The Pleasure and Pain of the Climbing Life


Josh Wharton, the author’s climbing partner, on day three of the pair’s first ascent of the Azeem Ridge, Great Trango Tower, Pakistan, in 2004. Credit Kelly Cordes


As a runt kid in a college town in Pennsylvania, I dreamed of grand adventures. Hidden treasures, human flight and sports, of course. I was going to be a football star. But in 10th grade, I weighed 85 pounds. The coaches refused to issue me equipment, breaking my heart but surely saving my life. Weight-class sports suited me better. I started boxing. My ethos was: train hard, never quit. It was enough to carry me to a collegiate national boxing title in 1990 (by then at 132 pounds). Then I moved to Montana for graduate school.

One day, one of my students mentioned that he was into climbing and was planning an ice-climbing trip. Ice climbing? Wanna go? he asked. A week later, on a column of frozen water overlooking a river near a run-down logging town, I found the answer to the poet Mary Oliver’s question: Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

I was going to climb.

With that, my priorities became clear. I tossed away my graduate degree, radically simplified my life and threw myself into the mountains. In the vernacular of climbing, I became a dirt bag. I lived in dingy apartments and shacks and worked a series of part-time jobs. The next 20 years took me to some of the most magnificent and difficult alpine terrain in the world. I made first ascents in Pakistan, Peru, Patagonia and Alaska, and although my tolerance for risk may have been higher than some might think was prudent, none of my climbs seemed crazy to me.

That’s because my partners and I were meticulous about the details and honest about our abilities. You have to be, when your every action carries consequence. Those remote mountains inspire you, but they scare you, too. You take a deep breath and walk toward them, their stone and ice towering above as you try to quiet your swirling doubts. In those moments, I loved it. I hated it. I swore this was the last time. Then I would step off the ground and embrace the unknown, working with my fear in a world of indescribable beauty.

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