I feel that my enemy is anyone who would, given the power to do so, restrict individual liberty, and this includes all officials, law officers, army sergeants, communists, Catholics, and the House Un-American Activities Committee. Of course I’m prejudiced, but I cannot imagine a sport other than climbing which offers such a complete and fulfilling expression of individuality. And I will not give it up nor even slow down, not for man, nor woman, nor wife, nor God.
~ Chuck Pratt
Preserve the wilderness? But how? By trying to keep it a deep, dark secret? By trying to convince the average Joe that this is all too good for him? Well, that’s one theory, I suppose; I happen to have another. If the average citizen remains ignorant of the value of wilderness country, he will most likely not develop any great interest in its preservation. On the other hand, if he’s encouraged to come to the mountains and enjoy them and if he’s taught how to take care of them, he may very well become quite interested in retaining this irreplaceable asset.
~ Warren Harding, in Downward Bound
When people put a lot of time and effort into something (especially something as apparently useless as climbing), they inevitably begin to take it seriously.
They set styles and standards, invent ethics, have magazines, journals, histories (and of course, reviews of histories), and people outside of the activity begin to wonder if they are slightly crazy.
~ Edward Drummond, as quoted in Warren Harding’s book, Downward Bound
I started by climbing trees. Then I got into climbing rocks. There were buildings and towers too. At some point falling out of planes came into the mix, but it was kind of expensive and dug into my climbing time, so I stopped.
Between all of the climbing I managed to do a bit of work. There was Bolivia, where I lived with awesome people, dodged the occasional tear gas canister, and tried to avoid the miners with dynamite and the Germans with coke. Then there was the embassy in Europe which got anthraxed, albeit fake anthrax, but we didn’t know that in the moment. Then there was the café where I had mint tea. It got blown up a few months later, which was senseless.
Then I started climbing trees again, but I got paid to wear a harness and strap a chainsaw to it.
I surfed Class III whitewater with my body, before learning in a kayak. Later, I wandered through hundreds of pit vipers.
I paddled on the big rivers of America, in the winter and alone, which is not as fun as the summer with friends.
Most people have a similar response to all of this. “These things are dangerous,” they say. “Don’t do these things,” they say. Then they ask, “Why do you do these things?”
Mostly I respond with a boilerplate answer: “It’s fun, I like it, and don’t worry.” An awkward silence often follows and a grave look of concern overcomes the face of the other person. I don’t like this answer because I know that the real answer is better. But when I try to give the real answer it rarely comes out right, and even when it does the other person doesn’t understand. I probably used words like “risk” and “death” too many times during a long rant, and apparently that freaks out most people (sorry to all of my conversation victims, I did not realize this fact until recently).
Others have tried to answer the same question in similarly curt ways. “Because it’s there,” said Mallory. This was probably a profound statement on Mallory’s part, but I doubt his audience caught on, instead believing it to be as superficial as it sounds.
And then there is the antagonizing “If you have to ask, then you will never understand. If you understand, you won’t have to ask.” This answer provides no satisfaction to the poor soul asking the question.
Some do it for the rush. Not me. Though, admittedly, the rush can be fun. Still, I am not an “adrenaline junkie,” I don’t even like the phrase. I don’t drink energy drinks. Generally, I am a calm person.
Some do it for the exercise. Yes, some of these activities are good workouts, but that’s not why I do it. The excellent physique is just another fringe benefit, like the rush.
So, why do I do it?
I do it to lose myself in something bigger. To do this, there is a process I must follow. Integration through movement.
I see these beautiful features of the world and I want to be a part of them; to see the world from their perspective; to feel the world that they feel. I want to transcend into their space.
I do this by moving over and through them under the power of my body, mind, and spirit. The further I move into them, the more I lose my sense of self; my body, mind, and spirit are no longer mine. The concerns of the mountain, the tree, the river, or the group of people are all that matter. There emerges only one, unified perspective.
But doing this requires risk. I do not seek danger for the sake of danger. Nevertheless, my wanderings take me to places where I am not “supposed” to be, either as a human or as a white, middle class American. I am but one tiny, delicate human. A rock can squash me or a snake pierce my skin. To handle all of this risk, I must further let go of myself. I must admit that I am not in control. I must accept uncertainty, and even embrace fear.
Does a mountain fear a storm? Does the river fear a big drop? Does the Bolivian miner fear the police? No. The mountain welcomes the storm and invites it to settle in for a few days. The river and the miner do not pause for anything nor anyone.
By moving through these extreme spaces and spaces where I do not belong, I lose my personal identity and my identity becomes that of the space through which I move. Fluid and steady like the river. Big and sturdy like the mountain. Light as a cloud. When I am in these spaces, I do not have to think about identity, just as the river does not think about being a river nor wish that it could be a mountain.
In our noisy and connected modern society, losing our identity to something bigger than ourselves for even a moment can be a great reprieve. How many identities are we expected to maintain? How many have we taken on in belief that they will give us an advantage? There are the identities of work, family, and friends. And there are the myriad identities that we can adopt here, on the Internet. But none of them allow us to forget about ourselves, about the individual. And, at the end of the day, none of these provide a truly new or unique perspective on the world we inhabit.
To a tree, the world looks much different than how we see it.
Difficulties are just things to overcome, after all.
~ Ernest Shackleton