My recent adventures on the slopes of Mount Whitney (see 1 the initial summit & 2 the redemption mission), and the dancing with death that were a result of both, has me deeply thinking about the why of mountaineering. And not just for me — for Alex Honnold, for Scott Fischer — for anyone who chooses to pursue such goals. The question boils down to: if there is a significant risk of death, and the summit is essentially an empty, lonely place… why do we risk our lives to climb mountains?
[shortcut: the Answer]
I don’t pretend to have an answer yet. Perhaps, as it has been so articulated by philosophers past and present, its not about the answer, its about the question.
Finally, real quick: Correct. Once again, a post that doesn’t mention AI once. Why? Because I’ve articulated quite enough about my feelings on the AI Tsunami, and hopefully, by now you get the picture: Its coming. So now I’m quite thoroughly focused on the more important half of the equation, which is: what the hell can humans do to optimize our outcomes?
And, the short answer is: We can be optimal humans. I have some thoughts on what exactly such a solution might entail. These blog posts about my recent mountaineering adventures should give you a clue. Hint: Go Play Outside. Toss aside the Screens. Lean into F2F, meatspace interactions. Be authentic. Be courageous. Throw fear out the window. Eat right. Drink less. Boldly explore this insanely amazing playground called Planet Earth. etc!
Got it? Great. Now here is another story of me, living that life:
You Plan. You Train. You Succeed.
For many many years I’ve had a desire, a rough plan even, to summit Mount Everest, the tallest mountain on planet earth. This endeavor spawned from my successful completions of both a marathon and an Iron Man 70.3 triathlon… the idea that, with proper training and discipline, humans could accomplish pretty much anything they set their minds to… even supposedly Olympian tasks.
After 6 months of very hard and disciplined training, in fact, the combined adrenalin of race day, the energy of the crowd, and the ability to glory in the passing of other bikers and runners, made the actual triathlon seem easy. Training (and sobriety) had truly paid off. Especially the legendary “taper” — essentially, a hard easing of training for the 7 days leading up to the race, allowing your body to recover, and also psychologically leaving you feeling like a thoroughbred stuck behind the starting gate.
So when that starting gun finally does fires, BOOM! You are out of the gate, tearing it up, fresh and strong — all your training takes over, your body knows what to do, and you just GO and enjoy the race.
But, TBH, I never felt like I was going to die during my marathon or triathlons. Even though, especially in the marathon around mile 24, I experienced excruciating pain, and wanted to stop… I knew that such pain was in no way life threatening. At worst I would pull a muscle, pass out or vomit… but death? Not even a possibility.
Contrast that to the mountain. Well, the specific mountain : Mt. Whitney, highest in the continental United States at a respectable 14,500 feet (as in, other than Denali, Alaska’s crown jewel) (go ahead, look it up. I had to also. I couldn’t believe that a mountain I’d never heard of, a mere 4 hours north of LA, was taller than every mountain in the Colorado Rockies… but it is. there it is.)
My first trip up the mountain was a bit foolhardy, and she taught me many lessons. Due to poor planning (both logistically and mentally), I found myself in life-threatening situations more times than I can count on that first trip. I thought long and hard about this — how my choices had led me into such situations — and am still processing that.
A Well Planned Mountaineering Mission
But it was the second trip that really actually spooked me, and brought the question — Why do we risk our lives to climb mountains? — into stark contrast. On the second trip, I brought a climbing partner, Michael — and Mike, thank God, is fairly conservative in his attitude towards expedition safety. I had checked the weather 3 or 4 times before my initial summit, and quite honestly, didn’t care what it said. I was going up regardless.
Mike checked the weather hourly at multiple altitudes (MountainForecast is amazing for its detail on this, highly recommended), and also had tabs open for avalanche warnings, and had even called the Park Ranger and spoken to a human on the phone, relentlessly grilling her about trail conditions and dangers. With Mike’s extra pressure and safety orientation, I felt more safe too.
I also realised that Mike’s presence changed my behavior and choices (somewhat) — for the better, I thought. For instance, as a team, we agreed in advance that either of us had “veto power”… if either felt unsafe, we could hit the “abort” button, and we’d turn around and head back to the car (in honesty, I had my doubts as to whether I’d abide by this — I imagined a scenario where Mike wanted to turn around an hour shy of target, and if I was unable to convince him through emotion and logic to persevere, then I’d be like: “Okay Mike, just stay here, give me 2 hours, and if I’m not down by then, go ahead down, I’ll meet you at the car tonight”).
