“Because people think they’re Gods.  I don’t know, you’re the one who does that kind of crap.”   My fifteen-year-old sister’s response to my question shouldn’t have surprised me, especially since I’d asked it to my friends on Facebook.  I am in the process of collecting answers; I want to know why people climb mountains.

“It is not the mountain that we conquer but ourselves,” said Sir Edmund Hillary, the most famous member of the team that was the first to summit Mount Everest, that famous highest peak.  He once closed a lecture with the line, “nothing can keep us from our goal.” Sir Hillary delivered that speech in school fourteen years before his ascent of Everest.

The spirit of that statement fascinates me.  I believe that sentiment expresses the same ruthless desire for success that creates corporations, the same belief in the self that propels great artists or writers to succeed.  Sir Hillary does not say that nothing will keep him from his goal; he says that nothing can.  In that statement, there is no possibility of failure.

Of course, upon examination, this is not a reasonable belief.  Plenty of things could have kept him from that goal, such as wind, snow, or a bullet to the head.  His determinism falls into the category that child psychologists call magical thinking; the idea that he cannot fail is not rational.

My sister says that I am “the one who does that kind of crap”, but I do not consider myself to be a climber.  Yes, I have climbed mountains.  I sing in the shower, but I am not a singer.  I know people who are climbers, and they are a different breed entirely.

“When I started I enjoyed it and saw it as a hobby; now I feel it is becoming a way of life,” said Billy, who posted on a web site in response to someone else asking why people climb mountains.  “I sometimes wonder why I am here, in this place which is so close to death or injury.”

I wondered that same thing last year, while I was clinging to an ice axe on a glacier at the top of Mount Edziza in Northern British Columbia.  I was working as a field guide in a wilderness therapy program based a few hundred miles away in Alaska.  I was the least experienced of our three-guide team.  Our head guide, Erik, was exploring a crevasse in the glacier above the group.  I wondered what would happen if he was to fall into the hole in the ice.  Matt, the other guide, was back at the base camp with the three-hundred-plus-pound  child who could not summit the mountain’s peak.  That young man had accomplished the largest goal in his life to date by hiking forty miles to arrive at the mountain; Matt helped him to celebrate the accomplishment that day, while Erik and I took the other eight children to the top.

Erik and I were in charge of a group of eight young men ranging in age from twelve to seventeen.  In order to perform my job, I had removed a certain level of personal responsibility from my mind.  I would do anything in my power to save a life, but I was well outside of my comfort zone.  This was my first time on a glacier, my first time on what I would consider a real mountain – I believe that there should be a category somewhere between Mountain and Hill.   The summit of Mount Edziza has been measured at 10,220 feet above sea level –  not the highest elevation I have achieved in my lifetime.  The journey to get there represented far more to me than simply the lack of a trail, crossing the slow incline of the tundra towards the base of Mount Edziza, or even the steep slope of the glacier that I found myself upon.

Edziza is a glaciated volcano – a mountain that was formed from a volcanic eruption and subsequently covered with many compacting layers of snow and ice over millennia.  There are a small series of other peaks directly around Edziza, but she is the tallest in her particular grouping.  During a discussion with our group of boys a couple days after our summit, I told them of the weather patterns that are typical of mountains.

Most non-volcanic mountains do not appear in isolation, but as a range.  Either glaciers have carved out steep channels as they receded, leaving mountains behind, or tectonic plates beneath the Earth’s crust moved together, pushing up mountains with their force.  All across the world, the topography of the landscape helps to shift and create corresponding weather patterns that connect the entire globe.

Heat from the sun soaks into the Earth each day, and rises up, bringing moisture up to form clouds.  At night the cool air sinks as the Earth chills, and leaves dew behind on the leaves of plants.  The topography of each region intersects with the rising and sinking temperature of the air, forming localized weather patterns known as microclimates.

Mountains form distinct microclimates—hot air rising up the slope of the warmer landscape around the mountain collects water as the air cools, and glaciers at the top of mountain peaks help to chill the air into clouds of rain and snow.  The snow collects over eons, compressing into the ice layers which form the glacier.

One of the strange ironies of life is that many mountain climbers rarely get to see the view from the top—because of the clouds.  When we made it to the top of the mountain, clouds obscured our view.  We stayed on top long enough to eat a snack, and to congratulate the boys for their accomplishments.  For many of them, that climb might be the most challenging accomplishment of their life.

On the way up, I was in charge of the eight boys while Erik navigated the crevasse, determining the places that were safe to step.  When his probe plunged through the snow layer, he would carefully poke a region around the area, to figure out which portions of the glacier would support the weight of a human.  This is a standard climbing practice—glacial navigation is slow and tedious work.  Snow bridges – areas of the glacier which look sturdy, but do not hold weight – are common.

The slope of the glacier was roughly thirty-five degrees – we had used our boots to kick steps in the side of the snow, and held tightly on the ice axes which provided an additional hold in case we slipped.  The climb was relatively straightforward.  I trusted Erik’s experience to guide us through.  When he left me in charge of the group to probe ahead, I worked hard not to panic.  My heart rate increased, and my breath rate elevated.  I tried to reduce the tension in my shoulders, to slow down my breath, to convince myself that I would be able to handle the situation if Erik was to plunge into the glacier.  I did not have a plan, and that scared me.

