There exists a certain madness that consumes many who seek adventure amidst their tame and sterile realities. This madness drives us to jeopardize the lives and safety of ourselves and those we love, and yet we revere those who are possessed by this madness as if they are brave, swashbuckling heroes rather than selfish, reckless egomaniacs.
I of course speak of mountaineers.
The men of my family are avid hikers. We were born and raised on the dusty trails of the Sierra Nevada, whose peaks form a 400-mile long granite ridge along the arid eastern part of California. To summit a mountain in the Sierras is to hike along a well-groomed trail for several days until the mountain is conquered by hopping from boulder to boulder or up a shale gully until there is no place higher to climb.
But what’s the point of summiting? The Sierras are a range of valleys and canyons, not of mountaintops.
There are no crevasses. No bergschrunds. No seracs.
A while ago, my father decided he wanted to climb Mount Rainier and bring his sons with him. Naturally, without much thought, we agreed.
Mount Rainier, for those of you unfamiliar, is the most topographically prominent mountain in the contiguous United States, and by far the most glaciated. It poses certain risks that do not often exist in the Sierras, the Rockies, or the Appalachians. Beyond sheer altitude alone: there’s the possibility of avalanche, ice fall, rock fall, crevasses, and so on and so forth. A climber is required to use crampons, an ice axe, a helmet, a rope and harness, and other such pieces of equipment meant to imply you will surely die.
There are other Cascades that are similar: Mount Hood, Mount Shasta, and Mount Baker to name a few, but none are as big and bad as Rainier.
The night before the climb, the three of us sat in a sushi restaurant in Seattle, each individually wondering why on earth we were doing this. It wasn’t just the prospect of toil, labor, sleeplessness, and exhausting effort that lay before us. It was also the prospect of death. Of course, any real mountaineer will tell you Rainier is pretty tame in the grand scheme of mountaineering. It doesn’t even begin to lick the likes of the Himalayas and Andes, or even the Alps. The chance of death on Mount Rainier is close to zero. But it isn’t zero.
So why do it?
Over 100 people have died while hiking on Mount Rainier in its recorded American history. That is a tiny fraction of people who have embarked upon its summit. By contrast, Annapurna in Nepal has a 38% mortality rate. That means for every three people who make it to the top, more than one person dies trying.
And yet people continue to climb it. And we don’t consider these people mentally ill.
In 2008, there was a disaster on the Pakistani mountain of K2, the second tallest mountain in the world. It killed 11 people. Norwegian Cecilie Skog lost her husband in that disaster. She responded by crossing Antarctica in 2010. Korean Go Mi-young survived only to die one year later on Nanga Parbat.
What madness drives them to look death in the face and say, “Okay, sure, but what else have you got?”
If a mountain wants to kill you, it will. No matter how prepared you are, how experienced you are, how safe you are, there exists a certain lack of control over your fate that you hand to Mother Earth when you agree to be a mountaineer, and that lack of control instills reverence within. It’s a sort of reverence that combats modern man’s disillusionment with his triumph over nature. On Rainier, I felt enamored with the natural world, because I once again felt that I am at its mercy. Yet Rainier isn’t even particularly dangerous, and I am not particularly experienced.
But for me, it’s two things in particular: 1) the singularity of goal, and 2) the destruction of the superficial.
When you climb a mountain, you have one goal: summit. And then after that, you have another goal: get down. That is all there is. In our daily lives, in our relationships and our occupations, purpose and meaning can be complicated, and we often live out contradictions between what is important to us and what we think is important to us. Am I in the right job? Do I love my wife? Am I a good father? Am I a good son? Does being a good father preclude being a good employee? Do I have a car worthy of my neighbors’ jealousy? Do I prefer Coke or Pepsi? And so on and so forth until we go home after work and drink ourselves into a dazed stupor because we can’t handle the bullshit life throws at us with its expectations for us and our expectations for it.
But on a mountain, you go up. And once you’re done going up, you go down. The bullshit is stripped away. There is up. Then there is down. There is no promotion. There is no marriage counseling. There is no silly quarrel with an in-law. If you don’t go up, you fail. If you don’t go down, you die. It’s really quite simple.
All of life’s complexities melt away. At least for a little bit.
And with that singularity of goal and simplicity of life comes the destruction of the superficial filth that haunts our daily existences; social codes and norms that seem intrinsic to the society in which we are forced to function are suddenly meaningless. You don’t care about how dirty you are. You don’t care about how smelly you are. Your clothes are hideously unfashionable. You’re hungry so you eat, and you’re thirsty so you drink. You pee alongside strangers, shaking it for all the Puget Sound to see, and you shit on an exposed field of ice visible to all who care to watch. You haven’t shaved in three days. Snot is frozen to your upper lip. But you don’t care what anybody thinks, because you’re on a big ol’ mountain, and so is everyone around you.
And suddenly, you come ever so close to finally experiencing a genuine, raw existence.