I performed this piece at the “First Speak” event at the Tin Pan Theater in Bend, OR on May 31, 2014. Watch or read below as I try to answer the age-old question, “Why do you climb?”
I’m often asked to answer the age old question – “Why do you climb?” It’s a difficult question to answer adequately. I hesitate to speak for all mountain climbers of all styles, ages, and disciplines as it’s an intensely personal motivation. My automatic reaction to give the surface answer which never seems completely satisfactory to neither myself nor the questioner.
Yes, there is great satisfaction in meeting an objective, a natural discipline that must be summoned to train and prepare for greater and greater mountains, a camaraderie in the mountaineering community unlike that I’ve experienced elsewhere, the peace and focus of moving meditation, a deepening connection with and respect for nature.
…these are all valid reasons…
But none of these speak to the underlying DRIVE or REWARD to explain why the moving meditation or the satisfaction of physical challenge feed ME. Why do I feel drawn to the high mountains rather than trying to compete in triathlons or ski at resorts for example?
I think there’s some aspect of mountaineering that’s seems so extreme and remote to the “average” person…that once I realized I, “little ‘ole me”, could be competent in this environment, against all of my own and others preconceived notions, it felt even that much more impressive.
There’s something satisfying about actually BEING GOOD at something. Like, if you suck at golf, it’s not so pleasant to go out and try to play golf with your friends every weekend. But if you are decent or even excel, the reinforcement is confidence building.
I pretty much suck at everything physical.
I don’t have great motor skills or hand/eye coordination so I always suffered at sports like golf, tennis, or volleyball. I basically sat on the bench for any team sport or pulled the team down when I participated. I dabbled in adventure racing and mountain bike racing for a while, which appealed to me more than triathlons because they were more focused on backcountry activities rather than running or riding on roads, but I’m REALLY slow. Racing is kind of demoralizing to come in last, or if I’m lucky, second to last every time.
I discovered what my body is good at is endurance. As long as I go my pace and eat a little something every hour or so, I can go for hours…and I mean HOURS. I can just keep hiking and hiking and hiking. And that’s the primary ingredient for mountaineering. You also need to be able to carry a heavy pack and there are some technical aspects to climbing on different terrain like snow or glaciers, but it’s basically hiking up hill for hours and hours and hours. I have a surprising capacity for carrying loads uphill despite my stature, as long as it’s slowly.
I was smart and I methodically acquired skills over the years, learned from experts, and slowly progressed to more and more difficult, committing, remote, and lengthy climbs until my climbing “career” culminated in an attempt of Makalu, the 5th highest mountain on the planet.
I think if I were a man, 6’2″ and genetically gifted, mountaineering might actually feel less satisfying to me. I have to work hard, I have to train smart, I have to be strategic about how and with whom I climb…because it does not come naturally to ascend 5,000ft up steep snow slopes with over 50lbs on my back in weather that ranges from blizzard to heat wave. It’s NOT easy, but if I apply myself, train, prepare, focus, AND I make it to the summit, it feels like it was against all odds and I feel that much more impressed with myself.
BUT still, WHY do I need this kind of reinforcement, WHY does it feed me so much.
Without engaging the help of a psychologist to try to draw connections between the events of my childhood and my adult psyche, I still struggle to give a clear and meaningful answer but recently garnered some insight…
After three years of being on the sidelines of the mountaineering world, recovering from a stubborn knee injury and surgery, I’ve just begun tipping my toes back in the water and have set my sights on the Cascade mountains on our horizon, part of why I moved to Bend in the first place. Seeing those mountains day after day without climbing them is like being teased constantly.
I decided to focus on Mt Hood. Even though it’s the most impressive and the highest mountain in Oregon, it was still ONLY half as high as I’ve ever been. I know I’m out of shape and haven’t been hiking regularly for a long time, BUT it’s ONLY 5,000ft gain and only requires carrying a day pack. It’s steep but not ridiculous. I’m the mountaineer after all who has been to 23,000ft. This should be a realistic challenge to tip my toe back in the water to effectively day hike to 11,250ft.
