Why Climb? To Study Life In Full!

I have climbed a lot, for decades, from the age of 6. Each climb is a life, with its potential death attached. It doesn’t matter how easy: the easier climbs kill more, because there are more of them, and one’s guard is down, because they are easy. Also easier climbs are harder to protect, because the hardest climbs would not go without some protection. 

Never let the guard down, expect danger from the expected and unexpected, try to keep a safety margin because sometimes it will erode or disappear, all of a sudden. Some deranged feminists working for The Man, have argued that climbing was “toxic masculinity” . As we will show, all that they are promoting is toxic weakness and lethargic non-examination.

Girls do it as well… The lady is climbing solo, no rope. One mistake, death. Any serious mountain climber ends up climbing solo, because sometimes having a rope is too much of a drag, or pointless (no anchors), or too time consuming (I have climbed down entire quasi-vertical mountains fast, solo, because doing it with a rope would have been ten times slower and thus increase the danger ten times…)

Climbing teaches to master one’s hubris. It forces the otherwise arrogant, uninformed human mind to listen to the universe, to take instructions from it, to become one with the universe. 

Why climb? Why live? Each climb, well done, should feel like a life… because it’s a life. But mostly it reveals unknown powers. Ours, and those of the universe…

Once I was torn off a mountain by an enormous rock avalanche, the largest I have ever seen: my double ropes had been hit by rocks… Also I was running a one hundred meters wide ice gully… in rock climbing shoes, not proper ice equipment, and the belay was horrendously bad. I  faced certain death: the ice gully below, the most notorious in the Chamonix area, is a mile high… I remember the event, it was as if it happened three seconds ago, although it was three decades… Miraculously, I was able to wedge myself between an ice wall and a rockwall along the side of the gully… and stopped! At the time I was an excellent Yosemite chimney climber… After this I stopped mountain climbing proper for years. But the fact remains that I discovered my brain could mobilize absolutely superhuman strength. When I remember exactly what happened, if someone else than myself described it, I would not believe it. 

The original superstar solo female super climber was the Algerian born French climber Catherine Destivelle (she is now in her sixties), who climbed all over the world, at the highest level. She nearly died falling off a peak she had just made the first ascent of… while taking a victory photograph, she went backwards too much, and fell off until the end of the rope to her partner… in icy, lonely Antarctica (self-rescue was more than problematic). Another time she got broken up falling in a rimaye, a Bergschrund, in Chamonix. Somehow she stopped on her way to oblivion.

So I learned something from what should have been my end, I could never have learned in books, because I don’t believe in superstitious religions: sometimes the thoroughly impossible happens. For a hard core rationalist such as yours truly, this is an astounding lesson, nearly as astounding as the miracle of life itself.  

The entire pillar next to the gully, the Bonatti Pillar, on which I made a first ascent, later entirely collapsed.

Many more lessons can be learned from climbing, or activities similar to it: mountain running, which I still practice between smothering smoke clouds, requires similar neurology. In mountain running one of the dangers is to trip and head head first towards a rock, or off a cliff, it happened to me more than once… although emergency reflexes saved me with fractions of seconds to spare… In general, whereas danger in climbing can appear in seconds, in mountain running, it can appear in hundredths of a second, and one needs to think with one’s body much faster than in climbing. 

What are older folks going to do? Well one can climb into very old age, and of course the best climbers are the oldest, as climbing is a survival school. And to replace mountain running, there is always hiking. There is actually a rule among professional mountain runners: if you can’t see the top of a rise, you walk (high angle running is less efficient an walking).

I have argued earlier that climbing makes us into gods. The picture accompanying the essay is of Ueli Steck, a Swiss climber who died, soloing up a similar face, in a similar way: he fell off, maybe because of wind slab, on Nuptse, the mountain facing Everest. At least climbing sure makes us feel that way, like gods, when done maximally. We need divine powers, to muster all we need to resist gravity. Even time loses meaning, for example, in solo climbing: we become a force that goes, beyond smarts, a second can feel like a lifetime. Each climb is an occasion of contemplating life in its entirety.

We, and the universe. To be human beings in full, we need to be reminded all the time of the following: we are at our best, when we are one with the universe. Be it from a relationship with a pet, or from enjoying a landscape, or experiencing a wilderness, nothing replaces reality, and especially not virtual reality.

