Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Answering the Impossible: Why We Climb

Saddened by the recent deaths of Colorado mountaineers Steve GladbachGary Miller, and Randy Udall. I am drawn once again to the age-old mountaineering question: why we do we climb mountains? Why intentionally take on such danger? Is standing on a summit worth losing a life? To the eyes of an outsider. it might seem like there are no tangible benefits worth the risks at all.Yet, many of us have been climbing for years in full knowledge of the consequences. And despite this real danger we continue to climb, searching for higher and harder summits.

Answering the question of why is not easy.

Ellingwood Ridge on La Plata Peak
One famous answer was given by Sir Edmund Hillary, who along with Tenzing Norgay was the first man to successfully reach the summit of Mount Everest. When asked if he wanted to climb Mount Everest for scientific reasons, he responded with "you climb for the hell of it." To me, however, this feels defensive, like an answer a tired mountaineer might give an obnoxious reporter. Surely, the reason Hillary sought to climb Everest was deeper than simply "the hell of it."

Another famous, oft-quoted response came from George Mallory, who disappeared in 1924 in an attempt to be the first to reach the summit of Mount Everest. Mallory colloquially responded in an interview with the New York Times the year before his failed attempt, that he wanted to climb Everest "because it's there." The phrase quickly became legend. But in truth, while this answer (somewhat kin to the writer's of Seinfield response of "nothing" when asked what their show was about) is clever and has a poetic and somewhat satisfying quality, but when more deeply considered, begs more questions than it answers. In Mallory's response, what is it about Everest being "there" that drives us humans to line up blindly like lemmings bound for the top or bust? In some ways, Hillary's "for the hell of it," though evasive, is more honest. It implies no greater drive than pure and simple enjoyment. And for my money, that seems closer to the truth.

Grand Teton in Grand Teton National Park
When I read news of the loss of a member of the mountaineering community, I always reflect on what it means for me to climb these mountains. Many times, there are lessons we can learn from these accidents to help us avoid repeating the same tragedies in the future. Other times the only lesson to learn is that no matter who we are or how much experience we have or how carefully we have planned, the truth is that very real objective risk is part of climbing these beautiful peaks, and no matter how carefully we calculate and no matter how much skill we have, when we tie in to that rope or start up that climb there is a chance that we might not make it back down.

People might ask why anyone would take such risks? For me the answer is simple. Life is full of risk. Everything from driving a car at 75 mph on the interstate to becoming owner of a start-up business, carries potentially devastating risk. We do our best to minimize the consequences and to minimize our exposure. We set up webs for safety. But many times, it is only by taking this risk that we can earn great rewards. And as anybody who has stood on top of a mountain knows, there are few rewards as gratifying as a good summit.

My thoughts and prayers are with Steve Gladbach, Gary Miller, and Randy Udall, their families and friends, and those who were knew and were touched by them. May they be comforted knowing that they died doing what they loved in places that were surely as dear to their hearts as they are to mine.

-Randy Udall Found Dead in Wyoming (7/4/13)
-Another Climber Killed on Thunder Pyramid (6/25/13)
-Colorado Mountaineer Killed on Grand Teton (6/24/13)

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