In this personal essay, Barcelona-based writer, rock climber and mountaineer John Hovey reflects on why he loves to climb and what he hopes to pass along to his students. Guiding us through his alpine addiction, he recounts the stories that he’s held close amidst the ever-present grappling for meaning.
I’m sitting with a baker’s dozen of other climbing instructors around a campfire and we have to answer a question. We all bring people into the mountains for a living and each of us, in turn, is supposed to say what we love about climbing, what it is we hope to be able to give to our students. Big question, just a nudge away from the mammoth “Why do you climb?” that would certainly keep us up all night.
Someone starts. I try to pay attention to their answer, partly out of curiosity but more out of politeness, because I’m experiencing that instant anxiety I get from knowing I’ll be expected to speak soon. Knowing I’ll have to publicly express something personal. What kind of question is that? What do I love about climbing? I’m conscious of how my hands are becoming greasy-feeling, my palms collecting a small amount of sweat. I try to think of something to share that will be pertinent enough, and maybe a little funny, and poignant, but not too revealing, and hopefully not trite. Fourteen climbers sitting around a campfire. What about climbing keeps drawing you in, and what do you hope to teach your students about it?
“It makes me feel strong,” someone says.
“I enjoy the flow.”
“I want them to feel a connection to the rock, and to nature.”
My mind won’t accept the abstract answers coming from across the circle. I get impatient. I do not understand my own memories in terms of concepts and sensations, I hold on to stories. So I tune out, I need to come up with something before my turn comes up. Maybe a scene, a symbolic moment?
Like my first time up Mount Rainier. I was much younger then, I was being guided in a large group. First time wearing huge mountain boots, fleece pants, a helmet. Our steel crampons shot sparks into the blackness as our roped-together group stumbled up fields of gravelly talus. It was cold and the gusts knocked us down and all I could do was marvel at the sparks flying out from under our feet. In all the years since, I’ve never seen crampons spark like that. Was it real? Do I just not notice anymore?
Eight years later, when I was a guide, leading a group of students up a remote Wyoming peak by the light of a half-moon. Climbing at night so we could watch the sunrise from the summit. We waited for the sun, at first standing and stomping our feet to generate heat and circulation, and then getting weary and deciding to sit, then one by one digging out sleeping bags to huddle in as we lost our energy to the all-absorbing night. We had felt so isolated in that range, we hadn’t come across a single person for two weeks, but from up there we could see out of the mountains to the lights on a thousand natural gas derricks that littered the desert and sparkled it up like Los Angeles. You had to turn your back just to keep the feeling of wildness. The sun finally rose and after half an hour or so it had enough strength to warm us. The glittering derricks disappeared into the gathering daylight. We stood and stretched and headed back down. I never felt so tired.
That time in the couloir in Alaska, unroped with Dave. The snow deep and unstable, and we were climbing too high. The ground got steeper and steeper and then I said, meaning it as a joke, “Man, this is stupid.” Dave said, very seriously, “Is it?” and I suddenly understood that it was stupid, what we were doing. We were being very stupid. He understood it, too.
I remember taking my dad up Wind River Peak, him unimpressed after the first day’s tiring hike that didn’t take us above the treeline, he didn’t understand why I had brought him there. How, on the second day, when we finally climbed enough that it really felt high and alpine, clear, bright, unobstructed air, and the continental divide was right there, spiking off in two directions with all the minor peaks and their canyons scratched out beneath them, how my dad’s eyes popped out and his boredom turned to awe and then to anxiety as we moved higher and higher.
That time in Mexico, leading another group of students, me looking down the route we’d come up and then turning to the sharp jagged ridge that dropped over the other side. I decided we should go down by the ridge because the way we’d come up seemed boring. The ridge descent turned out to be more difficult than I thought. Several times we got cliffed out and had to try another way to get down. It grew dark. We ran up against another impassable drop and a student made a worried face and asked me if I thought we could get down “that way” as he pointed left around a rocky corner. “Well, I don't know,” I said. Overcome, he shouted back, “Man! You gotta know!” Some adventure that would be, if I knew exactly which way to go. What would be the point of that?
Or, maybe, coming back down from Wind River Peak and feeling very lucky that the dark clouds threatening us from the east never made it close enough to pound us with hail and lightning, we quit the boulders and continued down the grassy, meadowy section of the mountain. We hopped over little streams surrounded by moss and little purple and white flowers. Then my dad said, “You know, this makes me feel like a little kid.”
It’s my turn, I have to say something now. But I haven’t even answered the question for myself. I decide to just wing it.
I climb with this feeling that I’m making up for lost time, I say. Every now and then I’ll see some six-year-old kid at the rock gym or out on a glacier with his mom and I always think, “Kid, you have no idea how lucky you are, I had to wait more than 20 years before I got to do that.”
The circle nods, they feel this way too, even though I’m sure most of them were the six-year-old kids getting an early start at climbing. And that’s exactly the point. Lost time and making up for lost time, it isn’t about competing with other people. Time that’s gone is gone for everyone, and we’re all losing time at the same rate.
The discussion ends, the fire is put out, we all head off into the starry night to find our tents and sleep. Before zipping in for the night I try to put this idea to bed, too. I want to think about what I meant a little more before I forget it. Well, my lost time isn’t regret. I don’t feel it as regret at all, I feel gratitude. I feel a spur to action, the urge to not waste the time I have left. But not quite the awareness of mortality, either. Of course I know I am going to die someday and that’s the end, but I don’t think about that when I’m planning my next climbing trip. Also, people die in the mountains. It wouldn’t make sense to climb if my primary goal was longevity.
But I do see a ticking clock, and my concept of lost time is about becoming who I want to be while I still have the chance. I feel, and I’m sure my friends feel, that we’ve become in many ways better people because of our experiences in the mountains. We are the result of our experiences and what we choose to learn from them, and I’ve learned so much from climbing that I couldn’t have learned any other way. I’ve awed of observing Earth from height. I’ve built strength and perseverance. I’ve known true solitude, and I’ve taken care of others who depended on me. I’ve come to think and speak plainly. I’ve learned, graphically and viscerally, how precious little I actually know.
Lost time is asking, what memories do I want to create next? Who do I want to become, and what architecture of interpretation do I want to build for myself with the time I have left? Most of all, who will I have to become to reach what I hope to achieve?
There is time enough, but no time to waste.