Why We Climb The World’s Largest Mountains

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

You’ve drained the bank account reserving your guide and porters, and have now flown across the world to climb one of the world’s most beautiful mountains. From the flat African Savannah, sprinkled with elephant and lions, rises Mt. Kilimanjaro. You’ve read about the 60% chance you won’t make it up, and about the percentage of people that end up never leaving the mountain. You wonder to yourself, “which statistic will I fall into?”

At least that is the sentiment expressed in a recent Times article about one fateful climb up Africa’s tallest peak. Reading abut a climb bordering on the disastrous, makes you think, “Why?”

I live in the mountains and often climb them, so I may be partial. It’s fun, provides perspective, and it is challenging. It makes me appreciate my self, surroundings, and the relationship between the two. I do, however, rarely put myself on mountains that put me in a life or death situation. There is an assumed risk in any adventure pursuit, but that risk rises dramatically when you are talking about climbing big mountains — and Kilimanjaro is a Big — with a capital “B” — mountain.

The precautions and awareness you need on a behemoth like “Kili” is amazing. Some of those precautions the article’s guide decided to throw out the window. The result:

Only at dawn do we notice that Roy is not carrying his backpack. He is coughing green slime into a handkerchief . . . Six hours later the rescue party appears over the crater rim. Roy is in terrible shape, coughing up frothy pink blood.

In the end, 3 of the 27 original climbers reach the summit, and green-turned-frothy-pink descriptions of bodily fluids is enough to wonder WTF? Sir Edmond Hillary’s famous quote, “Because they’re there,” doesn’t well enough explain why we climb mountains. Perhaps it is spiting an irresponsible guide en route to Kili’s summit that provides better clarity:

it is a moment of almost divine mystery and beauty. The banks of cloud far below, the melting glaciers. This is why we push boundaries — to touch the sky, to understand what the edge of our existence looks like.

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