I realised that Mike had less wilderness experience than me, and seeing that during our planning meetings, put me in a psychological position of leader / mentor / caretaker. In short, part of me felt responsible for Mike’s safety. I was leading him into danger. As the instigator and unspoken leader of this trip, it was my responsibility to get him to the complete the mission objective, but more importantly, to get him back home safely.
And so we made a most excellent and thorough plan, that we both agreed was compatible with our skill levels, our knowledge, and the notorious mercurial mood of Whitney the Mountain Goddess. We would get up on the mountain Wednesday night, sleep at the trailhead, wake bright and brisk and cold at 4am, and have “boots on the ground” no later than 0500… a solid 2 hours prior to sunrise.
Our turnaround cutoff would be 1200. 7 hours in, with 6 hours of light left. Down was generally faster than up, so that would (theoretically) be plenty of time to descend safely. It was unspoken, but I figured at top speed, I could have all the gear (our reason for this mission — I had abandoned my entire base camp on the summit attempt) packed up inside an hour. So really, 5 hours of light to get down. Still… completely doable.
With the help of AllTrails, we did a 3D flythrough of the entire route, and I showed Mike where the easy stretches were, where the tricky navigation was, and where the dangerous parts were. The “dangerous parts,” in my mind, other than severe weather and avalanche, were two: a) the crux of the Ebersbacher Ledges, and multiple short stints of ice climbing which would require both our microspikes and ice axes in order to ascend.
The planning & pre-viz complete, I slept well, intending to depart the following afternoon on the long drive to the trailhead.
NOTE: After this mission completed, I thought long and hard about the experience. I decided that even though Mike and I did extensive pre-planning and had excellent, continual communication on the mountainside, it might be better to actually formalize some agreements prior to my next team expedition. Thus, I drafted my own personal Mountaineering Team Agreement — Take a gander.
Everything went almost exactly as planned. We made minor adjustments. It was 20° that night at the trailhead, and the rental car seats did not fully recline, so we opted to make the short drive into town and get an inexpensive hotel for the night. We woke at 3:55am, as planned, but final (re)packing and the footwear ritual (liner socks, wool socks, boots, gaiters, microspikes) took a bit longer than expected, so we didn’t actually start off on the trail until about 5:20am (initial plan was 0500).
Even after a few trackbacks and completely losing the trail and slogging though 36″ of snow on the steep boulderfield ascent, we arrived at base camp — 11,300 feet — three minutes ahead of schedule. 11:57am. Excellent. I celebrated with some excessively strong coffee, while Mike wisely dug in to some more organic tangerines. Both of us were energized and optimistic.
It took a little longer than planned for me to break down the camp, and — more of a challenge — to fit the entire thing into my backpack. Once fully packed and strapped, it was a bulky load, which I estimated weighed in around 60 pounds (my estimate was dead wrong — upon returning home, the whole shebang weighed in at around 48. not bad, actually. not bad at all.)
We made our way efficiently down the mountain. Time checks confirmed: looked like we would make it roughly on schedule. We had told our friends and family that 6pm was our intended rendezvous at the trailhead. We fell into the shadow of the mountain, and hiked like that for a minute. There was only one hard thing left:
Those F*cking Ebersbacher Ledges
Earlier that same morning, around sunrise, we had dealt with them. Or, I should say: It. Because 95% of the “ledges” are trivial: 36″ wide ledges with maximum exposure of maybe an 8 to 20 foot fall. comfortable, even. nothing to break a sweat. But there’s this one place…
The first time I completed it, on my solo ascent, was the first time I realised why I’d want quality crampons of American design and testing and certification and manufacture. The first time, there was approximately two inches of granite ledge that I could get traction on, with a 300 foot fall exposure, and even that was covered in a fine patina of about 1/4″ of solid ice. I had seriously considered turning around at that point. But instead, I bit the two inner spikes of my Amazon Microspikes into the ice, leaned as hard as I could into the rock face (with 55 pound pack pulling me backward), stepped, cross-stepped, and prayed. I made it.
