You have to crawl through 50 feet of mud. You have to jump over a flaming car. You have to slither under electric wires that will shock you if you don’t stay low. You get a helmet with horns if you finish. Obstacle racing—the Warrior Dash, Tough Mudder, Spartan Race, and the others—it’s all so ridiculous, isn’t it? Well, wait.
I’ve never entered one of those races. But sometimes my weekend plans include: You have to hike 10 miles and 3,000 feet of elevation gain and there’s not much of a trail. You have to bushwhack through New Mexico locust trees for about a half-hour, so wear double-front Carhartts and leather gloves and wear something over your eyes. There’s 50 feet of offwidth on the third pitch. Should we take some snowshoes, or just plan on postholing that last half-mile? Ticks. Poison ivy. There’s running water on part of the route right now. It’s all so ridiculous. Isn’t it?
There’s an old video in which (pre-mullet!) Kelly Cordes talks about alpinism, and in the middle of the film, he says, “In some ways, climbing is super-contrived. But you get thinking about it, and a lot of things in life are super-contrived, beyond just needing food and shelter. … But if you knew the result of everything in life, you almost get to a philosophical question of, ‘Well, what the hell’s the point?'”
I never ask myself that when I’m out doing something, whether it’s a (contrived) line up a rock face that no one’s ever heard of, or trying to get in a few pitches of rock in during weather that’s better for skiing, or trying to cover a monstrous amount of terrain in a day that has no chance of ending before dark.
But sometimes, when I’m up somewhere really exposed and cold and the wind is blowing so hard that it’s flipping snot out of my nose onto my sunglasses and my backpack straps keep whipping me in the face, I hear my high school football coach yelling at me, in that didn’t-your-mother-teach-you-better tone, “Leonard, what the hell are you doing out here?” Hell, Coach, I don’t know, trying to feel alive? Like my pal Aaron says whenever I’m somewhere up high with him and the wind picks up and starts blowing snow into my face so hard it feels like a sandblaster: “That lets you know you’re alive!”
Is that what it is, why I climb, and why millions of people do the Tough Mudder and Warrior Dash, and we ski, and bike, and play in the mountains, and find ways to experience pain, even if it’s just windburn, or a scratch from a tree branch, or bruises from your heavy pack’s hip belt, or a goby from a hand jam, or a little road rash? I think it is. I think a lot of us are Edward Norton’s character from Fight Club, looking for a way to feel something to shake us a little bit out of our sometimes-monotonous lives, to wake us up and make us pay attention. Or maybe we just want to be a kid again and play in the mud. Or on the rocks, or getting the same Wheeee feeling from riding a bike but maybe not saying it out loud because you’re not seven years old anymore.
I’d love to see myself as a guy who climbs all the time and is outdoors as much as humanly possible, but I’m not. I spend way more time sitting in front of a laptop, drinking coffee and typing words and answering e-mails. This is, of course, not reflected in my Facebook profile photo—which is not a photo of me sitting on my ass in the ninth hour of a day with a 50-yard-stare into a computer screen. I’m sure if you look at your profile photo, it’s not of you sitting at your desk, under fluorescent lights, or at a conference table in a weekly staff meeting. Because there are very few emails you or I send and then exclaim, “I feel alive!”
I know I want to get out and feel something this weekend, preferable a couple hundred feet off the ground, maybe a cold mountain breeze helping out with my Shivering At The Belay Weight Loss Plan, and it wouldn’t hurt if I could get nice and scared for just a couple minutes trying to jam my hands in a slightly flaring vegetated crack somewhere, maybe draw some blood, get a couple bruises. I’ll keep doing my ridiculous shit and you keep doing yours, whatever it is, because we’re all just kids playing in the mud anyway. Wheeeeeeeee.
(photo courtesy my friend Amy, who is also ridiculous)