I think that’s what we are actually doing. Fair enough, not literally.
“Because it’s there.” Was George Mallory’s famous answer to the question of why climb Everest. An apparently simplistic answer to a complex question. He also stated:
"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." I suspect he only meant material gain. Either way he was wrong, but at that time he couldn’t know what was coming.
Hot aches, why do we do this to ourselves?
Conrad Anker was described thus: "You're an idiot for risking your life for an egotistical pursuit,” after his third Everest ascent. For some, indeed many, mountaineering makes no sense as a past time. The suffering, hardship and danger seemingly outweighing the rewards, a concept described as ‘deep play’ by the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham to describe a game involving stakes that are too high to make participation rationally worthwhile.
It's not just mountaineering, we have been contriving to put ourselves in harms way for some time now in all sorts of innovative and creative ways. Adrenaline? The biochemical happy hour of fight or flight drugs? That must be an incentive, but crossing Antarctica unsupported on skis is hardly a thrill a minute. Nonetheless when the obvious targets for self deprecating, fear laden goals are taken the quests become even more eliminate. For example Fiennes’s and Stroud’s seven marathons on seven continents in seven days. Very impressive, but completely bonkers!
The Polar Circle marathon
This has not always been the case, only in the last few hundred years in fact have we been playing with adversity and danger.
So what did we all do before then?
We went about surviving!
There wasn’t much time for anything else outside the burdensome grind of life prior to the industrial revolution. Work and family life, wars and disease consumed the days of most people, our predecessors were not leisure time rich.
Mountains were unhelpful obstacles that barred movement and trade, sparce grazing and thin, impotent soils denied folk of usable land.
Many viewed the high peaks with fear and suspicion, the abode of devils and demons, no good to man nor beast. But I feel certain that the mountains imbued a curiosity in some that gazed up at them. In AD 663 Mount Fuji was reported to have had an ascent by an anonymous monk; in 905 Mount Damavand (Irans’ highest peak) was supposedly gained. How many other brave souls overcame their curiosity despite dire warnings from their kinsfolk and scrambled upwards to find out what it was that lay up there. Most likely these pioneers sought spiritual enlightenment, and those that came later found scientific enrichment.
Ben Nevis had it’s first recorded ascent in 1771 by the Edinburgh Botanist James Robertson, only a few years before the mighty Mont Blanc, in 1786 by Balmat and Paccard who climbed it for science and also a reward, but I suspect that this was an early case of the end justifying the means!
The Matterhorn was had in 1865 and that was quite simply for the challenge and the prestige, a new concept in mountaineering. People started to explore dangerous places, for no other reason than some sort of personal satisfaction. Had the trappings of comfort revealed a primeval imperative to act?
Let’s take a look further back, beyond the last ice age to the time when humans were hunter gatherers. There was no agriculture or manufacturing, food grew from the ground at certain times of the year or ran and had to be chased down. People moved to follow the seasons and the animals. Our ancestors roamed and migrated large distances, on minimal resources to find what sustenance they could, often without success. Survival was a precarious thing, it demanded all their time and occupied their thoughts, ancient art and culture are testament to that.
Who's chasing who?
At one time humans were by no means top of the food chain, they were predated and those that were not fit died.
The ability to endure long distances in harsh conditions and react quickly to threat or opportunity was, and still is, ours by right and virtue of long evolution.
Except that now in the western world we do not need that ability, we are variously safe, regulated and attended to, in fact so sedentary that we are at odds with our evolutionary inheritance. Yet our explosive technological advance is not more than the blink of an eye, the old hunter is still deep in our code and the self imposed trials of adventure are simply echoes from the past.
Analagous to all this is a brilliant comment from Lochaber legend Brian McDermott:
“Going to the gym is for people who haven’t worked hard enough.”