Maybe the question is not the tiresome why [do we climb],” Kelly Cordes says, “but what do we seek?” –Katie Ives, The Sharp End, Alpinist 41
It went like this: A high school kid is dressed in a tux and about to go to the prom solo. He gets a boost of confidence from his dad who lends him his Audi. He barges into the party and passionately kisses the girl, then the football-playing boyfriend decks him. The commercial cuts to the kid driving away with a smirk of satisfaction and a blackeye.
The part I savored wasn’t about what a car can do for me or the rush of adrenaline and excitement of taking a risk and becoming memorable (legendary, no doubt, in this case), but rather the combination of bravery and living in the moment. The high awareness of the moment and the perspective that comes with euphoria and sense of wholeness. It’s when all your bodily effort and your soul touches someplace that feels outside time. Happiness is involved too.
Kelly Cordes’ point about asking what we seek when we climb, rather than more broadly why do we climb is clever means to drill into our ice-core souls. Why has always been a dull bit when I’ve tried to clearly explain things to my family. I’ve felt the need to justify my love for climbing as an activity and an intellectual interest by addressing their values. I thought it was a persuasive approach. I realize now that I was being partly untruthful. I’d say that it helped me serve clients and customers better because I took the time to separate myself from the routine of suburban and urban life. I said it was about therapy. It worked but the answer didn’t really explain it entirely.
My family and friends found the pictures and stories from my trips the most compelling but they still questioned the safety and comfort of the endeavor. I usually just shrugged. I understand more clearly now that to do anything worthwhile, there is always a little bit of effort and it sometimes involves a degree or misery. I’m okay with that and I even apply the principle to a lot of activities in life.
What’s compelling for me — as in the real goal of an wilderness adventure — is to reach that moment of touching someplace metaphysically higher — call it heaven. After a long slog, the satisfaction of the top that opens to an expanse — particularly a wide open space such as the top of a route or a bald summit — is euphoric. I’m not worried or even thinking about due dates, my next errand or the emails or even bills accumulating at home or at work. It’s strictly thoughts of wonder at the place I’m in. Concentration on my balance. Conscious of the weather conditions and the angle of the sun. Blissfully happy.
The perspective is an important one. Because for me, I’ve found wide open space — even a hillside meadow — and the feeling of separation from the daily grind and elevation to a peaceful place nearly outside of time are somehow linked with me. There I have these fleeting moments of wholeness and bliss where the world seems to hold still both physically and in my modern multi-tasking mind. It’s still long enough that what really matters is crystal clear. I can think of numerous examples from coming to a clearing in Shenandoah, to the hillside unkempt lawn at my favorite resort in Vermont.
Unfortunately, wherever or however I come to those pinnacles, I can never hold onto them. A religious leader once told me that this was the difference between happiness and joy. Happiness is a temporal state. Alternatively, you can be going through a rough time and still be joyful. Joy has to do with keeping the bigger picture in mind, even if the memory of what’s important gets muddled in the confusion of life.
Interestingly, I just recently realized that I don’t have to climb to achieve that heavenly awareness. It came to me in a meadow at Trapp Family Lodge last September when I was playing with my wife and daughter. The state of mind was the same place I had visited during my most memorable climbs and hikes. Really. Yet, getting to that point took a lot of work: Building relationships, saving for the expense of time off, arranging for work to operate in my absence. The work of getting to that state was akin to sackcloth and ashes or a narrow bivy, low on rations and you dropped your fuel canister.
The temporal state of a happy place is hard to reach consistently. But the quest of boiling everything down to life’s essence is what I work on doing (mostly unsuccessfully) every day. It’s a quest, and I believe that there is no better means of reaching that objective than mountain climbing. I also think alpinism is the ultimate method to stretching one’s abilities and getting what I’m talking about. This may not be the case for everyone, but I suspect most would agree and where we disagree it’s a matter of semantics.
One final thing I want to mention: If you are only reading Climbing or Rock & Ice — which are good publications that I read too — you might not be getting all that you need if you’re into the essence and sharing the actual experience of climbing. You have to read Alpinist too. It helps identify and maybe even look into those soulful moments of being whole almost anytime.