and then-boss, Lou Whittaker, said to a client who had just uttered the "doing what she loved" comment about Marty Hoey (who died on Everest with Lou in 1982). Lou replied that no one goes to the mountains wanting to die, hoping to die. As Lou noted, he wants to die – much like Riccardo Cassin – of old age, sitting in his chair watching TV.
So, despite the deaths we as climbers have seen this year, and the ones yet to come, I, like Dougald, will continue to climb. I'll be safe, I'll pay attention and try to minimize the risks…but I won't shy away from them.
As Henry David Thoreau wrote in the chapter "Where I Lived, and What I Lived For" in his book, Walden:
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
Where are you living, how are you living, and what are you living for?
– Jake Norton is a climber, guide, photographer, writer, and motivational speaker from Colorado.