I received a really nice gift from a new acquaintance last week. As a thank you for some support I gave at work and because of our mutual interest in climbing, I received in the mail Jennifer Lowe-Anker’s memoir Forget Me Not about her life with her late husband and legendary alpinist Alex Lowe, loss and falling in love with Conrad Anker. It’s a different kind of climbing book and one I hadn’t read yet. I wanted to and now it’s on my shelf.
One of the aspects about climbing my new acquaintance and I talked about was the elitism in climbing, at least in serious climbing. The conversation was spurred on by Duane Raleigh’s piece in Rock and Ice, “The Big Freaking Deal, Ain’t Bouldering.” While anyone can take anything seriously, I’m really talking about commitment in terms of projects and their scale. Alpinism, really. One common trait about the news of an alpine climbing accomplishment, that we both recognized, is that it leaves non-climbers, even novice climbers and strictly-gym and -crag climbers, a little mystified: The story sounds impressive to them, maybe even inspiring, but they can’t relate.
Usually the mystery is from a lack of background knowledge. There is a lot of information that goes into understanding a climb — particularly why some climbs are more bigger deals than a trade route (think Denali’s West Buttress compared to Hunter’s Moonflower.) That’s unfortunate because so many business anecdotes are about climbing a mountain; most audiences usually don’t have a clue.
Knowledge–The first piece of background knowledge is mainly a matter of geography. If you don’t know where the mountain is (did you really know where the Garhwal Himalaya before reading Rock and Ice?) it’s difficult to trigger thoughts relative to its size and conditions.
Mechanics–Another matter is mechanics: One has to understanding how a climb works, especially multi-pitch climbs. And when climbers say they brought minimum gear and no sleeping bag versus a tent and a haul bag, that indicates many possibilities about the climber’s approach and likely experience. If they went light, they were taking risks by going faster and may have been doomed if hostile weather moved in before the descent was completed. If the team went heavy, they might have been able to wait out bad weather, but they likely moved much slower — possibly as long as a month, and may have returned to basecamp after completing a day’s work of setting the route.
Unknown–Respecting the challenge of heading up a wall without beta that has never been successfully completed, let alone attempted, well, it’s not easily compared to anything in this day and age. Sailing without a map and only using a sextant and a compass might be the best analogy, though sailing is rather specialized too, and I never sailed more than a large lake, so even I don’t know firsthand.
Reward–The most difficult aspect that sets the knowledgeable climber apart from the clueless is the willingness to embrace personal suffering and varying degrees loneliness. I find that with non-climbers, and non-hikers too, the notion of sacrificing comforts is an outrageous idea. Why put yourself through all that? They’ll argue it’s not worth it, though they’ll look at you with a bit of wonder and think you’ve got a screw that’s not loose, but fell out before you started your quest. It’s all about Dukkha, really; the Buddhist idea that suffering is among the first steps to enlightenment. It’s only through the journey, sans comforts, that we can embrace the world around us, let go of convention and see the world differently. It’s a type of religious experience. No wonder it has it’s own word: Alpinism.