In the case of climbing, becoming one with the universe is a requirement, because death is the alternative poor execution leads to. Other dangerous sports such as sailing, diving, surfing, require this mind meld with the universe too. Being one with the universe forces our wisdom to work, and to learn, in the most exacting circumstances, that of the universe in full…

Socrates opinionated that the unexamined life was not worth living. Socrates promoted daily investigation of virtue or morality. However, examining his life in turn, we can see that the philosopher examined himself in battle, and was not found wanting. Socrates killed four enemies in combat. He also saved a friend during a dreadful retreat, and fought rear guard actions, to great risk for his own life after the Athenian army had been defeated.

These are extreme circumstances. Extreme circumstances enable us to see until the ends of what we really want, meant, and are. Combat is indeed helpful to find out about ourselves and the universe, it reveals lesser minds, and raise others above their own existences. Examining life is important, but the important examinations go to uncomfortable depths and have a hefty price.

So what is the most important? Gathering more wisdom, or denying a deeper grasp on reality? As usual, the devil is in the details of the consequences of whatever we do.

But, ultimately, even the most placid love depends upon enough wisdom to experience it, and project it. We are not called “Homo Sapiens” for no reason. The deepest reason is that even our roughest emotions should be wise, and they become wise because they are informed and have been examined

Patrice Ayme


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10 Responses to “Why Climb? To Study Life In Full!”

  1. brodix Says:


    I thought you might find one of my cousins interesting. He did a good bit of climbing, but skiing was his life;


    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      Extremely interesting, thanks Brodix. I know some of the individuals mentioned in the article. It reminded me of the past. I have climbed many times all over Tahoe, Donner, Lover’s Leap… Was nearly killed by a partner from Europe I had never climbed with before (first and last time with that guy, but not first or last time climbing with an unknown nearly got me killed!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!)

      I know someone else who died in the same way, along I 5 sleeping in the fog… Hit from behind… Silly, bcs there are rest stops… Actually I know two cases, one killed, one mangled for life (also a climber). Climbers tend to take more risks in daily life, especially when driving…


      • brodix Says:

        Living life.


        • Patrice Ayme Says:

          Anyway, your cousin was/is a fascinating character. I liked the fact that the article picked up that this sort of life can bring higher wisdom, as in his case… it’s always true that superlatively performing types have to have a form of higher intelligence. Moreover mountaineering is pretty good at weeding out those with poor risk management… Several of my closest friends who died, I had reproached many times and very explicitly, not to be cautious enough.

          A friend who was like one of the top professional climbers in the world, Antoine de Choudens was once descending with me a face. He leaned down for the next rappel, see where it was going to go on the overhanging face… He was not attached. This was the sort of things I will never do, if I could prevent it. In this case, he could prevent it. I pointed out to him that one small stone could have taken him out… we were already a thousand foot below the top, so stones were a real possibility, but the deck was a mile down.

          He died, to my sorrow, from an avalanche in mysterious, unexplained circumstances, during the first ascent of a peak in the Himalayas… He was roped to his partner, though, they both died together…


          • brodix Says:

            I didn’t know Stevie all that well. I hitchhiked through Tahoe a couple time in the 70’s and he only came East a few times that we met as adults. Used to occasionally met up during childhood.
            Got in an email conversation with one of his good friends. The story is they with traveling around Tibet and had gone through this monastery with clay figurines on the walls, that were made out of the ashes of dead monks. Apparently when they got back, Stevie pulled a few out of his backs and the friend Craig, freaked out, but Stevie laughed it off. Then he started having really bad dreams and the accident happened about a month later. Apparently he’d given one to someone else and they’d died too. Some months later Craig was visiting a friend and the wife was an old fortune teller and she gave him a reading and said he had a friend in a very bad place. Eventually they decided to make a figurine out of Stevie’s ashes and took it back to that monastery.
            Weird, but I’ve had enough weird things happen to me that I just took it at face value.
            We are thin ice over deep water.


          • Patrice Ayme Says:

            Very interesting… The rationalist explanation may be simply, as I said, that I have had a lot of climbing friends who either died in, or had, spectacular driving accidents. A corollary of death defying habits is that more mundane activities are perceived as less dangerous. I actually got injured, and could have got killed myself in cases where I let my guard down after the obviously dangerous period. I increasingly learned to counteract the return to the mundane by enforced vigilance.

            But I also did more than once, after exhausting climbs, finished under the epic mode, have to pull on the side of the road and sleep, sometimes every fifteen minutes… At 4 am… On a second sleepless night..

            Cruising on very thin ice over ice cold, swift water, indeed… When I was eight or so, obviously more familiar with Africa than frozen H2O, I fell through such ice. I got out of there real fast…


          • brodix Says:

            A memorial board to him;


          • brodix Says:

            It’s easy to lose focus when you have to slow……


  2. De Brunet d'Ambiallet Says:

    Climbing was part of ancient Chinese philosophy


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