Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Why We Climb

Mountaineering is tough, but there were special moments, of peace, of solitude, of something spiritual. (Pic: sunset at Nido de Condores / Camp2 of Aconcagua).

I saw a recent thought-provoking article about mountaineering being all about empty egotism.  I may have felt instantly defensive - concluding that the writer was either a non-mountaineer,  or unfortunate enough not to experience the profoundness of “oneness” with nature.  And I can’t really blame him as this special experience is something personal.  And it’s also deeper and not empty. 

It’s easy to agree to most of his points when you see news about certain internationally-known personalities in this field.  The “glory and fame” could be addicting to highly successful adventurers – but something they also need to sustain sponsorship and hence secure funds for future trips.  True, there are those who aim for records to etch their name in history (nothing wrong with that), some get riches through sponsorships and commercial engagements  (again nothing wrong with that), still some just wish to be in the limelight (again it’s ok - it’s their life to live).  Some even invent their feats just to get significant attention (think Cook and Peary on their first North Pole claims).  

More “non-adventure” people readily agree to this idea when they heard or read “bad” news; like when some solo adventurers got into trouble while trying to set a record crossing an ocean, pole and what-not, and disturbed world peace by grabbing media attention.  “Those egotistic bastards” – one might say.  

But there are of course more quiet explorers and individuals who pursue dangerous, risky dreams!  Without being thrown in the limelight, they still do what they do anyway.  And perhaps they are the exceptions, those who didn’t need social validation or attention, and their personal experience and accomplishments are enough as fulfillment. It may seem empty and senseless from the perspective of an outsider, but it’s obviously a set journey to experience life. 

As I think through this, I have to do a self examination.   True, there were times that consequential ‘noise and attention’ feed one ego, but it was never an intent or objective.  Nor a driving reason for the next trip.  The bigger part of the whole experience is still the journey, yes it’s personal – yes, it will not make the world a better place, but it’s also very primal, as if coded in our genetics.  

Why I Climb?
I joined a climb group because I envy seeing people “going up the mountains”.  But my first climb was not at all pleasant.  A simple, short hike caused me to vomit in the campsite, exhausted for a mere 3-4hour of hike with a mere 15kg of weight.  I wanted to give up mountaineering right away.  Mentors intervened and suggested that first climbs are naturally miserable, the next will be better.
The next was worse in terms of weather and campsite condition – but I felt ok.     
The 3rd climb was a turning point.  A point of realization.  Of awareness.  Of understanding the "un-understandable".   I felt that I belong.  Here’s an excerpt from my book, it may sound unreal for most mountaineers, but I was fortunate to be ‘ready to feel’ the moment.  Perhaps because it was a period of soul-searching, or whatever…

Mt. Banahaw (1991)
Looking at the vast expanse of the
crater and the surrounding gigantic rim from the tip of the rock
of Banahaw’s Durungawan high camp, I felt for the first time that
I belonged there. This was accompanied by the feeling of insignificance.
Despite my puffed-up sense of accomplishment, I felt as
tiny as a speck of dust. The view humbled me; I recognized in that
moment that I could never be bigger or more powerful than the
mountains. I felt very small, literally and figuratively. In an instant,
the mountains gained my utmost respect. Forever ingrained is the
thought that I can never be greater than these mountains.

This feeling of inconsequentiality gave way to something more: an
awareness of my humanity, my own existence, my place in the so-called
grand scheme of things. This realization would be repeated
every time an overwhelming environment enveloped me. What followed
was a very personal and deep appreciation of life, a sense
of being temporarily detached from all things but at the same time
being strongly linked to something greater. This connection with
nature, the whole planet, even the universe, became clear. Standing
on that mountain peak, I could almost see the fragile, tenuous
connections that we humans have with all the things around and
between us.

It was a spiritual moment. There was a sense of life within this
physical life. Perhaps it could best be described as a transcendental
experience of here and of the beyond. To me it was a silent and
subtle hint of a deeper existence that went beyond normal life.
If this makes me sound like Yoda lecturing before Luke Skywalker,
so be it. But those were the thoughts and feelings that went through
me while I silently contemplated the mountain.

As I read this again, I still recall that ‘emotional drama’.
Now for my big climbs, I tried to fit the ‘feeling the glory’ in the typical journeying model.  Here’s the typical sequence of a difficult climb, in my case at least being a most-of-the-time-weak climber…
Excitement (to climb)… Worry/ Anxiety/ Doubt (before the trip)… Confidence (start of the trip)…Misery (when I get sick, which was 50% of the time)… Renewal (recovery)…Strength (for the first couple of hours)…Pain/ Suffering (80-90% of the uphill time)… RELIEF (the only predominant feeling ON the summit)… Excitement (to go home)…

The emo-journey continues… Depression (failed summit), Or post-climb elation (success)… “Undefined fulfillment” (you felt you did something for yourself)… Pride and ‘Glory’ (when people congratulate you) – the last one is the ego-feeder.  A possible consequence.  But not an intent, nor a driver to carry on.  

And it’s never empty.  Some people who have read or heard the story got inspired to ‘do something about their life’s dreams’– a positive consequential impact of someone’s pursuit of passion! 

Why do you want to repeat the experience?   Because you felt something that others didn’t feel.  You’ve experienced something that others may never experience.  You conquered yourself and felt ‘above and beyond’ your outer self.  You were fulfilled and wanted to repeat the experience. 

In the outer form, it’s easy to judge and say it’s meaninglessly egotistic.  In the inner, more profound aspect – it’s something more.  In the history of man and God, mountains are significant story location.  Moses climbed Sinai to communicate with God.  Jesus climbed a mountain to meditate or talk with his disciples.   Mountains somehow carry this link or energy that somehow unites us ‘to something beyond’.  If one is lucky, he/she might experience something mystical.    

Is mountain climbing senselessly risky?
One may argue that mountaineering is dangerous and should be stopped.  It’s inherently risky but it didn’t mean you should be careless or unprepared.  Let’s take some unrelated examples. Nearly 1.3 million people die in car accidents each year!   Not even 0.1% of those who had died in the mountains. Do we stop driving? Smoking kills 6 million people a year!  And yet people keep smoking!!   And blowing out deadly smoke to non-smokers and kids!  Unfair right? Several more millions die due to unhealthy food intake.   And yet we still eat cancer-inducing food, lots of sugar and salt, among many other things.  So is mountaineering more dangerous?  Or one’s lifestyle of sitting in a couch, watching TV for the whole night every night while eating fatty, salty chips; or doing social media a fourth of one’s useful life!?

Enough said, mountaineering is more than how people see it;  it surely can be an egotistic experience sometimes,  but it can be many other GREAT things for you, or your friends and families.
So don’t mind the argument – just keep (or start) climbing…

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