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Mountaineering: The Art of Suffering

Updated on June 19, 2012

As a veteran of numerous climbs in the Cascade Range and Canadian Rockies over the last decade, you would think I would have figured out what climbing is all about some time ago. Admittedly, it took one of those annoying questions from a tourist to make me stop and put into words why we, as climbers, do what we do. I was part of a large party that had spent 4 days climbing Mt. Rainier, and only I and one other guy had been able to summit due to high winds. When we reached the parking lot on a hot July day, I just wanted to take my boots off and drink a frosty cold beer. As I un-shouldered my pack, an obvious tourist (pressed shorts, polo shirt, clean smelling) walked up and asked, “So what’s it like to climb a mountain?” As I peeled my socks off, I responded, “Suffering for what seems like eternity, 15 minutes of pure joy if you summit, followed by another day of suffering getting off the hill.” That was it. He shook his head and wandered off. I smiled and cracked open a cold one. When you break it down, mountaineering truly is the art of suffering.

Defying Logic

Mountain climbers are a different breed of people. They embrace the pain and misery that more often than not is required to make it to the top of a peak. Think about it, it really does defy logic. Why would a person willingly put themselves though that just to get to the top of a mountain? George Mallory summed it up beautifully prior to his death on Mt. Everest in the 1920s, “Because it is there.” It really is that simple. We climb because there is something obtainable at the end, which is not always the case in many parts of our lives. A summit is tangible, achievable. What makes it an accomplishment is the fact that it takes more than just physical strength to get there.

Get Out and Train

To have a chance at being a successful climber, you need three things. First, you must be in great shape. Ideally, you should spend time in the gym in the winter, working on both strength and cardiovascular. If you live in the Pacific Northwest, try and do a winter ascent of Mt Hood. Like any other sport, getting out and actually doing it will get you into shape faster. Once spring arrives, get outside and start hiking with your pack on! Start out with 20-30 pounds, and add weight every few weeks. Try and get out at least once a week for several hours at a time, gaining a few thousand feet of vertical. You should be able to gain a thousand feet of vertical an hour while carrying a pack, so keep track of how you are doing. Do some running and weight or core-strength training a few days a week as well. I used to jog 3-4 miles 3 days/week in the morning, weight train in the afternoons on those days, and go out and do some hiking at least once a week. Make the time, and do it. If you start this in March and stick with it, you will be an animal!

Suck It Up

The most important part of being a good climber is the ability to ignore your mind when it starts whispering, “Let’s Quit.” I cannot count how many times I have seen climbers sitting in the snow or descending with that dejected look on their faces. It’s the look of defeat from those that did not prepare mentally for the challenge. Glacier climbing can be especially numbing because of the vastness of the terrain, and it seems like you have gone nowhere after hours of slogging. Tune it out, think about something else. Mental toughness can be improved during training, so push beyond your comfort level every chance you get. This aspect of climbing takes the most amount of time and practice, so don’t give up!

Lucky Charms

No matter how hard you train, or how tough you are mentally, sometimes it comes down to luck, and it’s always related to the weather. If Mother Nature does not want you to climb that day, there is nothing you can do about it. Spend time getting familiar with weather charts and forecasts as it will help you plan your climbs around more stable weather patterns. A word to the wise: Don’t push it when it comes to the weather. Things change fast up there. Climbers have their own version of “Spideysense”, and know when things are just not right, so if a seasoned climber decides to turn around, there is always a good reason for it.

One Step at a Time

Mountain climbing is about chewing up vertical, one step at a time, hour after hour. Some version of joy can be gained from the activity, and the views are absolutely breathtaking. If you are new to the sport, join a climbing group so you can learn from experienced climbers. Climbing is like any other sport out there: If you want to be good at it, you have to train and push yourself. Make sure and check out this great article on mountaineering fitness and training. But make no mistake, climbing is fundamentally the ability to ignore misery and keep moving upwards.


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    • profile image

      MjB 5 years ago

      Not sure why so many people refer to "suffering" in the sport. The up is pure joy mixed with moments of important decision making. By pure joy I mean mental and physical strain is drowned out by the understanding that a goal is being realized. Short term or long term goal, I never experience "suffering" on the ascent. Difficulty, maybe, but the only suffering is sweating through your base layer and wishing your knees had better padding on the descent.

      If you're suffering on the ascent then it sounds like a bad trip.

    • Civil War Bob profile image

      Civil War Bob 5 years ago from Glenside, Pennsylvania

      Another good hub, BN...voted up and choice of pain in my youth was lacrosse and soccer. Thought about rock climbing once, but next morning I was sober and lazy! ;) Enjoy your day.