What is the use of climbing mountains (in Southeast Asia)?

Mallory-inspired thoughts from Summits.com's interim CEO

May 24, 2019

I was recently asked what the use is in climbing mountains.

George Mallory was once asked a similar question about why one should try to climb Everest by a New York Times reporter in 1923, and he has forever been remembered as saying simply “because it’s there.” But, he was far more articulate in his full response than that. I’ll offer another quote from Mallory at the end of this article.

So, here’s my Mallory-inspired soliloquy on the topic, particularly seeking to answer why you should bother climbing mountains in Southeast Asia.

Why bother climbing mountains?

There’s no use, really.

Climbing a mountain is a practically useless thing to do. Once you get to the top, you will just have to come back down to where you started having exerted yourself quite a lot.

There is no strategic purpose of going all the way to the top of a mountain. Tell me one instance in history where someone has summited a mountain to achieve something tangible. You probably won’t acquire anything of worth up a mountain – just dirt and sweat on your boots and clothing. You won’t have left anything behind on a mountain to show for it. Maybe your car keys, if you’re terribly unlucky. And in Southeast Asia, you shouldn’t want to take or leave anything as these are the most pristine and untouched parts of the region – out of reach of practical farming or forestry, which means that they’re usually the best of what’s left in terms of natural ecosystems.

The only person you’re looking to prove something to by climbing a mountain in Southeast Asia is yourself, really.

Your muscles in your legs will likely be quite sore after climbing a mountain too. You will be challenging your poor heart too. Aches and pains in long-forgotten muscles aplenty. Personally, after cantering down the whole of Kinabalu in one day, I could barely walk for the next week. Was I healthier from such a climb? I guess so. I sure learnt something about my body’s limits, and burnt a whole lot of calories that weekend. But it hurt!

In short, you will achieve nothing practical by climbing a mountain.

Hiking the El Hoyo Volcano, Nicragua

Yet, there is something about mountain climbing, and particularly in Southeast Asia.

The philosophy behind climbing a mountain is a tidy one: There is a singular goal: the summit. There are no shortcuts. It will just require very many slow and steady steps to get up. Your progress will be based only on whether you have earnt it. A mountain trail is blind to your wealth, gender, religion, political leanings, education, criminal record, or whether you pay your taxes and call your mother regularly enough. The mountain hates you no matter how much you think you deserve love, and she loves you no matter how much you think you deserve hate. There’s something appealing about that: It’s fundamentally real, and it makes whatever point you’re trying to prove to yourself more true, authentic, indisputable.

Although only your body can take you up that mountain, having others around you can somehow lighten the load. Those you climb with have made the same choices to be there, despite the aforementioned impracticalities, and they are facing in the same direction against the same challenge. They’re good people – also in doing something real.

The mountain trail is a mixer of people. You’ll start off walking with your friends, but your peloton will stretch out and blend with others. You’ll instead find yourself walking in time with that friend of your friend that you’ve never had the chance to properly get to know. Then a complete stranger will be there chiming in on the conversation. By the time you all meet again at the rest stop, your group has tripled in size and now includes a beekeeper from Finland who shares your taste in music, an elderly couple who want to adopt you, and a Japanese guy who doesn’t speak a lick of your language but with whom you’ve been cracking jokes all day. People you don’t normally associate with are now potential friends.

In the moments of pause and rest, you will have looked up from your path to find yourself immersed in a transition of pristine, beautiful, and at times surreal forests, alpine plains, and treeless moonscapes – places you can happily go back to when you close your eyes at your office desk. Then when you get to the top, you look out to get the best view all day – a panorama over the valley or plain or coast you came from, and others you’re yet to explore. In Southeast Asia, the summit will likely be either a twisted cowlick of granite smeared into existence by the almighty, or perhaps a volcanic caldera of water or smoke or rock or lava, maybe tranquil, maybe angry. You might be surprised to see that your mountain isn’t alone – that there are others you can see from the top which look completely different to yours. And if you’ve timed it right, you might notice the shadow of your mountain track across a landscape that is changing colour with the setting or rising sun.

Then you make that action to prove how fruitless the whole undertaking was – you turn and head back down to where you started. Its like slow-rewinding an old-style videotape after watching a good movie. Then suddenly you’re in your car driving home as if it all never happened. You have nothing to show for it.

Except, of course, the knowledge that you have single-mindedly persevered and achieved something really hard. You’re reminded that your body is an amazing machine when you want it to be. You are somehow a bit closer to the friends or family you hiked with. You’ve seen a different side to each other – the sweaty and deshevilled one. And you’re reminded that there are places outside your home-commute-office circuit that are still so diverse, beautiful, and serene, and that they will be there for you next time.

“People ask me, 'What is the use of climbing Mount Everest?' and my answer must at once be, 'It is of no use.' There is not the slightest prospect of any gain whatsoever. Oh, we may learn a little about the behaviour of the human body at high altitudes, and possibly medical men may turn our observation to some account for the purposes of aviation. But otherwise nothing will come of it. We shall not bring back a single bit of gold or silver, not a gem, nor any coal or iron... If you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won't see why we go. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to live. That is what life means and what life is for.”

George Mallory