The Mountain With No Top


After several months without a single day of hard climbing, some friends took me out to a California crag called Owl Tor, named after the UK’s Raven Tor (home to Ben Moon’s great boulder problem on a rope, Hubble). Like its namesake, Owl Tor is steep and bouldery. There’s one gronky 5.11 on the left of the cliff band, a 5.11d in the middle, and it gets rapidly harder from there.

So, feeling out of shape and mentally unprepared, I tied in and spent the whole day working the 11d. I gave the beta-intensive 60-foot celebration of drilled pockets and glue four or five tries before admitting to myself and my companions that it just wasn’t going to happen. I had a good time, but felt demoralized; I used to run warm-up laps on routes of this grade, now I was projecting one.

But every time I start to get down on myself about such things—about my performance or lack thereof—I get a funny feeling. I’ve long harbored doubts about the validity of the underlying motivation that drives me and, from what I can tell, most members of the “type A” clan. I see a certain needfulness in it: to prove oneself, to put oneself above others, to feel the affirmation of success and excellence. When I look closely, it’s hard to see it as much more than an addiction. It’s an addiction that’s certainly reinforced by popular culture, that holds up select people as heroes for their athletic prowess or intellect or other skills and talents. The successful are addicted to their accolades while the masses dream of being successful one day, as if it might give their lives some rarefied meaning.

“Like drinking salt water to relieve our thirst, trying to satisfy momentary desires just leads to more desires.” It’s a quote I’ve seen around the web, usually attributed to Buddha. Though I can’t verify the source, the concept stands on its own. Many of us will dedicate our whole lives to satisfying momentary desires. The cynical might suggest that’s all there is, the accumulation of accomplishments like the constellation of brass plaques on The Big Lebowski’s wall. But it’s hard not to feel like we’re chasing our tails when we fall into that belief system.

Sure, I want to climb 5.13 again. But after that, I’ll also want to climb the next grade, and the next. There’s no ultimate satisfaction, only the passing affirmation that, yes, I can do that. I can run 10 miles or 13.1 or 26.2 or 100. I can climb route X or make salary Y. I did it. I can do it. I’m special goddamnit! Now onto the next thing.

And maybe that’s it. Maybe there’s nothing else but the eternal hamster wheel of accomplishment. But somehow it doesn’t feel right. After all, at some point we’ll all hit our peaks. Some day we won’t be on the upswing, no matter which key performance indicators we use to measure ourselves. And when that happens, no matter how high our point on the metaphorical mountain, we won’t have reached the top and we won’t have made a dent in the universe.

What then?

It seems like a silly question, but I think it’s one worth asking. And sooner rather than later.

While climbing at Owl Tor I felt that, with some effort, I’d likely regain my prior prowess. But I also saw someday that wouldn’t be the case. I looked out ahead and saw a life that, at its longest, would never be nearly long enough to satisfy my human obsession for more. I decided the only sane thing to do is work to drop the baggage that was weighing me down. I climbed with the pleasure of someone who might never climb any better than on that day… and it was enough.

One day. One climb. One blog post. One run. One moment. The past is a dream and the future isn’t guaranteed. There’s not much room in the middle to be overly concerned with bullshit.

Or at least, that’s how it seems to me these days.

Published by

Justin Roth

A busy mind that aspires to be still.

14 thoughts on “The Mountain With No Top”

  1. Doesn’t it depend somewhat on what sort of achievement ones aspires too? To climb a hard grade brings nothing to anyone else accept my own ego. How ever, as a doctor and healer, to achieve more income means I have helped more people. Isn’t that meaningful achievement to strive for?

    1. Making money, climbing hard, being good at what you do… all of these are wonderful. Except when they come at the expense of the individual’s experience of life, unbalancing us and tricking us into thinking such things are what really matters. It’s when our motivations are based in fear (of not being the best, or being a loser) or desire (for accolades, awards, wealth, superiority) that the addictive cycle takes us over. Without considering our motivations, it can be easy to lose sight of the simplest truths. To me, it’s a constant process. We’re always becoming… always stripping away the things we thought we needed to reveal the even greater things we already have. Or I could be full of shit. In which case I hope my readers call me out :)

      1. Dude, dude…. bro. Dude.

        The proper motivation to climb that next-level route, to ski that rad line, to get that dream job shouldn’t be out of fear, but out of love! Out of love for living a more actualized life and in sharing that joy. Out of the personal satisfaction that comes with achievement and the intrinsic satisfaction of the accomplished vision.

        I’ll likely never climb as hard as Tom or Rick or Justin, but shit, I’m gonna have a great time bashing my way up 11’s and laughing and enjoying a good burger and beer afterwards, content in the glow of friendship and the expansion of what I thought was possible.

        Same for skiing/jobs/whatever. Motivation from external sources (friends/fear/whatever) will be exposed eventually, whereas motivation from within (“I think I can do X if I commit…”) is a source of deep satisfaction.

        But don’t listen to me. I’m the guy with a snowpacked beard wearing a pink onesie, what do I know….

        1. A lot of people I see get sucked in to the numbers and the achievement and the status of it all pretty quick. There’s a draw to it. I’m sure you’ve been there, eh? Or are you too busy funhogging to notice what anyone else thinks?

  2. Man, this really hits home for me. You’ve put all of my feels into words and I cannot be more thankful! Got some “being present in the moment” practice to do.

  3. I am so glad you put these thoughts into words. This was a mere shadow of a nagging feeling I’ve been having for a long time, and you not only putting it into words but providing a relief from the anxiety it caused is a real blessing. The “…and it was enough” line really hit the meditation home. Thank you.

  4. Great piece.
    By definition there was (or there will be) a day for all of us that we will climb our hardest move. From that day afterwards we will only climb less good. The irony is that we won’t be able to acknowledge this special moment until many many years later. The same goes with every sort of skill or ability.
    Isn’t that a sad thought about the human condition? Or is it a relief?

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