Not long ago, I was reading a book titled One Mountain, Thousand Summits, a tome about the 2008 K2 climbing disaster. The writer, Freddie Wilkinson, makes a point of not only documenting what occurred on the mountain, but also what happened around the world in response to the tragedy. In doing so, he followed media reporting – and reader comments – on the Internet.
For the sake of context: Eleven people died directly and indirectly from a serac collapse high on K2, one of the worst disasters in mountaineering history.
Some of the online comments 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 even 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 callousness that goes into writing screeds like these. 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 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 merely 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.
So outside of space and the oceans, much of the age of exploration has come to an end, the purposes of which have gone beyond the greater good and now veer toward the strictly personal.
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 running 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 possessed, for the most part, 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. Or 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?
Let’s move into other sports, say 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 is a host of other injuries these guys suffer on top of that, maladies that 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 cases, 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 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. These tests tell us how tough we can be and 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 seven 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, promote growth and even inspire others to try and do great things. Obviously, some pursuits are riskier than others, but you won’t see me discourage people from such endeavors, provided they weigh the risks, prepare thoroughly, 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. For those who choose to go out and “do” things, you never know what reward awaits you when the challenge is accepted, then met.
NOTE: What’s written above is an excerpt from a larger writing project I’m working on about the outdoors.