Because it’s there
Ask a room full of rock climbers “Why do people climb mountains?” and the answer will be about as far from “because it’s there” as Kansas City is from Kilimanjaro.
In his memoir, “The Push,” Tommy Caldwell provides myriad responses to this most famous of mountaineering questions. Recently, rock-climbing readers gathered at RoKC climbing gym in North Kansas City to discuss the FYI Book Club’s latest selection and to chat with the author via conference call.
All but one of the readers were experienced rock climbers, and more than one person remarked that “The Push” is not solely about climbing. It’s about what makes a climber.
“I thought this book would be more matter-of-fact, but it was more emotional,” said Beatrice Sawyer of Kansas City, Kan. “This book is about how climbing builds psychological and emotional strength.”
Bryan Schillig of Kansas City agreed. “Everyone can connect with this book, not just climbers. It talks about death, divorce, fear, among other things.”
Vicki Meek of Kansas City, Kan., said: “I approached this book differently since I’m not a climber. My background is mental health nursing. This book got into the mental health aspects. The relationships with his family, friends and the climbs were what I hooked into.
“But toward the end, it was the mindfulness Tommy wrote about. The time on the Dawn Wall when he stopped and said he didn’t really want it to end.”
In January 2015, Caldwell and climbing partner Kevin Jorgeson became the first ever to complete one of the hardest rock climbs in history, a free ascent of the nearly vertical 3,000-foot Dawn Wall on El Capitan in Yosemite. It took them 19 days to complete a climb that was seven years in the planning.
Peter Houston of Lawrence wondered about this particular moment on the Dawn Wall and asked the author, “Did you feel any sense of loss at the conclusion of the climb?”
Caldwell called that day “overwhelming for many reasons. It was like the loss of a relationship in a way. The Dawn Wall had energized me for so many years and now the climb was going to be over. On the day I topped out, I was more sad than happy. It was cool that it happened, but I’d had those moments of bliss a week earlier.”
Other emotional moments in Caldwell’s book resonated with Skyler Schlageck of Kansas City. Particularly “Caldwell’s connections with himself and others in his life, like Kevin, his climbing partner on the Dawn Wall; Beth, his ex-wife; and his current wife, Becca.”
“I had to read this book slowly and put it down and walk away every couple of chapters, especially after the emotional parts,” said Carol Fittell, climbing instructor for RoKC. “After reading about the incident in Kyrgyzstan and his tumultuous relationship with Beth afterward, I had to wait a bit before continuing.”
Fittell referred to Caldwell’s harrowing climbing trip in Kyrgyzstan with his former wife, Beth, and two other climbers. The group was held hostage for six days by militants and escaped only after Caldwell took a life-threatening risk.
Richard Lonski of Olathe found this chapter to be one of the most fascinating. “It brought Tommy and Beth closer together,” he said, “but it also made it hard for them to move on. They seemed to get stuck. Tommy talks about his failures, frustrations and how he handled it and persevered.”
When asked about writing his book, Caldwell said, “I had it in the back of my mind to write a book, and after the Dawn Wall climb seemed like a great time to do that. The first chapter I wrote was Chapter 5, the Kyrgyzstan chapter. I needed to gain some understanding.”
This chapter led readers to talk about why climbers climb.
“That’s actually one of my favorite questions to ask people,” Fittell said. “Climbing combines so many aspects of being human. Drive, commitment, fear, mental strength. Learning to trust yourself and the other people on the rope. You climb with people you love, in places you love, and sometimes with people you hate.
“Climbing helps you learn more about yourself and how you handle adverse conditions.”
Readers around the room nodded. Trust and fear are the two strongest emotions confronted when climbing.
“Climbing helps you overcome fear and experience success when you do,” said Sean Creegan of Kansas City. “You need to rely on your partner’s strengths and build a sense of teamwork and diminish any competition. Halfway up you may lose your head and ask someone else to take the lead. You need to be humble.”
Suzanne Dicken of Kansas City mused, “It’s all internal. You fall or fail and then you conquer the fear. That all happens internally.”
Andy Rhoades of Kansas City said, “You are kind of letting go and trusting your body to do what you want it to do.”
Schlageck pointed out that “Competition can be kind of nice. If someone ascends something you think, ‘I should be able to do that, too.’ It’s friendly competition, and it’s really competing with yourself. And people will cheer you on. Complete strangers that you met that day on the wall.”
Sawyer stated empathically, “Climbing is a healthy, positive type of stress. It provides positive reinforcement for managing your stress through connectivity or mediation. It’s partly why climbing has become so popular. You can get a little scared but get a positive outcome from the activity.”
Lonski offered a philosophy of climbing. He was reminded of a saying, “Life is a three-legged stool, each leg is mind, body and spirit. Climbing feeds the mind, body and spirit. It calms my mind, and I overcome my fears and expand what I know is possible. It’s the Zen nature of the movements and being in nature — the wind, the animals, the bugs. It’s calming.”
That’s why people climb mountains.
Kaite Mediatore Stover is the Kansas City Public Library’s director of reader’s services.
Join the club
The Kansas City Star and the Kansas City Public Library present a book-of-the-moment selection every few weeks and invite the community to read along. To participate in a book discussion led by the library’s Kaite Stover, email email@example.com. Look in The Star on Feb. 10 for the introduction to the next selection, “Mean,” by Myriam Gurba.