If you can see Mt. Baker, you are part of The Experience

Why do we Climb?


“Because it’s there,” never did much for me.

This winter my partner Elie and I visited New Zealand during their summer. We bought a camper minivan and toured the wonders of the country’s two islands for two months.

One thing I was especially excited for was the prospect of mountain climbing. Sometimes I like to load up my running pack and climb alone – fast and light. This would be a perfect opportunity.

But beyond climbing onsite, solo, and in a foreign country, there was an extra challenge I wanted to take on: to make friends with myself.

Before our trip I had started going to therapy and meditating regularly. Aside from working with unprocessed emotions around my parents’ divorce and my relationship with my bipolar dad, I started noticing how I treated myself when I climbed.

“I’m not good enough. would have done this easily,” I would tell myself. “It’s much harder for me. If only I had the money/time/talent/fitness/discipline, then it would be different for me,” I would say. “But I should stop making excuses. I’ll just have to try even harder, no matter how much it hurts.”

This combination of comparison, tough love, and a tryhard mentality are deeply embedded in our culture, and in each of us as individuals. What would happen if instead of reaching for toughness, grit, and determination I chose softness, kindness, and care? Would I lose motivation, lose my “edge,” and stop climbing altogether? Maybe the willpower holding my life together would crumble and I would descend into chaos and be lost forever, like my dad in a manic episode.

The pinnacle of this challenge was when I went to climb Tititea, aka Mt. Aspiring. It is the easiest of the 24 named peaks over 3000 meters (9842 feet) in New Zealand, which made it both a worthy objective and more reasonable for me to do as a fast and light solo climb. But with 25 miles of travel, 12,000-plus feet of elevation gain, multiple class 5 rock sections, a glacier crossing, and 45-degree snow slopes, it was still no joke.

I started by light of headlamp at 4 a.m. from the Aspiring Hut, running under the stars. The trail slowly wound its way up the valley, becoming brushy and harder to follow for the last couple of miles. I soon found myself at the waterfall slabs, climbing up grassy class 4 and 5 slabs for nearly 1,000 feet of vertical gain. Near the top I had to carefully navigate a maze of streams running down the slabs, making the grass and rock dangerously slippery.

From there it was 2,000 feet of easier hiking up rock slabs to Bevan Col, where I got my first view of the mountain. This was roughly the halfway point to the summit and I was only four hours into my day, but starting to feel discouraged.

I knew others had been faster than me to this point and I doubted my ability to make it to the summit and back in time. The cold wind pouring off the Bonar Glacier chilled my spirits but I told myself that it was still early, and the sun would get higher in the sky. I pressed on.

I put crampons on and crossed the Bonar Glacier, which was flat and minimally crevassed at this point. I climbed up the steep Kangaroo snow patch, which in early summer allows climbers to bypass some of the scrambling on the Northwest ridge. I gained the ridge and found myself under a vertical rock buttress. My beta, from the blog of prolific local climber Alastair McDowell, said, “It’s fun easy scrambling all the way up on the left side avoiding the major buttress.”

Didn’t look fun or easy to me!

I gingerly made my way along a slanting ledge system that worked its way around the buttress. The exposure to the glacier below was intense. But step by step I made it around until there was just 2,000 feet of easy hiking between myself and the top.

I took a look at the views but quickly pushed on, knowing I had just reached seven hours, when I had hoped to be on top. My body was fatiguing, and I could feel the thinner air above 8,000 feet. It was colder and windier than I’d anticipated, and I didn’t feel very comfortable even in all my layers. Yet all I had to do was put one foot in front of the other, believe in myself, and I would make it.

All of a sudden, the wind gusted, and the icy alpine air cut through the illusions of my ego. I felt a shiver run down my spine. At this pace, it would take me too long to reach the top and come back down, and I would get cold. The route down was not trivial and I needed my energy and my wits about me. I was running low on food and my margins were too slim to chance getting cold and tired.

In my head I was already on top, telling my friends back home how cool this climb was, that I worked hard and got what I deserved. The mountain said otherwise.

I stopped. I bowed my head. I turned around and tried to take in the view.

First, I felt the pain of disappointment and fear well up in me. I had worked so hard to get to this point and I wasn’t going to get another chance anytime soon. I should have known it would be this cold, should have bought a bigger running pack so I could bring more layers and more food, should have been in better shape and moved faster. Then came the guilt and shame. I shouldn’t feel so bad about turning around anyway, it’s not a big deal. I should feel grateful to be here in the first place. Most people don’t even get the chance.

But by now I knew this pattern of my mind well. There is a huge difference between learning from our experience and beating ourselves up because we don’t want to feel bad. But I did feel bad. I was disappointed and I was afraid of what my failure meant about me. So as a friend, I listened and offered my love.

It’s ok to feel this way, to be afraid that you aren’t good enough, that you don’t belong. It’s ok. And as I listened, the pain in my body and the love in my heart met, and a great sense of compassion for this life rose in me. A feeling of humility and surrender, because no matter how hard we try, no matter how much knowledge, gear, fitness, or skills we accumulate, there is still fear, there is still pain, there is still discontent.

As I made my way down the mountain, the sense of compassion grew into a feeling of freedom and joy. I found myself running down rock spines surrounded by cascading streams of clear water, their droplets sparkling like diamonds in the afternoon sun, and I knew I had finally found what I came for.

I felt loved, connected to my body, connected to the world around me, and I knew that I belonged on this earth. Running the last miles back to the hut with surprising lightness in my legs, safe and on time, I felt prouder of this day in the mountains than any other in a long time.

Contrary to my fears, being friends with myself didn’t sap my strength or motivation. After Tititea, I felt fired up. I realized that so often the biggest difficulties of the mountain are really difficulties in how we treat ourselves, and I had a growing confidence that freedom could be found in turning towards, rather than away from, our pain.

Now my answer to the age-old question is: Because I’m here.

I find myself living in this body on this planet at this time, with the desire, capability, and means to climb mountains. I don’t pretend to know where it all came from. Do we really get to choose who we are? What matters is to do what we do with kindness. This is the only reliable method of happiness I have found. I think it can be worth risking our lives out there if it helps us know the power of an open and tender heart.    X