There is little practical value to being one year older than I am now. I can drink a beer whenever I want to or buy a pack of cigarettes if I felt the need, and I can go to the local mega-mall on a Friday or Saturday night without a chaperone, this last being a source of major contention here in our happy little burg these past few days. The corporation that runs the mega-mall decreed recently that unaccompanied teenagers may not congregate in the mall on the weekends without an adult present, thereby depriving the hormonal set of a major hangout and causing angsty shrieks of teenaged horror, which the management promptly ignored. So there is no joy in Teenville, the mighty mall is striking them out. I, on the other hand, may come and go as I please. I did this recently; I was there the other day waiting for the camera shop to develop the pictures I took of my cousin’s wedding.
These were easily the longest two hours of my life. The mall is full of stores selling clothes I would not wear, food I cannot eat, and movies I do not want to see. I eventually bought a bag of salted cashews, a diet Pepsi, and a couple of newspapers, the better to sit out the long ordeal. Time, as Einstein explained to us all, is relativistic; for a space traveler in a spaceship traveling near the speed of light a trip to Alpha Centauri, the nearest star to the sun, and back again would take only a few months of shipboard time, if that, while on Earth eight years would have passed. So it was at the mall. Two hours of terrestrial time passed in the two hours allotted to such passage by the powers that be, but in the several millennia of psychological time that passed ignorant armies clashed by night and day to see if you are the one, wise men steeped in ancient learning founded great religions, strange and terrible civilizations arose, flourished, and fell before the inexorable onslaught of the barbarian hordes, and a beautiful woman dressed in bed sheets told a man in a somewhat muddy bathrobe that she didn’t care what it said in the book, 42 wasn’t the answer to anything except six times seven. Then the cashews ran out and I checked my watch. The two hours were almost up and so I toddled along to the photo shop to get the pictures. Most of them came out fairly well, I thought.
I suppose this awareness of the passage of time also explains why I have no idea why a perfectly sane person would take up mountain climbing as a hobby. George Mallory famously answered, because it’s there, when someone asked him in 1924 why he wanted to climb Mt. Everest. This is now the all-purpose answer to the entire question of mountain climbing, and it does beat having to go to the podiatrist as an excuse for getting out of almost any parent-teacher conference you’d just as soon skip, but as an explanation it lacks a certain something, I think. First, even if you didn’t want to climb Mount Everest, even if years went by between your first impulse not to climb Mount Everest and your final refusal to leave base camp to make an assault on the summit because base camp is 25,000 feet up a mountain in Nepal and you are safely ensconced in your living room in Worcester, Massachusetts, where Nepal is the absolutely last damn place on the planet you would want to go except for Yankee Stadium, the mountain would still be there. In fact, Mount Everest is where it’s been for some tens of millions of years before Mr. Mallory so cogently pointed out the obvious, and it’s entirely likely that the mountain is not going anywhere in the immediate future. As a reason for anything because it’s there doesn’t really work, since bank robbers, Maoist revolutionaries, and your local sanitation department can all use this reason for the things they do. Because it’s there doesn’t really fly, not when you’ve given it some thought.
The persistence of mountain climbing as an organized activity, like the persistence of war or life insurance salesmen, is difficult for any reasonably intelligent person to grasp. Most people feel that there must be a larger purpose to life than the scaling of hypertrophied geographic features, although most people are unsure what that larger purpose might be and whether or not it involves an increased level of taxation; most larger purposes have some form of government backing these days. Mountain climbers would deny this vehemently, of course; for them, because it’s there sums up everything anyone really need to know about life. But does it? When pondering why anyone would want to climb a mountain one should begin by trying to find some practical benefit to the activity. In the past, being on a mountaintop provided some practical benefits. Armies throughout history have tried to take the high ground in order to see what their enemies are up to, and then there’s the whole notion of the Romantic hero, standing on the mountaintop looking down on a coarse and stupid world too petty to understand his artistic genius. This, of course, also helps you get girls, and anything that helps you get girls is definitely a practical benefit. Other practical benefits to mountain climbing include, among other things, the stylish fashion accessories that make the loss of any number of frostbitten fingers and toes that much more bearable.
Given that there appear to relatively few practical benefits to mountain climbing, what then of the impractical benefits? To begin with, one must point out the near impossibility of catching a bus back down the mountain. Having gotten to the top of the mountain under your own power, you must now get back down the mountain using the same method of locomotion, no matter how tired you are from the journey up. Dedicated mountaineers will pooh-pooh this, saying that climbing is an adventure, and who knows, they may even be sincere about this, but how much of an adventure can something be when you know where you’re going and how you’re getting there before you start and there’s nothing to do when you get there except go back to where you started from? You may as well say that going to the mail box is an adventure, as it could be if you didn’t pay off your credit cards last month, or that going to the supermarket for that sale on breakfast cereal is an epic worthy of a suburban Homer (Sing, O Muse, of the lad of twists and turns, Mikey, Laertes’s son, he won’t eat it, he hates everything…you know, that’s so much more impressive in the original Greek).
I believe, however, that the best way to determine why people do the things they do is to look at the results, to see just what it is they have willed into existence. “By their fruits you shall know them,” the Gospel according to Matthew counsels us, and there are few greater truths than that, although waxing your car being a sure sign of rain comes close. If we shall know mountain climbers by their actions then one must conclude that the purpose of mountain climbing is to find new and exciting places in which to litter.
By way of illustration, Mount Everest is the Holy Grail of mountain climbing, the figurative summit of any climber’s career, the point to which all climbers aspire to with and without breathing apparatus, the shining apex of all that is and should be in mountaineering. The actual summit, on the other hand, is awash in discarded equipment, empty oxygen bottles, candy wrappers, soda cans, and that healthy and nutritious whole wheat and tofu sandwich someone accidentally left there on there way to PS 72 in the Bronx back in 1987. Obviously, the accumulation of such an immense quantity of trash cannot be mere accident, the coming together of otherwise unconnected forces to form the phenomenon we know as simple coincidence. No one goes to the top of Mount Everest for the shopping or to find a job or to get that pair of dress shoes you haven’t worn since Jimmy Carter was President repaired; most of the year there’s no one and nothing up there except garbage. No, such an immense pile clearly points to prolonged and careful premeditation, a knowing use of the summit as a place to litter by people who want to litter without the inconvenience of a policeman ticketing them for their offense. I don’t know why mountain climbers feel that they must make these extraordinary efforts to hide their litterary compulsion; if they want to dump that hideous loveseat Aunt Sophie gave them for their anniversary six years ago they can always dump it in a back alley somewhere—Aunt Sophie will never know the difference; they won’t let her out of the home.
Perhaps there is, in our age of environmentalism and recycling and separating the glass bottles from the plastic ones and both of them from the newspapers and old copies of Field & Stream, an aura of the utterly and irredeemably depraved about the whole concept of the litterbug, of the litterbug as anti-hero or as outlaw folk hero, like John Dillinger or Pretty Boy Floyd or the other Depression era bank robbers, the bandit everyone secretly wants to emulate. There’s something to that line of reasoning, I think, though what it might be is unclear, and frankly, I don’t feel like pursuing it, not at my age. I am getting entirely too old for that sort of thing, you know.