I’ve never really been one for a challenge. I’ve always shied away from them and the risk of abject failure they carry. That old adage, the one full of people made stronger by things trying to kill them, has always rung slightly untrue for me. If something out there tried to murder me and failed, it wouldn’t increased my self worth. It’s more likely to inspire an evening of sobbing reflection on the sakura-esque fragility of life. Also, fear. Lots of fear.
On my second night in Boulder I was taken to a film festival, an evening of films dedicated to the finest in extreme outdoor talent focusing specifically on rockclimbers. I love a good documentary and those on show were really quite good, involving the audience in the personal side of the sport as well as the physical and mental challenges involved.
I didn’t get it.
I mean, I got the aim of the festival. It was a successful event, full of whooping and the occasional drunken hoot. I didn’t get the motivation of the people thrown up on the wall, those chaps and chapesses in down-suits and crampons. What makes someone want to not only throw caution to the wind, but pierce holes in its wings and weight it down with three hundred pounds of sensibility? The most impressive of the films delved briefly into the private life of one of these mentalists complete with long, lingering shots of his wife and three adopted kids. This was intercut with footage of him in a tent tacked to a sheer rock face at 20 000ft. What would make a person risk all of that, not only for himself but for his family? This too was addressed, with the chap in question claiming he was often called selfish. Ding! went my brain. That was exactly the word. Selfish. I didn’t get it.
I climbed a mountain on Sunday. Well, hiked. There was some scrambling involved (of the upper grade 4 variety apparently). I had to wear a thermal top and hat and everything. There was a real, if very minor, risk of sudden, fatal slippage followed by a considerably longer period of fatal falling topped finally by an extremely brief moment of fatal crunching onto a rock. It was the closest I’d ever gotten to the rope-swinging, pick stabbing tomfoolery I’d witnessed at the film festival. As Olivia, playing the role of mother goose to my panicking, flailing gosling explained, picking the proper route over the rocks was a logic puzzle: which foothold will allow me to reach that crack? Is this nook going to support my weight? Should I eat my bagel now or at the summit? Each time a particularly difficult section was cleared there was a real sense of accomplishment, a feeling of a job well done.
It wasn’t a particularly difficult hike, in fact Olivia classified it as average, but for me to complete an actual mountain trail was big deal. We ended up at over 14 000ft where breathing was like sucking on an empty coke bottle and the wind cut through all three layers to freeze my cholesterol marinated blood solid. I was proud of myself. I’d faced a challenge and come through with barely any problems to speak of. It felt amazing.
I’m not saying I know what those climbers feel like now. I’m not saying this small romp up a mountain has transformed me into an hardened man of the world, eating rocks and shitting gravel. What I am saying is, I get it now. I get the idea that someone would risk everything to face a challenge that no-one else on the planet has overcome, to be the first person to achieve a particular goal. To push yourself further than anyone else, to know with a certainty you’re better than your competitors must be a feeling unlike any other; an addictive feeling. So yes, I think I get it.
Right, I’m off to massage my arms until the feeling returns.