I figured that if he fell through the ice, I would have to evaluate the situation.  First and foremost, my obligation was to the children.  I could not abandon them – if I fell in after Erik, there would be eight boys alone on a glacier in a completely remote area of British Columbia.  Rescuers would take at least forty-eight hours to reach us.  Should I abandon Erik, bring the children down, then come back up to rescue him?  What if I could save him?  My wilderness rescue training was racing through my head, but I felt totally unprepared.  Wilderness medicine is never composed of right or wrong decisions; it is always a best guess, a lesser of two evils, a hope that perhaps the right decision can be made and a life saved.

While these thoughts were going through my head, the young men were getting restless.  Many of the kids in the program have trouble staying focused in school; many have a hard time staying still.  I reminded the boys constantly to hang on to their ice axes, not to throw snowballs, not to jump around.  Finally, I got frustrated. I yelled at them that this was real shit, life and death, and they had better shut up and pay attention.  I had been waiting to use my big-poppa voice, the booming one that means business.  Since the kids had not heard me pull that card out of my inner deck in the four weeks that we had been together, twelve people in almost total isolation, they shut up.  I resumed worrying that Erik would fall through the ice.

Erik did not fall through the ice.  I did.

Before that happened, Erik had been using small wooden poles with neon flagging tape to stake out our path, and had returned to rejoin the group.  He was standing five feet in front of me, and told me to lead the group up the path he had marked.  He was to bring up the rear.  I took four steps, and the fifth did not hold.  My foot plunged through the ice.  The weight of the pack on my shoulders pushed me down fast, and the ice crumbled under ice that had felt stable with my first foot upon it.  Instinctively, I jabbed my ice axe into the ice in front of me, and Erik grabbed my pack.  I was clinging to the edge of the ice in front of me.  I did not look down to see if there was an end to the hole that I was hanging on to; my only thought was to escape to safe ground.  My heart was racing faster than it ever has in my life.

“I should have told you that was there,” said Erik as he grabbed the back of my pack to help me out of the hole.

“Yeah, that would have been nice to know,” I said.  I was getting used to pretending to be far more calm about life than I actually feel.  I turned around to speak to the boys, who were droop-jawed and big-eyed with wonder and fear.  “Hey kids, there’s a hole there.  Don’t fall in.”

We helped the kids to take a big step across the hole, and navigated a few more hidden snow bridges on our way to the top.  When we made it to the summit, we held a small ceremony.  Days earlier, at the base of the trail where we had started, we asked each of the boys to bring a small rock representing something that they wanted to leave behind: a behavior, an attitude, a mental pattern that had held them back.  We were constantly trying to use metaphors to help the boys to understand that their actions and choices determined the course of their lives.  Each of us placed our rock in the snow, and spoke aloud what we wanted to leave behind.  I don’t remember what everyone left behind.  One was anger, another wanted not to steal, another said he wanted to leave behind his habit of being irritating and annoying to get attention from others.  I’m pretty sure I wanted to leave behind my frustrations at circumstances beyond my control, but I was still in a little shock at my plunge through the ice.

We made it down the mountain and back to our other guide quickly.  The boys were elated at their accomplishment.  We were stern in our reminders to them that most accidents on mountains occur on the way down; climbers forget that the mountain is just as dangerous in the descent as it is on the way up.  The lack of caution kills more people than any other factor.  Often it takes the form of summit fever – when the goal is close, people rush in and forget the safety precautions that held them in place on the way up.

“Why the hell are we doing this?” one of the boys asked me on the way up the mountain, before we reached the glacier, when we stopped for a snack.

“You know why,” I told him.  We had talked about the metaphor of the mountain with these boys so many times. “Because once we’ve finished climbing it, no one can take that away from you.  Once we reach the top, you will always be the you that has climbed a mountain.  Because you thought you couldn’t do it – you saw this mountain from a distance, and you said that there was no way that you could climb it.  Now you are.”

That night, we ate so much chocolate that I thought I would burst.  We had prepared for the celebration with the boys by bringing extraordinary quantities of food and desserts with us, lugging them along for twelve-hour days (at times when portions of the group were slow), all for this moment.

“Now that you have climbed the mountain, you can no longer say what’s possible in your life,” I told the boys as they crammed chocolate in various forms in their mouths.  “That mountain is just like any goal that you set – it doesn’t matter which mountain you climb.  You just have to choose a goal, and go for it.  Every goal is attained one step at a time, just like the mountain is climbed.”

I wonder about the results of that experience for those boys.  I know it helped them; I know it was transformative.  It is impossible to measure the impact of an experience like climbing a mountain.  The boys held their heads higher, stood straighter, and had more confidence in their behaviors after climbing that mountain.  My hope is that the boys will retain that knowledge; that they will know that they can, like each of us, choose the mountains that we climb each day.  Many people seem to circle around the base of the mountain that they have chosen, afraid to take the first step, afraid of failure.

“It is not the mountain that we conquer but ourselves,” said Sir Edmund Hillary.  The mountain is not dominated by the experience of a climber.  No one with any sense would presume that clinging to the side of a slope and making it to the top and back down again constitutes mastery of the mountain.  If an ant climbs up my pants while I eat a picnic and makes it to the top of my head and lives to tell the tale to his ant friends, has he conquered me?  No.  In the same way, our only battles are inside ourselves.  We choose our goals, and thus we determine the course of our lives.

There is one quote by Sir Edmund Hillary that I believe adequately describes the experience.  He was asked of the scientific nature of the mission, the reasons why people were paying for him to climb mountains.

“Nobody climbs for scientific reasons,” he said.  “Science is used to raise money for the expeditions, but really you just climb for the hell of it.”

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