Is Climbing Selfish?


The Creek. (All rights reserved)

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?

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This post was modified slightly on April 20, 2016.

Wilkinson’s Take on Media During the 2008 K2 Tragedy

During the holiday break, while enjoying some snowfall in Vermont, I read through Part I of Freddie Wilkinson’s book One Mountain Thousand Summits. I’m further along now, but the first part — first third of the book, really — was not at all what I expected.

In a unique way, Wilkinson covers the 2008 tragedy on K2 where 11 alpinists lost their lives. I was expecting something akin to a play-by-play of the events on the mountain through one of the expedition teams or through interviews looking back. Instead, he reviews critically, and what feels like “real time,” the events that occurred on the mountain and what their family, friends and the public did in reacting to the news on an August weekend. He considered the role of blogs, journalism, sources and the general way information and news was received by the various audiences.

One thing I kept in mind that Wilkinson eludes to — and this is something I have certainly learned to be true while working in government and politics in my nation’s capital city — is that people’s perception of reality is their reality. Also, we are subject to the power of suggestion. This means if someone we believe to be an authority says that there is a reason to worry or be upset about an issue we likely will obey to some degree depending on our level of interest. Knowing this, and that only a handful of surviving climbers from the tragedy came forward to be sources for the media’s reports, the story is told from only their perspective. Collectively, it said mountaineering was a vainglorious endeavor.

This made it easy for the public to be critical of the climb, climbing and the tragedy. It was mere foolishness in life or death proportions. The public was influenced by the pundits and those identified as the subjects on the matter. Even Reinhold Messner and Ed Viesturs fueled, even if unintentionally, the media and public’s criticism.

Wilkinson points out that the shift from climbing as a noble pursuit (such as the first ascent of Mount Everest) to being part of selfish quests started after the 1996 Everest Disaster. This was when it became widely known that the only qualification need to take a stab at Everest was a hired guide and some level of good health. Climbers know — though the public does not universally acknowledge — that the skills and capabilities of guided climbers at that level vary widely but are not necessarily unqualified. (Respect for that style of climbing is a different subject altogether.)

Wilkinson puts the public’s criticism into historical context as well: “Since the polar feuds of the 20th Century, media controversy was an intrinsic part of exploration — but back then, few seriously questioned whether climbing mountains or traversing continents was worth it.” (It’s also notable the Wilkinson covers a lot of ground to make his points, and I have to hand it to him and his editor for having the courage not to retell the full story of each climbing incident he uses as an example. Clearly they recognized that either the resources to pick up the pieces exist or that there is a sophisticated audience — probably a little of both.)

Part I also considers the current context and the reality of what happens but he does so more through previewing his comments for later in Parts II and III. He leaves Part I with what is the informational equivalent of a cliff hanger. Just for the anthropological and social media view, it’s a very worthwhile and insightful read.

Thanks for dropping by again. If you enjoyed this post, please consider following the Suburban Mountaineer on Facebook or Twitter. Happy reading and carpe climb ’em!