Climbing! Why?

Posted by Jeremy Windsor on Jul 02, 2021

When it comes to answering the question, "Why do we climb?" there's noone better qualified than Dr Jim Duff. As founder of the International Porter Protection Group and member of countless expeditions to the Greater Ranges including the 1975 British Mt Everest South West Face Expedition, Jim's experience is second to none. Here's his answer...

Climbing involves fear-invoking risk and, in its more extreme mountaineering forms, a considerable degree of suffering and exhaustion. No surprise then that many people see the pursuit as an inexplicable insanity. Is it this apparently ‘insane’ aspect that causes climbers to ponder ‘why?’. Are we attempting to explain the game to others, or to ourselves? 

When ascending steep bits of mountain morphed into a sport at the end of the nineteenth century, such musings proliferated exponentially; some books, for instance "Four Against Everest" by the philosopher Woodrow Wilson Sayre, have chapters devoted to the question. Historically stated or implicit reasons for climbing included science, exploration and evocation of awe. The military mindset and nationalism of the post WW1 Himalayan expedition through to the present day commercial attractions for guides and rock stars suggest other motivations.

In the 'Four Against Everest' expedition, Maurice Isserman writes in "Mad, Ill Equipped and Admirable...", "four hardy souls, not quite knowing what they were doing, made their way through a vast isolated mountainscape at once beautiful and treacherous, in pursuit of a personal dream of accomplishment and transcendence. As member Hans-Peter Duttle reflects, ‘In 1962 we simply wanted to go our own way, not asking anybody and not wanting to harm anybody...’" A wonderful account of this expedition can be found here

Intrigued by what motivates my mates to pull on rock shoes, sharpen crampons, or prepare to bivvy, I decided to ask them. None of them gave just one reason, and it’s reasonable to assume that the importance of any particular reason waxes or wanes over time, the particular climbing arena or with ageing. Here are their answers, in some cases heavily condensed from eloquent dissertations, from such luminaries as Paul Pritchard, Chris Bonington, Hamish MacInnes (sadly no longer with us) and the few mates who it is still my luck to climb with: 

... sheer love of it ... physical joy of moving well ... spice of risk ... fascination of exploration ... friendships ... a bit of competition and winning ... the plaudits ... freedom ... intensified feelings and sensations ... shared experiences ... friendship ... wicked banter ... joy of time and place ... adventure ... escape ... self reliance ... sense of being alive ... escape from the mundane, the orthodoxy of conventional life ... a dash of therapy - an opportunity to reset mind and body, to replenish ... challenge - "a spur to personal growth" ... slipping into flow or zone ...

Recognise any of these? My bet is that it’s several if not all of them to some degree?

Can we identify underlying factors or influences that shape the decision to become a climber? Chris Bonington’s book "I Choose To Climb" prompted psychiatrist Grant Farquhar to ask,

"Was his perception of a choice the truth or an illusion? If he was incapable of choosing any other path then this was not a choice. If he was indeed able to choose, then why did he make this choice? Do we choose climbing or does it choose us? I would like to know why exactly does anyone bother pursuing such an absurd sport.”* 

Are evolutionary and social pressures at play? Is climbing deeply rooted and hard wired into our brains as descendants from trees with our powerful neonatal grasp reflex and basic ability to climb without instruction? As humans are quintessentially social animals perhaps the banter/conversation associated with climbing is a powerful attraction; the craik seemingly increasing in importance with age and declining ability.

Is there a heroic element to climbing? Does the hero of our tribal past echo down the ages when the family, clan or tribe looked to a hero to face off threats? I recommend The Mighty Dead - Why Homer Matters by Adam Nicolson, which throws light on the power of that ancestry.

In "Green Care in Psychiatry", a recent editorial published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, the authors state, "As organisms, we respond powerfully to the environment around us. Increased physical activity, inherent in accessing outdoor spaces, directly enhances mood and reduces anxiety. Although outdoor hazards include accidents, allergy and zoonotic exposure, benefits of exposure to green space are seen across the lifespan, including increased well-being, improved social capital, better pregnancy outcomes and reduction in mortality, particularly respiratory and cardiovascular..."

Like most exercise, climbing has health benefits: it is antidepressant, improves circulation and increases fitness and coordination. Just being in nature, with the green of forest, the blue of sea and sky, improves psychological wellbeing. Do the mountains hold up a mirror to our imperfect selves, revealing stark truths and enabling us, if we are willing and able to question it, to grow in wisdom and maturity? Outward Bound research showed that this only reliably occurs if self-questioning and mentoring are in place.

Is it an addiction? “It’s like for a drug user, they will take cocaine to get high. For me it’s my addiction, I have to go to the mountains to get high" (anon). Regular climbers deprived of their ‘fix’ can experience craving, restlessness, misery, agitation or frustration, all symptoms of withdrawal. Take this study as a good illustration. 

Is it play? According to the philosopher Martin Buber, "play is the exultation of the possible" and, "it is the most intelligent animals that exhibit the most playful behaviour” (from Human Kind - A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman). Paul Pritchard’s gripping book Deep Play takes one to the extreme where death is a strong possibility in a game of chance versus skill. Whilst solo climbing hard routes or extreme altitude mountaineering is an elite form of "deep play"‘pastime’, all climbing is play spiced with risk.

Is there some truth to the adage, “climbing is the lazy man’s way to enlightenment”?

In The Approach, Paul Pritchard writes about the meditative aspects of walking in the mountains, "Of how treading mindfully in raw nature and seeing and feeling every detail of the landscape and your own body can be a doorway. And, what is more, how walking has a proclivity, if you do it often enough, for pushing us toward the edge of awakening..."

One inescapable truth of climbing is that it eliminates all mental chatter. The insistent ever flowing stream of mental content is automatically stilled to a clarity of total concentration on the here and now. Sharply focused on the dance, this state of pure undivided, undistracted attention is akin to one of meditation’s goals. Most climbers have experienced ‘flow’, of being in the zone, of being out of their body. All of this is  suggestive of Maslow's peak experience, the transcendent, an attractively euphoric and sought after state.

Might the sage and explorer Bill Tilman have had more than just his tongue in his cheek when he said to the Lama of the famous Rongbuk monastery that's situated on the Tibetan side of Chomolungma, "We climbers belong to small but select cult who regard Himalayan expeditions as a means of acquiring merit beneficial to soul and body, equivalent to entering the monastery except that the period of renunciation is shorter...".  

Having got this far perhaps this is the point where we let seven-year old Ruairi Brannigan have the last word:

“becos it’s fun”


*Grant’s blog can be found here. Scroll down to The Myth of Sisyphus for an in depth psycho-self-analysis. Beware you might be lost in the blog for days!

Thanks Jim!

A brilliant interview with Jim can be found here. More of Jim's writings on high altitude psychosis and climbing in wet conditions can be found on the blog.

If you would like to find out more about mountain medicine why not join the British Mountain Medicine Society? See this link for details.


The Birmingham Medical Research Expeditionary Society (BMRES) and the British Mountain Medicine Society (BMMS) have joined forces to organise the 2021 Altitude Research Conference. The face-to-face event will take place in Birmingham on the 11th September. Speakers will include Peter Bartsch, Jo Bradwell and Chris Imray. There will also be presentations from members of the UK's leading research groups as well as ample opportunity for researchers, young and old, to present posters and short talks about their work.

Further details can be found here.

Have something to say? Comment on this post