I had warned Mike about this section, no more than 8 feet long — a few precise steps — but dangerous steps, nonetheless.
Well, its a mountain. And it has weather. So when Mike and I encountered the same stretch again that morning, there was no ledge to be seen. Not two inches, no, none at all. All we could see was a diagonal swath of snow, sloping at around 45°. It actually *looked* safer than when it was bare, because one might make some assumptions that there was an actual ledge under all that snow.
But I knew there wasn’t. It was just steep snow above steep rock. Sure, there was a 2″ ledge somewhere under there, but we’d never find it. This was a classic “plant the ice axe shaft deep, kick right, kick left, re-plant ice-axe, repeat” lateral traverse. And it wasn’t 8 feet. Today, it was more like 20. Once again, I considered telling Mike that morning: “Forget it. That’s too risky. We’ll spend some time looking for another route.” (but I knew there wasn’t one) “If we don’t find it, fuck it, I’ll come back in a week.”
But that’s not what I had said. In fact, I had said nothing at all. I didn’t want to cause alarm. I pretended like everything was business as usual, just another part of the hike, and without hesitation, I planted my ice axe, prayed, and began the traverse. Less thought, more action. That had generally been my motto in life, and (I think) it had served me well so far.
I made it across to a safe wide-ish clean rock ledge. And turned around. Mike appeared to struggle a bit more than me — he was new to the art of ice-axe, just as I had been a few days prior. A brief idea popped into my head of Mike falling to his death… and that would be, in my mind, my fault — perhaps I should have warned him, given him a choice? — but, before I could finish the thought, he had made it across. We high fived, not speaking what I had been thinking. We continued on.
But it had spooked me a little. The thought of Mike falling haunted me for a mile or two. Why had I done that? Why had I remained silent? Was my desire to get my gear, my desire to complete the mission, my ego, that important? What was my fucking problem?
Hours later, I came clean with Mike and told him about my concerns for that particular stretch of ledge. He re-assured me: “Yeah, I knew it was a little edge. But believe this, Gregory: I’m making all these decisions on my own. I have a good idea of what is safe and unsafe for me. I’m not following you blindly — I’m making my choices. We’re good.”
That actually made me feel a lot better. I still wondered why I hadn’t voiced my fears before the crux tho.
The Ebersbacher Descent
We both knew, having hiked up the entire mountain now (me twice, Mike once), what the return trip had in store for us. And we both knew that there was only one thing in our way between camp and trailhead: that damn crux. We had a brief conversation about it.
“You know, that snow might be in a very different condition for our return traverse. It may have melted, it may have shifted, it may have fallen, it may have frozen.”
“Yeah, I know. We’ll see what it is, and figure it out.”
I was a bit worried. Yet I remained confident.
3 hours later, we were in range of the crux. But, coming from the top, it looked (as is so utterly common an experience in the outdoors) completely and utterly different than when we were ascending. In fact, we got “lost” again.
(I use the term loosely; we are descending 80° steep ledges on the side of a sheer cliff, scrambling down where and when we can… we are somewhere within 100′ of the accepted trail, but 100 lateral feet, given the slope, might mean +/- 200 vertical feet, above or below. We didn’t care that much about the formal trail. We just knew we had to get to the valley below one way or another, and were trying to find the safest, most efficient path down to the trees.)
We executed an 8 foot leap to a hard landing on a narrow ledge, and both agreed that we had someone gotten “back on trail.” We hiked down the ledge a bit, the ledge disappeared, the snow got icier and steeper, and…
There was this rock. It stuck out over the cliff. I had absolutely no memory of such a rock from my previous two passages. It appeared that we would have to hang… WTF?
As I was standing still, studying the problem, Mike had just gone ahead, all “fuck-it” style, and was now hanging by the tip of his ice axe, leaning out over the cliff. He looked at me all casual-like, says “This is the move.”, and swings his body around the overhang… I assume that he finds some invisible hand grip on the other side? But what do I know. In the blink of an eye, his entire body whips around the overhang, and Mike is gone.
My breathing is starting to accelerate and come in huffs. My adrenalin is rising. I am not at all confident about that axe placement, nor about finding some unseen miraculous mystery hold on the other side. I study the exposure. Its 300 feet, for sure. More importantly, there’s no stoppage. No ledge, no crack, no rock, no bush, no tree to flail / grab / stab into to break a fall. Just 300 feet of clean, smooth, hella steep granite. In other words, death. Greeeeaaaatt.
