"An amphitheater of mountains encloses one’s horizons and one’s footsteps. Today I climbed up to the eternal snows, and there found bright yellow poppies braving alike the glacier and the storm; and was ashamed before their courage… This is how one ought to feel, I am convinced. I contemplate young mountaineers hung with ropes and ice-axes, and think that they alone have understood how to live life…”
Vita Sackville-West’s Letters to Virginia Woolf
I’ve been thinking a lot lately on the meaning of life and want to use this post as a medium to explore a question that’s on my mind: can one find a substantial meaning for life through climbing.
Throughout history man’s search for meaning in his existence has been one of the essential quests. At various points in our life, many of us peer into the void and seek to find an answer to this haunting inquiry. For those of us unlucky enough to be unable to accept the unsatisfactory yet simple explanations provided by the en vogue religions of our day, we must seek out more complete answers.
What is the right question to ask? Likely not "is climbing the meaning of life" because that cannot be known, but rather "can climbing provide a meaning to life”. More specifically, can it fit the personal criteria one lays out for that purpose, because this is an individual journey of truth.
For a long time I equated climbing with providing a type meaning in my life, or at least as a fallback that I could always escape to. In absence of all else, you could count on climbing to give you a reason to wake up each morning, get into nature, clip your toenails, meet other people, and go to sleep content.
Did this really imply it had meaning though? There’s been a multitude of takes over the years about the significance of climbing. Somehow it occupies both ends of the spectrum, entirely contrived and devoid of meaning yet somehow unimaginably important and essential. To those many who are drawn to it, it seems somehow substantial enough yet also ephemeral and hard to grasp. Attempts to describe it’s gravity feel like clasping smoke; you can see and know that it is there yet somehow it always slips through your hands.
“l'existence précède l'essence” as Sartre would say. We who climb are often inexplicably drawn to it, but is that because there is something there already or instead do we assign meaning to it after the fact?
Depending on which school of philosophy you subscribe to your opinion on whether things have implicit meaning may vary. My own experience with climbing leads me to believe that unlike many other things in life it carries with it some type of actuality beyond a hollow activity. More so than any other sport I’ve participated in it feels different, even if many of it’s activities can be similarly described in other disciplines. A rational argument might say that it is no different than any other category of outdoor pursuits, but I can’t shake the feeling that there is something more to it. Maybe it’s the unique combination of features that make it up that seem to lend it more credentials: the personal challenges, the confrontation and communion with nature, the deep social bonds and community, the passionate fire it lights.
We could get into the physiological and chemical dependencies that draw us back to climbing as endorphin seeking bags of meat, but for now (and for right or wrong) I’m going to leave those mostly out of this discussion. On a basic biological level there are easier ways to induce those brain chemicals that seem to be less enlightening, so it feels like it might be more than the sum of these.
There is evidence that climbers are closer to or at least more comfortable with the truths of meaning than the general public. Lee Davidson’s in-depth interviews and research with New Zealand-based climbers echoes what many of us have felt:
“It’s a way to look for meaning in life, it gives people a sense of focus, makes them see what’s really of value,” Davidson, a climber herself, told Reuters.
“Many people struggle these days with a sense of belonging, but the climbers that I spoke to all had a very strong sense of identity, that to me was the most significant finding,” she said.
“Many said the mountain became their point of reference, it gave them a solid grounding, a core to life where everything else revolved around it.”
In a way and upon reflection, climbing provides an apt metaphor for life in general. It feels like it has a meaning beyond what we can readily interpret, and we seem drawn to attempt to conclude one. Yet if it does, it may be truly be impossible to know. Some may assign or accept a personal version of their own, or decide that the pursuit of it creates that meaning, but a concrete and universal truth is not readily apparent.
In the end, I am reminded of this quote most: