Why do you trek up mountains? That’s a question I’ve been asked numerous times. And I’ve always struggled to give a satisfactory answer. Partly it’s because there are probably different reasons for different mountains, and partly because I’m not an introspective person who does a lot of self-searching to produce a standard pat reply to that question.
I could be as brief as to say,
“Because it is there.”
Those are the four words immortalized by George Mallory when he was asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest. Though it may be an appropriate answer in many instances, it’s not an answer that exudes the romanticism of why I trek.
I could try to use one of Mallory’s longer quotes:
“The first question which you will ask and which I must try to answer is this, ‘What is the use of climbing Mount Everest ?’ and my answer must at once be, ‘It is no use’. There is not the slightest prospect of any gain whatsoever. Oh, we may learn a little about the behavior of the human body at high altitudes, and possibly medical men may turn our observation to some account for the purposes of aviation. But otherwise nothing will come of it. We shall not bring back a single bit of gold or silver, not a gem, nor any coal or iron. We shall not find a single foot of earth that can be planted with crops to raise food. It’s no use. So, if you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won’t see why we go. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to enjoy life. That is what life means and what life is for.”
But if I have to spend hours trying to explain my motive to someone, who might not understand anyway, what’s the point of memorizing that? I might as well simply quote Jean-Louis Étienne, the first solo walker to the North Pole, when asked why he went on polar expeditions:
“Because I like it. You never ask a basketball player why he plays. It is because he enjoys it. It is like asking someone why he likes chocolate.”
True enough. I trek because I like doing it and for the “sheer joy” of it. But those answers are somewhat simplistic, and lack the romantic notions I have about trekking up mountains. An answer should reflect some sense of accomplishment, of freedom and of the privilege to be among the few to have set sight on some of the most beautiful and natural landscapes in the world.
I must add that there is also a tinge of addiction. I admit, I can be easily swayed in my decisions and be lured away from the realities of life when a mountain comes in the way. This can be a serious matter considering that I’ve a tendency to choose to be on a mountain over other significant events in my life. I know my priorities in life, but sometimes it’s just so hard to resist a mountain. So why do I trek up mountains in such circumstances? Well, I’m reminded by a line from one of my favourite films, The Godfather;
“You gotta go, you gotta go.”
There are, at times, I can playfully speak of the need to inflict the pangs of physical torture and mental anguish onto myself, too. However, these were never the only reasons when I consider going on a trek up a mountain. Also, they rarely surface in my answers unless I’m teasing someone. If anything, those reasons would have kept people away from mountains. I suppose my answer should have that element that urges others to want to trek as well, one that encourages others to take risks and face challenges. Here, I think of Sylvia Earle, a renowned undersea explorer of our times:
“No, you cannot plan for everything that can go wrong, and yes, you do know that there are some inherent risks. But at the end of the day, what are you going to do with your life? I could walk out on the street, and a truck could come by that I didn’t plan for. I could inhale bacteria and find myself in the hospital. I’d rather do things that I think are worth achieving. When you have a chance to do something, and make a difference, and you have weighed the pros and cons, and you feel the odds are much better than even, go for it.”
Then again, that’s kinda long for me to memorize. So do I have a shorter, simpler, more succinct answer to the question: “Why do you trek or climb up mountains?” I really don’t know (and I really don’t like that I tell people, “I don’t know,” because deep down I think I know). There’s a combination and rojak mix of various reasons that it’s just too hard to contain all my emotions and thoughts into a compact little answer. Even if I could come up with a seemingly satisfactory reply to the question, I’ll probably leave everyone scratching their heads until the day they die.
Having said that, I kinda like Elspeth Huxley’s comment on Capt. R. F. Scott and his team’s reasons for expeditions to the South Pole:
“What persuaded these men to seek out hardships so extreme that most ordinary mortals would give all they possess to avoid them?…Fame and fortune…also love of country, lust for adventure, devotion to a cause, and more obscure forces like an urge toward martyrdom. Certainly there is a curiosity: desire to know what lies over the next hill…on the moon and beyond the stars. All such motives are mixed together and the analyst who tries to sort them out and label them is generally wasting his time.”
About a year ago, I had written, “I cannot explain the draw that the mountains have on me,” and up to this day, I still don’t have one answer that justifies the reason why I trek up mountains. Perhaps someday I’ll have an answer. Perhaps.