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Why I Climb: Personal Insight of Top Climbers

Why I Climb: Personal Insights of Top Climbers. Steve Gardiner. Stackpole Books, Harrisburg, PA, 1990. 130 pages, 27 black-and-white illustrations. Paperback, $12.95.

Steve Gardiner, bravely reaching for the impossible, has created an entertaining collection of musings. But readers who select this book because of its title will be disappointed, for the insights found within are as rare as peace in the Middle East. And, not surprisingly, the book provides no satisfactory answer to the question we so desperately want to have answered: Why do we climb?

Gardiner asked twenty-four men and five women, nearly all Americans, to consider his deceptively easy question. His list not only includes household names (Harding, Rowell, Washburn, Whittaker) but also a significant group of lesser luminaries. Such inclusions are surprising when one realizes who’s missing: Beckey, Clinch, Frost, Gill, G. Lowe, Kor, Kraus, McCarthy, Pratt, Reichardt, Roberts, Roskelley, Steck, Wickwire. But, as Gardiner correctly points out, “another writer could easily find another roster of different climbers to fill a similar book.”

The major flaw of this slim paperback is that too many contributors used their forum to relate stories of their most splendid feats. While some of these anecdotes are captivating, others suffer because of their lack of focus. Also annoying are the many and various analyses of why other people climb. These are often simplistic, overly nostalgic, or just plain silly. Where are the promised revelations? Where are the personal insights?

One of the few satisfying accounts is from Royal Robbins, whose capacity to discern the true nature of situations (the definition of “insight”) is refreshing indeed. Robbins looks at his past climbing history and finds it oddly incomplete: “My ambition was to become the best climber and I never did.” And, with admirable candor, he apologizes for his Dawn Wall bolt-chopping escapade of two decades ago: “I was thinking wrong.”

Perhaps half the respondents actually try to answer the Big Question, and many of them mention the “standard” reasons to climb: you get good exercise and a feeling of accomplishment while escaping the daily grind, you overcome fear, you deal with nature on a one-to-one basis (few climbers enjoy team sports), and you receive spiritual or mystical compensation.

Virtually all the climbers talk about risk-taking and feel that other outdoor activities, such as windsurfing and skiing, are not as fulfilling because they lack real risk. Many also imply that tickling the tiger’s tail, and getting away with it, makes one better able to deal with the humdrum life below. This attitude can lead toward elitism, of course, and a few of the accounts are laced with a subtle arrogance.

Although I generally admire Gardiner’s effort, I think he might have chosen his contributors more carefully. He should have rejected the submissions that never even pretended to address his central question. He should have edited the pieces with a more severe hand: do we need to know the size of every trout caught by Finis Mitchell? After receiving Jack Durrance’s submission, Gardiner should have sent it back and requested him to at least mention the 1939 K2 expedition, the seminal experience of his climbing life.

Gardiner, an English teacher, should have caught a glaring error in a quote from Plato (actually Socrates) in Charles Houston’s foreword. “The unrisked life is not worth living” should be “The unexamined life. …” What a difference in meaning! Also, numerous spelling errors mar the text; a partial list of misspelled names includes Taquitz Rock, Mt. Kichener, Sentinal Rock, John Salethe, Aquariam Wall, Fritz Weissner, the Schmit brothers, Edward Whimper.

For all its faults, Why I Climb is a valuable collection of mini-biographies. And, hidden among the clutter lie a few gems. “I’d rather wear out than rust out,” proclaims Dick Bass, explaining why he continues to seek adventure in his sixties. “I never have liked it when I had to stop laughing,” says the late Tim Lewis, revealing why he wasn’t a “serious” climber. A major challenge of climbing, the down-to-earth Leigh Ortenburger explains, is to overcome natural obstacles: “It’s hard to make much more out of it than that.” The sly Jim Bridwell observes, “A lot of us became famous without even knowing it.” And the observant Yvon Chouinard: “You don’t see farmers as climbers. You see city people. Farmers don’t need to climb.”

Finally, it’s a delight to read a passage like this, from Glenn Exum: “I have loved climbing, and the reason is that if you are up there and having a beautiful day and everyone is clicking and a few cumulus clouds are sprinkled around and everyone is moving and handling the rope right and the air is clear and you can see forever, well, I think that is really almost an unmatchable experience. It’s almost sacred.”

Steve Roper