But Mike did it.
I can hear his voice, even tho I can’t see him around the overhang. He says something like “C’mon! There’s good handholds the entire way!”
Sometimes, there ain’t nothing for the doin, like the doin. I get up on the rock. My breathing is in bursts. My heart-rate is spiking. Not with exertion. With fear. I am in total 1,000% laser focus mode. Every cell in my body is optimizing for this one move. Mike said: “This is the move.”
I make a firm swing with the axe, into a little crack in the rock. I pull with about 30 pounds of force. My ice axe comes out. Apparently, that was not the move. I try again. Its only the tip, in a tiny crack, but it seems firm. I test it. I pull 50 pounds. 100 pounds. Me plus pack is about 225 pounds. I pull as hard as I can. It holds. Perhaps that’s the move.
Now comes the real move. Hanging onto that beloved axe, leaning out, and swinging my body around the overhang… reaching my hand, and praying to find some nub, cup or crack to grab hold of. Mike did it. I can do it. I steel myself. There is no footholds. My feet dangle. I put a deathgrip on that axe with my right hand. A serious deathgrip (or, more accurately: A lifegrip?) I lean out, extend my left arm fully, and swing…
Boom! Its there! A handhold! But I’m actually in a worst position now. my torso is hugging the overhang, that damn pack is pulling me backward, my right hand is glued to my axe shaft glued to the micro-crack, and my left hand is on a nice chunky hold. So now I have to free the axe and find another axe hold.
But honestly, the crux is past. The crux isn’t the passage itself, its the leap. Its making the move, not knowing if anything is there to catch. Faith. There is no turning back, for certain. A desperate form of confidence takes over. I refresh my mantra that got me down the mountain 3 days prior:
Keep moving. As long as you’re moving, you’re alive. Holds degrade. Holds have timers. Keep moving. You freeze up, you die. You freeze up, the hold breaks. Keep moving. Moving is Living. Movement is Life.
One tenuous hold at a time, I pull my body and pack across the crux. Mike didn’t lie. There are good, grody handholds. I stick my hand and axe in those cracks like a greedy 5-year old forcing his hand into a cookie jar. I don’t care if it hurts, and I don’t care if my hand gets “stuck” …I’m just happy to have rock-solid holds.
Four more terrifying feet to the left, and there is enough snow to kick my feet into. I kick with gusto, and lean in. Two firm-ish snow-slush footholds. That works, for now. As long as I keep moving, that is.
Without thinking, without looking left, without looking down, I huff, I puff, and I begin the snow traverse. I’m not entirely pleased with the axe shaft placement. It goes in about 8 to 12 inches, and the point clangs on hard rock. But its enough. As long as I lean in, and move fast. Plus, I really have no choice. I ain’t hanging out here on this slushledge one second longer than I have to.
As if from heaven, Mike’s re-assuring voice penetrates my skull. His voice is calm, slow and measured: “That’s it, Gregory. You’ve got this. Steady and easy. You’re good.” His voice helps. It really helps.
I’m still hyperventillating. But somehow, I know, I am past the crux, and I will make it. Seconds or minutes later, I stand next to Mike, atop a smooth sloping yet mostly horizontal-ish boulder surface. I high five then hug him. Oh my god. I am alive.
I am also in shock. I don’t say much. I am trying to calm down.
We descend — quite safely and easily now — another three hundred feet, into the valley below, as planned. And we are rewarded. The sun has set. The moon is rising.
So… what about the Question?
The moonrise is one of the most beautiful, and sublime visions that I have ever seen in my life. It “doesn’t look real”, and yet, it is undeniably real. The colors, the crispness, the golden craters on that thing (obviously, my smartphone digital zoom does not do it justice, but you can imagine).
And of course, my experience is enhanced. I just survived one of the scariest experiences of my entire life. My breath has returned to normal, my heartrate is coming (slowly) back to normal, and I am crashing hard on the other side of an adrenalin spike. Nothing in the world could possibly bother me,
Except the Question:
Why had I put myself in this situation? Not just once, but again, and again? I had an internal (not entirely validated) excuse for my first ascent: I just didn’t know.
