This composition has a similar heartbeat to one I posted recently titled “The Fight Of Your Life.” There is a good reason for that, as this post was never supposed to make it onto my blog. I wrote “Your Greatest Responsibility” at the request of a fellow climber named Chris for his excellent blog Fringe’s Folly. If you haven’t checked out his work before, you should; Chris has been published in many climbing publications including Alpinist, Rock and Ice, Ascent, and Climbing Magazine. Quite honestly, he is a much better and more experienced writer and editor than I am. In the end, however, I was unwilling to make certain changes to the piece to make it mesh with the vibe and intent of his blog. I just couldn’t attach my name to something that I didn’t believe sounded like my voice. Personally, I am thrilled with the way it turned out, and the writing and editing process sparked a lot of introspection and personal growth. Enjoy!
Happiness. It’s an elusive concept that serves as the driving motivation for the majority of our daily decisions. This sought-after state of being can be infuriatingly difficult to attain, yet once within grasp, so easy to lose. I wrote once that that happiness really is an inside job, and that in many ways it is a person’s chief responsibility to themselves. I believe those words now even more than when I wrote them, so I thought that writing an expansion of that phrase would be simple. Frankly, I’ve never wrestled with a topic so much as I have on this piece. Writing this has challenged and deepened some foundational concepts in my life, and I’m grateful for the experience. I hope these words will have a similar effect on some of you.
I’m an alpinist, and my love of high places and hard, cold routes runs deep. Seven years ago, I laid down my ice tools to pursue a romantic relationship and run a time-intensive business. When I did that, one of the most central components of who I am shriveled and died. I was told I was doing the responsible thing by adhering to the formula that is commonly held up as the societal ideal: go to school, throw yourself into a career, get married, buy a house in the burbs, have kids, go to Disneyland, and retire at sixty-five. There’s nothing innately wrong with any of those things. For many of you, a rewarding career, marriage to your soul mate, and a family of your own will be celebrated milestones on your road to personal fulfillment. I started down that path too, but with each halting step I doubted more and more the validity of the public opinion that I needed to grow up and stop chasing the one thing that had ever made me truly happy.
Still, my progress on the road to maturity was being met with approval, so I tried what was essentially replacement therapy. I filled the gaping void in my heart with work, friendships, and love, pouring myself out in an attempt to simultaneously excel at something and distract myself from the mountains. Predictably, it all failed. My marriage began to unravel after barely two years, as unrealistic expectations for ourselves and each other eroded what little foundation we had. She walked out two days after Thanksgiving 2013 and never came back. Friendships were the next to go, as I realized that the vast majority of people that I associated with didn’t even know the real me. They knew well-dressed Jimmy, the guy who was making big strides in business and always had his shit together. When my facade crumbled and it became clear that we had nothing left in common, there was no reason for either them or me to maintain a pretense of interest.
I spent the first few lonely weeks of 2014 in a dark place. My ritual of coming home from work, scribbling depressed thoughts in a leather-bound journal, and drinking whiskey until I passed out continued unbroken until I got a call from my brother at the end of January. I had sent him a message to let him know the divorce paperwork had been finished and filed, and he was calling to offer a plane ticket to come visit him and his fiancé in Washington. A weekend on the coast sounded more appealing than one spent answering questions and dodging criticism in Minneapolis, so I packed a bag and flew out a few days later.
I want to tell you about what happened in Washington that weekend. Matt and I drank, talked, and commiserated our way through the first night; he had been divorced a few years earlier, so he knew what I was going through. The next morning, the two of us headed up into the Olympic Mountains to climb Middle Peak. The route wasn’t difficult – snowy fourth class at the hardest point – and the whole thing only took us six hours car to car. But during those few brief moments when the wind was gusting on the ridge, the holds were sketchy and insecure, the exposure was enough to make me test every foot and hand placement before committing to it…in those moments, I found my happiness again. I remembered and rediscovered the only pursuit that has ever given me a genuine and lasting feeling of peace and fulfillment. As soon as I got home, I pulled my ice tools and crampons out of the plastic bin in the closet and began to sharpen the dulled points, vowing with each rasping stroke of the file to never again suppress that most important part of who I am.
My version of happiness doesn’t require a large bank account balance, a big house, or a long list of things. I am still paying off debt accumulated in my divorce, and all of my material possessions fit comfortably in my tiny car or the equally diminutive bedroom I rent from a climbing buddy. Happiness for me is also not necessarily synonymous with comfort or security. Being cold, terrified, and exhausted on an alpine route is often just part of the game. What is it about climbing then, you ask, that brings me such joy?
I have seen early morning alpenglow transform cold, austere granite walls into fiery canvases that no photo could ever capture. I’ve been so overjoyed to feel the kiss of the first rays of sunlight on my shivering body that I could have cried. I have felt the joy of discovery as my partner and I became the first humans to ascend a new route, and I’ve worked my crampon-clad feet up vertical, icy tendrils in mountainous settings so beautiful that I felt as though we were trespassing in the realm of the gods. I have put my life completely in the care of my climbing partner, and I’ve watched him reciprocate that trust until the relationship became something more akin to love than simple partnership. Because of these experiences and a thousand more, I turn again and again to climbing to find happiness and peace.
Happiness is a journey, not a destination. Your journey will differ greatly from mine; that’s the beautiful and fascinating thing about our uniqueness and individuality. What satisfies the deepest longings of my soul would make some of you shudder, and vice versa. The thing we have in common is our shared responsibility to work on that inside job. If you haven’t already, I beg you – search and question until you find what makes you truly happy and fulfilled; chase it down; and never, ever let it go.