Thank you to Steve for the thoughtful and thought-provoking post on the relationship between loss and motivation for climbing. I was heartened to hear that you have only given up “extreme alpinism,” not snow and ice altogether. It’s daunting to hear of people retiring around age 50 when I’m just starting out in that decade!
I have a slightly different take on loss and movement, which probably stems from how individual our strengths and weaknesses are when it comes to dealing with adversity and pain. I definitely relate to the instinct for self-protection, and your analogy of loss creating a kind of scar around the heart is spot on. But for me, the one thing I was good at, that could be measured and clung to in hopes of establishing self-worth was – in direct opposition to your experience – school. In particular science and writing. I wasn’t particularly good at athletics – I liked running and was on the gymnastics team, but they weren’t really self-esteem boosters. I’ve always been active and fit, but I sucked at hand-eye coordination, was terrified of falling, and was generally timid when confronted with anything physically risky (I wouldn’t even do balance beam or vault in gymnastics). I did love the mountains, ever since my dad took us backpacking as a kid. But it was actually school that piqued my fascination with ice, snow and alpine/arctic environments. First from studying Icelandic sagas and the way that environment shaped a truly unique character and social structure. Then later, when I shifted into science, it was frozen alpine and arctic tundra that floated my boat. Academia took me in many unexpected directions though, and I ended up researching fluids bubbling from the bottom of the ocean. From field work in the peaks of the Rockies I went to floating in a submersible at -2500 meters depth. Nearly 20 years later, I found myself semi-retired from research (funding has sucked ever since the 2008 recession) but excited to have time again for other interests.
Among other pursuits I tried rock climbing, which I was surprised to discover I enjoyed once I took a few easy falls and survived. It took me a long time to feel truly connected with my limbs I think, and it was kind of a revelation, the mind-body connection. Then last year at this time I desperately needed a steady income stream to supplement part-time consulting and took a job that, although in my field, turned out to be utterly soul-sucking. This is where adversity comes in. I can work at a desk sometimes for hours on end if it’s engrossing and purposeful, but my tasks were inane and stupid. I don’t think of the experience as loss, unless it’s loss of self, loss of direction, loss of purpose. (OK, maybe that’s loss!) However, it made me realize I needed to actively bring joy back into my life, somehow. And when I pondered what that might be, what kept reappearing was snow … ice … mountains … the fluid flow of solid ice in glaciers. And that’s when I decided to seriously pursue alpine climbing. I started taking gym and outdoor climbing courses to properly learn skills, gradually built up my gear by tracking sales like a bloodhound, and read everything I could get my hands on (my absolute favorite: The Calling by Barry Blanchard). I did my first mountaineering course this past fall, followed by WFR, which was like a reunion of soul mates I never knew I had. Then after a dumb, self-inflicted overuse injury I fortunately picked up Training for the New Alpinism.
I have no delusions of grandeur, and I’m more driven to see and feel and study massive hunks of rock and ice than to risk my life to stand on the very top of them. But if I hadn’t been thoroughly miserable for months this quest would never have crystallized. The physicality involved is definitely therapeutic, as is the mental presence required. But for me at least, it’s part of a larger package: physical, emotional, and intellectual, all driven by a fascination with the crazy details hidden in the largest, tiniest, hottest, coldest, most overlooked and most remote peculiarities of this stunning planet.
p.s. still looking for that non-soul-sucking supplemental income stream…
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