Why We Climb

A friend and I were noting how it seems we create gratuitous mini-crises and other circumstances that require immediate attention, speculating that maybe we (and maybe others) do this to excuse attending to less interesting, less clear, less urgent, if nonetheless important tasks. As I wandered over the question, observing the internal dynamics of remembered instances, I felt that such avoidance indeed seemed present. But I also sensed something else lurking in my emotional pathways. I found thoughts of the joy that many of us get from climbing, about the sense of clarity and focus that we have when we climb. There is no wondering about what needs to be done: the protection needs to be placed; the hand and foot holds found; and appropriate speed made. We may choose to climb, but once climbing, the world becomes exquisitely, ecstatically simple.

I thought of the fight I heard through the cheap walls of a Bethel, Alaska apartment building, as a man drunkenly raged against the loss of meaning in his life, the loss of hunting as a full-time way of life, against the bureaucracies, against the whites (like me) who had taken this essence from him, and, eventually, against his wife. (At 4 AM, as it seemed that blows might fall and feeling like a perpetrator bringing heat on a victim, I called my seat-mate on the flight in, a family violence counselor in town. A few minutes later, the police arrived.)

As I wandered this landscape, I also remembered Tim O’Brien’s magical, enveloping book The Things They Carried, where he describes finding ecstasy in full-on fire-fights. And I remembered Gary Trudeau’s cartoon where Ray is being sent home from Kandahar with too much brain trauma. Ray protests saying that “War makes complete sense to me”.

Then I thought about how it has become clear that exercise is good for us; even though an overwhelming portion of the physical work required for survival in our evolutionary growing-up is now done by machines that turn energy into fulfilled desire, we still benefit from exertion. Just as human baby brains expect to encounter speech and language and depend on this circumstance for development, it seems our bodies expect a world in which we are constantly doing physical work; that our bodies require such work, even if circumstance does not.

I began to wonder if the near-perpetual state of life-and-death circumstances I imagine our evolutionary selves must have lived left us, as with exercise, needing such experiences to be right?

Perhaps we climb, skydive, wrestle alligators, drive and ski fast, and otherwise pursue our now-extensive scope of adrenalin-producing activities because, like exercise, we simply don’t work well without them? In our modern lives, with greatly reduced physical effort and mortal risk, perhaps we seek these out, creating the urgency artificially by climbing El Sendero Luminoso or The Rupal Face.

Perhaps our fascination with, and rationalizations of, military gear, big trucks, gambling, religion, enormous wealth or power (anything this big must be important, right?), ultra-running, the Pacific Crest Trail, and climbing, and the bottomless pain of my Bethel alter-egos, reflects a hunger for clarity, urgency, and meaning that, like exercise, is much reduced in our well-planned, newly-paved, and fully-insured modern lives but who’s absence leaves us off-kilter and unraveled? (1)

Perhaps our efforts to explain our Hillary-style confusion about why we climb, about why we create “unnecessary” risk for ourselves, are incorrectly posed as philosophical questions. Perhaps we just need that focus, clarity, and urgency in the same way we need food, air, language, and exercise? That without the chemistry of focus and clarity, our physiologies struggle and sputter? That our genes’ evolutionary assumption that this is the way the world is, has been violated? (2)

Maybe our bodies believe, just as they believe that there will be air to breath and gravity to pull us Earth-ward, that the world is urgent, and that if we aren’t having an urgent experience, we aren’t paying attention, and they are pushing us to see the urgent and important it knows must be there. And, maybe, we are not making excuses, but correctly detecting that what we are avoiding actually isn’t important?

I could probably look up some papers on this topic and see if my hypothesis has support outside my own observations and reading, but I told a friend I’d go climbing, and, you know, well, sorry, gotta go…

UPDATE: I also remembered Nicholas Meyer’s The Seven-Per-Cent Solution in which he imagines Sherlock Holmes as a cocaine addict. Holmes is only stable when he has a mystery to solve: in the absence of a crime’s clarity, he fell to cocaine. Likewise, Steve House describes his sense of emptiness after climbing the Rupal Face.

  1. While the origin of our interest in these pursuits may stem from a quest for meaning, I do not think they are all justified by it: the consequences of our chosen pursuits differ and matter.
  2. I don’t think Civilization has eliminated meaning, only that it has radically shifted where we find it. There is, I argue, meaning in the choices we make because the impact of our decisions on those around us and the yet-unborn are greater now than they have ever been. As introduced by Reinhold Messner, and advanced by Steve House, meaning today is not found, as it was historically, in the ability to summit by any means, but in how we summit.