People have many reasons for climbing mountains, for endeavoring and struggling to reach the high places of this planet. Don Wheeler shares his story, from 1977.
Jason says that his passion for climbing and sharing that with others was “genetic”. I, Don Wheeler and my brother Dan led him into the joys of climbing early in his life. I was a student on Outward Bound course in 1971 and then spent 4 seasons as instructor for Sierra Treks program through my college years of 1975 – 1978. I attempted to climb Denali in 1976 and had to turn back at 19,200 ft. Brother Dan instructed for many years in the 90’s for Outward Bound and led Jason on his first climb of Mt. Hood and also his first multipitch climb at Smith Rocks. Dan’s Alaska climbing consisted of 2 attempts on Denali and Mt. Hunter once, but it took Jason to be the first Wheeler to summit “the Great One” in 2010. I find it interesting that on both Jason and my Denali climbs we both bivvied at about 18,200 on that great mountain and damn near froze ….. not too many father/sons have done that. This past July Jason and I led a group of friends to the summit of Mt Hood and again were blessed with the enjoyment of being together in the beautiful and sacred place of dazzling sunsets and sunrises, of cold and wind, of high mountain snow and ice, the blessed warmth of the sun and the glory of the full moon. Recently I found a paper that I had written as a college class assignment and would like to share it with the Kaf Adventures community of folks that enjoy the wild places. Hopefully, it will stimulate either questions for discussion or a greater appreciation of why we choose this life of travel and adventure. A few lines have been for clarity, but it remains largely intact as an expression of my youthful but most realized exuberance, for indeed I have lived out what was written so many years ago. The one item to add is the value of friendship and the joy of sharing the experiences with so many. The memories these many years later are again truly a cherished blessing.
written in 1977
The question often comes to mind; during a grueling climb, while trying to explain my pursuit to others, while dreaming of another trip – why do I climb?
One of the main reasons is to experience the beauty that exists. In mountainous areas man has had little influence on the environment, there are few roads, buildings or pollution. Everything exists pretty much as God created it and developed it via the natural elements of erosion. I love to gaze at the grandeur and feel the awesomeness of the high rocky peaks, the ice formations and the wind carved snow. I am quite humbled as I feel my insignificance amidst these tremendous places, to be held at the mercy of these elements and to realize the beauty of the landscape. To be exposed and truly feel the wind blow against my body, the cold bit into me, the warmth of the sunshine and the joy of the sunrise after a night too long.
In the spring of 1976, I spent 23 days on Mt. McKinley exposed to the elements of cold, wind and sun and came to know them as both friend and foe, but mostly to learn to respect and appreciate them. Then in a matter of hours I was in a hospital recovering from minor frostbite (along with mates with much worse frostbite). I noticed raindrops on the window and immediately began to formulate in my mind how I would protect myself from the rain. “Where is my raincoat, where is my tent”…only to realize that I was already protected. I was sorry to realize it. While hospitals and buildings are necessary for life, I also longed to be out and experience the wind, rain, cold and sunshine that I had been so deeply immersed in.
I also enjoy the independence from the cities and society. I have traveled in the mountains much by myself and can appreciate that ability to be self-dependent within safe limits. Here also comes a lot of responsibility or accountability. Rarely in our society does anyone directly pay for his own mistakes or find the joy of his own accomplishments. While climbing can be as safe as a climber wants, still there are dangers with an individual misjudgement or mistake causing devastating results. The climber must be continually aware of these dangers and prepared to deal with them for his own sake and also his companions.
Likewise, the attaining of a summit or the joy of accomplishment after a difficult lead is a very personal experience and a direct reward for the effort. I find that alone or with a group, while traveling in the mountains this happens more readily so you quickly learn to always be aware of the activities going on around you. Living is tuned to a finer key.
Life in the mountain can be incredibly peaceful. I have stood many times and listened to the absolute silence and felt the solitude. Unfortunately few in our society will experience this, to retreat for a time way from the unfeeling, hectic pace of the city simply to contemplate and to dream and to get to know the man I am.
The third, not as much a reason but a product of climbing is that I have learned to appreciate all that I have. As one climbs higher and mere existence becomes a struggle, only the most precious things remain. I find a very few things that are ultimately important: basic life functions like eating and sleeping, God’s love for me, the love of my family and dear friends and the life that we share. The superficial concerns of our society become totally insignificant; clothing fashions, hair styles, top 10 songs of the week, etc… And in the end to realize that the gift and joy of life itself and the love that we share one for another is what is most important. I hope that I will continue to realize this and remind others that we must spent more time loving each other and less time worrying about the incidental aspects of our lives.
The last reason for my climbing is for the challenge or testing. I find challenging times not only in climbing but in other pursuits also, but it is an important part of my climbing. Some of my most pleasant memories are of the feeling of accomplishment after a grueling 18 mile hike over difficult terrain or after my 2nd climb from high camp at 17,200 to Denali Pass to rescue our mates, or a 16 mile cross country ski the first afternoon ever to use skis. There are many accomplishments and most are of little importance except that via them I was able to set a goal and then strive to reach it and in the process to go beyond what I thought I could ever have done. If mankind were never challenged to do better and greater things we would not be as developed as we are today. It is up to each of us to develop ourselves as far as possible; to go far beyond the mental limits we have placed upon ourselves. The physical capabilities of our bodies are nearly limitless as seen by continually bested athletic records. Bur first we must have the mental and emotional determination to make these accomplishments possible. I firmly believe that you can do almost anything if you want it badly enough.
Almost anything in life can be a challenge, however each of us should discover our own goals. I chose to explore the mountainous wilderness and have grown through my experiences and will continue to seek those times of peace and beauty. I do not come to compete with the mountain or anyone in my party. A mountain has not a personality that is for against me. I come to compete with myself and to grow as the mountain environment provides the physical aspects of the experience; the terrain and the weather.
My journal entry from high camp on Denali reminds me that all is not fun “tonight has been a real bummer…. slow climb, bitter cold, wind and fatigue. I was really debating if all of this was worth the pain. Finally fell asleep with still cold toes”. But in the end the toil is worth the reward of knowing in my heart that I have done the best possible. Thomas Paine said “Yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we attain to cheap, we esteem too lightly, ’tis dearness only that gives life its value.
To me life without challenge is mere existence and existence is barely life itself. Simply said, I love to live in the mountains.
Hope that you enjoyed,
KAF Adventures Team