Why?

This is a piece by my brother Joss. He shares my interests in adventure and he has kindly contributed this article about the reasons why we climb mountains. Look for more of his writing on this blog in the future. 

By Joss Whittaker


Leif has graciously invited me to contribute to his blog, so I thought I’d start out by trying to answer a question that I’ve been asked many times, and have a hard time answering in a convenient, snappy phrase. People ask it in different ways, but it always goes along the lines of, “why do you like climbing?”

            An earlier generation would accept a pithy response like “because it’s there,” but apparently blogs demand a more personal touch, and a more detailed answer also touches on a problem that I’ve been wrestling with for a long time. To answer the question, “why do you climb?” is also a way to approach a broader question about the balance between risk and security, comfort and discomfort, and what that change means for a people who are arguably the most secure, and the most comfortable, in human history.

            The best place to start is at Camp Schurman, on Mt. Rainier, at midnight, as I was waking up and preparing for a summit attempt with my friends Ben and Quig. A violent and unpredictable wind had been shaking the tent all night, and ripped half my stakes out of the ground. It reminded me of that part in every submarine movie when the heroes tensely look upward as thundering depth charges shake the submarine, bracing themselves with each explosion and wondering which one will rupture the hull. Ben and Quig’s tent was full of windblown sand. I didn’t get much sleep, but I got enough to put me into dream-like state of disorientation. As I was waking up, I thought, very emphatically, “this doesn’t make any sense! Why am I doing this?” I was preparing to lead two friends into a very hostile environment, one in which we all had a decent chance of being injured or killed. We would not accomplish anything tangible by reaching the summit. There would be moments of terror and despair. Going up would be grueling and coming down would be miserable. We would be somewhere on a spectrum between heavy fatigue and delirious exhaustion by the time we reached camp again. What on earth was the point? At the time, I didn’t know. All I knew was that I’d agreed to take Ben and Quig up there, and that we had to get onto the glacier, so at least the sand wouldn’t be blowing into our eyes.

            Maybe it’s a bad sign that I have to be in a state of relatively high-functioning consciousness to come to this conclusion, but thinking back on it, all those reasons it didn’t make any sense are exactly why I keep putting myself in those situations. They are so different from life in the developed world that they seemed illogical or insane when I could normally expect to get out of a warm soft bed, surf the web, look at the news, go to work, and maybe end the day by sitting down to watch fictional characters appear to do illogical, insane things on a large screen. The very presence of genuine risk, and more importantly, of discomfort and fatigue in a stressful situation, have become largely alien to those of us who are lucky enough to grow up in the developed world. It doesn’t make any sense! No, it doesn’t; not in that most immediate, just-having-woken-up kind of way.

            As a society we have invested great amounts of time, effort, and resources to make life easy and comfortable. We have invented mechanical devices, in some cases whole industrial processes composed of hundreds or thousands of devices, to spare us the toil and discomfort of everything from moving ourselves across the land and water to grinding pepper to electrically brushing the electrically ground fragments out of our teeth. At face value, this makes perfect sense. Why not make things easier and more comfortable?

I’ll leave the practical answers out for the moment. There are environmental arguments, foreign policy arguments, and arguments for social equality and common sense, Maybe I’ll be able to return to those some other time. For now, though, I answer from a more philosophical direction. We have elevated the preservation of life to such an absurd level that the lives we’re preserving lose much of their value. Physical risk-taking and discomfort have largely vanished from our immediate lives, remaining only in a vestigial sense when we watch a football game, or hear a news report that a volunteer soldier has died in some foreign country protecting the security of his fellow citizens. Of course we take risks every time we drive to the supermarket, but they are easy and comfortable risks. We, as a society, have things too easy and too comfortable.

So, when I stumbled out of my partially collapsed tent, clipped into the rope, and moved slowly up the Emmons glacier into a windstorm, I began to remember why I was there. I was a frail, vulnerable animal in a hostile environment, perfectly conscious that the mountain could extinguish my life at any moment; likewise conscious that a mistake of my own would end the lives of my climbing partners. The closer we got to the summit, the more wind tore at us, until the rope lifted off the ground and stretched between us like a string of flags. I could only focus on the small details of the climb: where next to put my foot; where the route was leading us; what was above us and what was below. There was no room for the random thoughts that would normally clutter my mind. There was a kind of emotion, a spare, instinctive emotion: “we’ve gotta go,” I kept saying every time we took a break.  And there was fatigue. That was all. It was exhilarating. That’s why I climb. Life is never more meaningful than when it hangs by a fragile thread. 

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