Why We Climb and Why I'll Continue to Climb
THOMAS BENNETT STUDENT ENRICHMENT MEMORIAL FUND IN CHEMICAL AND BIOLOGICAL ENGINEERING
This is written in response to the common gamut of "why" questions that people have asked me since Tom's death on Mt. Shasta.
I’ve attempted to find fault with myself in hopes of learning for the future, but after much reflection and research, I have yet to find any ‘mistakes’ we made that could have been foreseen as such, which is why I've chosen to continue climbing and am doing so with a clean conscience. It’s much easier to judge than to understand, it’s easier to spout vitriol than to sympathize, hindsight is 20/20, and I could care less about pandering to those who choose to take these easy attitudes at the expense of other people. So this article is not for them.
Alpinism is inherently dangerous, but that doesn't mean that it is always so. Much of alpinism is about training and strategizing to mitigate risk to the level where one can go into the mountains to commune with nature, test himself, and return safely. During my time climbing I haven't met many (if any) adrenaline junkies. They usually don't last, either due to the hazard or due to the effort and diligence required to reap the real rewards of alpinism. As the saying goes for inherently risky activities, "there are old climbers and there are bold climbers, but there are no old bold climbers." Serious mountaineering for the long-term requires sustained education, practice, commitment, and incredibly hard work. This is one of the aspects that draw me to climbing.
Tom and I climbed mountains in the winter despite the increase in risk for the increased challenge and experience, both for the enjoyment of the challenge and also as training so that we could more safely attempt harder and more serious climbs on other peaks in other parts of the world. Although we enjoyed the physical, technical, and intellectual challenges of alpinism, that is only one part of it, despite the cliché that seems to be most prominent in the public imagination. I want to emphasize some of the more personal reasons as well, as for me they are what make it worth taking on the risk.
One is partnership. I’ve forged intensely strong partnerships with my climbing partners through shared experiences, dedication, risk, and trusting our lives to one another. This “Brotherhood of the Rope” is a unique bond that I have been unable to find in any other type of relationship.
Another reason I climb, which Tom shared, was our love for nature. I’m not religious, but I do find spirituality in the mountains, and I find bliss and wonder in these extreme environments. In some ways the word ‘extreme’ is crucial because it keeps me humble before the raw power of nature. Seeing the immense scale of the glaciers and mountains in Alaska was the first time that I could ever begin to appreciate the idea of infinity.
Even the smallest of details in nature can be incredibly beautiful, and I often delight in discovering striking forms in the world of ice and snow. I love the beauty found in features such as the patterns of wind-scoured snow, color and texture of glacial ice, or the bizarre formations of rime ice. Even for the rare mountain traveler in winter, these can easily be missed. Taking the time to stop and appreciate these subtle wonders of the mountains was a trait that I shared with Tom, and it made us closer in our experiences in the mountains together.
Winter is an especially appealing time for me to venture into the mountains despite the greater risk and discomfort – to me, the winter landscape in the high mountains is ethereal. For those that ask why I venture into the mountains, if they had ever experienced the fiery red and orange Alpenglow on expansive snow slopes or white granite palisades, or if they had ever experienced the deep blue glow of the moon on icy snow slopes with no sound but for the crunch of one’s footsteps, they wouldn’t have to ask.
Regarding taking on increased risk for mountaineering, there is also something to be said about taking on more risk. Many people are reticent of the idea, yet people do it all the time whether they realize it or not. Yes, mountaineering can lead to my injury or death in a variety of ways, but my choice to drive also heightens this risk. So does choosing to get around by bicycle in an urban area such as the San Francisco Bay Area. I have had many close calls on my bicycle and I nearly died once on a trip to Mt. Shasta, not on the climb, but on the drive home when someone came barreling down the I-5 against my direction of traffic, straddling both lanes.
People choose to live in flood-prone, hurricane-prone, and earthquake-prone areas with little thought given as to the real risk and whether it is worth it. Why is climbing perceived to be so much more dangerous than other activities? Perhaps one is that in many aspects of our lives we take on risk out of convenience (driving, eating poorly, talking on cell phones in dangerous situations, etc.) while in climbing the risk is taken on with active effort. Maybe another reason is that the risk in climbing is much more salient, so it is harder to ignore.
So my point is that you cannot avoid risk, you can only try to be aware and decide what risks are worth the benefits. While it may seem shallow to say climbing is worth the risk for the reasons that I hold, I’d sure rather have my demise be climbing in the mountains than being run over on my way to work.
As sad and traumatic as my experience was on Mount Shasta, I intend to continue climbing. I know Tom would want nothing less. This tragedy was the result of incredibly bad luck with a rare and serious development of HACE. Coming off the mountain as well as I did was testament to how well prepared I was, and Tom was equally well prepared. Even in ideal conditions I don’t think the outcome would have been different, so I can only view this experience as a part of life, but not something to run from.
In closing, I want to share a similar sentiment about climbing that one of Tom’s closest friends shared with me after Tom’s death.
"While there is a technical side to mountaineering, a confrontation with the raw power of the mountains that came only to be understood by those who venture into the hills, there is an essential element that everyone is familiar with, and that is the friendship you forge along the way. This is such a pivotal part of the experience, that alpinists have given it is own name: The Fellowship of the rope. Because at the end of the day, you may have made the summit, you might have had to turn around, but regardless of the outcome, you have spent an amazing day with a close friend. “
- Timb Argast