Steve Sieberson began his mountaineering career in the late 1970s in Washington State and eventually became a climb leader for one of the country’s premier outdoor organizations, the Mountaineers. He spent sixteen years as a member of Seattle Mountain Rescue, practiced international law in Seattle for twenty-five years, and is now a professor of law at Creighton University in Omaha.
From Tragedy to Triumph, What Calls us to the Mountains?
The news on January 14 that Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson had completed a 19-day siege on El Capitan in Yosemite National Park was a rare moment in media coverage of mountaineering. Rare, not because this was first free climb of what may be the hardest multi-pitch route in the world, but because the climb was a success, rather than a failure.
Think back to 2014 and the climbing stories that made the news. Three incidents come to mind:
- In May, sixteen Sherpas were killed when a section of Mount Everest’s notorious Khumbu Icefall collapsed on them. In shock, many other Sherpas left the mountain, forcing a number of expeditions to pack up and retreat as well. This story was reported, of course, because Everest is the tallest peak on earth and the natural metaphor for human striving.
- Also in May, and much closer to home, two professional guides and four clients were swept to their death from the airy and daunting Liberty Ridge on the north face of Mount Rainier in Washington. This made the headlines, because the mountain and even Liberty Ridge are visible from Seattle. Rainier dominates the landscape and the local psyche, and you can be sitting in a restaurant with a view of Rainier, eating your grilled salmon, and thinking, “There are people dying up there.”
- In October, a freak storm in Nepal resulted in the deaths of forty-three trekkers and guides along the Annapurna Circuit. Unlike the Everest and Rainier climbers, these victims weren’t engaged in technical climbing at all. They were simply on an extended hike in the high country, carrying day packs and stopping along the way at well-provisioned huts. More than 90,000 people make this trek every year, so for the average outdoor enthusiast the event was newsworthy because, “it could happen to me.”
Non-climbers tend to think of mountaineers as a foolhardy lot who were born without a normal sense of caution. It’s not natural to deliberately insert yourself into a rugged and often vertical environment. A prudent person should stick to the lowlands and valleys and stay safe. The success of Caldwell and Jorgeson will not likely change any opinions because their story of struggle on the Dawn Wall, falling repeatedly and repairing their fingers with tape and super glue, is something even most mountaineers cannot relate to.
Most mountaineering lacks the drama of these triumphs and tragedies. We know that there is risk involved, but we assure ourselves that training, preparation, and good sense will insulate us from harm. When we read about the Khumbu Icefall and Liberty Ridge we take comfort in the fact that we will never try those routes or will do them more skillfully. We will proceed carefully, and we will always return at the end of the day. Our self-assurances do not really answer the basic question: Why do climbers expose themselves to discomfort and danger? What leads us into the mountains?
John Muir famously wrote: “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings.” The founder of the Sierra Club and patron saint of Yosemite National Park seems to suggest that the high places will embrace us and sing sweet songs to us. His sentiments were poetic, to be sure, but was he making sense? One of my climbing friends is certain that alpine peaks don’t really offer good tidings because they have no personality. They are simply part of Earth and no more. We may love mountains, but they are incapable of loving us back. They are not our friends, and they are not our enemies. Depending on the day or the season, they can afford a pleasant environment or a scene of misery, but topography and weather are physical phenomena only, not the work of spirits who take a personal interest in us.
But then again . . . if we feel connected to the mountains, perhaps it’s more than just wishful thinking. Most of us believe that a human is more than a mere collections of atoms and molecules. We have a soul. Why, then, should it be strange to think that animals, plants, and even the rocks and glaciers possess a greater consciousness? Genesis speaks of the spirit of God moving upon the face of the waters. St. Francis of Assisi wrote of Brother Sun, Sister Moon, and Mother Earth. Native Americans and countless other peoples around the world believe themselves surrounded by spirits that infuse all things.
Maybe a love of mountains is more than just an internal obsession like that of Caldwell and Jorgeson. When we head up, we may be responding to an actual call. We climb because we are invited to do so.