Ransom Altman, the protagonist of my novel, WILD ANIMUS, is a mountain climber who’s not satisfied merely to summit peaks. He’s on a quest for a level of meaning and truth accessible only in the wildest corners of the globe, and ultimately, he ascends Alaska’s Mt. Wrangell with a single-minded purpose: to reunite himself with what he imagines to be “the source of love,” his god, whom he calls “Animus.”
Ransom’s quest encourages climbers to ponder, “What it is that drives me, often at great risk, toward the summit?” And, “As I climb, am I running away from something, or towards it?” What is it that drives you toward the summit?
I’ve made an excerpt from WILD ANIMUS available here. It’s called “Confrontation on Mt. Wrangell” and presents a scene where the climbing party must decide whether to take a dangerous route to the summit or less risky route that means they won’t be able to summit the mountain on this expedition. What would you do?
9 responses to “What Drives You To Summit?”
I hope a few the climbers I’ve had this discussion with will respond to this. Some I know are self explorers, looking to find their true limits. There are varying degrees of ego involvement on this path, from Reinhold Messner’s deemphasis of self-importance to a simple drive to see how many people you can be better than.
I myself climb in pursuit of a certain state that incorporates a joy and purity of movement with an almost complete removal or forgetting of the ego. This forgetting can also be an escape from life’s problems and burdens. And often, _after_ a climb, I fill with pride and enjoy a sense of accomplishment and triumph over my own limitations.
I’ve been called an ‘escape artist’ by some, more for my multi-month ‘recreational’ outings than shorter climbing trips. I think these critics believe I’m shirking some set of social or ethical responsibilities, or just wasting my potential as a human being on something that they see no benefits in. I’m curious what Rich might have to say to those who would call Ransom an escape artist.
Well, the truth is, Ransom *is* an escape artist. By necessity. Ransom’s driven by an obsessive need to uncover deeper truths about humanity, and he recognizes early on that he can’t do that within the context of the “urban hive.” For him, as for me, exploration of the wilderness is as much about an internal discovery as an external one. I think many people who’ve been in the wilderness, by themselves or with a group, have felt as if they’re shedding their skin, as if superficial things are being stripped away. Only by escaping the hive can we gain deeper insights about ourselves.
So to people who haven’t had this kind of experience, a person disappearing into the wilderness for months may seem no different from a junkie who disappears into the streets on a binge. Or maybe there is no difference. Let’s say that a near-lethal dose of drug X can also provide the escape necessary to provide these deep insights about the self. Do you see any important differences between this path and Ransom’s?
I don’t think there’s much of a difference at all. Escaping what we know–the daily grind, the world in which we are comfortable and complacent–in order to seek a deeper truth or purpose is what, to Ransom, makes life worth living. The means of escape is irrelevant. People have done all manner of strange things to see beyond our everyday state. They have taken LSD and scarified themselves, as Ransom does. They have starved themselves. They have abstained from sex.The interesting question in each case is whether or not the resulting perceptions have been true or false.
For me, I like to climb because I’ve learned that my perceptions, true or not, are valuable and meaningful to me.
There was the guy who, in the middle of a harebrained gritstone solo, yelled “I’m on toprope!” Freddie on the corner. Airplane hijackers. Hale-bop hitchhikers. Hemlock munchers. Maybe they all had true perceptions. Is that the interesting question, or is it whether their perceptions have value for us, especially if we are drawn to follow in their footsteps?
I am not a climber myself but I think Dylan gets some of his love of large adventure from me. I don’t think either of you are really talking about escape at all…you choose this path or that, urban or wilderness, surgical challenges or writing a book that takes years to complete. Each is just a path through life, and each path has value and consequences.
From my point of view, you are not talking about escape, but risk. How much risk is okay? How much can you live with and how much can the people who love you and depend on you live with? I have taken many large risks in my life, although not the extensive physical risks you take, and I have come to believe that there is this risk vs. responsibility thing we have to deal with as adults. So if I take a risk that could, if things go badly wrong, badly burden someone I care about, I discuss it with them first, find out their feelings about it, and decide how far I can indulge myself.
So I just don’t get the escape thing. Maybe it’s the old Calvinist work ethic…if you’re having fun, you should feel guilty about it. I say, who cares what “people” say? The only ones who count are the ones directly affected by your choices.
Just because a person can (or does) escape from reality (by whatever means drugs, wanderings, climbing, eating McDs french fries, etc), doesn’t mean that this experience will provide meaning. I disagree with the statement that the method one uses to achieve this escape is irrelevant to the experience you have of being disconnected. I disconnect from the world by sleeping every night and that state of mind does not give me the same feeling as climbing. How odd, that I feel more refreshed, more ready for life, better equipped to deal with mundane things after I climb than after I sleep. The aftermath of disconnect (or escape) can’t really be measured in a meaningful way…Although I can think of an experiment where you could TRY to measure which method of disconnect is most life enriching (if that is the goal). Randomly select people to participate in different disconnect activities-have a control group who just goes on as normal-measure peoples blood pressure, testosterone levels, hormone levels, give them a survey of how they feel. Compare the groups to see who is the healthiest/happiest/etc.
Another question is…does ever person need to escape at some level? Or can some people stay connected all the time?
Interesting reading. I just love thinking about this kind of thing.
What I liked about this little thread is that it highlights how each of us frame our thinking about risk, escape, and truth within our own value system. Our acceptance of risk and perception of what we need to escape from to accomplish our goals is very different depending on how important self-discovery, responsibility, loved ones, health, and happiness are to us. These values often conflict with one another, making our path very different depending on which we choose to elevate over the others.