J is for Justification

November 25, 2008

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Why is it that as climbers we always have to come up with some justification or reason for what we do? Are other sports cross-examined like ours; do footballers playing in the park get strangers stopping them to ask ‘why, or do golfers, tennis or ping pong players sit and ponder just what motivates them to do what they do?

I doubt it.

Personally, I think this is one of the greatest aspects of what we do – in that it makes us question, after all, climbing does go against our better instincts.  Most people when asked will give the stock answers, using such clichéd words as a challenge, beauty or adventure, and if all else fails there is always Mallory’s “because it’s there” to fall back on.  Yet if you dig a little deeper, often the answers are quite surprising.

Some people get into climbing for no nobler a reason than they’ve never been good at anything else, and they feel comfortable among people who are the same.  Also, there is always someone worse than you to make you feel good about yourself.

For others, climbing is no more than going to the gym with nothing being as important as to feel the pump – no beauty or magic save for the chalk grimed plastic hold and their fingers grasping it.  It’s all about the fix, and it doesn’t matter where or how; plastic, wood or stone. For others, it’s about moving, and for some, it’s about the chance to stop for a moment in their lives.  It’s about searching and finding. It’s about running away and leaving things behind.   

For quite a few climbers I know climbing is only a means to an end, with that end being to get their end away.  For them, it’s not about the vertical, but the horizontal, with a few dazzling ascents transforming even the ugliest of climbers into sex gods; Jerry’s roof, End of the Affair, North Face of the Eiger becoming the Viagra that makes it all worthwhile.  In fact, one such climber told me that the main priority when choosing a climbing objective was that there were women around at base camp, and I’m told – if there are any other such hot bloodied men and woman out there - that Nepali Tea houses are the best place to pull if you’re a bronzed god.

And for some, it isn’t about sex, but romance and love.  They pine away for the crash of surf on cliffs, or the smell of heather on lonely mountain terraces, the clang of cowbells in high pastures.  Some take photos to remind themselves until the next time, while others like me write love letters and poems, all incurable and forever smitten. For some climbing about is companionship and friendship, experiences that are shared so as to be believed afterwards and hardships divided because alone they’d be just too much. 

Sometimes it’s all about faith, both new and old, belief in something else or belief in oneself.  For some, the outdoors are their church, and for others the outdoors are where their faith makes sense.  Travelling home one evening from Scotland I asked a friend of mine who was a Presbyterian minister the big question: who is God? I’ve always thought I could easily turn into someone quite religious – if only it wasn’t for the whole God thing. He told me that of a matter of fact he was the same, and he climbed because he saw God not as a being but as nature all around us and that when he was in the mountains in winter, or climbing on the crags on a summer evening, he had no doubt about his religion.

One climber I asked the question ‘why?’ was a devout Mormon, a much-maligned faith that like all faiths is worth learning more about.  I knew that many of the best American climbers of the last fifty years had been Mormons, and thought that there had to be some link.  He told me that they believed that through prayer they could transcend above the earthly plane for a short while, but once they returned they would be closer to enlightenment than when they began.  He thought that like prayer climbing could achieve the same thing, in that by climbing you were able to reach sacred places within yourself, and transcend ordinary life for a short time; but on returning you were not the same as when you went – moving closer ever so slightly to paradise. 

For most climbers the dawns, the sunsets, the storms and the friendships are only bonuses, with the real reason ‘why’ most often than not being too complex and perhaps too unsettling to truly explore; or perhaps there is simply no reason and that in itself is the reason.