Why I Climb Mountains
Updated: Feb 4, 2020
This week, I flew to Mendoza, Argentina to join an all-women, three-week mountaineering expedition on Aconcagua, the tallest peak outside of the Himalayas. It sits at 22,841 ft (6,962 m). This will be the most difficult climb I’ve ever endeavored (our guide Sunny Stroeer affectionately calls it a “suffer fest”), and I can’t help but wonder, “Why the hell am I doing this?”
My first mountaineering experience was in 2014. I decided to climb Kili on a whim. It was called the Everyman’s Everest so all I had to do was walk...up 19,340 ft. Despite my exuberant naiveté, I woke up to a gurgling stomach on the second night of the trek. I crawled out of my tent, caught a glimpse of the radiant stars above, and aggressively vomited. For the next 72 hours, I was plagued with chills, diarrhea, and nausea. The next day, I wanted to curl up into a ball and sleep forever, but my guide Bruno calmly wiped away my tears and encouraged me to climb. The rest of the trek was a blur of porters giving me piggy back rides, puking again in the middle of dinner, and repeating the Swahili expression “pole pole” in my mind. Slowly, slowly, Yvonne, one step at a time. Pole, pole, to the summit.
I eventually reached the top, but I returned to sea level feeling certain I would never climb a mountain taller than Kili. The experience was too excruciating to repeat. I abandoned my mountaineering ambitions in Tanzania. Yet, after Kili, I continued to push myself outdoors. From summiting Matterhorn Peak to backpacking 200 miles on the John Muir Trail, each experience strained my body, but freed my mind.
In nature, I no longer worry about whether I say the right thing or behave appropriately. I pay attention to the breeze, the texture of tree bark, the contour of leaves. Contracting muscles and beads of sweat preoccupy my thoughts. In the wild, I am more attune with my body but my existence doesn’t matter. I am a fleck of dust on a mountain’s ancient ridges with zero expectations to succeed, impress, or entertain. I can just be.
Six years after Kili, I’m back at the foot of a mountain ready to embark on another grueling climb. This time, I feel lucky. In a world that is often defined by complexity and arguably trivial demands, mountaineering provides stunning clarity. I’m compelled to examine my life against another set of values, one in which pain is necessary to growth and failure is an expression of agency, not cowardice. Living in the elements demands extreme focus, patience, and self-inquiry. It is a place where every breath matters, each step is significant, and pole, pole, I am free.