Gaining knowledge through struggle.
“If you learn to listen to the silence, you’ll hear more of everything else.”
― Jon Young, in What the Robin Knows
Laurie and Rob Wood are mountaineers for the love of exploration in the teeth of the wind, sung loud along British Columbia’s wild, west coast. It’s a song I listen for, and I followed it to their home on Maurelle Island, an off-grid, off-map, and off-road Discovery Island at the north end of the Salish Sea.
It raised the hair on my neck to enter a modern world without roads or cars. I expected as much in the old cultures deep in the Amazon, but to see them gone for a lifestyle in the digital age feels like walking into a new future. To be on land that has never known the rumble of cars or traffic is a future I wish for.
Rob writes about mountains in an effort to give them a socially relevant voice, as an endangered ecosystem in the same way that we’ve come to see rain forests and the sea. He’s one of the few who will say mountaineering is not about what you achieve, but what you love.
“When we are so present in the moment and in tune with ourselves and our surroundings that we feel at one with them. The universe opens its doors of possibility to us. The more wild and untamed the vagaries of the environment, the better advised we are to engage with their flow and trust inherent wisdom to guide us.”—Rob Wood
Perhaps it was because of too much cruelty, inefficiency, and poverty, but, for whatever reason, the scientific method invented a form of collaboration that nourished nations, birthed industry, and fomented chaos. Newton ignited the tinder of reductionism into a world of separate parts canonized into laws of property and ownership by Bacon, Hobbes, and others.
Perhaps it was this pendulum of progress which, like a wrecking ball, tore through Western Europe in world wars of ownership that settled in globalism’s mantra, “You’re owners, you’re workers… you’re owners, you’re workers.” We now own more and work more in an effort to own still more, moving from private land and production to resources, energy, data, and finally—in the words of Buzz Lightyear—“to infinity and beyond.” As we’re now seeing, the vision of controlling everything is short-sighted.
Rob at the summit of Mt. Waddington in 1978.
Mountaineering appears a Quixotic pursuit, accomplishing nothing and for no purpose, reflected in mountaineer Lionel Terray’s self-description as a “conquistador of the useless.” And yet, the public has been bemused to pay attention to its oddity as both transcendent and ridiculous: a one-person race and fashion show.
We see the commodification of everything, and the modern fascination with strength and aggression has subsumed climbing into this theatre. Climbing, now delivered as a coliseum sport, is ogled at as daredevil showmanship, judged as feats of conquest, and separated from the rest of us. It has become an exclusive accomplishment for which few are recognized but many wish they were. Gold stars longed for by school children.
Whereas a climber’s first order of business used to be dirtying their gear lest it appear too new, urban mountaineers won’t climb for fear of dirtying the gear. The movie Dirtbag, about the legendary climber Fred Beckey, gives Fred this label, which viewers may view as demeaning. To climbers, “dirtbag” is an honorific.
Fred consumed the experience and discarded the wrappings. To him, sex meant sleeping with the mountain, and, just as for Pan, muskiness was next to godliness. This old idea of love combines soul with earth, vacillating between raw and romantic, visceral and transcendent, reminiscent of the Hindu sadhus who renounce the worldly life. All of us who accompanied Fred found ourselves converted in some way or another.
“ ‘Why do people climb?’ There’s got to be a reason … I can’t figure it out… Climbing’s got a lot of suffering, a lot of it.”—Fred Beckey
Rob and I share a focus on learning—not learning as in being taught but as in transforming. He worked with the outdoor leadership program at the Strathcona Lodge which, like many such programs, was forced to tread the narrow ridge between pragmatism and inspiration. Woodsmanship, like mountaineering, is often mistaken for a practical skill, but its real value lies in the self and situational awareness it creates.
“We are not hermits, but our experiences are sometimes close to a sort of enlightenment that changes our life… I want to preserve those precious moments unspoiled.”—Voytek Kurtyka
Awareness is a skill in itself, a skill that underlies all learning. We have conscious and unconscious awareness and a shifting boundary between the two. We seem to need intensity to open our eyes. Intensity creates focus and, just as with a lens, focus amplifies awareness. You can try to increase your awareness but, without some force of intensity, it’s difficult.
