In the era of global calamity, we watch climbers climb for more — and weirder — reasons than the pleasure of their athleticism.
In 1923, a reporter asked George Mallory why he wanted to summit Mount Everest. “Because it’s there,” Mallory’s cryptic reply, became the most loved quote in climbing history. The real game changer, however, was the reporter’s question itself. It announced to the world that mountaineering—once a solitary niche practice—had an audience, a public that was not only watching but also wanted answers, access to truths about life to which climbing seemed to hold the key.
Today the question why do this? is included in nearly every mountaineering story or interview. Meanwhile, interest in climbing is steadily on the rise, from commercial mountaineering and climbing walls in university gyms and corporate workplaces to the flood of spectacular climbing imagery in corporate advertising, cinema, and social media. Climbing has become the theater for imagining limits—of the human body and of the planet— and the nature of desire, motivation, and #goals. Is that 100 year old question still an expression of serious interest in mountains and mountaineering? Or is it a symptom of an ever-deeper well of uncertainty about why anyone does anything at all? What is the future of this pursuit – marred by its colonial history, continuously coopted by nationalistic chauvinism and the capitalist compulsion to unlimited growth?
Margret Grebowicz is the author of Whale Song (Bloomsbury), The National Park to Come (Stanford), and Why Internet Porn Matters (Stanford), and co-author of Beyond the Cyborg: Adventures with Donna Haraway (Columbia). Currently an independent scholar, she lives in rural upstate New York. Her most recent articles have appeared in the minnesota review, Environmental Humanities, The Routledge Handbook of Gender and Environment, The Philosophical Salon, and The Atlantic. Originally from Poland, she has held professorships at the University of Houston-Downtown and Goucher College, U.S., and the University of Tyumen, Russia, as well as a Leverhulme Trust fellowship at the University of Dundee, U.K. Current projects include the coedited collection Lyotard and Critical Practice, forthcoming from Bloomsbury, and her new book, Mountains and Desire, to be published by Repeater in 2021.