The Ultimate Question

“There are two kinds of climbers, those who climb because their heart sings when they’re in the mountains, and all the rest.” – Alex Lowe

There are many questions that cause folks to get on or get off on each other in the world of climbing, questions of ethics, style, and doubt. It’s easy to lose sight of why you even climb to begin with if you get lost in the minute details of it. Now, why are you up there to begin with?


It can’t be for glory, attention or adrenaline. Those seeking a fix will ever seek more. You become desensitized to the whole endeavor and have to step your antics up even higher, and higher, risking more and more. The only acceptable reason to be up there, is because it brings you joy. If you’re up there for any other reason, you’re an idiot and you’re probably going to die.

Now, I’m assuming you’re not an idiot. You and I actually like being out there enjoying life. And yet we are all attracted to pursuits of varying risk within the vertical world (or the flat one for that matter). What makes one person choose certain types of risk? Ultimately it comes down to that sense of joy in the moment, humans naturally seek out activities that make them happy. But what separates those who prefer toprope from free-soloing, or Sudoku for that matter?

“We climb in the mountains because it brings us joy, but we have to ask ourselves: Will this joy lead to harm?” – Dean Potter


Dean nailed it on the head in his latest film “When Dogs Fly.” It’s the ultimate question in this human world: “Will this joy lead to harm?” We all have carefully trained skillsets for the purpose of avoiding harm, that’s what keeps us alive and active in our favorite pursuits. And there are a lot of forms of harm. There’s harm to yourself, harm to those you love, harm to those around you at the moment (rescuers, etc), harm to the places we love (chopping bolts, worn gear), and harm to our community in general (access and regulatory issues). And no matter what climbing you participate in, you have to understand that balance between how much joy this activity brings you, how likely it is to bring harm, and what sorts of harm could be visited upon you. If you’re unsure of any of those things, perhaps it’s time to go sit on a rock somewhere and contemplate life for a bit.

You can usually smell out access issues pretty easily. In the modern world we have websites and regulatory agencies with this information publicly available, along with any regulations in your prospective place of adventure. Follow them, don’t ruin it for the next guy, it just takes a little research to see if your activities could harm your community.

As for the rest? We all know we have a certain set of physical, technical, and tactical skills. You have to evaluate long and hard to decide if you’re up to the task. If the consequences are dire, and they easily can be when gravity is part of the equation, you have to be quite sure things will go your way. I intend to have a long life of climbing with many thousands of pitches logged. If there’s a 1% chance of deadly or serious injury, it will catch up to you VERY quickly.


Someone once quoted John Bachar to me as having said “The purest form of climbing is toprope with a little slack.” I don’t know if he said it, and I can’t find attribution to the quote anywhere on the internet, but it’s a sentiment I really appreciate. There’s a human on a wall, going generally upward. That’s climbing. Everything else is just a set of names we came up with to yell at each other on the internet.

Take whatever risks are appropriate to your skills, and make sure to know them well. Understand that there are unintended consequences of every action, and likely hazards that you haven’t thought of. Always to have some extra reserve just in case, especially when the risks are high. The closer you creep to the edge, the easier it becomes for something unexpected to tip you over.

Make a ritual, stop and contemplate at the base of every route you climb. If you’re not absolutely sure that this joy won’t lead to harm, then it’s simply not worth it.

One thought on “The Ultimate Question”

  1. respectfully…..for free soloing….i would rephrase it to…”If you’re not absolutely sure that the joy this will bring you in any given moment in the process of the ascent will overshadow every last negative thought that goes through your mind if you blow, by all means, grab that first hold and boogy.” in general life activities, such as climbing on TR, if you cannot just relax and enjoy the process with a certain amount of trust in all the factors we trust in during any given activity of joy, then you should probably go get a Zanex prescription and get a job at MCNBC or FOX news because you’re too damn anxious to enjoy anything remotely awesome in life and you’re so fucking afraid of every other activity involved in the human experience to the point that you’d do just fine there the next four years as a news anchor telling everyone else watching TV what to be afraid of!”

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