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


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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

 

Steve Casimiro is the editor of Adventure Journal. Follow him on Instagram at @stevecasimiro.
Showing 16 comments
  • Mike
    Reply

    There’s something about that idea, “finding value in the useless”, which is so profound to me and Mallory hit on many great points with his less succinct, quoted explanation of it. I don’t climb personally—I both backpack and do wilderness travel via canoe. But what these outdoor endeavors share in common isn’t, like Mallory said, the finding of a stash of gold or silver or iron ore or the next lucrative oil field or the cure for a growing, hungry, warming planet. And if those are the benchmarks of worth for anything, then the author is right, most hobbies could be considered useless(ly valuable). I feel the view of the world that one gets from climbing, backpacking, wilderness travel, etc. however, puts it all into perspective, that maybe all the gold and silver and oil of the world wasn’t “put” there for us to rip out and make money off of. Instead, if we simply exist, observe, appreciate, and know that we as humankind are just a small part of this much longer-lived, greater thing we call Earth, then we can find value in just about anything we see. And the more folks that see it that way could ultimately lead to a much more pleasant, peaceful scenario here on this rock.

    This was a great read, Steve. Thanks for the perspective. I think all of us outdoor adventurers mirror this sentiment on every journey we take. I just wish more of the hateful internet trolls could see it that way. Especially in light of what’s happened at Everest BC.

  • Steve
    Reply

    I rock climb, backcountry ski, etc. People always ask me “why”. Over the years I’ve given various answers that typically evolve into more questions. I’ve found it hard to answer the “why” in a way that the other person understands. Finally a couple years ago I began answering “even if I could properly articulate an answer, you would probably still never understand”. The comment can come of a bit arrogant, but they usually will nod their head and the discussion moves on. I always invite them to join me sometime, but most decline.

  • james
    Reply

    Got to be the best-written piece on the worth of the outdoor’s I’ve ever read. It treaded the mature line between resorting to clichés about sleeping under the stars and taking a too-defensive/aggressive stance.

    I wonder whether some of the criticism mentioned in the article is resulting from anger at the commercialist side of big mountain climbing (see last year) and not all to do with criticising climbing in itself.

    Also, great to note that Kilian Jornet + team are still going out to Nepal, but instead of trying his speed record attempt (which in one sense embodies the spirit of this article) they will be helping with the relief effort.

  • Tim
    Reply

    Powerful writing, Steve. What you say rings true. Thanks for this.

  • JWesener
    Reply

    I’ve heard many a derogatory remark about my running from friends and family. I’ve heard similar about my trips up mountains and I’m pretty used to it.

    However, this weekend I was sitting around a fire with some close friends that I’ve had many outdoor adventures with and one coworker who was semi-new to us. We were talking about our planned trips to the Sierras this summer when Nepal came up and the Everest base camp tragedy. The new guy shocked all of us by saying quite vehemently that he felt no sympathy for the climbers. He went on to roughly criticize them and how stupid it was to climb Everest.

    We were left speechless. I’ve thought about that moment many times since then and still can’t wrap my head around it.

  • Bob D
    Reply

    Good stuff. I definitely see that value, in people, gained from shared adventures.

  • Sophie
    Reply

    Great piece Steve. Getting outside with people is a great leveler. Doesn’t really matter what you do, how much you make, or anything like that. Everyone is judged on their merits, and I think that’s a good thing.

  • Nikki Hodgson
    Reply

    Thanks for putting this into words, Steve. Beautiful reminder in a moment of heartbreaking tragedy.

  • Sandy Lynn Hill
    Reply

    This is one of the best essays on climbing and our motivations for doing it that I have ever read. Thank you for putting into words and so eloquently thoughts and feeling I have had, but never found the words to express. In this time of tragedy, it is a balm for the soul.

  • Jay Long
    Reply

    Nice piece. Everything we do is usually about pushing personal limits and boundaries. If I die doing what I love…probably can’t complain. Great essay.

  • Ben
    Reply

    Having worked in Yosemite this winter while the Dawn Wall was being climbed, I was amazed to see the amount of attention a “useless” activity brought to the park. I drove by daily, seeing visitors out in the meadow, gazing up at El Capitan. I worked as a ski and hiking guide, and the Dawn Wall climb was brought up by every client I worked with. I also read many comments in online articles about the waste of time that this climb was. However, from my personal experience, I do believe that Caldwell and Jorgensen’s climb did inspire others, maybe not necessarily to climb, but to take on some new challenge in life. This is why I continue to ski, hike and kayak, and why I loved guiding in Yosemite and teaching at outdoor schools, because not only did these “useless” activities inspire myself, they inspired others I was with. Inspiration has the possibility to create change, usually for the better. I don’t think that’s useless.

    This was a great essay, and I hope everyone in Nepal can return to doing what they do.

  • Jim
    Reply

    A well stated essay. Thanks for posting. the bottom line is that if something is not productive in a material fashion it’s not by definition useless. If that were true most of us would lead useless lives. It’s all good.

  • Mary
    Reply

    I do appreciate your article and the intent. However, the issues of Mount Everest are more complex than simply adventure. The act of climbing this mountain and visiting the Khumbu, and Nepal for that matter, are connected to the social, economic, and ecological systems of the country. It is not a 14er or the like. There is a social impact in this adventure. The mountain is climbed with only the help of the Sherpa and other Nepali who put their lives at risk, often to provide for their family or to send their children to school so that they do not need to have such a dangerous career. Part of the issue last year was the lack of benefits for families in the event of an accident. This is a dangerous place to work, bottom line. Those climbers whose Everest attempts were thwarted by this tragedy, and are helping this country who undoubtedly had given them so much, are to be commended. But the scene on Everest is not sustainable.

