I recently read and commented on an interesting article on Blog Critics entitled Mount Everest is Man's Mental Achilles Heel. While the author raises some good points, it made me think about why I choose to climb, which is something I speak about in my keynote presentations to schools, corporations, and other audiences.
The recent tragedies in the mountains - many deaths on Everest last spring, recent deaths of Todd Skinner and Jean Christophe Lafaille, missing climbers on Mt. Hood and in China - have made climbing a popular topic in the media. But, as is common, the media's focus has been on the risk, the death and injury that happens in climbing. Rarely do we see a discussion about what climbing represents and does for people. So, why not begin one?
To begin, climbing of course involves risk. Few activities in life are risk free. Driving to work can get you killed, but commuters are not chided for being selfish egomaniacs. But climbing...well, it is often seen as an egomaniac's pursuit, one which courts death in a flippant manner, it's participants toeing the line of death hoping to jump back at the last minute cheering: Ha! Ya missed me...this time!
But, to me, this is an unfair and untrue characterization of climbing and of most climbers. Climbing is a metaphor for life, for the obstacles we must overcome to reach our summits, for the mental, physical, emotional, and financial crevasses we pick our way through as we struggle for the top. When I head to the mountains, be it on South Table Mountain in my backyard or on a major Himalayan peak, the whole reason for being there is about challenging myself...challenging myself to overcome my obstacles, be them mental or physical. And, in so doing, in pushing myself against these obstacles, I am able to see what I can accomplish in life.
When a climber stands at the base of a mountain and gazes up at the lofty terrain above, he or she can be overwhelmed by the view: the steep walls, deep crevasses, intense cold, and rarified air. The temptation is to avoid the challenge, to turn tail and run to another peak, another goal...one which we know we can climb. But here in lies the beauty of the mountain experience: if we accept the challenge, acknowledge the dangers and fears and decide to deal with them rationally, trusting our instincts and not pushing on at all costs, we can often overcome these self-imposed obstacles and climb onward to our summits.
The same is true in life. If we fail to push ourselves, to accept some risk in life, some adversity and challenge, our ability to accomplish goals is severely handicapped. The people we hold dear in politics, business, religion, and elsewhere all accepted risk and knew that it was imperative in order to accomplish great things. Think Martin Luther King...Mahatma Gandhi...Abraham Lincoln...Muhammad Yunus...the list goes on and on.
As I mentioned, my keynote presentations based on my Everest expeditions go into more detail on the relationship between climbing earth's mountains and climbing life's mountains. To succeed, we must all accept a level of risk, and through this we will grow, we will learn, and, if all goes well, we will climb our peaks. No, climbing is not about taunting death, but rather about living life. As author James Ramsey Ullman put it so eloquently in The Age of Mountaineering:
The mountain may well be a way of escape - from the cities and people, from the turmoil and doubt, from the complexities and uncertainties and sorrows that thread our lives. But in the truest and most profound sense, it is an escape not from but to reality. Over and above all else, the story of mountaineering is a story of faith and affirmation - that the high road is the good road; that there are still among us those who are willing to struggle and suffer greatly for wholly ideal ends; that security is not the be-all and end-all of living; that there are conquests to be won in the world other than over each other. The climbing of earth's heights, in itself, means little. That we want to try to climb them means everything. For it is the ultimate wisdom of the mountains that we are never so much as we can be as when we are striving for what is beyond our grasp, and that there is no battle worth the winning save that against our own ignorance and fear. [emphasis added]