Why Do You Climb Mountains? - Because they are there!
by Dr.H. Korman
Why do men climb mountains? Because they are there!- By Dr. H. Korman George Herbert Leigh Mallory (1886 –1924) was an English clergyman, who took part in the first three British expeditions to Mount Everest in the early 1920s, and with his friend and climbing team member Andrew Irvine disappeared somewhere high on the North-East ridge on Mt. Everest. His body was discovered in 1999 and its condition as well as aspects of his gear, has fuelled speculation as to whether he did reach the summit or not.
Sir Edmund Hillary, the New Zealand philanthropist,( devoted his life to helping Sherpas), veteran WW 2 navigator, explorer has been credited with summiting Everest first, in 1953 however that is not the focus herein. Notwithstanding this conjecture, Mallory was and remains an icon in the annals of mountaineering, his funeral attended by King George V, the Royal family, the entire British cabinet, the Prime Minister, friends and family and recognized beyond question as fuelling the insatiable drive thereafter, by climbers worldwide, to summit the highest mountain in the world.
Europeans had been attracted, like moths to a flame, to the rugged Himalayas, since Marco Polo wrote of them in the late 13th Century .However it was “Mallorism” that swept Europe and “peaked” the interest of many Alpinists, who although had climbing experience with the Continents mountain’s, had only heard of the Himalayas as far off ranges steeped in mystery and romance, pure and pristine, from the lore of adventurers returning home.
Much has been written and researched about early pioneers of this extreme sport, the actual experience of the climb itself, relating to the weather, routes, gear, winds, deaths but amazingly little has been explored and studied of the reason people climb mountains.
Mallory, in Philadelphia PA, at a fund raiser for his next climb, was asked by a New York Times reporter, the question…”Why do you Climb Mountains”…to which the young romantic figure quipped after a slight pause…”Because they are there” became the famous hue and cry uttered thereafter by countless novice as well as seasoned climbers worldwide, attempting to answer the question posed to all of us. His obiter dictum, was not because he could not think of an answer. He could when one examines his next words as reported in the times the following day. The key here, is that we do not know with certainty, what compels some men and women to risk perishing in a remote area of the world, via avalanche or ice fall,or losing digits to frostbite, suffering high altitude sickness, oedema, heart attack, etc.
In Mallorys time, why a few climbed and risked so much, was answered and couched in colourful terms of adventure, romance, and overcoming fears, creating images of man’s thirst for conquering the elements and as a result becoming, in those times, the equivalent of our modern day astronauts, sports hero or movie stars. There is a very deep need for some to risk all- the most precious gift known to man and that is Life. This article will explore some of the psychological reasons that experts have postulated that drive mountaineers to the unpredictable weather beaten, merciless rocky snow covered terra at extreme heights, to better understand why “man” does what he does, whether it is exploring the far reaches of space, the depths of our oceans, or beating his land time records running the mile. Ansel Adams wrote..".no matter how sophisticated you may be, a large granite mountain cannot be denied...it speaks in silence to the very core of your being.."
Perhaps this why so many have explained Mallorys comments as simply meaning that one cannot ever conquer a mountain, one can only conquer oneself. This element of ‘ overcoming of self",is attributed to Nietzsche, in which he believed "self" is divided in two; one part strong, one part weak, the strong triumphing. But to find out why is self-overcoming even necessary? Sigmund Freud's students considered this question and acknowledged what climbers know from individual and various climbing experiences is in fact true:at the root, is the pleasure-the almost orgasmic thrill, the fantastic emotional charge, the sublime "out of this world" feeling is the cause for climbing.
These observations and conclusions, in fact are also corroborated by some direct research on a clinical study of Polish climber’s, men and woman. (See the Himalayan Journal, Volume (1972-73) ‘Psychopathology in Alpinism’ by Zdzislaw Ryn.)
Ryn, after analysis believes that the matter can best be explained in terms of phobias and counter phobic experience. He states his central question is, "why climbers find this pleasure sometimes verging on ecstasy — in situations that in the average person inspires dread, panic, terror. At the point where most of the human race pulls back and runs, the climber rushes eagerly forward".
He starts his analysis using the Freudian model. How do climbers cope with their feelings? He states "..a predisposition is laid down in childhood. The helpless infant is awash with fears of inadequacy, fears of authority and punishment, terror at the animal world and ghouls and goblins, fear of hunger, of murderous rage — fears of every shade and stripe and in all directions. The sensations of fear are physically uncomfortable for any child, and emotionally stressful. For relief from this anxiety and discomfort, the child has three choices. One is simple avoidance of fear filled situations and thoughts, and energetic suppression of such threats.The second possibility is for the child to resolve the fear at its source and discover that it is groundless.The third, is where one attempts to compensate for those unresolved fears called ‘counter phobia’ and is where one seeks out and not avoids, situations that provoke it." James Whittacker wrote.."you can never conquer a mountain ...you can only conquer self.."
So, the "over-compensator" theory is where one tries to conquer anxiety by putting themselves in the direct path of imminent danger, with the hope that re-experiencing the wonderful sensation of a child vanquishing and overcoming a fear for the first time. However he concludes-it is an impossible dream, for one cannot ever banish in maturity the residue of apprehension and panic that could not be resolved in childhood. He states everyone has these-you cannot get through life without it. Yet not everyone turns to climbing as a remedy.
Climbers thus face a perpetual dilemma Ryn states... either denying risk and danger, or exaggerating it, as phobia and counter-phobia battle for dominance. It is almost impossible for the climber to match so-called objective risk with just the right amount of apprehension, yet we all claim to be able to do so. If this theory is correct, there are some practical lessons to be drawn. First, a climber should try to be aware of the natural fluctuations in his capacity to over-compensate. Such awareness is an absolute pre-condition for a long career. It should not be taken for granted. Know thyself is key here.
Many years ago Rheinhold Messner travelled to one of the Himalayan peaks and after setting up base camp suddenly decided, without explanation, to pack up and return to Europe. This seemingly impulsive behaviour, squandering lots of money in the process, suggested to me a climber with great self-awareness. Part 2 Conclusions