Conquerors of the useless

Posted by Ken Campbell December 13, 2012 1 Comment 1384 views

The title of this post is actually a quote from Lionel Teray, a great French climber who was referring to climbers when he said it, climbers as a species… the idea is that, even the successful climbers, the ones who have actually stood on top of something snowy and tall, have only achieved a fleeting and pointless honor. It’s a catchy phrase and I get where it’s coming from, but it misses the point. 
(In fairness, it doesn’t miss the point exactly. It’s an example of saying something that draws attention to what it really means by stating the opposite. It’s not that climbing is useless; it’s that the accepted goal of climbing – reaching the summit – is not the real aim at all. It’s a somewhat complicated method to explain, and explaining it only serves to further confuse the issue, but there it is.)
It’s not what you do, or even how you do it, that matters; it’s why. Why? Why have you chosen to climb this mountain? Why have you taken it upon yourself to kayak here, to ski there, to dive, hike, canoe or snowshoe in this or that particular place? These activities, and other outdoor pursuits, are needless on the surface of them. Finding out why you do them requires a look below the surface, at the motivation involved. It’s the WHY that really matters. That’s all. In the entire history of the world, that’s all that has ever mattered.
How to say this more clearly? “Because it’s there,” was a good enough response from Sir Edmund, talking about Everest, and it was acceptable then, because he was the first. (Being the first is always a good answer to the “why” question.) After that, however, after whatever it is you’re doing has been done before, you’re going to need a reason. A reason why you are choosing to do whatever it is you’re doing. It doesn’t need to make sense to everyone… but it does need to make sense to you.
It’s not just outdoor activities either. Why do you drive 3 hours a day to go to a job somewhere, in an office on the 14th floor, shuffling papers, cutting, pasting, going to meetings, missing lunch, dinner, the Christmas pageant? Why? (You better have a reason.) And most people do have a reason. To pay the rent. To buy the food. To provide for their families. These are all good reasons, and they have the advantage of being “normal.” People understand them because these reasons fall into what we see as practical and traditional, but that doesn’t make them correct. Not that they’re wrong, but just because something is logical doesn’t mean it makes sense.
“Useless” is a very loaded term. I believe that adventures in the outdoors are among the most useful things I can spend my time doing, not for the goal of getting to the top of something, or paddling around somewhere, but for the lessons I learn along the way that I could not learn anywhere else. 

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