One line from One Mountain Thousand Summits by Freddie Wilkinson — the second part of this next sentence — has had me thinking during my early morning runs about the old question, is climbing selfish? Wilkinson writes, “Since the polar feuds of the 20th Century, media controversy was an intrinsic part of exploration [including mountaineering] — but back then, few seriously questioned whether climbing mountains or traversing continents was worth it.”
People question whether our sport is worthwhile quite frequently today. Discouraging banter about whether adventures are valid pursuits usually follows tragedy — like the 1996 Everest disaster, 2008 loss of life on K2 or the 2011 season on Denali — hits the mainstream media. Or if it hits hard at home because a loved one was hurt, fell, or worse.
Playing Our Game
I used to urge critics of recreational adventure to consider whether any athletic game or endeavor is. Playing baseball, for instance, seems beyond question unselfish because spectators can take in a game and the fans consider professional players (and even some amateurs) as entertainers. At least it is beyond question insofar as nobody thinks to attack it the way climbing sometimes is criticized, largely due to the danger. Deaths are rarely reported in the outfield.
Climbing, has been historically niche or at least private affairs, except for well-sponsored expeditions driving for the biggest objectives. Expeditions to attempt 8,000 meter peaks in the 1950s and 60s were well publicized, meanwhile work being done in Alaska at the same time was underground. The smaller rock walls in New England were climbed by climbers and it mattered only to other climbers.
Do we need nonclimbers to care or respect our pursuits and accomplishments to avoid being labeled selfish? I don’t think so, but the questions are largely questions of values and public relations. Climbing — particularly alpine mountaineering — is among the last types of exploration-type adventure in our day and age.
It’s All Fun and Games Until…
But going deeper and asking whether our climbing or any outdoor action-sport adventure is fundamentally selfish means we have to look at the people around us. Our friends. Our family. The ones that love us. They are all going to have a different opinion. When we are hurt, sometimes it’s harder on the people that love us. Our moms. Our spouses. Our kids.
Of course, we’re talking about recreational adventure here. There are people that are forced into adventures as part of their life due to natural disasters, war, and health challenges in a region. I think even general eviction and family stability issues might even qualify. I’m probably missing examples. While you and I go outside into the unknown to glean something for our soul, others are having similar and graver situations — hmm — minister to their soul unwillingly, shall we say.
Further, there are a lot of horrible things that could “get us,” from crossing the street, to unspeakable violence. Is going to the market or school worth it? That goes without saying. Is going to the ballgame? Or the movies? Climbing and outdoors adventures are at least driven by excitement and challenge; it’s not a chore, an errand, or an obligation. We could stay home, but we think the adventure is worthy of leaving the safety of our home and everyday routine.
Now to the point of selfishness, it’s not our opinion of whether it’s selfish that counts. I think most of those closest to us give us allowance or keep their fears of us being hurt (or worse) to themselves because they know that we enjoy the game. We feed off the energy from the sport.
So, no. I don’t ultimately believe climbing itself is selfish. It’s the agreement, spoken or unspoken, with the people who care about us that matters. They determine whether your adventure is antics or part of some noble quest.
Climb for the right reasons. Be honest with the people that love you. Maybe it’ll spare some grief and bring you closer in the process. Isn’t that important too?
This post was modified slightly on April 20, 2016.