    Nepal, as we all know by now, ranks low on the UN Human Development Index. It is a poor country with a fragile infrastructure and corrupt government. Due to the celebrity of Everest, the Khumbu has gained notoriety and for that matter more income and development. Other regions, with just as magnificent mountains that are there (such as Humla and Dolpa) remain the poorest (and most hungry and isolated) in the nation. Climbing this mountain, with handrails, is an individual decision. But when one partakes in that activity and condones it, there is an ethical boundary that is crossed. You are not climbing this mountain just for you. You are impacting other lives, economies, and dependencies. We are not isolated when we participate in outdoor and adventure activities. We leave an impact on the land and the people whose home we visit. We must not be colonizers in our activity. The earthquake is an opportunity to revisit why this particular mountain is climbed. Is it necessary to continue climbing it in this way? Are there other mountains to climb and can one gain a Himalayan experience in another way? Furthermore, can we be honest with our egos and say yes, we do want to climb the highest mountain in the world just because [of our ego and because it is there] and if so, what impact might we have, for better or for worse.

  • Katherine
    Reply

    Beautifully and thoughtfully written. And anyone you share a tent with is going to have your back for a long time…

    Funny you mention restoring a vintage car. My husband just bought a ’78 Triumph Spitfire. The reaction of his mother and my mother couldn’t have been more different. To his mom, it is a useless waste of money. To my mom, it is an adventure–both in where we will drive it (top down through the Colorado mountains all summer), and in what he will learn via his efforts to keep it running. My mom gets the “passion” part of this. She sees how he will make new friends and learn new things and experience our favo(u)rite places in–literally–a new light.

    My mother in law has some sense of adventure–she does travel a lot, but only on arranged tours where everything is taken care of and her itinerary is pre-planned. My mom is more willing to just pick up and go. A friend called a few weeks ago and invited her to fly from Texas to Connecticut to “help him get his sailboat out of storage and go wander around the east coast.” She leaves tomorrow with no idea what to expect. She can’t sail, but sure as hell wants to learn from her friend. My mother in law, on the other hand, thinks this is all very odd.

    I say all that because I do think there’s a connection between making sure all of your experiences are restrained and orderly, and a sense of adventure that embraces the unknown and embraces things that may challenge and things that may be hard. The latter opens our minds. I don’t fault my mother in law. Not all of us can be the same and have the same perspective. I do appreciate her willingness to leave her hometown and her curiosity about foreign countries. But my mom and I have that spiritual connection. We’ve been through horrendous thunderstorms in a tent together. From her I learned the value of the “useless” in that it’s really not so useless after all.

    Honestly, if I couldn’t wander off into the outdoors once in a while, you wouldn’t want to be around me. Tomorrow, I’m off to spend four days riding mountain bikes in the desert with 9 female coworkers. I sincerely believe the trip is going to bring us closer to our work, strengthen us as a team and restore our souls for the push into our busy season.

  • Garret W Smith
    Reply

    The usefulness of our time as humans with conviction, poetics and accuracy.

  • Ron Reece
    Reply

    Hi Steve:

    Reminds of Robert Wilson’s testimony he gave Congress about the building Fermilab in Chicago

    http://history.fnal.gov/testimony.html

    SENATOR PASTORE. Is there anything connected in the hopes of this accelerator that in any way involves the security of the country?

    DR. WILSON. No, sir; I do not believe so.

    SENATOR PASTORE. Nothing at all?

    DR. WILSON. Nothing at all.

    SENATOR PASTORE. It has no value in that respect?

    DR. WILSON. It only has to do with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of men, our love of culture. It has to do with those things.

    It has nothing to do with the military. I am sorry.

    SENATOR PASTORE. Don’t be sorry for it.

    DR. WILSON. I am not, but I cannot in honesty say it has any such application.

    SENATOR PASTORE. Is there anything here that projects us in a position of being competitive with the Russians, with regard to this race?

    DR. WILSON. Only from a long-range point of view, of a developing technology. Otherwise, it has to do with: Are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things that we really venerate and honor in our country and are patriotic about.

    In that sense, this new knowledge has all to do with honor and country but it has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to help make it worth defending.”

    Actually, the cat scan, MRI, and electron beam therapy were spin offs of the Fermilab to name a few.

    Robin Williams in Dead Poet’s society also comes to mind.

    “We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race, and the human race is filled with passion. Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”

    “No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.”

    “We’re not laughing at you – we’re laughing near you.”

    “There’s a time for daring and there’s a time for caution, and a wise man understands which is called for.”

    “Now we all have a great need for acceptance, but you must trust that your beliefs are unique, your own, even though others may think them odd or unpopular, even though the herd may go (imitating a goat) “that’s baaaaad”. Robert Frost said, “Two roads diverged in the wood and I, I took the one less travelled by, and that has made all the difference.”

    “I always thought the idea of education was to learn to think for yourself.”

    “Boys, you must strive to find your own voice. Because the longer you wait to begin, the less likely you are to find it at all. Thoreau said, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Don’t be resigned to that. Break out!”

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