Climbing, like life in general, is largely an exercise in pain management. Little kids can naturally clamber around on boulders, and no one needs practice to enjoy birthday cake and head scratches. To ascend the beautiful lines, though, we must accept the sharp bite of tiny crimps and the stress of climbing into unknown ground above sketchy gear, just as to live life a full life we must make peace with the inevitable hard times.
Our fundamental task, then, is to change internal associations so that certain kinds of pain in certain kinds of contexts becomes acceptable, or even desirable. The sensation doesn’t change (pain hurts, period), but its meaning can. Through repeated exposure, we inure ourselves to discomfort. At our best, we take this ability, hard-won on the rocks, and apply it to the more ambiguous and important challenges of our larger lives. At our worst, we hide amidst the concrete problems and tangible pain of climbing to avoid the messy, unpredictable troubles life presents.
Years ago, while mired in Big Important Questions and an emotionally wrenching break up, I set off with my friend Adam to climb Mt. Graybeard, a peak in the North Cascades. Adam and I met through a mutual friend, and a group of us had attempted the north face of Mt. Hood earlier in the week. While I didn’t known him well, he’d demonstrated two of the most important traits in a partner: Adam was psyched to get into the mountains and strong enough to climb all day.
We ascended a steep snow slope, tied in together, but with no protection between us. If one partner fell, the other would be pulled down too. After months of struggling with the intangible emotional connections and ill-defined responsibilities of a romantic partnership, sharing a rope on a mountain, despite the lack of physical safety it provided, was deeply comforting. I connected myself to someone as skilled and strong as I, and we put our lives in each other’s hands for one day. The challenges were clear, and the time together finite. It was the opposite of a romantic relationship about which I felt so confused.
A thousand feet up, the snow changed from secure styrofoam to sloppy, precarious slush. Our progress slowed as we swam upwards, burying our arms to the elbows and stepping gingerly as the mountain’s weak veneer collapsed beneath us. Adam led us across the north face to Graybeard’s east shoulder, and then I continued up a knife-edged ridge, finally stopping when it leveled off. With my legs straddling the snowy fin, I hip belayed Adam up. We rested, briefly detached from our fear and misery to enjoy the glorious alpine panorama, and agreed to descend. Unroped, we delicately down climbed the marginally less steep south side of the mountain, frigid snowmelt soaking our clothes and pooling in our boots. Sometimes we’d punch through the snow to find it was completely detached from the rock underneath or the snow beneath us would collapse unexpectedly, dropping us a foot.
At one point, Adam started making a joke, but I cut him off before he could finish. I was terrified, and had no room for humor, but I was also preternaturally focused. My mind wasn’t placid as if meditating; it roiled like the sea, but I was a cork riding atop the waves. A visceral will to live, divorced from any reasons in the intellect or passions of the heart, drove me on. While we descended, I existed simply as a human animal focused only on survival.
Sixteen hours after setting off, we made it back to the parking lot. Stripping off our soaked layers, we drank whiskey, stood bare chested and indomitable in the last rays of the setting sun, and blasted Soundgarden’s “Blow Up the Outside World” on the car stereo. Its lyrics had looped through my head in the worst moments, like a mantra or an anthem. “Nothing seem to kill me no matter how hard I try/Nothing is closing my eyes/Nothing can beat me down for your pain or delight/And nothing seems to break me.”
Of course, the climb didn’t fix anything. As the cortisol and adrenaline drained from my body, so too did whatever peace existed up on the mountain. My relationship was still a wreck, I still felt like a caged animal at work, and other than knowing it had to involve climbing, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I don’t remember what I wanted while Adam and I drove to the Cascades, or whether I wanted anything at all, but I know driving home, I felt a little disappointed. Despite my commitment to the long haul approach to life, some part of me is always hoping for the deux ex machina. I want satori–the instant enlightenment–and when Morpheus or Obi-Wan or Tyler Durden doesn’t arrive to validate me after my great adventures, it’s a letdown.
It was a long time before I understood the significance of my experience, and saw that what I gained was more fundamental than a solution to my immediate problems. By that time in my life, I had survived depression and spent years draining the miasma of grim feelings that had pooled inside me. I knew I did not want to die, but I still didn’t feel a desire to live. Actually wanting to be alive was such a foreign concept I didn’t even notice I lacked it, and missed its significance when it returned. On the flanks of Graybeard, though, that fire, long reduced to dim embers, reignited. There was no epiphany, no blast of trumpets, but something important shifted inside me. That day was full of pain, and I am very grateful for it.