Question Madness: Pete Athans

By Pete Athans

Why live a life that’s perceived as mad? It can arrive as a question, a challenge, a gentle admonishment, even a stern warning. Societal norms and conventions — while strong and well entrenched — invite alternatives, challenges and even outright defiance. Questioning the status quo, running contrary to acceptable behavior and choices, and shedding the notions of quotidian material success requires courage, endurance and conviction. The risks are many, easily imagined and with trenchant consequences; but there are equal or, I’d argue, greater risks with accepting a destiny that I perceive distant to me, without heart, passion or wisdom. The empty path, perhaps superficially rewarding, could never fascinate me. I perceived myself incapable of traditional callings in life. Not that those objectives were of no value, but they simply weren’t my path. I’ve been a mountaineer, alpinist and rock climber more than four decades now. Sure, I could have done things a lot differently and spared my family the duress. But the simple truth of the matter was, and continues to be, that there wasn’t another path for me to engage. In those early days I’d felt a calling, something irresistible and undeniable. Of course, I might have chosen a more traditional path, but ignoring a calling is a commitment to never finding an answer. If wisdom were to be my only reward, the trade of those years and effort seemed acceptable.

I’ve always had the soul of an explorer and wanderer, relentless in pursuit and discovery, anticipating what was around the next bend, rarely dissatisfied as long as I had the freedom to go. My parents, perhaps different than many today, practiced benign neglect almost to the level of art. They might secretly have thought that, though I appeared to be their child, there existed the possibility of a mishap and a switch in the hospital nursery on my fateful day. While both are gifted, well educated and compassionate, they realized I was just not very good at accepting even the best advice, given with the most wise intentions. At five years old, I skipped out of Kindergarten and my surly teacher early and disappeared for about four hours, sending my school’s administration into a panic, that later became amusement when they learned I had walked the six miles home and was sitting on my doorstep. My early exploits rock climbing on the freeway cliffs near our home in New York frequently finished in the emergency room. It was clear I had a lot to learn. But I had the blessing to get out and learn it, one of the many gifts my generous parents gave. Another was my Mom’s library which included a dog eared, worn out copy of “The Ascent of Everest” which I have to this day, full of grainy black and white images of explorer-climbers, cartographers, geographers, and scientists in the most dramatic, other worldly landscape in this world. In the stories I read and the photographs I pored over, I imagined myself there, felt unusually attached to those people, saw myself reflected in them. However, because I was an average kid in New York I didn’t have a blessed clue how to get there.

Embracing madness was how I got one, though. I moved out to the mountainous West, desperate to find the kindred souls who shared the inexplicable passions that had taken hold of me and I was not disappointed. While learning the mad, arcane crafts of climbing, I also began to better appreciate and understand people, respect their divergent backgrounds and attitudes, and learn to be a true friend. Climbing in Alaska early in my career with two friends, on a difficult alpine-style climb that required everything we had and seven more days than we planned, I think I learned how perceptions can limit one’s ambitions and that our capability for achievement may drastically outstrip our own self imposed limits. But I also learned the importance of selecting mad objectives and assuming risk carefully, as our survival was not assured on the final few days of the descent. There was absolutely nothing mad about balance and there was wisdom in restraint.

Fast forward a few years, trade the Alaska Range for the Himalaya and the entire scale of the mountains seems mad. Everest had been my childhood’s audacious dream and studying the madness of everyone who climbed and came back was essential to my own success. Truth be told, it took four failed attempts before I reached Everest’s summit and my repeated attempts appeared crazy to those around me. Something climbers uniquely understand, though, is gleaning the success in failure, appreciating the teaching, and realizing the possibilities in what might appear to be a fool’s errand.

Moreover, the by-product of climbing in Asia in my early years was getting my mind around the dual nature of life, accepting life’s impermanence, planning to live for a hundred years, but living as if I were breathing my final breath. Buddhism and the animistic traditions that came before reveal that madness sometimes dwells close to wisdom, and that great understanding or even enlightenment are the rewards. But there are risks of irremediable depression, loneliness and nihilism. Everyone decides for themselves the limits of their own passions and whether those risks are worthy. There are consequences.

I’ve been climbing more than fortyfive years and I love talking about it and sharing the narratives that make up the mosaic of my life. Like most of the members of our athlete team at The North Face, I’ve got some pretty good ones. I almost can’t imagine what life would be like without climbing mountains. Mostly, though, I travel, climb and study in the Himalaya with my family, climbing partners and scientists, studying ancient human migration and the lives of those who came to live at high altitude first. In addition to being a mountaineer, filmmaker, and explorer, I spend my time trying to be a good father, husband, son, and brother. I’ve got my family to consider in most of life’s complex equations and in our household we have two got-the-world-all-figured out teenagers who keep me from getting too old too fast. Madness doesn’t keep me up at night anymore, but giving them the liberty to pursue their own mad adventures and maintain my sanity reminds me of the balance I used to perceive in my benign, neglectful parents. Payback, you might say, is a bitch.