Why do we climb? The question of risk, growth and achievement


I’m reading a book right now titled “One Mountain, Thousand Summits,” a tome about the 2008 K2 climbing disaster. I’m drawn to books like these because the drama that often unfolds on the world’s highest peaks makes for some very compelling reading.

The writer, Freddie Wilkinson, makes a point of not only documenting what happened on the mountain, but also what happened in response to the tragedy in the rest of the world. In doing so, he followed media reporting – and reader comments online.

Some perspective: Eleven people died directly and indirectly from a serac collapse high on K2.

Some of the online comments about this story quoted in the book are as follows:

“Spirit of exploration? Please. K2 has been climbed before. Many times. It was ‘discovered’ a long time ago. Climbers today climb 8,000-meter peaks for one reason: themselves.”

Another was more blunt:

“This was not a voyage of discovery; it was an ego trip, as most mountain ascents are today.”

Similar sentiments were made after the 1996 Everest disaster, and just about any other report of a mountaineering accident that includes someone’s death.

Let’s go beyond the obvious callousness that goes in to writing something like that. There is a deeper philosophical question to be posed here: Do these armchair quarterbacks have a point?

Why do we climb mountains? For that matter, why do we do a lot of the physically challenging and at times risky things that we do?

The great mountains of the world have been climbed. The poles have been reached. The jungles and deserts of the world have, for the most part, been traversed and explored.

And yet, we still climb these peaks, journey to the poles and travel in some of the most inhospitable environments in the world. Often, people do this with a twist: trying to be the “first” at something (oldest, youngest, first woman, first blind person, etc.), and admittedly, some of these efforts are done for publicity’s sake. But more commonly, we just retrace paths already taken – often many times before – only for our own benefit.

I can relate. Every mountain I’ve climbed and every route I’ve taken has already been done, maybe hundreds or thousands of times before. Even though I’d like to fantasize about setting a new Class 4 route up Oklahoma’s Mount Mitchell, I’d never claim that because it’s probably been done before in anonymity years ago.

So outside of space and the oceans, much of the age of exploration has come to an end.

So why bother? Why risk injury and death to climb?

I set my book down and let this question rattle around in my brain for awhile, and then let the thought broaden. Mountaineering accidents, particularly high-profile mishaps, get a lot of attention. News articles, TV specials and books usually follow. But there are other things we do that draw parallels.

People die doing marathons. Not often, but it happens. Why run a marathon on Pikes Peak? People have had heart attacks and dropped dead trying that race. Even in my city’s local marathon, there has been a fatality. The people who have died in these races had, from all appearances, the fitness level needed for the task.

I know that’s extreme, but there are other less severe yet still noteworthy examples of how people have suffered incredibly by trying to run 26.2 miles or more. Training for such races can do a whole lot of damage to your body, consume a lot of your time and energy and change your lifestyle in ways that are not always positive.

Here’s a fact: The overwhelming number of people who run ultramarathons, marathons, half marathons, 15ks, 10ks and 5ks do so without even the slightest chance of actually winning the event. Or even placing high. Or even winning their gender, age group or whatever.

It is supposed to be a race, right? Why run a race you have NO SHOT of winning? Or no shot of even being the slightest bit competitive?

Move into other sports. Let’s talk football. It’s a great game, one of my favorites. Pro football in particular interests me because it is the game played at the highest level by the biggest, fastest and most skilled athletes in the sport. It’s such a difficult challenge to even win one game, not to mention a championship.

But at what cost? The concussion debate has been raging now for a few years. But there are a host of other injuries these guys suffer through on top of that, injuries which leave these fantastic physical specimens barely able to walk (not to mention run) when middle age sets in. Obviously, the money is a major reason why these men do this, but when the crowds no longer cheer and all you’re left with is a broken body (and in some case, mind), can you say that those years of abuse were worth it?

Here’s another question:

What’s the alternative?

The alternative is not to pursue the difficulties of planning, training for and finally attempting a mountain climb. The alternative is to stay inside, substitute your running shoes for a pair of house slippers and spend yet another mindless day on the couch watching TV or playing video games (which often portray characters doing epic things. Kind of ironic). The alternative is to never plumb the depths of your abilities to see just how far you can take your God-given talents.

If you never push yourself to see how strong you can be, you’ll never be strong. And that’s not just in terms of physical strength, but mental and emotional strength as well.

It’s these tests which tell us how strong we can be, and these tests often lead us to personal growth that can’t be replicated in the world of the easy and mundane.

None of us will ever be the first to climb Everest, K2 or thousands of other peaks. We won’t be the first to reach the north or south poles. Almost no one in this world of 6 billion people will set a new world record marathon time, and the tiniest fraction of all athletes will even do something as comparatively normal as actually winning a long-distance race. Sorry to burst your bubble.

But so what? These are the ways we measure ourselves, and indeed, promote growth. Even inspire others to try and do great things. Obviously, some pursuits are much more risky than others. But you won’t see me discourage others from such endeavors, provided they weigh the risks, prepare and do so with a healthy degree of humility for the task at hand.

Lace ‘em up, people. Buckle that chin strap. Climb on. If you want to criticize that, then enjoy your time on the couch. I’m sure it will be your faithful companion on your journey to the perfectly average for some time to come.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088


8 thoughts on “Why do we climb? The question of risk, growth and achievement

  1. People test themselves for many reasons beyond ego. The discovery of who you are, what you are and where are your limits, achieves clarity under stress of risk. Those who view this manner of self-discovery purely as egocentric are narrow-minded and foolish.

    • I agree. There are some (esp. in the Everest scene) who are there for the ego. But many of those who go there and elsewhere, and nearly everyone I know who competes or tests themselves physically, does so for the enjoyment of the activity, the expression that it allows you to make physically, and to test themselves mentally, physically and emotionally.

      It’s one of the great things about being human. We can actually contemplate pushing our boundaries not because we have to, but because we want to, because of our own curiosity. And look where that curiosity has brought us. Exploration, innovation and feats of achievement you just can’t get by settling for the status quo.

  2. The legendary mountaineer, Walt Unsworth, said…

    “But there are men for whom the unattainable has a special attraction. Usually they are not experts; their ambitions and fantasies are strong enough to brush aside the doubts which more cautious men might have. Determination and faith are their strongest weapons. At best such men are regarded as eccentric; at worst, mad…”

    And why do I feel the need to climb high mountains?

    I want to test myself, to push the boundaries, to see what I’m capable of. I truly believe it is a great way to explore one’s true self…

    Many might misconstrue that as “ego” – it isn’t, I’ve always left my ego at the base of anything I climb.

    For me, it is about growth as a person…

    And to the arm-chair critics, I wouldn’t normally bother, but quite frankly those that need to pose the question, will never understand the answer…

  3. As an aspiring ultra runner I struggle with this on a regular basis. I think to a certain extent that its the North American culture that keeps people pushing. And while I don’t disagree that sitting in front of the tv is one alternative, there is another that I struggle with more…in many countries (especially those that live the longest) don’t do work out per say, instead their lifestyles are gently active as they farm etc.

    • That’s true. We used to have the type of daily activity that kept us stronger. In any case — I think you have to work out that dilemma and balance the challenge you wish to undertake with the rest of the life you want to live. Just going through that mental exercise can often be as fruitful as attempting the endeavor itself. Thank you for your thoughts!

  4. Sooner or later, life will test each of us. Personally, I’d rather have taken measure of myself and sought improvement, than to be startled by my ineptitude at a critical moment. As the “old” tag-line goes, “Mother Nature doesn’t care if you’re not having fun”. {:-)

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