I love hearing people’s stories. They fascinate me. And inspire me. And make me think.
When I decided I wanted to explore the question of “why we climb,” Forrest was one of the first people who came to mind. He is the president and founder of Peaks of Life, (which he started at 23) and an accomplished mountaineer. You should google his second earliest on record ascent of the Cassin Ridge on Denali for some light reading. He climbed Rainier 7 times this summer, a few of those he tried to convince me to join in on for a one day push. I finally had to tell him I was a little intimidated by him. Maybe more than a little. He thought that was funny. I am drawn to people who are clearly passionate, and maybe a little out of the box. The combination of Forrest’s mountaineering accomplishments and his work for Children’s Hospital (and he’s not even 30), really intrigued me, and you could say make me very proud of him. Even though we just met, on Rainier of course.
Thank you so much for agreeing to writing this for me. And for going first. I enjoyed it to no end.
When I agreed to write this I did not realize quite how personal it would be. It turns out that answering the question about why I climb is really answering the question of who I am. What drives me to some of the highest and coldest places on earth, where a rolled ankle could be a fatal mistake? What makes climbing so great that I am willing to venture into high consequence terrain over and over again? For me, it can’t be a superficial reason. “I like the exercise” or “I enjoy the views”, pretty landscapes and workouts could be had without the risk and suffering. No, what draws me to climbing is something visceral, something as deep as the marrow of my bones. I first questioned if it could be that I “love” climbing. But it is not heartbreak that I feel when I am separated from the mountains. So it is another emotion, and I’m not quite sure there is a word for it. The best description I can think of would be a melody of compassion, gratitude, and pride, into a single feeling so strong that it inspires one to risk their life in its pursuit. For lack of a better term I will call this fulfillment, although the word in its standard sense is far too diluted to portray what drives me to put one foot in front of the other when common sense tells me to go home.
Climbing didn’t always give me this fulfillment though. For a long time climbing was just fun. It wasn’t until I made climbing about something more than myself that it truly became fulfilling. I think climbing, as most individual sports are, is an inherently selfish activity. You spend large amounts of money and time getting yourself to the top of a mountain for your own enjoyment. There is nothing wrong with that but it wasn’t until I made climbing about something more than just myself and a summit, when I learned how to climb with compassion and gratitude, that climbing became truly fulfilling.
Fulfillment is why I climb, why I work, why I do the things I do when I don’t want to do them, because in the end, when they are done, I feel fulfilled, and that along with love is the best feeling I have ever known. But not many things lead me to fulfillment. To realize this emotion I must feel pride, which I derive from prevailing through a fight so hard, that it makes me bleed, cry, get scared, want to quit, and almost fail. Pride stands on the foundation of gratitude. This is the appreciation of having the opportunity to fight and the appreciation of being able to fight. If you can not appreciate how pride is reached then that is a hollow emotion. At the base of it all, the most important element is compassion. Compassion for others allows us to be grateful. To be truly grateful for what I have, I must not only recognize its impermanence but also be able to empathize with those who do not have what I do. This empathy is driven by compassion, for if I do not care about others and want to understand and help them when able, I cannot empathize with them.
I climb because it is fulfilling, so I guess the real question is how is this complex cascade of emotions that leads to fulfillment manifested in my climbing?
In 2012 I started Peaks of Life, a 501(c)(3) organization that utilizes mountaineering to raise funds for uncompensated care at Seattle Children’s Hospital. We organize and lead climbing trips which people can join provided they fundraise or donate a certain amount of money. These donations allow Seattle Children’s hospital to provide world class healthcare to all children regardless of their family’s financial standing. When I have a team on the summit of Mt Rainier for Peaks of Life I know I have climbed with compassion.
Climbing is one of my most developed skills and I love to share it with others. I try to make myself available and seek out opportunities to help people who are just learning how to climb or realize their potential in the mountains. When I am able to share my knowledge and experience with novices, it keeps me from taking my abilities for granted. Helping people learn how to climb makes me grateful for my climbing abilities.
But when it comes down to it, climbing leads to a lot of suffering. This suffering is perhaps what I love most. When my legs are tired to the point of buckling I grit my teeth and take another step. When my hand is sweating while wedged in a crack and I start to think about how far below me my last bit of pro is, I take a deep breath and venture further. When the wind sends shards of ice stinging into my cheek, I drop my head and try not to think about the cold. Climbing is the ultimate fight. It is punishing, taxing, painful, and exhausting. And to win this fight you have to be be smart, you have to use good judgment, you have to be patient, and you have to be tough as nails. When I reach the top of a mountain and feel like I was truly tested to get there I take tremendous pride in that.
So as I sit here writing this and think about why I went up Rainier 7 times, Baker twice, Adams twice, Denali once, and a slurry of others, it is because those trips have made 2017 a fulfilling year.
Peaks of Life is hosting its annual gala this Friday the 29th, tickets and more information can be found on their website.