Struggle creates greater awareness, just as struggle with companions creates companionship. You need to struggle to some degree, and if you don’t like it, well, struggle will find you.
Mountaineering offers struggle with discomfort. It’s one of the first lessons of the sport. I cannot count my memories of discomfort, now remembered as a kind of fog. These weren’t endorphin-laden moments of triumph; they were hours of simple pain which I learned to rise above. It’s the same as what the Egyptians must have felt dragging 2-ton blocks to Giza, a task they considered an honor.
Few mountaineers talk about this, except to make light of it. The prospect of discomfort is evident for all to see; you merely have to compare the weight of the pack with the size of the mountain to know what you’re in for. Many college aspirants get a taste of it and don’t go any further.
We often encourage people by telling them things aren’t as bad as they fear. In extreme sports they often are. You have to be a little bit crazy to welcome such a full encounter, but that’s why we do it. Whether or not you prevail, when you face your fear you amplify yourself.
I won’t say fear and suffering are the best routes to awareness, but they’re certainly well-trodden paths. And as much as adventurers reminisce about the beauty of nature, they proudly bear their scars. Survivors of health crises are often just as proud and just as transformed.
I am not comfortable with the mystique of near-death experiences or the celebrity status of those who have survived against the odds. If gaining awareness requires jeopardizing one’s safety, then evolution will select against it and there won’t be enough self-aware people to lead us anywhere. General enlightenment has to involve learning without suffering. Learning has to be fun.
Tone suffering down to disappointment and you’ve got a teaching path. The key is that disappointment isn’t just possible, it’s necessary; the odds must be real and loss inevitable. If you play the game long enough, then you’re sure to take some losses. If you don’t, then you haven’t used your mind or learned anything. We know this both intuitively and from experience. It’s fundamental to all training, including the training of animals through operant conditioning.
Hands-on learning is the school of hard knocks. There is a choice and there is a consequence. There’s an investment and a chance for failure. You make a bet and pony-up something for it. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained” applies not only to extreme sports, but to all learning.
We’re used to incentivizing everything. School trains us to think of everything as work. To struggle without any real choice is not a learning model. We send unmotivated kids through risk-free schools in which they learn next to nothing. It’s not even learning—it’s training.
Watch kids play without interference to witness a completely different form of learning, and you’ll see plenty of hard knocks. If the rewards are high and the process is fun, then the risk of failure and pain won’t stop them.
This is the lesson of learning in nature: if the reward is high, the risk is worth it. Real learning requires brushing against real failure. This is the approach taken by outdoor adventure and leadership training. It’s like learning on the street, and it’s how most people learn in business.
What are the great learnings? Love, truth, trust, balance, and continuity are a few. For each of these, there are big failures, and these failures are a required part of learning to create. Nothing will teach you the importance of trust more than betrayal; nothing will open your heart more than heartbreak.
The lessons of love, truth, and trust are delivered to us as life lessons. The lessons of balance and continuity are taught to us by the environment. There are many social and environmental failures from which to learn, and those of us who learn will be those of us who get involved. Find engagement; put some skin in the game.
We cannot be personally involved with the environment—either cultural or ecological—to the extent of taking credit or blame, but we can become involved to a greater degree than is offered by school or work. It’s the organic, unpredictable chance of success or failure that makes nature-based training unique. No human test can compare to the judgment of nature.
This, for me, is where adventure and education come together. Education must have those qualities if it is to foster balance and continuity. We can either take people to grapple with natural environments, or we can set them free. If there’s any curiosity left in them, they’ll find these experiences themselves.
“To obtain knowledge of the greatness and happiness of these worlds, nothing else is possible than to be introduced to the dangerous, with the fearfulness that it contains. One is not possible without the other.”—Rudolf Steiner
Climbers, skiers, and sailors Rob, Mike, Robin, and Laurie on Maurelle Island, BC.
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