“Self-serving!” a girlfriend says. “Worthless!” exclaims a boyfriend. “There’s no benefit to those around you or society!” lament your parents. It’s a common narrative about climbing that the nonclimbers in our lives can expound. But is it true—is climbing truly selfish?
If your significant other or family views climbing through the lens of how much attention it steals from them or whether it earns money, then climbing will always lose. It requires a lot of time, and can be quite risky. We also often witness selfish behavior at the crags, like the ubiquitous climber who’s just fallen screaming F-bombs at a volume that would be cause to call the cops in any other context. But before we kick our favorite pastime to the curb, let’s flip the script.
We climb because we love it. Climbing helps us cultivate single-pointed attention, find belief in ourselves, visit wild places, and bathe in endorphins. It also forces us to stare down fear, and allows for individual, artistic expression in its performance, making us feel empowered and alive. Look around the crag, gym, or climbing campground and you’ll see energized, happy people. Since this state is so much more enjoyable than the flat baseline most of us adopt to survive, we predictably become addicted. Joseph Campbell, the famous mythologist, academic, and author of The Power of Myth, would call this behavior “following your bliss.”
“If you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you,” said Campbell. “Wherever you are—if you are following your bliss, you are enjoying that refreshment, that life within you, all the time.” Campbell’s ideas drew from Hindu philosophy, which says that bliss is our essential nature. Any time we aren’t feeling blissed out, it’s because we’ve allowed everything else to cloud our vision and shield us from what is always there. That’s why attempting a 7,000-meter peak in a single push, tackling a daunting runout, persevering on the mega-proj, or even simply leaving the ground on toprope as a beginner provides such powerful experiences. They instantly enable us to cut through the crap shielding us from our bliss. The Western Zen Buddhist teacher Alan Watts pointed to the same course of action when he asked, “How would you really enjoy spending your life? ... You do that ... ”
“But climbing is still selfish—I mean, aren’t we just addicted to chasing that bliss?” some may argue. Well, I’ll let you in on a secret: You have to bring the bliss back home with you. Happy, fulfilled people have a positive effect on everyone around them. Share your bliss with your family at dinner, and let it be your driving force at the office. Stay energized. If by the force of your personality you make those around you feel better, then taking the time to acquire this force, power, bliss, whatever by climbing is not selfish. (It also helps if we have other sources for times when we can’t climb—being around friends, family, kids, dogs, reading, stretching, music, dancing, other sports, etc.) This concept is embodied in the Bodhisattva vow of Buddhism, which essentially promises that a realized being will share their enlightenment for the greatest benefit to humanity. The most inspiring examples within the climbing community come from extraordinary individuals—such as the recently deceased Tim Klein, Jason Wells, and Hayden Kennedy—who not only showed us what is possible on the rock, but used this force to positively affect the lives of countless others.
Still, there are a few potential traps. Remember the guy who pitched that wobbler? Well, he, by “chasing” bliss, felt as if he needed a certain result to get it. But bliss doesn’t come from climbing or how well we perform; it comes from how we react to climbing (and everything else for that matter). If we fail to realize this, eventually we end up needing an ever stronger “fix” to feel good about ourselves, allowing our misguided ego to lead us down a dark path of frustration, annoyance, anger, jealousy, and greed when we don’t get our way.
So what’s a climbing junkie to do? For starters, instead of thinking of bliss as a high to be chased, consider it as a feeling of contentment to cultivate and sustain. Try to hang onto the warm, peaceful feeling rather than the hit of adrenaline. Climb because you enjoy it, not because you expect a certain result. Quit caring about success. Instead, try hard because it feels good—you may be surprised at how quickly success comes. Use climbing as a lens through which to learn. Studies have shown that lifelong learning is one of the best predictors of happiness and contentment. Climbing is a powerful teacher. Learn from it—not just about technique, rock type, or sending strategies—but about yourself and life. There is always something more to uncover.
Then, if your batteries run low or you can’t climb, close your eyes and remember that feeling of bliss, which can help you stay tuned in. For those with social responsibilities who want to alleviate “selfish” risk, eliminate perilous pursuits like free soloing, speed climbing, and gnarly alpine climbing. Taking the sometimes large amount of time for yourself to climb can feel like a guilty pleasure, but remember that you deserve to be happy, and whether they know it or not, your loved ones would prefer less time with Mrs. Happy than more time with Mrs. Miserable. While needing climbing to find bliss proves that you aren’t perfect, nobody else is either—and sharing your positive gains does in fact make the world a better, less selfish place.