Upward and forever upward

What drives mountain climbers to do the things they do?

According to world-class alpine climber Tom Livingstone, his vocation is, in no uncertain terms: “Exciting, dangerous and exhausting.” Given this review, you might wonder where his passion lies. ‘Exciting’, after all, isn’t quite the same as ‘fun’. 

Climbers like Livingstone spend much of their time seeking out new, creative and increasingly difficult ways to ascend the world’s highest places. For most of us, these places are at best uninviting and at worst terrifying. But for climbers, they’re a vertical playground, teeming with possibilities. 

Of course, the games these climbers play come at a cost. On any given summit attempt, life can be extinguished in a single moment. A falling rock, a hidden crevasse, or some bad weather is all it takes.

A climber on the sharp end. Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash

Given the general level of comfort and convenience of modern life, when it comes to climbing, and the motivations for climbing, the biggest question is often: ‘Why on earth would anybody want to do that?’ For Livingston, the answer is simple: “Climbing is the most intense, exciting and rewarding way to live your life.” 

But the drive to embark on these death-defying feats of human endurance vary greatly, depending on who you ask. 

When asked in 1923 why he wished to tackle Everest, the ill-fated George Mallory was famously alleged to have replied: “Because it is there.” Ever since, this popular quip has masked the more nuanced and revealing motivations for climbing.

Everest, the focus of many climbers aims. Photo by Kalle Kortelainen on Unsplash

An early study of climber’s psychology actually identified a whole range of driving factors such as challengecatharsisrecognitioncreative opportunitiescontact with nature, and gaining control in their lives. 

Most of us can understand the value of overcoming a challenge you’ve set yourself. “Part of the thrill is in taking on the seemingly impossible and making it real and part of our lives,” says Robert Mads Andersen, the pioneer of a new route on Everest. 

In his memoir, A Life on the Edge, Jim Whittaker, the first American to summit Everest, wrote: “Being out on the edge, with everything at risk, is where you learn – and grow – the most.” He wasn’t talking about being a gung-ho adrenaline junkie – more that great rewards come when you push outside your comfort zone. 

Whittaker wasn’t actually that far off the mark. Research shows that mountaineers are motivated by the stress and risk that climbing involves, as it helps them feel in control in other areas of their lives. Damien Gildea, a creator of new climbs around the world says: “We can't control a chaotic world, but a mountain is a small finite world with boundaries and set parameters, and just us to act within them.” 

A climber topping out on a route in Jasper National Park, Canada. Photo by Mike Markov on Unsplash.

This research also shows that climbers often have very high expectations of life in general, and that the sport provides a vehicle through which they can aspire to higher ground – both physically and figuratively. “Climbers inner drive is fuelled by the inspiration for going further, faster and experiencing more in the great outdoors,” explains Mads Andersen.

Beyond this science, climbers often cite less tangible reasons. “I love the adventure,” says renowned German climber Thomas Huber. “I approach the unknown with all my skills, fire, and partners, and I try to achieve the impossible.”

Ultimately the many factors that drive practitioners of this daring sport are complex and highly individual. Perhaps after all, it was Mallory that summed it up best:  

If you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won’t see why we go. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life.
George Mallory, 1924.

Words by Ash Routen. Header image by Luke Helgeson on Unsplash

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