Voice of the Mountains

Companion Essay: What We Do in the Mountains

By Steve House

In conversation with Will Gadd and our Uphill Athlete Training Group members

There is something undeniably magnetic about the mountains that draws us in and compels us to return, time and time again. 

I’ve been clear about my goal with the Voice of the Mountains: I want to, in conversation, try to uncover a philosophy of the mountains. And to any outsider, any non-mountain person, there is an obvious first question; What do we do in the mountains? As with all the best questions it is simple to ask; hard to answer.

Each installment of Voice of the Mountains is anchored by a prose poem, or my attempt at one. This installment’s anchor is this thought:

What do we do in the mountains? 
We’re not there to perform.
We’re interested in awe.
And in incremental progress towards something better.

I don’t think it is about performance. But what if I’m wrong?

Honest inquiry requires that we look for our blind spots. And if I have a blind spot when it comes to motivation; it’s competition. Personally, competition brings out the worst in me. Quite possibly it is because I was always so bad at sports as a kid. The familiar last-to-be-chosen-for-the-team trauma. Which is exactly why I wanted to turn this idea over with the most competitive person I know.

Will Gadd has made a career of performing at the highest levels of mixed and ice climbing. He loves competition and he dearly loves competing. It brings out the best in him. I wanted to see what he saw and hear what he thought.

Here’s what he said about competition:
“Competition is where innovation comes from. It is good for the performance levels of the sport (climbing). I don’t know whether it’s been good for the sport as a whole, like for the soul of the sport, I kind of suspect it has not. I’ve also seen the damage done by competition to individuals and, yeah. And so, it’s not always a positive thing. But it is always intense and meaningful.”

Was the most competitive climber I’ve known talking himself out of the value of competition?

Not completely. Competition has value. It drives some people forward, no doubt it drives Will Gadd forward. But first and foremost competition is entertainment. There are few passive acts more exciting than watching well-matched competitors battling for the win. The outcome is binary; black and white, win or lose. I’m reminded of the 1992 film “Glengarry Glen Ross,” based on David Mamet’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name. In a famous scene, Alec Baldwin’s character, Blake, tells a room full of salesmen:

“First prize is a Cadillac Eldorado. Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you’re fired.”

 

That’s good drama. But drama belongs to the stage. And it’s clear to me that the mountains are not a stage for the ever-entertaining spectacle of separating the losers from the winners. No, mountains are a canvas for creativity. Inert like a canvas, yet unlike a canvas, mountains are dynamic and ever-changing by the power of the elements.

Like humans. We are not binary creatures. We are more than winners, more than losers. Losers don’t feel awe. Awe is the way a human-heart feels watching dawn unfold from a mountaintop.

Awe is a feeling. An emotion. And there is nothing more human, more animalistic, more not-binary than emotions. The mountains are emotions.

Mountain sports are about the thousand colors of human emotions. Richer, deeper, and following these feelings leads us to something better.

But how will we recognize better?

Naming that better is the hardest part to answer.

I don’t have the answer, I can only offer my search and ask you to join in it.

For now, I’ll offer this. Better is the spark which draws us in. Better is that which draws us back again and again. It’s beauty. It’s motivation. It’s a sense of purpose and belonging. In all of these there is a common spark we know simply because we feel it.

The moment with Will Gadd that laid bare the power of that spark came late in the conversation when, on a whim of memory and acting out of gratitude, I said to Will: “I’ve never told you how much I appreciated that you visited me in the hospital after my fall in 2010. I never told you how much that meant to me. And how much that helped me come back. And I want to thank you for that.”

His reply revealed the power of shared human experience in overcoming challenges and achieving personal growth.

“Well, we do it for each other. That’s the great thing about this sport and the people in it.”

I couldn’t agree more. Thank you Will.
Thank you.

Exploring the poetic soul of the mountains.

Voice of the Mountains explores the mental and emotional adventures found in discovering who we are and what we’re capable of. Here we engage in self-reflection, humility, and embrace the beauty and struggle of the alpine experience equally.