I asked this question of Fabrizio Zangrilli back in 2009 when he was on I think his fourth K2 expedition. He said, “it’s an addiction.” It’s a stark thing for a 23 year old to hear. I mean I still liked to think that I did this because it was fun and the purpose of going after higher and taller mountains gave me a positive, even constructive, hobby. But admitting it was an addiction, that’s like saying you don’t have control, it’s like saying that the choice isn’t even mine to make.
My climbing inspires people. That’s nice, but sometimes I wish it did not. The movie Everest had a nice scene at basecamp where Jon Krakauer asks 37 minutes into the movie, “it hurts, it’s dangerous, it destroys relationships, it’s costing you all a small fortune…I gotta ask the question, you know I do, why?” It’s a good question, and to quote George Mallory, “Because it’s there!” Which is actually a decent response because it is really asking the question, what is possible? You could say the same about why we went to the moon, because it’s there. Why have immigrants been flooding to the USA for the last 400 years, because it’s there. In other words, I would rather say, because I want to know what is possible. A good argument against my particular jaunt up the South Col on Everest is that it has been done, thousands of times, what is there to doubt about it being possible? My answer is, how can we attempt the “impossible” which is to say, that which has never been done, unless we first do what is possible, or what has been done?
To springboard off of the Everest movie again, when Beck and Doug are at camp 3 Beck mentions 47 minutes in that, “When I’m at home, I’ve just got this big black cloud following me, you know like a depression? And when I’m out here, on a mountain, any mountain, it’s just like it’s a cure. I feel like I’m reborn.” When my sister and I saw the movie in September she commented, “Isaiah, that’s you.” So I’ve spent the last six months thinking about that...
I will not admit to having depression. However, I will readily admit that many of the life experiences I have had, like unemployment in 2010 or the avalanche on Mt. Everest in 2014, have been deeply sad and very unhappy, in other words, depressing.
Diverging for a minute, motivation is a balance between the push and the pull, running away from something we fear and running towards something we hope to be. Depression, “the black cloud”, is the fear, it is the law (in the Christian terms of the law and the gospel), it is death. A mountain is a way to actually climb out of the dark valley and into the light. The light is hope, joy (ha! reference to Inside Out that Pixar movie), the Christian gospel, and really, love. We are all caught in between the two somewhere.
Climbing a mountain can be thought of as a metaphor, climbing from the darkness of depression into the bright light of hope, which is actually what you do when climbing many mountains, start in the dark down in a valley. Which brings up another aspect, achievement, accomplishment, dare I say success.
There are many achievements in life that go unnoticed. Employee recognition is a developing area of business. In the past you were paid twice a month and that was your recognition. It seems more and more that people want to be recognized for the specific work that they do. That perspective could be totally off base, because it’s based on my limited engineering career. Still, when I publish a blue print of something, it’s a big sense of accomplishment, but for every one compliment for publishing that blue print I had to hear three times each from five different people how I needed to hurry up and publish it. On the other hand climbing a mountain is concrete. It happened. You were there. Whatever happens after that, doesn’t change the fact that you climbed that mountain. The same can be said about running, once you run a marathon, even if it takes more than a day, you are now a marathoner for the rest of your life. When I go back and revise a blue print that I just revised six months ago, it feels like the blue print will never be done in the way a mountain is climbed or a marathon is finished.
Another reason, not to be discounted, is that we have prior mountain climbing experience. Five of my current climbing partners and I have been climbing together for four years. One recently said out loud that he was interested in doing Mt. Everest before he was 35 (something like 7 years or so to go). Unfortunately, there is only one highest mountain above sea level in the world, and as climbers go from day hikes to overnight mountains, like Mt. Rainier with it’s summit 9,000 feet above the parking lot, they start to wonder about the bigger mountains. That’s the nature of experience, to use what you know to do a few percent more than you did last time. Sad to say in September last year I found the Disappointment Cleaver route on Mt. Rainier to have the same technical difficulty as Broad Peak up to 7000 meters at camp 3. Granted the exposure wasn’t quite as big, and it’s way easier to breathe at 14,000 feet than 23,000 feet, but the actual steepness of the steepest parts was very similar, and the crevasses on Mt. Rainier are bigger than those on the standard route on Broad Peak up to 7000 meters.
We always seem to search for "deep" answers, but like any question that we can talk about and come up with answers, really, we could sum up the answer in the way a five year old describes playing in one word, “fun!” Why make climbing a mountain out to be something it is not? Personally, referring to this expedition as my vacation, and my fun, seems more appropriate to me than making it out to be some dramatic noble effort.
The hard part is how to reconcile that fun with the tragedy that accompanies mountaineering. When I left Nepal in 2014 after 16 Sherpas had died carrying loads up through the ice fall, it took five months before I was ready to consider going back. After so much death, and I was just 24 hours away from being under that avalanche, it seems pointless. To be fair, in a way it is pointless because physically nothing is changed because I went to the top of a mountain. Although that is my mechanical engineering background speaking there, that something has to physically change for it to make a difference. I don’t believe that, but it’s important for me to recognize that idea when I have it. In other words, value does not only come from physical change, but also from mental, emotional or spiritual changes as well. The problem is physical change is so obvious that it is so much harder to see the other changes.
Thousands of Americans go to Africa every year on “mission” trips. They are going to “help” the African people. However, for example, most Peace Corp. projects fail at their physical goal. What I learned from visiting Rwanda in 2013 what that we Americans don’t go to Africa to help the locals, we go to help ourselves. We may think we are going to help them, but the lasting changes are in our heads, and our hearts. So it is the same with climbing a mountain. We don’t change the mountain, and the locals near the mountain typically aren’t greatly impacted by any one person, but for those of us that made the journey, our lives have changed. I know the change from climbing a mountain can be beneficial. For example I have taken a number of people into the mountains and their confidence always comes out much greater on the other side. It has strengthened many of my relationships because it allows us to share both a stressful event (the difficulty of the climb and descent) and a happy event (the summit or views in general) together. The mountains are humbling too. People may have images of mountaineers triumphantly marching up to the summit, but more often it’s a slow unrhythmic shuffle, while we worry about the weather and gasp for breath. You can’t see confidence, humility, or a deeper bond, but I guarantee they are real changes.
So there, what’s 90 minutes of writing about why I, or we, climb 8000 meter peaks.
"A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This too I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?" Ecclesiastes 2:24-25 In this case the reference to "work" means mountain climbing to me, despite the fact I pay to do it, it is one of my skills, it is like an art to me.