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In ‘The Pain The Pain!’ Ben Buckland asks why climbers seek out and embrace suffering and maybe finds it consuming a humble can of Orangina
A few years ago I got really lost on a route in Chamonix. It wasn’t meant to be an especially big day out, just ten or so moderate pitches (with a long traverse section in the middle, just enough to make retreating a bitch) on a summer afternoon. Somewhere high up we went wrong though and found ourselves on much steeper, harder terrain than we’d planned for. Around the same time we ran out of water. By the time we got to the last pitch we were wrecked. Exhausted. Trashed skin. And dying for a drink. Of course, the last pitch felt too hard for either of us and we were both taking big falls from near the top. Shoulders hunched at the realisation that what would be an easy descent off the back of the massif might now be a punishing retreat down the route in the dark. When I finally managed to get through the crux and run it out to the anchor, I was so sick from fear and exhaustion that I threw up on the summit.
Anyone who has climbed or cycled or skied or hiked or run or spent significant time in the outdoors has stories like this. Lots of them probably. Stories of suffering. Big and small. Of slogging uphill on a ski tour. Of getting benighted on a mountain and shivering until dawn. Of running a trail race that feels like it isn’t going to end. Stories that are remarkable only in their repetition. In that we seek them out. As if the suffering itself is what we are after, along with the summit.
There is plenty of real suffering out there. My job is in torture prevention, so I know there is no shortage. Which makes it all the harder for me to understand why all of us go out, season after season, leaving our comfortable lives, seeking to suffer. Why, as the sociologist Stephen Lyng put it: ‘the same society that offers us so much in the way of material “quality of life” also propels many of us to the limits of our mortal existence in search of ourselves and our humanity.’
One answer is to do with fulfilment. That suffering somehow brings a noble purpose to our lives. That, as the great Polish alpinist Voytek Kurtyka put it ‘great effort, fear and suffering sweats all the worthless chaff out of us.’ This is an idea that Rebecca Scott et al lend some academic support to in their article ‘Selling Pain to the Saturated Self’. They argue that ‘by flooding the consciousness with gnawing unpleasantness, pain provides a temporary relief from the burdens of self-awareness’ and that, through the (both physical and mental) scars that it leaves, suffering allows us pampered office drones to somehow ‘create the story of a fulfilled life.’
There are echoes of this all across the history of alpinism and of exploration. In Francis Spufford’s book on polar exploration he talks about the intense admiration that English society had for Scott and the manner of his death: ‘the spirit triumphant rising out of mere physical annihilation’ The idea that, both to conquer the elements and to be conquered by them somehow had nobility and moral worth. For Spufford these are ideas that have deep roots in our society, from the days of Edmund Burke, watching the frozen River Liffey overflow into Dublin and beginning to ‘define the feelings it evoked as the Sublime: the terrible but inspiring otherness of nature out of control, the voice of this otherness calling to the soul and making men pit themselves against an inhuman landscape.’
Perhaps. Or maybe it is just about finding projects we can understand. Projects where the effort we put in is clearly linked to the outcome we ultimately achieve. In his Outside article on why rich people love endurance sports, Brad Stulberg suggests that it is about the fact that lots of modern middle-class jobs don’t have clear, measurable goals with any obvious link to the work that goes into achieving them. ‘Ask a white-collar professional what it means to do a good job at the office, and odds are they’ll need at least a few minutes to explain their answer, accounting for politics, the opinion of their boss, the mood of their client, the role of their team, and a variety of other external factors. Ask someone what it means to do a good job at their next race, however, and the answer becomes much simpler.’ So off we head to the mountains, where there is both a clear objective and, as Everest pioneer Wilfred Noyce wrote ‘a certainty, accepted consciously, that you will have to suffer’ to achieve it.
In trying to come up with a definition of pleasure that satisfies both science and philosophy, the neuroscientist Kent Berridge makes a distinction between what he calls ‘liking’, the kind of pleasure we get from consuming things – Netflix, sex, conversation, Tim Tams, new climbing gear – and the pleasure we get from ‘wanting’ them. All the exploration, appetite, pain, and effort that gets us there. The first one is what I guess most people think of as pleasure. The other kind maybe less so. Wanting is a ‘fool’s pleasure’, writes Leonard Katz, ‘the dross from which we ideally should be freed to live like Epicurean gods.’ But maybe the fools are onto something. Maybe there is a deeper pleasure amidst the dross. Something human in the very act of exploration, in the search for something more.
After we got off the route in Chamonix, we started driving back down the valley, still looking for something to drink. Still parched. Beside the road we came across a little stand selling Orangina for a euro a can. I don’t like Orangina but right then, in that second, it was one of the most pleasurable moments of my life. As if every drop washed away not only thirst but fear and exhaustion and left only sweet pleasure in its place.
Drinking Orangina that day was a pleasure in a way it never could have been without the climb. And maybe that’s what suffering is about. There can be some weird pleasure in the suffering itself. The striving, the wanting, the push. But more than that it makes the everyday, the ‘liking’, so much more than it can ever be without it. A cold can of crappy soft drink. A hot shower. A warm bed. These have never felt better or tasted better than they do when you’ve suffered. When you’ve pushed too hard. When you’ve been a fool.
In the end, I think that’s the reason I look for suffering in my climbing life. Some Type Two fun. Something to make the everyday seem just that little bit better. Something to remind me to appreciate the simple and the good. And when you’re really hurting, remember it isn’t real torture. Not the kind I see in my day job anyway. For us in the mountains, there is usually a way out.
This piece originally appeared in Vertical Life Issue 27.