Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Why Climb/Why Write

At one point, overcome with emotion at the beauty of the mountain, Whymper says that it would be "vain to attempt to describe it," because words would not do the view justice.  I think this does help answer one part of the question "why climb?" and it actually paints climbers in a somewhat more favorable light than we sometimes do ("they're stupid, it's not worth it, etc). The reason for this is that these is obviously an incredible aesthetic value in the outdoors that seems to resonate with certain people more than others--we don't begrudge artists their pursuits despite the fact that they are inherently centered on themselves, yet we seem to--in class--begrudge these climbers their pursuits because they are selfish.  I think the aesthetic value would usually allow us to empathize with their motivations more, simply because while putting your life in danger for an unquantifiable accomplishment seems like something we can universally understand (and condemn--althought I'm not sure it's true that we do universally understand), taking individual pleasure in the scenery is judged by altogether different guidelines.  We don't assume that this experience can be universalized, and are thus much more hesitant to condemn this as a reason for climbing.

The next question, however, is why write about these experiences?  If the aesthetic is the reason for the climb, but it cannot be put into words, then the writing of the climb seems to fall back into either the self-glorification or the obligation-to-tell-for-purposes-of-expanding-knowledge category.  Both of these categories are ones we've grappled with all semester, so while Whymper's text might give us more insight into climbers' motivations, it still leaves us without answers to the "why write" question.


  1. As the person in class most likely to say that something is stupid (Sorry guys, I mean well), I think your idea of substituting aesthetic pleasure for the "conquering mentality" is a really interesting one. While most of the people in our class were at adventure camp, I was taking summer art classes, classes that often took place outdoors, and I never questioned (and often still don't) the purity of my motives for wanting to express myself in that way. That being said, my interest in aesthetics never had much of an impact on anyone else, and so why definitely selfish, it has never prompted the "stupid" response that some of the more dangerous climbs we have read about have. So while I agree that aesthetic pleasure might be a more acceptable motivation to the armchair adventurer like me, I'm not sure it holds up in the face of loss of life.

  2. Dan, your comments about aesthetics reminded me of photography. It seems to me that many people who take photos do so in order to be able to share the natural aesthetic and beauty of the landscape in which they find themselves, and rely on the photographs as aids to tell their story. Part of what makes photography so unique as a technology is that it allows for people to capture a moment and then share it with others when they return from their excursion. Many people would probably assume (and I make a huge assumption here) that photos are an excellent way to share an experience, or hold onto an experience and provide a way to revisit an experience. I used to take cameras on trail, but at one point I just stopped doing so because I found that the act of taking a photo detracted from my experience on trail. On the other hand, I have a friend who has his camera attached to their hip on trail and constantly takes photos and say that photography enhances their experience, so I think either way is a very personal choice.

    Your question of why write, especially when words seem to be inadequate, reminds me of an essay called "Learning to See" by Barry Lopez. In this essay he describes why he basically gave up photography and chose to write about the landscapes he encountered instead of snapping a photo. It's quite a good read.

    Aesthetics is probably, for most climbers, part of the appeal of climbing, but I in no way think that it is the complete reason for climbing. I think that each climber has their own, very personal, reasons for climbing (and aesthetics may be part of that reason), but because it is such an independent and personal activity, it's hard to be able to fully understand the motivations.

  3. Anna I also thought of photography! I love taking pictures, especially, for some reason of sunsets. My brother, however, always yells at me saying "why can't we just enjoy the moment instead of taking a picture of it? It seems obsessive" I must admit this is a valid point; yet I still love taking pictures. I believe there is something in the challenge of capturing a moment, or maybe a reluctance at its impermanence, that appeals to use as humans. Similarly, I think many people write about what's important to them in order to explore deeper into this theme or event.It is almost impossible to have our own experiences separate from our writing. Many people write to attempt to work through a tough situation, in an attempt to express and therefore maybe objectify their feelings. We may never be able to accurately articulate a journey, but i don't think that means it's not worth trying.