Finding Value in the Useless


People didn’t understand in the 1920s, and they don’t understand now.

George Mallory, whose impatience at being asked why he’d want to climb the world’s highest mountain is perfectly captured in his quip, “Because it’s there,” did have a more thoughtful, if less succinct answer to those who queried him.

Mallory said, “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. ”

That’s the truth. When seen through the lens of practical human endeavors, climbing is pointless. It contributes nothing to the progress of the world, to solutions of global or local import, to anything, really, other than ego and self-satisfaction. 20th century French climber Lionel Terray, not lacking in self awareness, even titled his book, Conquistadors of the Useless. And it is to this point that the critics and trolls have already begun addressing themselves. While the world is grieving over the events in Nepal, some choose to attack those who suffered tragedy in Everest Base Camp. They say, correctly, that mountaineering has no use. But then they go on to suggest that because climbing contributes little to the world, these victims are somehow culpable. Unspoken, but implied, is that they somehow deserved it. Because climbing is useless.

But if climbing has no practical societal application, then we should ask ourselves what form of human recreation does? Does running? Mountain biking? Backpacking?

What about playing bridge? Stamp collecting? Bird watching? Yoga? What about scrapbooking? Do any of these offer benefits beyond the personal satisfactions gained therein? Do they solve the problem of global warming, cure cancer, or end hunger?

Of course not. They are trivial pursuits, conducted for their inherent pleasures, and yet few are critical of those who spend their time solving crosswords. Or restoring vintage cars.

But climbing, because it comes with objective dangers, because it’s spectacular and exotic and seemingly out of reach of most people, when things go wrong it quickly becomes the scapegoat onto which people project their angers, insecurities, and judgments. It’s not just that it’s useless, the message seems to be, it’s defiantly, extravagantly useless.

A lack of utility does not mean a lack of value, however. Climbing, as well as other adventurous activities, has worth far beyond self gratification. It might not be measured in productivity or GDP or bushels of wheat, but it’s very real, and very important.

I’m talking about the connections made between people through these sports. I’m talking about friendships, about partnerships, about hearts bent toward one another across the miles and across the years. The greatest value in climbing and other sports lies not with their ability to inspire or motivate, but to draw bonds between us.

Throughout my life, I have been a part of many networks, from school to church to professional groups, and not one of them has forged the strength of relationships that I’ve found through shared outdoor experiences, sometimes from sharing a rope, sometimes a tent, sometimes just the same fresh air on a chairlift. The relationships I’ve made through adventure are unlike any others. They are stronger, deeper, and life-lasting.

Adventure challenges us physically, emotionally, and spiritually. It forces us to confront our greatest fears, it teaches us to draw upon our greatest strengths. It makes us suffer, it makes us doubt. It holds up a mirror that shows us our truest selves. And if we stay with adventure, if we set ourselves on a course of life is that is refreshed throughout our years with the joys of uncertainty and risk, these wonderful hallmarks of true adventure, then we become stronger, better, more flexible and more able.

And if we do this with other people, if we watch as they fail, get up, and succeed, if we support them and they support us and we get through our darkest nights and longest days, we make a connection that never truly dies. Bonds are only created through shared experience, and the more intimate the experience the greater the bond. The more you’re laid bare by the cold vagaries of the mountains or the seas or the desert, the more that intimacy can flow. And while anyone can be friends in good times, it’s in those crucibles of doubt and pain and survival that the deepest, strongest, most sustaining relationships are formed.

So, climbing, no, it doesn’t do much. And on a day where there’s so much pain in the world, so much loss, so much sadness, and so many material needs, it’s easy to see it as simply worthless. But it’s exactly on days like today that the rewards of climbing are there for all to view – in the selflessness with which climbers on Everest are helping others, in the outpouring of support coming from the outdoor community and industry, in the knowledge that our commitment to Nepal and its people won’t end when the world’s attention turns elsewhere, as it will all too soon. Some people might not think there’s value in that, but I do.

Photo by Sam Hawley



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