Odysseus as a role-model // why people climb

Who wouldn’t be a mountaineer! Up here all the world’s prizes seem nothing.”

John Muir

“Mountaineers are caught in a trap of their own making. To feed their own compulsion to climb, mountaineers have initiated and participated in various endeavours that attract an ever-growing number of people to mountain regions. Climbing motivations have become increasingly complex, with economic concerns playing a more central role. This has led to a loss of meaning and value in the experience as mountaineers confront at each step of their travels the adverse impacts of their presence.”

Barbara R. Johnston and Ted Edwards, “The commodification of mountaineering,” Annals of Tourism Research 21, No. 3 (1994): 474.


This is what this blog was heading out for from its beginning: cognition/knowledge. Yeah sure, but to reach that, it was supposed to be an empirical foundation for a critical theory of climbing and/or mountaineering, constituted of fragments found whenever and wherever on a quotidian basis that illustrate the deeper meanings and relations of this risky, recreational touristic and sportive activity.

This theory is now available, with specific emphasis on North America, or the U.S. respectively. And I present to you not without any proud a slightly corrected version of my BA thesis on “the social role of climbing in U.S. society” entitled with a small deviation “Odysseus as a role model,” that follows the question of “why people climb” – which was also its original, submitted title – and aims on a social, or, critical theory of climbing.


Download the PDF here.



Climbing and mountaineering, as ideal types of adventure sports have long been and still are often mystified. Although analyzed to a large extent with respect to motivations, the social causes and purposes remain widely unidentified. One common notion is that the sports is useless, which is expressed prototypically in George Mallory’s famous statement “Because it’s there” as a response to the question of why he wanted to climb Mount Everest. Social theorists have only to a limited extent managed to go beyond this notion and to question underlying motivations and their social and psychological origins, as well as the functionality of the sports. The image of freedom that is commonly associated with the activity itself needs further substantialization. Climbing as an adventure sport is not useless. It serves various purposes and has social functions. Although climbing in the U.S. has not played a large role for long, this changed with the popularization of rock climbing in the Yosemite Valley in the 1960s. Nowadays both alpine and rock climbing can be regarded as established forms of outdoor recreation in the U.S. and elite American climbers are recognized internationally. In the present work the large role of this cultural field for North America and its economical importance are shown. By investigating the historical development of the sport, it can be connected with important cultural traits such as the frontier condition or the appreciation of wilderness and its philosophical exponents in thinkers like Thoreau and Emerson. The purposes and functions of alpinism and climbing for the U.S. society, as well as the motivations of people who practice them are analysed. Motivations are numerous and overlapping. For this purpose works of Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School are highly instructive in showing how modern subjectivity is constituted in relationship with nature and under socio-psychological constraints. With this approach that involves sociological as well as psychological perspectives and draws on the works of theorists such as Adorno, Horkheimer and Marcuse as well as on Bourdieu, it is possible to follow the thesis that mountaineering and climbing, together with several other adventure sports, serve not only the reproduction of labor power, the sublimation of socially induced suppression of instincts (drives) and the accumulation of social capital, but also, in a more general sense, the formation of modern subjectivity by the contestation with and domination of nature. Climbing can thereby be regarded as a need that is felt to compete with the forces of nature and in this respect as a substitution of the functional role of war or, as specific to North America, the frontier and wilderness condition. 


Keep the dream alive. You know what I mean.


Just climb. Nothing else. Fred Beckey died aged 94.

He was called dirt bag, even in the film about him that premiered this year, although he himself rather disliked that description. But actually he didn’t care about what others said about him anway. He just wanted to climb. And really just climb. He refused to have a professional career or even to have enough money. Uncompromisingly, through to his old days. »He chose to eschew climbing fame, financial security, marriage, and all other aspects of the ‘American dream’ in pursuit of climbing, back when it was an unheard of choice,« Colin Haley said in a speech about Beckey in 2015.

Fred Beckey became 94 years old, although he never quit climbing, again, through to his old days. And he died a natural death. Well, what is a natural death for a climber with this history? Beckey’s the climber with the biggest record of first ascents in America. Simply a legend. Moreover he was  a chronicler and historiograph. Someone who’s being adressed with demands to judge accomplished climbs.

In a nice and detailed article about Beckey by Alpinist Magazine, Beckey’s friend Megan Bond is quoted:

I know Fred mostly never wanted to be considered a “dirtbag”…. He actually worked a TON [and] saved every cent—he was not a bum…. He was not only a climber, but an academic in every sense of the word—a scholar of the mountain world: terrain, flora, fauna, geology. He was meticulous in his research, careful with his relationships, protective of wild places, and never wanted to die in the mountains. He out-climbed two generations, and outlived three. He made numerous trips to the Himalaya, many of these in the last 30 years, interested in uncharted landscapes, or at least untrodden…. He didn’t smoke, rarely drank, was the king of one-liners. He would become so one-thousand-percent fixated on a topic or project that there was no rest for anyone in his orbit until it was finished and complete; he hated to leave things undone. Most important to him in friendships was loyalty. If someone made a commitment to him to spend time with him and cancelled or didn’t follow through, he would continue to be gracious to that person, but the trust would be gone. Time was critical, and not to be wasted.

