Why I Climb

It’s a question I’ve been hearing come up up a lot more often lately. Maybe it’s because I’m just listening to more people talk about climbing mountains, but still, it’s something I am always thinking about. I’ve decided to dive deep in my brain to figure out why. To figure out, why I climb.

I guess the easy answer is that climbing is fun. At the same time, it’s not fun at all. Let me explain. For the purpose of this self-reflection, I’ll be interchangeably talking about rock climbing, hiking/trail running, ski touring, and lastly, mountain biking. Doing any of these activities while moving up a mountain are not fun at all. There’s never a moment, when my heart is beating out of my chest, and my legs are screaming, that I feel the sense of “fun”. It’s not like sitting around a campfire with your buddies, drinking a beer kinda fun. And it sure as hell isn’t like a fond memory of watching your favorite football team win a game. This is a completely different fun, a Type-2 kind of fun some would say.

For those of you who aren’t aware of what Type-2 fun is, it’s the kind of fun that is not fun when you’re doing it. It’s only fun after it’s done and over with and you’ve had a chance to look back on the event. It’s this type of fun that you find yourself looking back on and smiling to yourself. During the activity, you’re not thinking about smiling. Actually, smiling is about the last thing you’re probably going to be doing. Like a sort of masochistic, I really enjoy the pain that comes with spending time climbing in the mountains. To pile on, the worse the conditions, the worse the weather, the more issues that happen, the more fun the adventure becomes in hindsight.

Sure, my favorite part of any mountain activity is the earned downhill fun that usually accompanies it. The 2K climb, followed by a white knuckle descent on my mountain bike or skis. Those are obvious fun, amazing feelings. But I can barely tell you about a single “epic” descent I had. On the other hand, I can tell you the countless stories of the awful, grueling climbs I’ve done. And, to be honest, I’m not sure why that is. Maybe it’s because you have more time to think on the way up, more time to register the experience and preserve it. But on the downhill, your focus is in the moment and no time to store the experience away in the back of your head. So all those epic downhill lines and runs sort of blend together into a season of awesome (or bad) descents.

The duality of those two ways we experience the same activity is interesting. And maybe that culmination is what I strive for the most. That self-reflecting moments on the uphill. That time spent almost entirely within my own head, thinking about what is important, what isn’t, and why the hell I continue to push myself. A very personal experience to say the least, that then completely flips into something that is the complete opposite. When pointing your skis or bike downhill, you only have time to think about what is in front of you. What objects you need to avoid or which line to take. No time to self-reflect, no time to worry about your issue in your personal or professional life. Only time to observe and react to your environment. It’s pure. A pure feeling of living in the moment. And the large dose of adrenaline doesn’t hurt it’s case either. 

That reason for climbing makes sense to me, the downhill experience driven by the uphill. Yet, I love to climb rock as well, and that has no downhill component. It, instead, combines the uphill and downhill experience into one direction. In order to climb the line or problem, you must be completely in the moment in your head and body. Gravity is perpetually working against your effort up the rock. You have no time to ponder your purpose in this world, only time to breath and move upwards one hold at a time. If you break focus for one moment, you’ll fall off the rock and have to start all over again. And unlike the rather “effortless” expenditures of downhill mountain biking or skiing, climbing is exhausting. Not only does it drain your body of it’s energy, it’s also over a finite time period. Unless you’re Adam Ondra or Alex Honnold, you can only hold onto the rock for a few minutes before you either top out or fall off. There’s only two options. To successfully climb a pitch, you need to do it in one shot without weighting the rope. This experience is almost exclusive to rock climbing that I can’t find anywhere else. You have to give all your physical and mental effort towards a goal and the metaphorical clock is ticking against you the entire time.

All of these ventures have another component in common during the uphill climbing; the self talk to keep your body moving. Its so easy to just stop, not take that next stride uphill. But you have to keep telling yourself to keep going. This is about the only skill from spending all my free time in the mountains that translates to everyday life. It’s so easy to give up when things get tough, and even easier to give up when things are at their hardest, just before you reach the “summit”. So knowing I can push my body, and my mind, further than I thought I could to get across the finish line. When work starts getting ridiculously busy, I know it’s the least likely thing that will probably kill me compared to the mountains; so I can just take a breath and relax during those moment.

So why do I climb? Is it because of the existential experiences I have in the mountains? Is it because of all the self-reflection I go through? Or is it because it’s just so damn fun? Whatever my reasons, I do it. And I love it.

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