Today I learned on social media that an Argentinian friend and highly talented climber, skier and mountaineer, died a few days ago in an accident in the Cordillera Blanca in Peru. A reflection on life, death, and the freedom to live your life deliberately.
It’s not the first time that a friend of mine went to the mountains and never came back. It hit me particularly hard in my late twenties when a very close friend of mine fell to an early grave in the French Alps. She was just 22.
I’ve since crossed the path of several climbers and backcountry skiers who met similar fates. Friends, acquaintances, friends of friends. I myself had a few close calls over the last two decades. And have witnessed a couple of fatal accidents.
Sports like climbing as such can be very safe. Granted, it’s not like badminton. But stick to established boulders and crags, respect standard safety procedures, know your limits and it’s statistically not much more dangerous than driving a car.
In the mountains however, it’s an entirely different game. The odds are sometimes stacked against you. Avalanches, rock and ice fall, sudden weather changes, fatigue and exhaustion can raise the stakes considerably. There are days when I wonder if it’s really worth it. Yet we keep going back.
Accepting The Ephemeral
In developing countries there is limited sympathy for outdoor enthusiasts. “You do this for fun?” It’s difficult to explain to people who have to risk their lives daily to feed their families why we don’t stay comfortably and safely at home. And they have a point. Yet there are experiences that all the material comforts of the world can’t give us.
Wealthy societies have become estranged with death. On one hand we glorify violence in movies and video games. On the other one we do everything possible to hide it. We don’t talk about it. Victims of road accidents quickly disappear behind blankets and curtains. The deceased leave hospitals discreetly via the backdoor. The coffin rolls away at the press of a button.
The default behavior now seems to try and ignore the inevitable as long as possible. Activities such as climbing go clearly against the grain. We quickly get labeled as adrenaline junkies. As reckless individuals. That might be true sometimes, but most people have strong self-preservation instincts. When we head to the hills, we do however have to face the facts and accept that it comes with non-negligible risks. There is no way to hide it.
The closely-knit and gregarious Argentinian climbing community has always amazed me. This time is no different. Instead of sadness it is mainly feelings of gratitude for my friend’s leading and inspirational role that I saw this morning. It’s a strong reminder of why we do this. For the friendships, the humbling experiences, the sheer beauty of Nature.
Mountains are a place of freedom. A place where we can still express ourselves, far from the constraints and false sense of safety of modern society. And where we are accountable for every decision we take.
“Mountains are not stadiums where I satisfy my ambition to achieve, they are the cathedrals where I practice my religion.” Russian mountaineer Anatoli Boukreev’s famous quote wonderfully underlines the higher dimensions of our practice. It is a deliberate act of awareness and connection. And it’s paradoxically when we are perfectly conscious of the fragility and insignificance of our existence that we feel truly alive.