Among the various other climbers in the hut, there were 3 Aussie guys, making a documentary about the history of mountaineering on Mt Cook, who interviewed us after our ascent. Their questions were geared towards a lay audience – people who don't know the first thing about climbing. Those sort of questions take you right back to basics. Let's face it, not every one thinks it's perfectly natural to want to get to the top of snowy peaks.
One response is to say that if you have to ask the question, "why do you climb mountains?", you simply won't understand the answer! But my family and friends deserve more than some sort of pseudo-zen evasiveness. It seems to me, the point is that climbing involves an element of risk. Of sports like soccer or golf, the question is different; although they are undeniably futile pursuits in the grand scheme of things, very few people die playing them. So, if you choose one or the other, it's really a matter of no great consequence. "Why do you climb?", on the other hand, is a question that deserves a decent answer.
I felt I wasn't able to articulate a decent on-the-spot answer for the camera. Here, I'll try to share some of the thoughts I've had during the last fortnight.
To say I climbed Aoraki "because it's there" simply isn't sufficient. It's too obviously disingenuous, anyway. In a sense the idea of mountain is there before the mountain itself. It strikes me that I wanted to be a climber before I'd ever set eyes on a mountain! Growing up in France, one of the few television programmes my parents allowed us kids to watch was called, if I remember rightly, "Les Carnets de l'Aventure". Adventurers of various persuasions, and their achievements, were celebrated for the entertainment of television audiences. I think it made quite an impression on me. Bushwalking in Tasmania, with my brothers, I remember us saying "this is just like 'Carnets de l'Aventure'!" We were conscious of the irony, aware of the life/art reversal. But we had an idea of adventure, for better of for worse. We knew what adventure was, and we recognised it when we saw it.
So perhaps climbing is egotistical. Our mediatised culture admires adventurers, and climbing is one way to gain the title. It's a way of simultaneously setting myself apart from the crowd and being validated by it.
I can't completely dismiss that possibility. But although that might have contributed to my initial interest in climbing, the reality of climbing is very far from the romanticised version of it. It actually no longer feels particularly glamourous, heroic, or even adventurous to me. Mostly, I would say that I do it purely because I enjoy doing it. And I think I would enjoy doing it if everyone else thought it a completely foolish thing to do.
My enjoyment is for several reasons:
- Most of all, it's incredibly beautiful in the mountains. Indescribably so.
- Climbing is often physically demanding, and I derive tremendous satisfaction from completing difficult tasks.
- I enjoy the mental focus required.
- In New Zealand, climbing can involve being away from people. That isolation is attractive to me.
- I value the friendships I have formed through climbing.
- I like being methodical, and planning the best way to do something.
But have I really answered the question? Given the satisfaction I derive from climbing, is the risk involved justifiable? In fact, I think the risk is actually a significant part of the attraction of climbing. To continue the sporting comparison, in soccer or golf, if you make a mistake, you lose the match or the round, or perhaps the ball. In the mountains, a mistake could potentially be fatal. In a culture which seems to be increasingly risk-averse, I think this is very healthy. And it is in this reminder of my own mortality that I find perhaps the most persuasive reason for climbing.