If I step outside the door at the house in Andalucia, Spain, and look to the right I see a ridge of three peaks. The one on the left is the highest at 888 metres. It's a simple, gentle peak over some rough country. A mountain challenge all the same.
It is not a big deal, but I do love climbing it every three months or so.
I love the relatively harmless climbing I do here in Spain while, at the same time, I read about the more serious, dangerous sport of climbing some of the world’s highest peaks. I do not ever intend to climb these but I find it exciting to re-live the drama of those that do.
I have recently enjoyed reading a book on a disaster on K2, in the Himalayas in 1996, No Way Down: Life and Death on K2. Many of the climbers were killed on the way down as they fought through darkness and cold. They battled against extraordinary odds to get back to a height where they could breathe properly and where they could, at last, sleep. This is a tale of people on the edge, fighting for their lives, something they do for the extreme stimulation.
Another of my favourite books, The Climb, is about a tragedy on Everest, also in 1996. It is by a guide on one of the three expeditions involved in the tragedy where a number of climbers died in appalling weather conditions after summiting too late to get back down before dark. The book details the rescue of a number of climbers by the guide.
One of the most amazing rescues in mountaineering history, performed single-handedly a few hours after climbing Everest without oxygen by a man some describe as the Tiger Woods of Himalayan climbing.
—Wall Street Journal
I have always loved mountains and I am not the only man to love them. I used to live in Scotland and whilst there spent a few years climbing the ‘Munros‘, mountains over 3,000 feet. It was challenging and was fabulous fun. Remembering this time I began to wonder why men need mountains, what is it about the challenge that drives us on?
For some people a Mountain Challenge is just a tick on a list. This is especially so in the commercial world of guided high altitude climbing.
It is the dreaded bucket list that drives too many people on. The instant fix that says they’ve done something. There is no desire to get involved, just skim the surface and move on. For many of the people on both the K2 and Everest climbs that was all it was, it was not a real mountain challenge.
Yes, it was a challenge, but a challenge with little pre-planning and little involvement by many of the climbers. The leaders take advantage of this to make money and the concept of leadership takes a dive. The consequence is often death, as is seen too often.
In describing the book on K2 Michael Kodas a writer on Everest said,
No Way Down is both a gripping read and clear-eyed investigation of the hubris, politics and bad luck that brought on one of the worst disasters in Modern Mountaineering history.
Hubris, politics and bad luck are not a particularly worthy male characteristics. Doing a bucket list just shows a fascination with instant gratification.
There is a key, though, that many forget,
The mountain doesn’t play games. It sits there unmoved.
For some people mountains are the ultimate challenge. These are people who see and understand the danger as well as the challenge.
Joe Simpson, who wrote the amazing book Touching the Void: The True Story of One Man’s Miraculous Survival, is a prime example of this type of man. He frequently climbs alone or with a single partner, pitching himself against the most challenging and dangerous climbs in remote areas. He is the kind of man for whom there is no Plan B.
Anyone who has read Touching The Void will remember the fight for survival he had when his climbing partner cut the rope that held him above a deep crevasse. His partner had to cut the rope to survive himself, consigning Joe to a certain death. Joe survived, his long and painful crawl back to camp with a broken leg has haunted me ever since I read it.
Life can deal you an amazing hand. Do you play it steady, bluff like crazy or go all in?
He always goes all in and never gives in. This is such a deep male characteristic, absolute faith, absolute dedication and a total belief in yourself. His whole life is a type of mountain challenge.
For some people a challenge is a way of checking in with yourself.
I would put myself in this category. Mountains are there, mountains beckon to me, mountains are a challenge, mountains a great place from which to see the world. There is something undeniably stirring about standing on top of a mountain looking at the world below. I sense the scale of the world and see my small place in it.
Getting up there is a challenge and is a great way to see how you react to the world. A mountain challenge will show you if you are prepared, if you know what you are doing. Mountains and their weather are relentless and unforgiving. Can you deal with that? Do you have the humility to know when to turn back? Do you know why you are doing it?
John Muir the well known Scottish/American naturalist and lover of the wilderness said,
Climb the mountains and get their good tidings.
For him mountains were to be respected and loved. They are there to climb, to pit ourselves against but in doing so we should retain some perspective of scale, mountains are big, dangerous and fierce and we are but men, no matter what we think of ourselves.