Why do I climb?

Objectively speaking, climbing is a really dangerous activity, and once you add alpine conditions to the mix, it gets much worse. If you check out online climbing forums, you’ll easily find lively and respectful discussions of the latest accident and fatality at the crag or in the mountains. (For some quantitative illustration of it, check out this amazing link and make sure you take a look at the Himalaya 6,000+ range).

Even at the most basic level, the consequences of an accident are severe. A couple of years ago I forgot to tie into an auto-belay at a climbing gym, and then spent the next 21 days in a hospital udergoing multiple surgeries to fix my leg. Why do it?

When I think about this question, I’m always reminded of Jon Krakauer’s quote in Meru. At some point, discussing the upcoming expedition, he assumes his role as translator and tries to answer a version of this question for the non-climbing audience. I can’t find the quote online at all, but it basically goes to say that it all comes down to knowing where the line is, and tip-toing as close as possible to the line, without overstepping it. However, when something happens, then it’s absolutely not worth it.

The rewards are immense. Climbing offers an amazing combination of intellectual, emotional and physical challenges. You have to figure out the route and the gear (plus weather, approaches, etc., if you are up high), manage your emotions and face your fears, and, well, there’s the physical aspect to it. All of this requires a degree of prescence and awareness that I haven’t found anywhere else. Add to this the amazing vistas, occasional solitude, and an incredible way of building friendships by literally putting your life in someone else’s hands, and you may start heading to your local gym. Yet this doesn’t begin to capture the spiritual excitement and aliveness that you get when you are going up high. Whether it’s 5am and you are hiking out of a hut with a pack, or finally figuring out a move on a tricky project, there’s that aliveness, that completeness.

All that said, the duality between these rewards and potential catastrophe is ever present. Nobody goes to the crag or the mountain in a suicide mission. But, at the risk of sounding morbid, the risk is an inherent part of it; and we would be foolish to pretend otherwise. Rather, we draw our line, we get close to it, and hope we get it right. With skill, discipline, and the right partners, the odds are pretty good.

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