What do you do when the one thing you love most in the world is the one thing threatening to destroy you?
When you look at a mountain, what do you see?
Most people see something big. Something that is immovable, something immutable. Something that lacks the ability to change because it’s not alive—at least, not in the way that we think of something being alive. And yet, mountains do change. They grow, and they shrink. Wind and rain erode craggy peaks. Earthquakes splinter rocky flanks. Rivers carve out deep channels in the rock, transporting soil and sediment along furious rapids in the spring and gentle waves in the fall. In this manner, the summit of a mountain can one day reach its base. Eventually even the highest peak in the world will succumb to its own gravity and the natural forces that created it, and it will disappear from the earth. Mountains do change, but they do so on such a grand scale, over millions of years, that we do not see it.
And yet I have always equated mountains with change. The trajectory of my life has been determined by them, upon them. I have made choices on mountains that carried consequences all the way back down to sea level—after all, for every choice you make, you reject something else. I have found true passion in the uphill struggle and felt intense peace upon reaching the summit. And I have suffered, too.
People ask me all the time why I climb mountains. They asked that a lot after my dad died on one. I didn’t have an answer for them then, and I don’t now. I can’t truthfully say that the rewards are worth the pain—at least, not for most people. So much of the time mountaineering is nothing more than a slow, steady slog on glacial terrain so steep you can touch the slope with a hand held straight out. So often, I climb for hours on end only to be turned back from the summit by a storm that moves faster than I do, or a teammate’s old injury that flares up under the strain of the work. I’ve sworn off climbing a thousand times by now. And yet it’s only a matter of time before the mountains draw me back. In the end, the memories of pain and fear and loss are always conquered by the sheer exhilaration of it all, the desire to go ever higher, to one day touch the sky.
Why do I climb? I guess it’s just something native in me, something that can’t stay down. Sometimes I think I’ve spent more of my life in the mountains than in my own home. Sometimes I think they are one and the same.