Reflections on climbing mountains

On Mt. Athabasca's summit ridge from my mountaineering course with Yamnuska Mountain Adventures in August 2010.

I love mountains. So do many others. What’s not to love? There’s beautiful scenery, escape from the chaos of work and city life, time for solitude, time to spend with friends and family, opportunities for fitness–the list is endless.

However, I think there is a psychological draw to mountains that underlies the superficial desire to do activity A or B. Mountains are wild, untamed and mysterious. Dazzling above us in their splendour, they taunt adventurous spirits to dare to conquer them. Really, most justifications for undertaking an endeavour as challenging and potentially dangerous–and, as some people contend, evolutionarily nonsensical–as climbing a mountain can be reduced to Mallory’s famous quip when asked why he wanted to climb Everest: “Because it’s there.”

However, for every person who wants to climb a mountain, there are a dozen others who think the first person is a lunatic. Who can fault those people, especially when most of our understanding of mountain climbing comes from the Discovery Channel, Hollywood and Wikipedia and most of the content these three sources highlight is of the tragic and/or sensational variety? (Okay, the first source isn’t all bad)

Though understandable, these popular misconceptions about climbing lead to two unfortunate consequences: one, those who climb mountains are dismissed as thrill-seeking yahoos, and; two, thrill-seeking yahoos decide to climb a mountain, get themselves killed, end up in a Wikipedia article and continue the cycle.

Before people jump on me for speaking ill of the dead, not everyone who encounters a spot of bother on a mountain is a yahoo. However, needless tragedies–like the 1955 incident that killed seven ill-experienced and ill-equipped teenagers on an early season attempt of Mt. Temple–give non-climbers the wrong idea. While everyone who steps foot on a mountain is looking for adventure, yahoos and climbers are separated by preparedness and sound judgement. To my knowledge, an accident of that magnitude hasn’t happened in the Canadian Rockies since then, but I wonder if that’s due more to luck than a collective improvement in either preparedness or sound judgement. Or, perhaps it’s because of improved search-and-rescue service and cell phones.

I see too many people on mountains who look like they’re in over their heads. Forget breaking the thou-shalt-not-wear-jeans-in-the-backcountry commandment, I’m talking about people with don’t even have water with them. Sure, there was the marathoner who was running up Mt. Rundle–which is even bigger than Mt. Kidd–in cotton shorts and a t-shirt with a single bottle of Gatorade, but he was as prepared as *he* needed to be. Contrast that to the group of teenagers I saw on the same trip who were scared out of their wits, shuffling on their butts across a short exposed section that they probably shouldn’t have crossed to begin with.

Mountains can be as dangerous as they are beautiful, and it would be wrong to say that climbers (and scramblers too!) are fearless. Preparedness and sound judgement flow out of a healthy respect for mountains. For me, life is too short and there are too many mountains I want to climb for me to take stupid, careless risks. Though many others feel the same way, even one reckless, adrenalin-fueled yahoo on a mountain is too many.

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About jbsantos
Polling, politics, PR and outdoor pursuits.

One Response to Reflections on climbing mountains

  1. nation says:

    this is quite cool about mountain climbing

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