In 1923 British climber George Mallory was in the U.S trying to raise funds for an expedition to Mt. Everest the following year. At the time, no one had yet reached the top of the world’s highest peak, though his team had gotten close during a previous expedition. During his trip, a New York Times reporter asked, “Why do you want to climb Mt. Everest?” Mallory replied simply, “Because it’s there.”
No one would successfully summit Mt. Everest for another 30 years, and many lives would be lost in the pursuit of this elusive goal—including Mallory’s own during the 1924 expedition. But his words have lived on. Perhaps one reason for the almost iconic nature of Mallory’s line is that his words are both so satisfying and unsatisfying at the same time. In some ways, they provide a complete answer, yet they also leave us begging for more.
As the New York Times writer Stephan Holden quipped back to Mallory 85 years after the climber first spoke his famous three words to the same paper: Because it’s there? “Yes, we know that, but still… give me a better reason.”
Mallory’s line points to the question of whether we should have to justify our passions. Of whether we really can. They hint at the undeniable human urge to pursue challenges that we see before us, but don’t touch on the source of that yearning. There is a certain mocking undercurrent, as if to say: If you even have to ask the question, you probably won’t understand the answer.
In July of 2007, while I was hiking up a steep, fern-edged trail on the first day of a five-day backpacking trip in Olympic National Park, what I later came to call ‘the Mallory koan’ popped into my head. “Why am I doing this?” Or more like, “Why am I doing this… really?” The question quite literally stopped me dead in my tracks.
At the time I had spent a sizeable percentage of my free time for the previous 20 or so years pursuing one outdoor adventure or another, this simple question had oddly never occurred to me. Or at least, not at the depth which it was presenting itself in that moment in the Olympic mountains. After a minute of two standing on the side of the trail, it dawned on me that I wasn’t going to figure it all out right there in that moment—so I dropped the question and continued up the hill in front of me and towards camp.
To be honest, I didn’t think that much more about it during the rest of that trip into a jewel-like stretch of the Pacific rainforest. But over the next few years the question kept creeping back into the periphery of my thoughts over and over again, like a stubborn cat who is absolutely insistent on sitting on your lap no matter what else you might need to do.
As time went on, it became clear that whatever internal pull that keeps me coming back to climbing rocks and shooting rapids year after year is a close relative of, if not identical to, that subtle internal pull that keeps me coming back to the cushion day after day. Though I had never quite realized it before, I began to see that these two big anchors in my life were actually teaching me remarkably similar things for years.
Almost a century after Mallory first attempted Everest, outdoor adventure sports have exploded in popularity, creating a $730 billion dollar industry in the process. Could part of the reason that so many people are drawn to adventure sports—whether they recognize or not—be their natural yearning for the dharma-like teachings they offer? Maybe, maybe not. But it is an interesting idea to contemplate.
You might chalk the popularity of adrenaline-laced activities up to the Western world’s seemingly unquenchable thirst for entertainment, excitement, and release. No doubt, outdoor adventure sports often can provide such things. In fact, these types of experiences may seem increasingly appealing in a modern society that is at once both more tame (i.e. climate controlled buildings, 24-7 drugstores, 37 different brands of potato chips), and more fraught with anxiety (i.e. the constant news feed about violence, drugs, and economic insecurity) at the same time.
Yet adventure sports aren’t going to provide the kind of easy escape that television and movies offer. For one, they aren’t typically particularly convenient, at least for the growing number of people (like me) living in dense urban areas. The very fact that outdoor sports take place means that sooner or later you are going to be uncomfortable because the weather has a way of not cooperating with your wishes. As grateful that I am for Gore-tex and other high tech fabrics, they can only do so much if you find yourself in a torrential downpour high up on a mountain ridge—or anywhere else for that matter.
While outdoor sports can be an incredible amount of fun, if pursued with any degree of seriousness, they will test you. As one of my whitewater kayaker friends used to tell her rafting clients: the river isn’t Disneyland ride. There is no stop button. You don’t have the option of just walking away from the field or the court and calling it quits as you do with most urban sport endeavors. If something goes wrong on in the middle of running a river, climbing a mountain, or on a backcountry ski trip —perhaps a severe turn in the weather, an injury, or just hitting a big mental or emotional wall—you really have no choice but to deal with it. There simply is no escape, and not just metaphorically speaking. And as importance as proper preparation is, no matter how much you prepare, no matter how much experience you have, you can count on the fact that something will eventually go wrong.
Adventure sports can also offer extremely direct and no-nonsense mind training, as there are often direct, and sometimes painful, consequences of not being present. Stop paying attention while you are kayaking, and you may quickly find yourself upside down. Space out while descending a particularly technical mountain bike run and you may quickly find yourself face down in the mud. Fail to manage your fear while in the middle of a difficult lead climb where you are 15 feet above your last piece of protection, and you make it distinctly more likely that you will fall.
I, for one, know that I would probably resent an old Zen master hitting me with a wooden stick if I spaced out during Zazen (well, unless it just happened to incite some great awakening). But can I really resent the river, the rock, or the mud? More likely, I will come back next with a sincere motivation to learn how to stay more fully present and work with whatever might be coming up.
Outdoor adventure can essentially function like an extreme meditation cushion, teaching not only concentration, but also inquiry, compassion, and right action. When is the fear telling you to back off? When is fear telling you that you need to step it up? And when should you just feel it, and proceed as you were? And often, it is not just your life and well being that is on the line, but your companions’ as well. This makes it all the more important that you understand your own emotions, and be well attuned to what others in your party may be attuned to as well. There may be no better teaching on interconnectedness than to hold another’s life in one’s hands with a thin strand of nylon rope that you are belaying your climbing partner with.
Outdoor sports can also be a way to connect with the real in a world that seems to become more and more virtual with every passing day. The simple feel of cool granite under your hands or the tug of current under your paddle has an even sweeter quality after spending a week conducting so much of our work and personal lives through computer screen, email, cell phones, and the internet.
And they can often be so much more. Without any need for words, adventure sports can naturally teach us to be here now. Really, really here. To awaken to our senses. To embrace both our pleasant and our difficult emotions. To step into the unknown. To find the balance between holding on and letting go. And learn how to smile even when the currents of fear are churning within.
After finishing a draft of this essay, I (somewhat belatedly) thought it might be a good idea to see what else George Mallory might have said about his passion for climbing. It turns out that he actually did answer his own question more fully, and perhaps even more beautifully, a year prior to his famous quip that would later become so enduring:
“The first question which you will ask and which I must try to answer is this, ‘What is the use of climbing Mount Everest?’ and my answer must at once be, ‘It is no use’…. if you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won’t see why we go. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life.”
I couldn’t help but laugh. Lessons are everywhere if we’re open to them. And so also, apparently, are our teachers.
Renée Sharp is an adventurer, environmental activist, and freelance writer living in Berkeley, California. She has been meditating and studying the dharma since 2000.