Why I Climb


My grandmother cooked in the kitchen while my grandfather watched TV in the living room. Tomato sauce bubbled under the overhead stove light. Outside a light drizzle fell and Charlie swam in the pool with my sister and cousin. Charlie was my co-worker and friend from Hawk Circle, a wilderness camp nestled in the foothills of Cherry Valley. Hawaiian with a mop of dark hair and bronze skin, his chest was broad and muscular. Mallory and Tiffany, fueled by teenage crushes, laughed and chased after him.

I was at the house to visit my grandparents. Charlie and I would be leaving soon to get back for the evening camp shift. In the mudroom, I slid my soccer shorts over my wet bikini bottoms and wrapped a towel around my head.

Grandma’s Pantry and Mudroom

I stood at the kitchen table, the center point between my grandparents, and fielded questions from both directions.

“When do you go back to college?” My grandfather asked.

“Mid-August.”

“How’s Hawk Circle?” My grandmother asked.

“Good.”

“You playing soccer?” Grandfather.

“Yep.”

“Is the team good?” Grandmother.

“Not really.”

I removed the towel from my head and dug my fingertips into my hair, gently shaking and untangling it. Two plates were set for their upcoming dinner and at the far end of the table was The Daily Star, the local newspaper my grandparents bought every day. I picked up the paper and flipped to the sports section. A large mountain with a stark white and jagged summit caught my eye. My hair dripped on the thin paper. My grandmother brought over two wooden bowls with salads. She peered over my shoulder and shook her head.

“Why would anyone want to climb those mountains?”

I knew from the tone of her voice there was only one answer she would accept.

“I don’t know,” I replied.

But, I did. I felt it. A strong urge to be there. She went back to the stovetop and stirred the sauce. I tucked the article behind my back and smuggled it to Hawk Circle. Once the campers were asleep, I pulled it out and read by the light of a headlamp.

Tim Horvath. I knew this name, but not the man. He’d climbed Everest among other mountains and was a celebrity in our small town. I’d even saw his name in the back of Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air when I was a teenager.

K2. I’d heard of this mountain. It was the second tallest in the world and infamous for high causalities. Tim left the mountain for personal reasons and didn’t summit. A couple of weeks later the mountain experienced its deadliest day in history. The story captured my attention and left me full of thoughts and questions. The most reoccurring: How do I become a mountaineer?

Eleven years later, my Grandma is in the kitchen and my Grandpa’s watching sports in the living room. A Daily Star sits at the end of their dining table. I pick it up and glance through the sports section. My wet hair drips down my back and I shiver. The pool’s cold this summer.

“So, what’s your next mountain?” My grandmother asks.

“Denali.”

“I thought you were going to Africa.”

“Oh, yeah.” I set down the paper and take a few steps towards her. “Kilimanjaro in January, Denali in June.”

She shakes her head.

“I don’t know why you do such things.”

“That’s okay Grandma,” I squeeze her shoulder. “I do.”

Over the years, I’ve tried to explain to my family why I love to climb mountains, though I feel my explanations fall pathetically short. Especially in the moment, talking to someone who does not climb mountains and has never desired to. When I’m in the mountains sharing the trail and tent with another explorer, no words need to be spoken. We are there because we want to be. We’ve saved the money and made the sacrifices. When I’m in a traffic jam or waiting for my plane to take off, I close my eyes and envision my tent at the base of a glacier with the stars above me. It’s my home. In the mountains, I feel like I’m exactly where I’m meant to be doing exactly what I’m meant to do.

Aconcagua Camp 3

“It’s because of those blue hills,” I say and point out her back window to the rise of the Adirondack Mountains. She smiles. She remembers how I looked at the horizon as a child. She knows I would go there and I imagine she could even guess why.

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