Why We Do This

Excerpts from the first chapter, entitled "The Way to the Mountains", in Lyman and Riviere's The Field Book of Mountaineering and Rock Climbing:

Your way to the mountains begins wherever you happen to be when an interest in high, sunny, windy places first develops. ...climbing will build up confidence in your ability to take on mentally and physically challenging situations, those in your life which might otherwise prove difficult, even overwhelming.

Few of today's activities combine the degree of physical and mental stimulation developed in climbing. Whether on a gentle slope or a steep traverse, you have direct control over your destiny. You are not an insignificant cog in a great machine, never seeing the beginning of a project, nor its end. Your ability and experience have an immediate and direct bearing on your ultimate success -- or failure. You make all the decisions and take all the responsibility. You see the results of these decisions immediately. At the end of the day you may be washed out physically, but you feel a cleanliness of mind and spirit.

Climbing provides a substantial element of exploration. Even on a well-known and popular cliff, your first ascent is just that -- a first ascent. It is always a thrill to stand on new ground...

A mountaineer must be prepared voluntarily to place himself under strict discipline, both mental and physical. Serious climbing requires excellent physical condition. Concentration on the task at hand is vital. You simply cannot afford to make a mistake.

Certain discomforts are to be expected, but training, physical conditioning, and, even more importantly, a sound mental discipline will see you through these discomforts with relative ease. A cold, sleepless bivouac high on a ridge may, in fact, become the memorable highlight of an entire season of climbing. Deep and long friendships have been formed or reinforced under conditions which, in other circumstances, would be considered difficult, even utterly miserable.

There are misconceptions about mountaineers and rock climbers. They are looked upon by many as daredevils who enjoy risking their necks. This is far from the case. Although climbing is occasionally dangerous, no true expert enjoys a dangerous situation. Difficult, yes, but not dangerous. A difficult route may include dangerous segments, but the two terms are not synonymous. A difficult climb can be most enjoyable, but a skilled climber avoids dangerous situations in which his control of the climb is diminished. Maneuvers that appear breathtakingly foolhardy to the uninitiated may, in fact, be routine to the expert. A difficult route requires skill, technique, and craft, and from this combination comes the enjoyment of a climb.

Misconceptions about the dangers of mountaineering usually result from accidents occurring when overeager beginners choose to skip the easy, basic-training climbs and tackle more challenging ascents before they are ready for these. Climbing above your level of ability is as dangerous as climbing on loose rock, or under an avalanche-prone slope.

During the course of several seasons, an accumulation of craft, technique, skill, and mountain lore will combine to produce a competent mountaineer. Part of the joy of climbing, to me, has involved noting my own progress as I accumulated more and more skill, as I sharpened my technique and developed the mental and physical balance that made it possible for me to negotiate increasingly difficult routes.

The best conditioning for climbing, of course, is to climb. Exercise will help to tone the muscles, but if you are going to pack 50 pounds for two weeks the best conditioning is to pack 50 pounds for two weeks! No amount of running, swimming, or tennis will adequately prepare you for difficult rock climbing or for extended high altitude ascents. [However, doing several hundred step-ups onto an 18-24" high box or platform each day can be good conditioning, especially with a loaded pack on...] Dancing and fencing are more closely related to climbing due to requirements of good balance and the use of the feet. Gymnastics can be good, too, especially gymnastics requiring smooth execution and stressing dynamic movement. Ideally, climbing is smoothly dynamic, never static, never a series of jerks and lunges.

Another misconception is that climbers are supermen of great stamina and strength, and that climbing involves tremendous hardship. Obviously, strength is an advantage. ...However, balance, coordination, and willpower are far more valuable assets. Mental strength and stability and the ability to relax are actually more important than brawn...

Climbing demands total concentration, and this is refreshing in this day of complex thought processes involved in many sports. You direct energy and thought along one avenue and one alone -- the route to the summit. Stamina, of course, is indispensable but this is often interwoven with the climber's mental outlook. A nervous person, one who can't relax, probably won't make a good climber because worrying burns up a fantastic amount of energy, resulting in physical exhaustion even during a short climb. If an emergency arises, such a climber is likely to be too tired to deal with it effectively.

In short, climbing demands much but, in return, has much to offer. As a sport, it could hardly be a healthier activity. As an art, it requires the ultimate in control, finesse, and technique. And because there is always a more challenging climb waiting somewhere, you can always upgrade your skill. Also, there's little likelihood that you'll lose interest because you've "done it all".

The fusion of skill, craft, technique, and sound judgement is, in itself, a beautiful and rewarding thing, and when this is done in a setting of wind, sun, wildflowers, and ice, alone or with a few chosen companions, one of the ultimate joys of human expression is reached.

This is the last paragraph from the book Killing Dragons -- The Conquest of the Alps, by Fergus Fleming:

The pioneers were driven to climb the Alps for varied and complex reasons. Scientific inquiry played a part; sheer egotism was an even stronger motive. Some of them were escaping modern life; others saw Alpine achievement as the culmination of modernity; others, still, considered climbing a spiritual necessity. And, of course, some went just for the hell of it. Swirling in their wake came painters, poets and pedants, each of whom imagined the Alps in their own particular way. But if one had to choose a single sentence to encapsulate the essence of Alpine exploration, the magic which drove men and women to the peaks again and again; if one sifted through the archives, from Master John de Bremble, Leonardo da Vinci, Conrad Gesner, Bourrit, Sauasure and Forbes, to Wills, Whymper, Tyndall, Conway, Coolidge and beyond, no words are better than those of [Heinrich] Harrer [1912-2006; part of the first ascent team, 7/24/1938] on returning from the Eigerwand [the north wall of the Eiger]. Echoing a sentiment that was shared by hundreds of climbers across two centuries, Harrer said, simply: `We had made an excursion into another world and we had come back.'


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