Why we venture into the scary outdoors

The view can be spectacular up on the Continental Divide Trail, although it takes a little bit of effort to get there. Enlarge photo

JOHN PEEL/Durango Herald

The view can be spectacular up on the Continental Divide Trail, although it takes a little bit of effort to get there.

ďBecause itís there,Ē George Mallory quipped to The New York Times in March 1923. The three words became instantly exalted, a mantra still uttered today.

Iím pretty sure I understand his pithy answer to the question of why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, but more on that later.

Mallory died June 8, 1924, near the 29,035-foot summit of the worldís highest peak, perhaps having reached the top, more likely not.

Two weeks ago, I scaled 14,197-foot Mount Belford, in the Collegiate Peaks of central Colorado. Despite a mild breeze, a slight threat of storms and the harsh task of hiking with a 6-month-old puppy on a leash (itís a wilderness area), I survived.

This was merely the beginning of a weeklong journey in the Colorado mountains. My wife, Judy, and I hiked, camped, backpacked and hiked some more in the San Isabel, Gunnison, Uncompahgre and Rio Grande national forests.

We saw a baby ptarmigan rolling helplessly on the tundra as it tried to fly away. We eyed purple gentians, columbine, American bistort, larkspur and other wild mountain flowers. A mother moose and her calf ambled down the lightly traveled road next to our campsite just before dawn, not more than 50 feet away.

These are all memorable scenes, but this is not a story romanticizing the outdoors. Itís about respecting the outdoors.

So why do we climb mountains? Why do we sleep outside in ridiculously flimsy cocoons? Why do we camp? Or contemplate the stars and planets? Or build fires? Why do we go outside at all when itís so comfortable indoors?

For many reasons, but here are three:

Itís humbling.

You hike in the backcountry with one nervous eye on the clouds, the storms brewing, some already unleashing their wrath. You note wind direction, hopeful that these dark cloudbursts are not headed your way.

Every breeze, every white wisp in the sky, every roll of thunder captures your attention. There is no handy door to walk through and escape the elements.

Or escape the beasts. A squirrel Ė or even a bear Ė gets into your food, and itís bad, bad news. No jumping into the sedan for a quick resupply at City Market.

Itís freeing.

Truly, weíve become a society hooked to its technology. Cellphones and the Internet pop quickly to mind, but thereís more. We live with the feeling that, should we get into trouble Ė break a leg, have a heart attack Ė help is just minutes away. In the backcountry, you learn about, constantly think about, being self-sufficient.

And you find yourself performing myriad tasks that donít exist at home, such as procuring water (usually by manually filtering it), digging a latrine in the dirt or erecting a temporary shelter.

We cheat by bringing gas-powered stoves and sleeping bags and such. But exploring the backcountry is, if not a direct connection with nature, at least the start of a conversation.

Itís exhilarating.

Walking high on a mountain ridge, well above the timber, seeing the world from above, is a thrill. Scaling that final near-vertical rock with hand- and footholds, and standing with nervous triumph on a mountaintop Ė I feel Iím at the apex of a roller coaster just as itís about to plummet.

Part of you wants to get down off that summit rock, get back to a safe zone in the timber. And part yearns to stay and soak up the feeling of being alive. There really is a natural high.

Mallory was five months into a tour of Great Britain and North America, attempting to raise funds for the fatal Everest expedition when he spoke with The New York Times. Then, climbing Everest was only slightly less impossible than putting a man on the moon. Why, George, do you want to climb Everest?

ďBecause itís there,Ē he answered, and the quote became a bold headline for a story in the Timesí March 19, 1923, edition.

On a deep metaphysical level, the answer stops you in your tracks, even makes sense, puts a shiver in your soul. His answer indicated ďthe fatalism bubbling away in Mallory,Ē according to the film documentary ďThe Wildest Dream.Ē But after being asked the question myself, and being pressed for an easy answer, Iíve concluded he was saying something different, something very unromantic.

I think he really couldnít explain to some people why you would want to climb the highest mountain in the world, or why you would want to climb any mountain. I think he just grew tired of having to answer a question that seemed so basic to him. His answer was part whimsy, part frustration.

Behind the three words I also hear him saying these: ďArenít you listening to me? Do you have no sense of adventure? Do you spend all your days contentedly on a couch? Why am I having to answer this question? Iím climbing it because itís there, you twit.Ē

As you may have guessed, I never met Mallory, and I wasnít there when he toured North America in 1923. Iím just one of many who love to reach mountaintops for numerous reasons that, space permitting, I could continue to list here. But you really wonít understand until you do it yourself.

So go ahead and ask. I, too, climb ďbecause itís there.Ē

johnp@durangoherald.com. John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.

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