The peak bagger’s muse: Wrangling the almighty list

This peak represents two things. First, a beautiful sight. Second, it's a name on a list to check off.

This peak represents two things. First, a beautiful sight. Second, it’s a name on a list to check off.

If you were to believe all the articles written, blog posts shared, Instagram photos produced and just about anything else that conveys why we do stuff, you’d come to the conclusion that people climb mountains because of the intrinsic inspiration of high places.

More specifically, people would spin some sort of narrative about “being out in nature” or “living life to the fullest” or “taking on a challenge.” All those sayings found on motivational wall-hangings in every other office building  in the country, well, sometimes outdoorsy folks sound a lot like those. We are the lords of flowery memes.

Before I go on, let’s be clear that I’m not saying these things are untrue. People hike and climb peaks to get away from the rat race, be in the wild and live in the moment, on the edge and whatnot. But once you get into it a little, I’ve found something else pushes people back out there, flinging them headlong from the comfortable into the decidedly uncomfortable.

What is this great motivator? The list, of course.

A bunch of you will look at that sentence with all the confusion of a puppy hearing a high-pitched whine, head cocked, eyes wide open, ears tuned in. But those of you who are slaves to the list, well, you know. The urge is strong, a tractor beam pulling you from your bed at 2 a.m. to drive for four hours, hike for eight more, ascending the equivalent of a few big skyscrapers and enduring loose scree, steep trails, sketchy rock and rotten weather, all so you can go home, get online, and put a checkmark by the name of the peak you just survived. You may as well be driving the Millennium Falcon to the trailhead, ready to climb Mount Death Star. The pull is that strong, Young Skywalker.

So what lists are we talking about? There are so many. In Colorado, it’s the 58 14ers, the peaks that rise to 14,000 feet or more. Mountain hounds with the time, energy and chutzpah make a big push to complete this list. The bragging rights are huge. If that challenge isn’t big enough, you can always go for the Centennials, the highest 100 in the state. And there are 600-plus 13,000-foot peaks that comprise their own ridiculous list to fill.

Outside Colorado, there are more. So many more. You can tackle to Adirondack 46ers, a list of 46 peaks in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York that are 4,000 feet or higher. If you want to see the country, try hitting all the high points of each state — 50 peaks and high spots on that one. More of a world traveler, with some time, money and mountaineering chops? Fill out the Seven Summits list — the highest point on each continent. And for the elite mountaineers, there is a list of 14 8,000-meter peaks in Nepal and Tibet just waiting for you. You might not live through that list, but the bragging rights are pretty impressive if you do.

Closer to home, you can hit the high points of every county in your state. That might not be a lot of fun in a state like Kansas, but one blogger in Colorado is having a ball with it.

We love the lists so much that there is a mountaineering list of lists. It’s call the Lists of John, and it’s exhaustive (188,546 peaks!). Lists of John even has its own Facebook page.

Looking for an obscure list of peaks? How about Malaysia's highest? (malaysia-travvler.com photo)

Looking for an obscure list of peaks? How about Malaysia’s 30 highest? (malaysia-traveller.com photo)

I went on social media (Facebook and Twitter in this case) to ask people about the allure of the list. The responses I got had a nice mix, with most saying the lists quantified their goals.

From Noel: “I have gone through stages with my hiking of the 14ers. First it was…Wow! I hiked a 14er! Then…Cool! I hiked a few more! Then…Hmm, I wonder if I could do some of the tougher ones. Then…Whoa! Maybe I could actually work toward finishing these peaks! Then…These are getting tough, but ‘the list’ is nearing completion!”

From Bill: “Certainly helped me organize and plan. Helps one another measure up; discuss plans. I couldn’t imagine having as much inspiration to just climb a random number of random peaks.”

From Mike: “Important. They give me structure and keep me focused.”

And from Sean: “They are very important because the take you to places you wouldn’t consider going before.”

For others, it was more nuanced.

From Annalise: “I have very mixed feelings about lists. They really frustrate me in the sense of allowing the dangerous possibility of overly inflated ego and self-limitation. The concept of ‘conquering’ mountains deeply bothers me, because I don’t believe in that and I feel like peak bagging lists are commonly associated with that idea. Though it’s wonderful to see other mountain lovers empowered by ‘bagging peaks,’ it’s deeply worrisome to see some that get cocky and overconfident and attribute their achievements entirely to their own greatness, belittling these sacred places. Personally, I’m a big fan of being silly and joking around on summits, but when I am moving, I do my best to give reverence to the peaks. Geology is so much bigger than we are.

“That said… it is a very helpful organization tool. It is really nice to be able to think ‘I want to go explore another inspiring place outside of everyday human infrastructure’ and be able to look up names on a list (and progress to planning from there) much as once upon a time we looked up names and numbers of people in a phone book. It’s soothing.

“Anyway, I can’t really resolve my two conflicting ideas about lists. They both exist in my head, and so far they’ve pretty much stayed in balance. The former makes me hate the latter, but the latter makes me attempt to be a little more open-minded (to little avail). And around it goes.”

From Zach: “It’s really just a list, but for me it gives me objectives to plan. Half of the excitement is studying the route and quantifying it in my head. I put all of the logistics together and then it’s game day. My awareness of the day is higher because I’m driven to make it unfold successfully. As I get close to finishing the 14ers, I wonder if I’ll find that drive without a menu of objectives to choose from. Welcome to my neurosis!”

But the list didn’t hold attraction for everyone.

From David: “At first I was interested in the lists, then I was trying to figure out who I was doing the list for. Me? Or what I wanted people to think of me? I lost the fun. Now, I go out to have fun. Fun with people, different experience on the same mountain. The list doesn’t matter. I understand why people chase them and I am glad they do. I just don’t feel the need to chase a list.”

And from Kay: “I could care less about lists when it comes to mountains. Which is ironic because I like checking things off lists in every other aspect of my life. Mountains are the one place I feel total freedom and that includes freedom from the constraints of lists. Lists remind me of going to the grocery store or the amount of school work I have to do. Climbing mountains is my freedom and I love them all equally.”

As for me? I’m somewhere in between. Living where I live, and working full-time, the free time to chase summits and knock off big lists doesn’t exist. I don’t have the money for things like the Seven Summits, and certainly not the cash, experience and skills for the 8,000-ers.

And yet I still keep track. The 14ers.com website has features where you can check off 14ers you’ve climbed, and 13ers as well. I like Dave’s take – that I head to the mountains to have fun and enjoy the moment. But by the time I get back to civilization and anywhere close to a computer, I log on. I find the list. And I check ‘em off, one peak at a time. I guess the list owns me, too, even if I never complete it.

Bob Doucette

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4 thoughts on “The peak bagger’s muse: Wrangling the almighty list

  1. Very interesting read and quite the controversial topic among the 14er crowd. I feel that it’s nice to have a goal to work towards and having a list is a great way to stay organized, but at the end of the day it’s not all about checking off another peak. There’s a million other reasons to get out into nature and climb (some being extremely cliche, but true) and you hit on some of the major ones.
    Thanks for sharing!

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