Thursday Thought, September 10, 2009

TD-GM-1856: Stuart Sloat and Kirk Allen descend from the summit of Gurla Mandhata after making the first American ascent of the mountain. Gurla Mandhata, one of the sacred peaks of Tibet, is 7728 meters/25,502 feet high, and stands just north of the Nepal-Tibet border and just south of the sacred lakes of Raksas and Mansarovar and sacred peak of Kailash. One of the questions we, as climbers, get quite often is a simple one with a remarkably complex answer: Why do we climb?

It is different for every climber, and sometimes changes with the wind. Not an easy one to nail down. The great climber and author Greg Child once put it this way:

Somewhere between the bottom of the climb and the summit is the answer to the mystery of why we climb.

Simple and perhaps accurate in its generality, but also not really answering the question…which was probably Greg's point.

It is a question I've struggled with for my entire climbing career. What is it that motivates us to climb, to pit ourselves against the at-times monumental risks and hazards of the mountain realm, to push against the inertia of comfort…higher and higher still? Indeed, what is it that drives us – climbers and non-climbers alike – to set goals for ourselves which we know will be nearly impossible at best?

Back in December, 2006, I wrote about this question here on The MountainWorld Blog. Towards the end, I referenced one of my favorite answers to the age-old query of the hills:

No, climbing is not about taunting death, but rather about living life. As author James Ramsey Ullman put it so eloquently in The Age of Mountaineering:

The mountain may well be a way of escape – from the cities and people, from the turmoil and doubt, from the complexities and uncertainties and sorrows that thread our lives. But in the truest and most profound sense, it is an escape not from but to reality. Over and above all else, the story of mountaineering is a story of faith and affirmation – that the high road is the good road; that there are still among us those who are willing to struggle and suffer greatly for wholly ideal ends; that security is not the be-all and end-all of living; that there are conquests to be won in the world other than over each other. The climbing of earth's heights, in itself, means little. That we want to try to climb them means everything. For it is the ultimate wisdom of the mountains that we are never so much as we can be as when we are striving for what is beyond our grasp, and that there is no battle worth the winning save that against our own ignorance and fear.

But, for today's "Thursday Thought", I wanted to share yet another eloquent and accurate description of why we climb. This one is by Joe Simpson, the great climber, epic-survivor, and author of Touching the Void:

In a curious way, maybe the climber stops living when he begins to climb. He steps out of the living world of anxiety into a world where there is no room, no time, for such distractions. All that concerns him is surviving the present. Any thoughts of gas bills and mortgages, loved ones and enemies, evaporate under the absolute necessity for concentration on the task at hand. He leads a separate life of uncomplicated black and white decisions—stay warm, feed yourself, be careful, take proper rest, look after yourself and your partner, be aware. Be aware of everything until there is nothing but the present and there are no corrosive fears to eat away at confidence.

Well said, Joe.

Jake Norton is an Everest climber, guide, photographer, writer, and motivational speaker from Colorado.

  1. DSD
    DSDSeptember 15,09

    Oh Jake, I’ve been wandering back here yet again to reread your post…
    A musing I’ve pondered so often…
    DSD

  2. Meredith J. Masse
    Meredith J. MasseSeptember 16,09

    I’m certainly no climber, but might argue that climbers climb simply because they need to… that this is something that’s ingrained. Maybe? It’s about natural talents, innate abilities, even instincts that make you natural climbers? As a Certified Kolbe Consultant that’s what I help people understand about themselves: what are you naturally hardwired to excel at doing? Kolbe Wisdom teaches:

    “Individual performance can be predicted with great accuracy by comparing a person’s M.O. — unique method of operation, or modus operandi — with self-expectations and the requirements of specific tasks. Performance fluctuates based on how closely these elements align.”

    So maybe it’s true for climbers too? Food for thought.

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