As fans of the webcomic xkcd may have noticed, Randall Munroe made a subtle jab at mountaineers in his recent comic, Click and Drag: perched on a mountainside, one stick figure says to another “‘Because its there’ is more poetic than ‘I’m rich enough that my goals are arbitrary.’” His point seems to be that Mallory (originator of the phrase, “because it’s there”) and men like him do what they do because the fight for survival leaves them with an excess of time and energy, prompting them to invent arbitrary goals for personal entertainment. Personally, I take this as a challenge – to make mountaineering goals arbitrary is to trivialize them and make climbing one of many pastimes of the leisure class, of which I do not, categorically, consider myself a part. Mountaineering is not golf or yacht ownership, it is a serious thing, somewhere between an art and a religion, and therefore it cannot have all the meaninglessness that the designation of “arbitrary” assigns. Yet at times it certainly seems arbitrary, and so a more thorough investigations is needed.
The mountaineering experience is characterized by a certain phenomenological confusion. Being so complex and multi-faceted, in both practical and justificatory ways, it is often very difficult to state concisely what the experience is and, more pertinently, why we do it. Leaving my more systematic Theory of Alpinism as it is – incomplete, this is an attempt to tease out three strands of the experience that I have previously neglected: the importance of destination, return and achievement. These are united by their reference to end-states: how the mountaineering experience leaves the mountaineer, final justifications, and the way climbs end.
The problem of destination is their apparent arbitrariness in relation to their meaning. Are destinations objectively or subjectively valued and does this affect the value of that value? How are destinations affected by the proximity of other destinations, how does this relate to the forms of climbing that tend to askew end-point destinations, and do such forms imply a more internal, and therefore possibly more arbitrary experience?
The problem of return suggests that wrapped in the destination is a temporal limit, for in some ways the true destination seems to be the starting point. This presents an interesting angle on the issue of routes and the experience of travel as an end in-and-of itself. The valuation of return also refers to the devaluation of semi-suicidal climbs – summit attempts that subordinate returning safely to achieving success. How the devaluation of return can affect the tone of a climb was an unexpected revelation for me, and one which quite nearly ended my interest in climbing. Also of note is Willi Unsoeld’s views on the return out of the wilderness as an element integral to the value of the experience, such that to fail to return and engage with society is to render pointless the entire escapade.
The problem of achievement has to do with how destination and return are valued; the character of mountaineering is such the core of the experience is not to be found in any piece of it that one would readily admit to as a motivation – the pleasure of physical exertion, the camaraderie, the joy of the wilderness. When isolated none can sustain the level of intensity with which we give ourselves to climbing. Only the seemingly egoistic and arbitrary notion that climbing mountains is a worthy achievement can hold together and center the experience.
The distinguishing difference between mountaineering and its component fields, hiking, rock climbing, and winter sports, is its concept of destination. Hikers usually aim for a lake, pass, or other distinguishing geographic features, and rocking climbing tends to terminate at the top of a rock, but mountaineers aim almost exclusively for summits. And not all summits are created equal; any number of features, from the length and difficulty of the ascent, to the views expected from the high point, to the variety and aesthetic value of the route can make one summit seem to be a superior destination to another. Additionally, the elevation and prominence (distance from sea-level, distance to the low point before the next higher peak) provide a more objective criteria for the more exacting peak-baggers. If every peak could be evaluated according to these principles it therefore seems that a standard could be created whereby all the various destinations could be ranked and the frequency by which they are climbed would roughly follow these rankings. Although many such systems have been devised, none has been universally accepted and, regardless, none correlates with the actual desirability of the destination (the value of the destination as a destination). The crucial factor that is missing, the impossibly complicating element that renders this entire school of calculation pointless, is the relation of peaks to each other in the minds of mountaineers. The value of a destination is completely reliant on its relationship to other destinations in a far more subjective and complex way than prominence calculations can account for (those who are unconvinced of the irrelevance of calculated prominence should take note of the popularity of such peaks as Sahale). This phenomenon has three basic expressions: visibility, political boundaries, and overshadowing.