I met some nice fellows through the Cascade Mountaineers club here in Bend who were planning an ascent of Hood. I called the trip leader, Frank, and explained my situation – “Yes, I have tons of experience. Yes, I do very well at altitude. Yes, my self-arrest skills are dialed, in fact I led a self-arrest clinic for the Bay Area Mountain Rescue Unit in January. No, I don’t feel very fit and I’m worried about my ability to keep up with a group.”
Frank was understanding about my situation and was supportive and encouraging. I convinced him that if I had any trouble, I was self-sufficient and could turn around on my own.
The Wednesday before our climb, I met one of the other guys on the trip, Nathan. He was a young buck around 20 who was still in college. Sweet guy, but he said he had climbed North Sister the day before with a friend. North Sister. The mountain that some of the Cascades leaders were talking about trying with trepidation this season…
I joked with him and asked him, “Are you cool with climbing with someone twice your age?” and he asked back, “Are you OK with climbing with someone half your age?” I chuckled. He had a good sense of humor and said he was fine going any pace – he just wanted more experience.
Friday evening, I met Frank and the final member of our team, Bridger, to carpool. Bridger was a tall, handsome, young fellow. I would guess early twenties as well. I was thinking to myself…”Uh oh! TWO young bucks!” My anxiety level began to elevate.
We swapped stories on the 2.5 hr drive to Timberline Lodge. The plan was to sleep in our cars in the parking lot. I hadn’t brought a sleeping bag on purpose because it seemed silly to use for three hours of non-sleeping. Instead I planned to bring my beefy super warm Denali-worthy down jacket to keep me warm for just a few hours. On every trip, it’s inevitable that you forget at least one item. This time it was my down jacket! So I lay in the back of Frank’s Subaru Outback with all my layers on, softly shivering.
Because I couldn’t sleep, the hamster wheel in my head was whirring. “Could I keep up? What about those gusts of wind hammering and rocking the Subaru? Would the young bucks be tolerant of my pace and rustiness? Would the weather hold? Do I have what it takes?” My anxiety grew to a deafening level and I could think of nothing else until our wake time of midnight.
I took myself back to a time in Ecuador where I and two of my buddies were attempting Cotopaxi, a glaciated peak that was 19.3kft. One of the guys was super fit and the other one had inadequate gear and needed to go faster to keep warm. To keep them happy, we had to go at a pace unsustainable for me and I nearly bailed at 1,000ft below the summit despite the fact that it was my second time traveling to Ecuador and all the training and planning that went into getting to that point.
I decided I would not even try to climb Mt Hood because I was convinced I did not have what it takes and that the pace would be too fast for me. Frank assured me it was the wrong reason not to go forward, “We want you on this climb!” I told him my anxiety was simply too great. They said they would miss me and headed out into the darkness. I jumped into Frank’s sleeping bag and while my body was happy with the newly acquired warmth, my heart was heavy.
After a couple hours of delicious sleep, I took myself to a leisurely and not-very-well-deserved hearty breakfast at Timberline Lodge. When I swung back by the cars, the boys had already returned. They were back so early that I was convinced they had had to turn around, but no! 9 hours door-to-door! I remarked, “Wow! Well, it’s a good thing I didn’t go with you! No way I could have done it in that amount of time!” They said, “No, we really wished you were there. The conditions were great. We went very slowly and surely. You could have done this.”
I held back tears on the drive back to Bend but a few defiant ones snuck out and rolled down my cheeks. I was frustrated for myself for not even trying, for letting fear of the unknown keep me from knowing, for feeling like now maybe I don’t belong to the tribe of mountaineers. I did EXACTLY what I tell others not to do. I held myself back. I didn’t even try.
So why do I climb? Mountaineering defines me as a person. It doesn’t matter whether or not you think that should be the case, but it is. I am lost without it. A tortured soul wandering this Earth trying to find meaning and a place of belonging. If I am not a mountaineer, then who am I? To what tribe do I belong? How can I connect with this world? There is no neat resolution to this story…I will be lost until I find my way into the mountains again.