I sit here, safe at home, eyes flitting between Netflix and the screen of my laptop. I’m reading online tributes paid to Tom Ballard and Daniele Nardi, two brilliant mountaineers missing on Pakistan’s 8,126m Nanga Parbat. Search efforts yielding to the mountain that’s unfolding a prophetic tragedy – the story writing itself as Ballard perhaps follows in the footsteps of his mother, Alison, who perished on K2 in 1995.
Some 8,000 miles away in Los Angeles, just weeks ago, the headlines were very different. American climber Alex Honnold’s free solo ascent of Yosemite’s El Capitan, captured for National Geographic in a stunning piece of documentary, took home an Oscar in February; surely the highest accolade for any filmmaker. Climbing, after years of striving, makes it debut as an Olympic sport next year in Tokyo. And streaming on Netflix to the side of me as I write is The Dawn Wall, the excruciating account of Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson’s ascent of the film’s namesake route, now watchable on one of the world’s largest media platforms. It’s a watershed era for climbing; a sport historically shy of international attention unless patriotic feats of height and distance were involved.
But triumph or tragedy, the media and the public are now taking note. Climbing is now so mainstream that both Free Solo and Nanga Parbat came up in conversation in the office this week, leaving me – a climber – scrambling to explain, argue, or defend the pursuit. ‘Why do you do it?’. Lovers, friends, parents, colleagues, all demanding to understand why we try to wriggle our way into mortality.
I’m inherently a safe person; almost aggressively steady. I can barely recall climbing trees as a boy, I’ve never broken a bone, I’ve never put myself ‘out there’. I eventually baulked at contact sports. I u-turned on joining the forces. I believe I lead an achingly safe life. Yet my actions betray that image to others because I happily fling myself, vertically, on hundreds of feet of sheer rock face, a pursuit deemed very much unsafe by most. What drives me?
I sat there in awe at nature. Is this why I climb?
Back in the summer of 2017 I was climbing in the Mont Blanc massif in the French Alps and can confidently say I felt I came very close to death. Already mildly concussed from an ice axe wound to the head that also very nearly ripped off my left eyelid, a rockfall above me set in motion a refrigerator-sized boulder intent on flattening me and ending it all right there. After the longest few seconds of my life, I dodged the boulder, my crampon-laden boots leading me to dance better than I had my entire life.
What surprised me most about this incident is the immense calm and peace of being I felt afterwards. Was it adrenaline? Was it instinct? Serotonin? I thought I would’ve pissed myself in fear; instead I sat there in awe at nature. Is this why I climb?
Wait, I said I was a safe person? Well we’re not thrillseekers. After all, every single preparatory measure put in place when climbing and mountaineering is about negating risk. Qualified mountain leaders are professional safety enforcers by their very nature. It’s entirely safety oriented. Every movement designed so you don’t fall. Maybe that’s partly why I’m attracted to it; the methodical gear checking and planning lending itself to a person of my caution.
No, we’re not thrillseekers, we’re lifeseekers. This peace, this intimate contact with the outdoors, is what we achieve every time we step onto rock, onto mountain. It’s grounding. It’s the feet in the soil, or the cold breath against granite, the fingers becoming stone. Ballard, speaking in 2015 to climbing news site UKClimbing, recites this better than I, a mere novice in comparison.
“When you’re soloing you have to become more of a part of the mountain itself; you feel more a part of the rock, part of the ice. instead of working against the mountain you’re working with it,” he said. “You become a moving bit of rock or a moving piece of ice.”
After all, isn’t this where we should be? Not cooped up in offices like battery hens but out living, staring down nature as something not to be conquered but something to be lived, to be in tune with, to be connected with, to assimilate with. Homo erectus may have lost our climbing adaptations when we evolved upright, but that reptilian brain still needs exercising, our cerebellum taken out for spin.
Climbing is a methodical, calculated approach to becoming one with the elements,
Honnold’s Free Solo success was the culmination of a decade of training and the internalising of thousands of individual hand and foot movements. He became El Capitan. Ballard’s attempt on Nanga Parbat wasn’t daring, it was the logical want of a lifetime spent conversing with Mother Nature. Climbing is a methodical, calculated approach to becoming one with the elements, and the high can’t be found anywhere else. It’s the raison d’être.
Of course, it doesn’t take climbing to feel the benefits of the outdoors. A Sunday stroll in the woods will restart your connection with nature after a stressful week. But as the stakes rise, so does the reward; the closer you’re pushed to the edge the closer you understand our Earth on a primal level.
That edge, unfortunately, sometimes does come with consequences. But like my rockfall in the Alps, an avalanche or accident that likely took Ballard and Nardi’s lives is something that could have only been avoided by not being there in that moment. Where’s the living in that?
The most poignant scene of Free Solo comes not when Honnold is 3,000 feet up without a rope, but in an interview with his mother, Dierdre.
“I think when he’s free soloing is when he feels most alive,” she says. “How can you even think about taking that away from somebody.”
Ben Sullivan is the digital editor of The Big Issue