It’s always bothered me when folks characterize climbing as a thrill sport, painting climbers as adrenaline junkies seeking their next fix on the sharp end. I haven’t bothered to deal directly with this topic for a variety of reasons, but a recent public radio interview stoked the longsmoldering ember.
The show was To the Best of Our Knowledge, and producer Anne Strainchamps asked celebrated war photographer James Nachtwey about the stereotype of the thrill-seeking war journalist. “Adrenaline is a fact but it’s not a reason,” Nachtway responded, adding, “adrenaline is part of the job because it’s actually necessary to survive. But there are deeper reasons for pursuing the profession than adrenaline.” Great answer, James.
Likewise there are deeper reasons for climbing than the thrill. For example, I’ve seen climbing help rebuild confidence and connections for those traumatized in battle. I’ve built lifelong friendships on the shared foundation of climbing. Climbing can be a profound tool for reconnecting the modern, hyper-distracted consciousness with the all too often sedentary modern body. And climbing has long served as gateway to a personal connection with the natural world—a connection that, in turn, has spurred many to help protect our precious and ever-threatened wild places.
Yes, the tang of fear can add a heady complexity to climbing’s flavor profile, but the thrill-seeking component of climbing is, for the majority of us, seasoning and not the meat of the matter.
At the same time, it’s important to remember that climbing is about control. A little adrenaline can focus the mind, but when adrenaline surges, tunnel vision sets in and you’re more likely to overgrip, to make wild movements… to make a mistake.
Alex Honnold, whose forte is the long, difficult—and to most climbers, horrifying—ropeless climbs, isn’t down with adrenaline. “If I get a rush, it means that something has gone horribly wrong,” he said in a 60 Minutes interview. The rush that kicks in when we push too far into the danger zone is the climber’s enemy.
I’ve been climbing for a good quarter century and I’ve faced my share of hairy moments: run out over questionable cam placements, topping out highball boulders, sacrificing clips in favor of a redpoint go. But it was never the rush that drew me—it was the question posed by the challenge, of which fear and the attendant exhilaration were only components.
And in the end, learning to face and control fear can be an important journey. After all, to deal with this life, full of suffering and guaranteed to end in death, we must find a way to face the gravest possibilities with a modicum of composure, to not let ultimate consequences distract us from the task at hand.
As a climber, the adrenaline may in fact be there, and it may even heighten the experience so that it sticks in my memory like an iridescent shard, but the adrenaline is not the reason I climb. The reason, or reasons, are far bigger than that. Big enough to last for decades and serve as the cornerstone of a life. For some reason I feel that’s an important distinction to make.