But this time, I did know. I knew my life would be on the line, I did a sober assessment, looked at it (on the way up), and crossed the chasm anyway… full well knowing that I’d have to cross the same chasm, perhaps more dangerously given snowmelt conditions, on the way back down.
I had briefly considered an option, on the way down: I could turn around, climb the 15 hours to the summit again, and then come down the 12 mile-ish “hiking trail” back to the trailhead. That I even considered that option — 24 hours of hard climbing as opposed to 2 hours of easy hiking — should give you an idea of how concerned I was.
But Mike was there. Mike had done it as simply and gracefully as if he was crossing the street to the grocery store. So perhaps my calibration was off. Perhaps it was easy, and I was making mountains out of molehills.
for me, it was challenging. For me, it put me at the edge of my edge: at my safety threshhold, and also at my skills threshold. I needed 100% of my physical skills, and 100% of my mental focus, to successfully and safely make the crux.
I have faith in the Universe, and in YHWH, that God doesn’t place any obstacle in our path that we are unable to conquer. But this made me wonder:
What if it is us putting the obstacles into our own path, by our own conscious choice? Then what? If we put ourselves into an impossible situation, can we blame God if we fail?
Why do we put ourselves in these dangerous situations?
Why do we risk our lives to climb mountains?
That is the question.
and now, we begin to see some answers…
(I’ve also written a separate post, my own personal reasons for climbing)
She Dreams of Alpine
So far, the best answer I’ve stumbled upon comes from the poetic verse of Allison Boyle, aka She Dreams of Alpine. I excerpt her key passage — the one that really resonated with me — here:
That first mountaineering trip was one of the hardest things I had ever done in my life up to that point… and I was hooked.
I later went on to climb Mount Whitney, Mount Rainier, Mount Shasta, and failed and succeeded at many other mountains, and mountaineering to this day holds a special place in my heart. It’s high consequence and often it can be miserable, but there’s nothing quite like achieving a summit after you’ve hiked for miles in snow and ice, up steep slopes, and sometimes across giant gaping crevasses.
It’s an addicting thrill. It makes you feel alive. It makes you feel strong, and courageous, and at the same time it can bring you to your knees. It’s like the entirety of human emotion in one objective… massive regret and doubt mixed with massive elation and courage. There’s something beautiful about that (or I guess I’m into that kind of thing). It’s one of the main reasons I like the outdoors… I feel fully alive.
And her friend Meg, aka Fox in the Forest, puts it even more succinctly:
Mountaineering (or alpinism) is
a life-long love affair
with learning how to suffer
in a beautiful environment.
14 Peaks : Nothing Is Impossible
I’ve found the closest answer I have so far in this exceptional documentary about the superhuman feats of Nirmal “Nims” and his crew of Nepali Sherpas, who as a team summit the 14 highest peaks in the world — each one in excess of 8,000 meters — in less than 7 months of a single year.
The documentary — 14 Peaks : Nothing is Impossible — features incisive commentary by Reinhold Messner, who is famed as being the first human on earth to accomplish the 14 summit feat — and it took him 17 years to complete. He waxes poetic about the true rationale of “why do we risk our lives to climb mountains?” Herewith:
The surface answer:
I ask these climbers today,
. . “Why do you do it?”
. . “Why do you climb
. . . . these highest of the mountains?”
and they say:
. . “Because it’s fun.”
I don’t believe them.
. . It’s not fun.
Extreme alpine environments
. . are full of pain.
…They are the places you go,
. . to teach you
. . to deal with pain…
. . to learn from pain.
— Reinhold Messner,
But then, at the climax of the movie, attached to a moving sequence of Nims & his team ascending a treacherous K2 (rent it; approx. 1h:13m in), Messner probes even deeper, and this… this is where I feel the truth really sits:
“Most of us are forgetting
that from the beginning of our life…
we are approaching death.
Life is absurd.
But you can fill it…
You can fill your life
(cut to Nims speaking)
When you are in the mountains
you find out
who you really are
any mistake I make —
it could be… death.
…and when it comes
to that moment
you want to survive.
you want to live.
so I can live…
of my life.
…in such a concentrated situation
climbing and meditation
are the same.
When the pain
is really forcing you
to go down… and
you keep going up.
in that moment,
you are really
ON THE EDGE