Why 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.
Why climb the mountain, and why take such chances and flirt with the ultimate price—death? All climbers and adventurers know the reason they take big risks in the mountains, and it’s not just “because it’s there.” And it’s certainly not because they want to challenge the grim reaper.
I think the answer to why we climb mountains and take adventurous risks is universal. It’s based on a simple, yet common passion—the individual pursuit of achieving dreams and aspirations.
There’s no better stage for such a challenge than the mountains. The rewards are both in the joy of pursuing and in accomplishing the goal. The risk is only proportional to the greatness of the individual’s aspirations. Alaskan and Himalayan climber Glenn Dunmire said it so well when I asked him if he thought climbers have a death wish: “The act of climbing is, in truth, the inverse of the death wish. It is an act of embracing life to the fullest. It’s a world where you don’t have to play by anyone else’s rules but your own.”
Because Todd was such an advocate of living life to the fullest, he couldn’t have chosen any path except the one he was on. He says as much in his book, Beyond the Summit:
“Rock climbing, by any external definition, has no obvious practical value and might be considered foolish by some when risk is compared to gain. But what I value in climbing is that it asks for my best response on many fronts at once: physical strength, endurance and flexibility; mental acuity in forethought, analysis and problem solving; courage and tenacity of the spirit. I cannot gain an inch without applying these attributes, and I gain the most where the challenge is greatest.”
I met Todd in college when I was just starting out in photography, and we traveled and climbed together. When it really counted, early in my photography career, he supported what I was trying to do and was an advocate of the path I had chosen to forge with my photography. He believed that when attempting the impossible, it’s important to surround yourself with positive influences and a strong team.
Todd even took this message on the road, giving corporate motivational talks using mountain climbing as a model for targeting goals, team building and decision making for business success. His enthusiasm and willingness to take on the most audacious challenges was a spirit that touched every climber and nonclimber Todd met.
Todd and I were a great team; time and again he offered himself as the perfect photo subject for the rare and remarkable image. One of my favorite earlier climbing photos of Todd was taken in 1990 in a climbing area near Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills of South Dakota. The cliff that he climbed was a relatively short 70 feet high.
When I composed the photo of Todd climbing the face, I included in the photo the skeleton of a massive, dead pine tree that was standing near the cliff. To my eye, the grace and power of the tree complemented the climber.
As I got to thinking about the famous quote by Mallory, I wondered if he had more to say about his aspirations in climbing Everest. What I found is that he spoke eloquently about the subject on numerous occasions and that he did have more to say. I’ll finish with some words from George Leigh Mallory spoken in 1922 before he departed for the Himalayas.
“So, if you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won’t see why we go. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to enjoy life. That is what life means and what life is for.”