The most visible peaks in a region are almost always considered better destinations than other nearby peaks, even if those peaks would rate higher on any, or even every, criteria listed above. From the North Seattle region the three most immediately visible peaks are Mount Pilchuck, Three Fingers, and Whitehorse Mountain. Excluding Whitehorse, which has a reputation as a very difficult climb, these mountains are probably two of the most often reached summits between Mount Baker and the 1-90 corridor. While decent climbs in their own right (Three Fingers probably more so than Pilchuck), they surely do not deserve this attention in relation to other peaks of similar difficulty, for example – the less visible Monte Cristo group. Another example is Mount Shuksan. As one of the most photographed mountains in the world, it attracts many times the attention of any other large, glaciated peak in the North Cascades, with the exception of Mount Baker, despite being one among many such peaks.Visibility also accounts for the popularity of the aforementioned Sahale Peak, which despite its low prominence due to its proximity to Boston Peak, is a very popular destination.
Although often related to visibility, the highest peak in any given political unit (nation, state, even county) will attract more attention than it, strictly speaking, deserves. The best example of this is probably Mount Whitney, the highest point in the lower 48. The ratio of ascents of Mount Whitney to that of other notable peaks in the High Sierras is far higher than one would expect based on the actual value of the peak.
The overshadowing effect is probably the strongest of the three skewing factors in destination. Little Tahoma, at 11,000 ft, would be a major summit if it were not in such close proximity to Mount Rainier. The same can be said of Colfax Peak, Middle Index, South Baring, and the north and middle summits of Three Finger. More widely known examples of this phenomenon would be Torre Egger and the south face of the Eiger.
As ways of assessing destinations, these factors are very revealing as to how we value mountaineering as a whole. A relatively small portion of the population (something like 1/150) has any real conception of what mountaineering is, therefore to be able to point to a mountain on the skyline and say, “I climbed that,” is important if one wants any popular recognition. Political high points function similarly because the layperson is more likely to know what mountain one is talking about if it is the highest in their, or even a neighboring, region. Among climbers the issue is complicated but similar forces are at play, the significance of one mountain in relation to those surrounding it determines the amount of respect one will earn with its ascent. If we are then valuing our destination based on the magnitude of the perceived achievement, which can bear little relation to the skill and commitment necessary to reach the destination, our valuation is disturbingly arbitrary.
This is precisely the reason, or rather – one of the precise reasons, sometime in the early 20th century some climbing communities stopped using summits as destinations. Instead, the true destination became the route, which can be considered, and therefore valued, independently of the summit to which it leads. The logical conclusion of this is crag climbing, that is – a route without a summit at all. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on one’s point of view, this is, in a way, even more subjective than our previous methods of valuation, which took into account such factors as the elevation of the summit, the view it offered, and the beauties to be enjoyed along the way. Under this “new” system, the destination is valued purely on the quality and difficulty of the climbing involved, here meant only in its mechanical aspect. This has the effect of making mountaineering a much more internal experience than with the somewhat broader summit-destination climbing – wildflowers and pretty scenery can no longer make a good climb, it must be physically and technically demanding and aesthetic.
A long series of critiques of technical mountaineering have noted this point: the type of climbing one develops when changing the destination from summits to routes places a greater emphasis on gymnastic ability; this may be recognized as the archetypal “climbing a greased pole” argument that is so indicative of a bitter aging mountaineer watching his great climbs being made into descent routes. This analysis is in no way meant to endorse this type of argument, but rather to simply observe that, like trail-running, list-bagging, and most winter sports, route-destination mountaineering seems to be more about the subject and less about the object. In short, I don’t hike because I like walking down a trail, I hike because I love the mountains, conversely, I do not rock-climb because I love cliffs, I rock-climb because I love climbing.
Part 2, on Return and Achievement, can be found here