The Question of ‘Why do you Climb’?

So it’s that old age question of why people climb. Why do people go out into remote and dangerous places to suspend themselves hundreds of feet above the ground where a mistake has catastrophic consequences. Is the reward a good enough reason to take on the risk? Everyone clearly has a different motivation, but why do these lead people into  climbing rather than another hobby or lifestyle which is perceived as safer like dog walking, knitting or football.

Now of course within climbing there are different settings and risk factors, I think most climbers would agree that top roping on the wall is much safer than soloing the north face of the Eiger or attempting to free climb the dawn wall on El Capitan, but all 3 would fall under the umbrella of climbing although there is a much high participation in the first category.

Alex Honnold Quote (Credit-NatGeographic)

Alex Honnold- famous for free soloing (Photo Credit- National Geographic)

So motivation, why do people climb? Personally I like to think it’s for several reasons. I like being outdoors and seeing new places and climbing gets you to a view point that not many people in life will experience, it’s a great physical challenge, the movement is pleasing and it’s great to feel you have somehow conquered a mountain or cliff face. Other people’s motivations will no doubt be different. I’m sure there are some people who climb who are focused mainly on the physical challenge, being able to pull off the single hardest move their bodies can achieve, and some people who are doing it for the spiritual-ness and renewal of the soul in the mountains. So all of these different motivations and they have all come to the conclusion that climbing is their thing, why is that?

After trawling the internet for quotes about why people climb I found some interesting ones which maybe give an insight. George Mallory said ‘because it’s there’. Humans are naturally explorers, I certainly enjoy the feeling of being on a face that a tiny percent of the population will ever get to experience. The feeling of a first ascent, to have been the first human to achieve that, is an undoubted reason why people are drawn to climbing, it’s a natural extension of exploration. Mark Obmascik in Halfway to Heaven said “They make me feel small, they help me sort out what’s important in life”. As like many people I certainly feel refreshed and in perspective after a good day out in the hills walking or climbing. Problems that seem huge in the cities are quashed when you are surrounded by the great outdoors.

Climbing for a new viewpoint (Photo Credit- Osprey Packs)

Climbing for a new viewpoint (Photo Credit- Osprey Packs)

Climbing is not a mainstream sport such as football are cricket, it is not widely accepted as normal to spend your weekend grating your skin off to climb a 12 foot high boulder or hanging from a hope hundreds of feet above the ground for pleasure. Non climbers often sound surprised and intrigued when they find out you climb, that somehow you are special because you participate in this dangerous and fringe activity. Maybe we all climb because of the ego boost, because of the good feeling it gives us to be able to brag about how you spend your free time. In some ways blogging about climbing is an egotistical way to show the world that you are climber, and there for somehow worthy of awe and admiration because of its seemingly dangerous and precariousness. Maybe the ego boost is a small part of it. The ego needs to be able to conquer and win over something, and in other cases to validate ourselves somehow.

Andy Kirkpatrick very honestly says in his book Psychovertical  “I came to win, came as I always do, in order to justify who I am and what I have become; now I don’t even know what that is. The rot inside me, the cancer of desire, feels unbearable, now it knows it won’t be sated. There’s a malignant discontent in there, and without a climb there will be no peace. When – if – I pass over to normal life I know I will drag this feeling with me.” That he has to climb to feel contented and normal, that if he gives up climbing to succumb to a ‘normal life’ he won’t be able to shake an unbearable feeling of discontent. Perhaps for some climbers it is an addiction, to adrenaline, to the lifestyle or to the ego boost climbing give you. I’m sure many climbers have had that day when they come back from a near miss or accident, weighing up weather the risk is worth it. Is getting to the top of a mountain, cliff face or a boulder worth the risk of dyeing or serious injury, what will we have achieved. Most likely nothing that will go down in history, we will have left behind a life full of mourners for a selfish hobby that in the end achieves nothing useful or note able. Somehow success on a route condones this though. We have a good day out and we come back assured that the risk in climbing is worth it. Someone climbs an ambitious new route or makes a hard ascent and they are showered with praise and ego massaging, not an ear bashing on how dangerous and reckless the route was and how selfish they are. Have many climbers become addicts of the ego massaging and adrenaline kick?

Part of this is perception, in reality is climbing dangerous? The BMC have a great article here:

It basically says that climbing isn’t as dangerous as mainstream media makes it out to be. You are nearly twice as likely to sustain an injury from cycling and two and half times more like to get one from Horse riding. Looking at life changing injury or death over different aspects of life 1 in 320,000 from Rock Climbing, 1 in 125,000,000 in Airline Accidents, 1 in 185,000 for Anesthesia and 1 in 11,000 for driving a car. The most dangerous comes out as base jumping with 1 in 60 participants dyeing as a result. So really driving to the hospital to go under the knife is far more likely to kill you than climbing.

Perception of Danger in Climbing?

Perception of Danger in Climbing?

So climbing is dangerous but not as much as the media makes out. Climbers (in general) are safety conscious, we take time and care over how we set things up, the equipment we use and the knowledge we have makes us very reliably safe once up on the rock. I wonder how many accidents are down to human error vs. natural occurrences and kit failure? The danger obviously cant be that big a pull for climbers, otherwise they would take up more dangerous sports like base jumping, cave diving or rally car driving, maybe the perception of danger is part of the addiction.

At the end of it all, and more than a thousand words later, I think the reason I climb is summed up by George Mallorys quote “If you have to ask the question why…you wont understand the answer”. People are drawn into climbing rather than football for a whole host of different reasons, but the reason why it becomes a lifestyle for so many people is harder to pinpoint. It somehow satisfies something primeval and indecipherable within the human psyche. I climb to escape the monotony of everyday life, to feel free in the movement in rock and to challenge myself physically, to satiate an overwhelming sense to explore and see life from a new perspective, to have the views of mountains valleys sunrises and sunsets trample everyday problems into their appropriate size, to feel at home, for an ego boost but most of all….for the fun.

Cedar Wright in the climbing film ‘The Sharp End’ also sums it up quite simply with…”it’s a stupid question”.


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