My friend Alex, now on tour to South America with a couple of other bicycling friends, found some time to drop a line and respond to a previous post of mine.  He’s a smart feller’, and certainly a more pensive climber than I, so I think his thoughts on the matter ought to grace the front page.  Below are the quotes that he highlighted from my post on the death of Tomaz Humar, followed by his thoughts and my response.

What challenges me most when trying to decide what level of risk is acceptable is the question of whether my apprehension and holding-back is out of good reason, or whether it is my fear preventing me from realizing what I would like to.

… From the outside it is difficult to distinguish between a climber pushing his edge, and one looking for suffering because he thinks that he deserves it, but a world of difference lies between the two. One man may find a richness in his life that come from expanding his sense of the possible, while the other crushes himself forever, wondering what his life lacks and punishing himself for not having it.

… I need to find out if the voice that offers me answers is a guide or a demon, and the only way to know is to take the leap and to risk failure.

Good words my friend, these cut to the root of the matter. It is immensely satisfying to overcome fears that have been imposed on us by others, to trust our instinctive judgements about danger and what is possible over negative conditioning. That is a very large part of what draws me to climbing. So the best method I have found for deciding which fears are justified is to ask whether the fear comes from without or within.

Of course, this is difficult. It is addictive to discover the emptiness of these imposed fears; I believe this addiction often drives climbers to become callous to their own instinctive internal fears. This is how smart, competent, and experienced people die in the mountains.

In addition to the danger of ignoring justified fears, there is the danger of absorbing what I’ll call “imposed bravery” : what happens when you learn the standard practices of the climbing community that scare you at first, but come to trust them with experience. If you keep adopting this imposed bravery with success it may lead to thoughts like “I can sprint across this rockfall area, that’s just what alpine climbers do.” I’m quite wary of this kind of thinking, it’s a major reason I like to climb alone.

Oh, and since you’re my de-facto spiritual advisor, how do the Buddhists feel about this question? From the snippets of Buddhism I’ve absorbed I get the impression that they think fear is never justified, accurate, or worthwhile. Thoughts?

It is certainly tempting to believe that all fear is something that can be conquered, but I think that to arrive at this conclusion is tantamount to saying that we can become impervious to even the most real threats.  As to the idea of ‘imposed bravery’, I think it’s more apt to call it ‘absorbed bravery’.  In one way, these sorts of practices are risk-management compromises born from the experience of the climbing community, and they are often reasonably safe.  What we do can’t be completely safe.  On the other hand, the compromises made by alpine climbers are necessarily going to be more tenuous, as committing to climbing in the alpine is committing yourself to choosing various risks over others (e.g. travel fast, light, and unprepared to deal with contingencies, or weigh yourself down and spend longer in hazardous places) so these compromises need to be weighed more carefully than if, say, you’re trad climbing.

I have to say that I don’t like to be the ‘token Buddhist’, but if you’re the ‘token pessimistic materialist’, then I guess I’ll respond, with the caveat that I’m probably misrepresenting thousands of years of better practitioners than I.  It is not the case that from the Buddhist perspective fear is never justified, accurate, or worthwhile.  As Suzuki Roshi said: “For zen student, weed which people do not care for so much is treasure”. There are at least two, possibly three sides to every coin.  In one sense, when you’re experiencing fear, that is your reality.  From another perspective, does this fear come from you?  Where does it come from?  We have this saying that any sense may be a Dharma gate– that is, that anything can become fuel to help you along, and fear is particularly valuable for this.  Fear is deep rooted and powerful; it rears its head with both energy and momentum.  It is a sensation which is more likely than most to pull us away from the truth of our situation and into a world of awful fantasy, so if we can examine our experience in the face of fear and see that it is at best only a part of our reality, then we have done a great thing: we have transformed ourselves.  In that moment we transform our relationship to whatever it is that has scared us, and in the long term we slow the momentum of that which generated the fear.  So fear is an invitation to take a good strong look at things, it’s like seeing red flags in the back country; when you hear a whumph, it may be time to examine the snowpack.