My Cottage at Deep South Mountain

In my middle years I love the Tao
and by Deep South Mountain I make my home.
When happy I go alone into the mountains.
Only I understand this joy.
I walk until the water ends, and sit
waiting for the hour when clouds rise.
If I happen to meet an old woodcutter,
I chat with him, laughing and lost to time.

-Wang Wei

In recent weeks, news surfaced of the deaths of some fairly well known alpine climbers during an expedition to China.  They were known for their pure alpine-style ascents on daunting peaks, taking them on in a single elegant push that demonstrated their endurance, fitness, and mastery of many types of climbing.  They perished in an avalanche while approaching their route, and the details of their deaths may never be sorted out.  What remains of them is a record of their accomplishments, which all carry the mark of their singular style, as well as numerous video and text pieces of which they were the subject.  One of these was Peter Mortimer’s film, The Sharp End, in which Jonny and Micah were featured climbing the Shafaat Fortress, in Kashmir, Pakistan.  Among the questions that Peter Mortimer asked them was the ever-resurfacing question directed at climbers: ‘Why do you climb?’.  What struck me in the film, and what is all the more pertinent now, is that neither could articulate an answer.  This begs the question of why such high-end (read: dangerous) alpine climbers would take the risks that they do for an undefined objective.  This may seem simplistic, and it is, as such motivations often originate from deep movements in the mind and go unquestioned as simply the direction of one’s life.  But as someone who only recently entered the sport, only to watch the unfolding details of the deaths of two climbers that I admire, I feel a strong need to articulate my goals, as even traveling on the simplest of glaciers holds the gravest of possibilities, and some measure of justification is needed to put it all on the line.

I’ve put some thought to the matter, though the answer did not come easily.  My true reason was shrouded by many layers of lesser, contributing objectives that obscured the most basic of reasons.  Among these lesser reasons are personal fitness, the beauty of nature, the way in which climbing acts as a part of my identity, the solitude that climbing provides, my ego, and the enjoyment that I find in well made objects and systems.  These all influence me and my decision to go into the mountains, but I think that knowing the most driving factor behind my desire to climb can help to cut through all of these.

To get to this main element, I have to lay a little groundwork.  First, I think that we are all in either a state of progression or regression, of living, or dying.  In addition, we are driving these processes every moment, either choosing life, or slowly sliding towards our ends, even if only in boredom and inaction.  It is pretty important that we are aware of ourselves and our actions for these reasons- our lives are at their best a creative act.  Knowing that we’re going to die, and not knowing when that might happen, to live fully we can only express ourselves fully in the present moment.  But this isn’t the way it happens on the day-to-day, at least not for my unenlightened self.  I get caught up in little things, dragged into thoughts of the past, of the future, wishing, reminiscing, escaping. I think this is a pretty common state to be in, and sadly, many people seem to spend their entire lives mistaking their internal dialogue for the world.  On the other hand, I, and many others, seek out activities that inspire in me an absorbtion into the present moment.  For some, this means playing music, riding fixed gear bikes, gardening, baking, yoga, slacklining, or any number of other things.

One of these things, for me, is climbing, both alpine and rock.  Climbing is a complicated undertaking that places demands on me physically and mentally, engaging my knowledge, good sense, and fear.  To perform in such a demanding environment, be it soloing up an exposed 50 degree snow slope or climbing 15 feet above my last cam, requires that I am fully engaged.  This is a state where thought is not in the foreground but is relegated to the sidelines by observation, action, reaction, and movement.  It is in this state that I am at my best and expressing myself fully, and if I fall, I fall having put it all out there.  And this is certainly better than dying the slow death of television, malls, and dare I say it, the internet.  But why travel to the mountains and greater hazard when such expression can be found in less dangerous activities, like bouldering?  The mountains are inspiring places; their stunning aesthetics dwarf those who travel among them.  While full commitment to a boulder problem yields a few moments of life lived fully, it is brief, and the objective quickly completed does not continue to inspire.  Travel in the mountains demands attention for hours if not days at a time; Quitting is not so simple as stepping down off the boulder and cracking a beer; The alpine demands commitment from my endurance, intelligence, and spirit.  In short, the mountains are more wild, and you have to grow to match them.

This does leave the question as to why one might travel solo in such a dangerous environment.  This doesn’t need to be explained to other climbers as much as it does to those who climb, perhaps because other climbers understand at some level what I have explained above.  The question of the solo is fairly simple in light of the above paragraph– to travel alone removes yet another crutch and places more demands on a climber, and accordingly, the rewards are greater.  There is certainly great value in camraderie, and climbing partners can be some of the best friends you’ll ever have, but at the same time, being with another climber dilutes the responsibility for each decision and also creates a semblance of safety that is gone when traveling solo. The soloist engages with risk knowing that all responsibility for actions is on him, and that he alone will reap the punishments and rewards that result.  I suspect that there are those who will either not understand or not agree with my take on soloing, but I think that they (you?) perhaps don’t understand that safety in the mountains is not about hazards themselves, but is instead determined by how one engages with, and if not controls then at least skillfully minimizes hazards.  There are those who take ropes to be a rule on steep slopes, relying upon the connection to driven protection as a safety net, and at the same time spend much more time exposed to falling rock and avalanche.  There are no clear cut lines, and though some parties might make it to the top in less elegant style, what is not art is accident.  Objectives pale in comparison to the style in which they are accheived, as this style is the creative expression of the climber who undertakes the efforts of the climb.

To close, I think it important to say that there are climbs that I would not attempt alone, and that at my skill level, these vastly outnumber those that I would.  I think that my accurate assessment of what I can and cannot do keeps me from getting in over my head.  But climbs once considered impossible now fall to soloists of greater ambition and skill than those who once declared them impassable.  The risk that these climbers endure by expressing such purity in style is redeemed  by their survival, a testament to what is possible when a person deeply commits to the present moment.