The legend goes that he was ignored in the selection for the first American Everest expedition in 1963 due to his dirt bag image. But actually, he seemed to have disliked such big team efforts anyway. Probably the dirt bag image is equivalent to what in German is called Bergvagabunden (mountain vagabond), as in the old alpinist folk song. Or a climbing bum: just living for and in the mountains, subsiding almost on nothing. Almost unimaginable, given today’s hype and an incredibly large outdoor industry with its colourfully dressed urban customers imprisoned in the rat raced of their work-life-balances, or should I say: earn-spend-balance.

No surprise, Beckey said about his desire to climb: »For me, the appeal of climbing has many sources: a longing to escape from the artificial civilized order, a need for self-rejuvenation, a desire to restore my sense of proportion. When you are climbing, you experience freedom from constraints.«

Still, Beckey was not outside of the system. But to a wide extent he gave a shit. Or a dirt; a dirt bag. Maybe he was an outsider in the best sense of the word. Almost unimaginable.

Read the entire Alpinist article here.

Source: Wikipedia/Peter Stevens

A few more words about Ueli Steck

When Ueli fell to death three months ago, it really came as a shock to me. It did, because I supposed that he had reached a point where he would slow everything down a bit. Because he recognized he had to.

It seems that Ueli mostly was a very reflective person, at least to me. After his fantastic but questioned success on Annapurna in 2013 he continued to reflect on his risk-taking. In an interview he told me he was very aware of the risks that climbs like the one accomplished at Annapurna bear, and that he could not continue on that level forever. He really wanted to slow down everything, it seemed. And in this regard his honesty was impressive, although perhaps he was not consequent in following his own conclusions.

He perfectly knew what the consequences are when you fail on such a high level of both skill and risk-taking: »Failing means dying,« he said in his last interview.

The climb he planned, a traverse of Lhotse and Everest, was probably not very demanding in technical regards, but definitely extremely demanding in length and altitude. If we believe his own statements, he even chose the climb because it was relatively free of risks, compared to the majesty and size of the enterprise. He would either push through, or get too exhausted and descent.
But still, this climb would take alpinism a step further, as also Reinhold Messner recognized.

In October 2016, I asked Ueli why he had continued to do solo climbs, despite writing in his book that he wanted to stop it, for respect of his wife.

He admitted,

»yes, that is in fact a delicate topic for me. Actually, I have to be careful with those solo climbs, because you largely go to the limits there. But on the other hand, that is a part of me and I cannot simply say “No, I won’t do that anymore.” Not, as long as I have the feeling that it’s something that drives me. So you somehow have to settle this with yourself. It was a phase, in which we thought about it very much and my wife would certainly prefer if I wouldn’t do it. But still, solo-climbing is a part of my personality. And that was the reason I always turned back to do solo stuff.«

Ueli’s very honest answer basically says that he cannot simply quit something which he is driven by, and he would disregard his wife’s feelings in this concern. Is that an exaggerated interpretation? To say he is driven, or, possessed? Probably not. Continue reading

An exceptional one has gone: Ueli Steck is dead.

We are shocked by the message, the climbing community has to recognize the loss of one of its grandest. Ueli Steck’s dead body was found in the Mount Everest area, as the Himalayan Times reports, where he was preparing for a traverse of Everest and Lhotse.
It is hard to believe and words don’t come easy, although one might not be extremely surprised by the message. Yes, in fact, there might not have been many other ways of dying imaginable for a person who loved the mountains and climbing as deeply and amply as Ueli Steck and who was as irresistibly attracted by them. Mountains were his life. But still, the message comes out of nothing and as a shock. Still it is hard to imagine a climbing world without Ueli. In an interview around three years ago, after his fantastic alpine-style climb of Annapurna’s south face, he told me that if he continued on that level, eventually this wold go wrong; »Irgendwann geht das schief.« What a fatal sentence.
Now it did go wrong, although he had seemed to have drawn consequences and did choose his recent project, the Everest-Lhotse-traverse, in particular because he did not want to continue climbing as risky as on Annapurna.

His death leaves questions, at least to me.

Ueli leaves behind a wife, as well as all of us in the climbing community, mourning for one of its greatest lights of inspiration, possibly with a disturbing shade of dark fascination.

I need time to think about his death. You will certainly read more about this in the next days and weeks.

Inspiration on Women’s Day: Alison Hargreaves

Eiger North Face

The Eiger North Face. A.k.a. Eiger “Mordwand”. Epitome of a mountain face, filled with myth to its snow-edged brim: hair-raising tales of darkness and cold, death bivouacs, nationalist instrumentalization, and immense rockfall. First climbed in 1938.

Fifty years later, Scottish alpinist Alison Hargreaves climbed it in 1988, pregnant in her sixth month.

In August 1995 she died after having reached the summit of K2 – acknowledged as the world’s most dangerous mountain – without supplemental oxygen at the descent; and after having climbed Everest before, without supplemental oxygen, as the first woman, and as well, solo. She had a husband and two children, aged four and six. Continue reading

The outstanding free-climb of El Cap’s “Dawn Wall” and its echo

Much has been written about a climb that has been accomplished on El Cap in Yosemite on January 14th by Kevin Jorgeson and Tommy Caldwell. It echoed even in larger media such as wide-read newspapers and was highly debated, too, since dimension and style of their climb were not comprehensible for everyone.

El Capitán. Source: Wikipedia

The climb was topping year-long efforts, which consisted basically of figuring out a climbable route and preparing it – and themselves, of course. They accomplished the first free-climb of the Dawn Wall ever. It has “pushed climbing forward”, was one of the frequent statements, as expressed for example in an article that’s very worth reading on National Geographic‘s Adventure Blog. The climb was remarkable in several aspects. Continue reading