2015-10-22

Why?

Mountain climbing is dangerous. It requires suffering through pain, cold and exhaustion. It serves no purpose. Why do it then?

Many people more qualified than me have tried to answer this question. This is my rambling attempt at a more personal answer. Why do I go to the mountains?

I love being outdoors. I love the connection to nature, the rawness and wildness of it. I love throwing myself into the wind and shouting of joy. The mountains and the sea are two of the few places left in our civilized and tamed world that are still mostly wild. Mountains are raw energy. Inconceivable amounts of energy created them. You need to be strong to climb them. Everything there is charged with energy. Everything there has the potential to kill you if the energy is discharged too quickly.

Mountains allow me to grow and learn things about myself. It is tremendously satisfying to experience getting stronger. You start with small strolls. They get longer and longer until you can comfortably hike the entire day without thinking much of it. There is a natural progression ramping up the challenge and climbing harder and harder routes. Learning the exact boundaries of ones physical limits and extending them gradually.

I know things about myself that few people know about themselves. I know, don't imagine, how I react to extreme stress and fear of death. I know that I won't panic and that I'm still able to control myself and act rationally and constructively. Knowing where my limits are gives me a lot of power and self assurance in everyday situations. The coping mechanisms and mental strength you train while climbing are applicable elsewhere.

Mountains offer a well defined, unambiguous goal. Either you reach the summit or you don't. This is in refreshing contrast to the ambiguities of our modern world. Everyday life rarely offers such easy black and white goals, everything is muddy. At the same time the pay-off is proportional to your investment. The more effort you expend to reach a goal the more gratifying the reward. Give it all your strength, invest all your smarts. The ultimate stake is your life. You can't put more on the line than that.

Taking risks is freedom. I choose to do it. The default choice in our modern world is to always minimize risk. But if you accept that, then there is no choice. You are not free. You don't decide. It gets exciting once you make a conscious decision: how much risk am I willing to accept for the experience? I crave the independence of it. Nobody tells me what to do, I am the master of my own decisions and carry the weight of the responsibility.

I love the feeling of being self-sufficient, autonomous. I carry everything I need in my pack. If I want, I can stop right here and bivvy for the night. This was an eye opening experience on my bicycle trip of half a year. You don't need much, you can be self reliant and make a comfortable home almost anywhere. That is a powerful realization.

Climbing requires full concentration. A day of scrambling on a ridge is not only physically exhausting but also mentally draining. Staying one hundred percent focused in the here and now requires discipline. You cannot afford a single lapse. As a consequence you train an iron will. It has meditative qualities. You don't think of anything else. Nothing clears my mind of work like climbing a steep wall.

I like the exclusiveness of it. I like being part of an elite club. The group of people that don't need to read an article like this, because they know. Because they are driven by the same passion. Who don't shake their heads at the "crazy risks", because they are already scheming their own next epic.

I'm a fiercely competitive person if I set my mind to it. I enjoy being stronger and faster than the average guy, the next guy. I enjoy the tension this creates. Mountaineering is an intensely shared experience. You need a rope partner. You literally trust your partner with your life and rely on her for your safety. So climbing is also fundamentally cooperative. You reach the summit together or not at all. An epic struggle shared with a partner creates a strong bond.

Whenever I'm in wild places I imagine what it must have been like to be the first human to stand there. To lay eyes on this landscape. To explore and discover. Being in the mountains where few people can go allows me to live this fantasy at least a little bit. White spots on our maps have become very rare, so I go looking for them in the vertical world. True adventures have almost become extinct.

At the same time I like ticking off places on my own, personal map. It is tremendously satisfying to see a map of the entire country and have it covered in a spiderweb of GPS tracks of my own hikes. Experience that you can explore so much solely under your own power. I can walk across an entire country in a few days - imagine that!

Mountaineering has beautiful toys. I like playing with the highly specialized, high quality gear. Maybe childish, but then again, most hobbies have equipment fetishists. Becoming proficient in, and eventually mastering, its use is a reward all by itself. Like a carpenter with her tools.

Climbing, and even hiking, is intellectually satisfying. You marvel at a particularly beautiful line, elegant route or an efficient move. Something as seemingly trivial as a foot placement on a downhill run can be quite stimulating. Split second decisions. Either you need to waste a lot of energy or you smoothly float over the rocks.

You are playing in magnificent surroundings. I'm an atheist, but if I ever thought there was something more to our existence it has been in the majestic arena of nature. I've had some very emotional moments in the mountains. Taking it all in has caused me to well up and my voice to break. I have shouted of joy against the wind when there was no one to hear. I have run pirouettes down a glacier to celebrate existence. Life is great!

Mountaineering then is fun because it satisfies deeply human urges as few other endeavors can.

Probably my favorite mountaineering photo: Vince Anderson, photographed by Steve House, after climbing the 4100 meter Rupal Face to the summit of the 8126 meter Nanga Parbat, a superhuman effort.