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Thursday, March 1, 2007

Finding Nirvana In The Mountains


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Photo Adventure: Finding Nirvana In The MountainsWhy do people climb dangerous mountains, and why are people so obsessed with the quest for adventure? These
are common questions among people who don’t climb mountains. And for that matter, I’m also asked about what pushes me to pursue adventure photography. Couldn’t I have opted for any number of less dangerous photo careers?

When George Mallory embarked on his expedition to Everest, a climbing pursuit that would eventually claim his life, he was asked by a reporter why he intended to climb the deadly mountain. His seemingly casual remark, "Because it’s there," was bannered on newspapers around the world. That was back in 1922, proof that even before television, reporters were hungry for the snappy sound bite.

"Because it’s there" doesn’t quite answer the question of "why" for nonclimbers and barely touches on the commitment and passions driving most climbers and adventurers. To give Mallory credit, his famous utterance was only the crest of a vast flood of reasons that drove him to embark on the greatest climbing challenge known to man at that time. Mallory did indeed say more than those three pithy words to explain his quest to climb Everest, but those words were lost in the small type below the dramatic headline.

This autumn, as I contemplated the tragic and very unexpected death of my friend Todd Skinner, my thoughts were spinning around this question of why we of the adventuresome ilk pursue our passions into potentially deadly arenas. What shocked the climbing world and those who knew him was that Todd died in a climbing accident. As a climber, Todd often placed himself in vertical environments that nonclimbers would consider suicidal; but for Todd, safety was always a key consideration on any climb.

Todd was a rock veteran with the accumulated wisdom of more than 25 years of climbing on some of the most unforgiving and difficult mountains and walls around the world. His fall was unexpected, the matter of a worn piece of equipment that failed during a routine rappel on a cliff in Yosemite Valley. Todd fell to his death, leaving his partner to descend the cliff alone to notify search and rescue. In nonclimbing terms, the accident was akin to car brakes failing when descending a mountain road.

Following the accident, reporters looking for people who had climbed with Todd soon contacted me. Todd and I shared more than 20 years of mountain adventures, and it was thought that I might have some insight to understanding the tragedy.

One interviewer asked me if "Todd had a death wish." The question was almost laughable, but I understood that this writer was asking questions that he knew his readers would be asking.

But I thought, "Wow, do people still believe in the death wish theory as it applies to climbers—the idea that climbers are purposefully trying to kill themselves?" For a moment, I flashed on Mallory’s words and wondered if his famous statement had trivialized what many climbers find is central to their life.

Visit www.billhatcher.com.


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