Why Climb?

At a rest stop on last year’s Bridge to Bridge ride, a kind gentleman looked at me with a confused look on his face. “Can I ask you an honest question? Please know that I don’t mean any offense. I just gotta know.” I nodded. He pointed to the climb just ahead. “I just gotta know, why?”. There were a group of us standing around and we all laughed at the question. I quickly joked back “Because we can.”

We continued to talk and nobody could give a great answer. It’s just what we did. This man didn’t ride and thought it was amazing that we would ride up these mountains, but he didn’t understand why we put ourselves through such suffering.

It is a fair question and it’s one I’ve pondered on many climbs since. Why indeed? Why not just ride our bike around and enjoy it?

The more I think about it, ‘because I can’ is a pretty good answer. Another one is ‘because it’s there.’ Why do people climb any mountain, on a bike or otherwise? Why did Edmund Hillary climb Mount Everest when nobody else had done it before? Why indeed?

Converging Fitness and Nature

My climbing passion came at the right time in my life. I have long been passionate about being in nature. Part of that is from my childhood time in the west. I have fond memories of camping in Yosemite National Park. I’ll never forget peering at Half Dome Mountain, marveling at its beauty.

In my adult life, my passion for nature was mostly unsatisfied. I have spent my time in large metropolitan cities like Atlanta and Los Angeles. For the last seven years I have lived in Columbia, SC, which is a large city, but has access to a lot of nature. You can drive to either the beaches or the mountains in about an hour and a half.

After getting married and gaining a few pounds, I decided to get fit around four years ago. That started with gym exercises and continued in a lot of different directions, including running and WiiFit of all things. I lost a lot of my weight and developed a habit of exercising several times a week.

Almost two years ago, I finally got a bike. At first I used it locally. Later in the year I joined a cycling club that got me free entries to organized rides. My first ride was the Tour de Leaves out of Tryon, NC. I chose the short version without many major climbs, but fell in love with the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It was a beautiful, frosty day. At one point I looked out and found myself at a higher elevation with a breathtaking view of the valley below. Right then, I was hooked.

A view from the top of Sassafras Mountain

Training for my first Mitchell ride came shortly afterward and I fell further in love with each subsequent breathtaking view. And there have been quite a few of them.

Setting Goals

If I don’t have a goal, I am an extremely lazy person. When I have a goal, I am like a man possessed. I’m not sure if it is the fear of failure, or letting myself and others down. When I set my mind to something, it usually happens. In order to hold off the laziness, I try to keep goals out there. Registering for big mountain rides is a great way to keep myself motivated. If I don’t prepare for them, the experience will be miserable and I could fail.

I have also found climbing is the best training for cycling. In the short time I’ve been riding, I have improved beyond my wildest expectations. I can thank the mountains for that. Now my goal is to continue in that direction. If I try to improve my Mitchell time every year, I’ll be able to ride other, steeper mountains.

Climbing Tourist

I am a perpetual tourist. I love discovering places. My camera is always on the ready to snap something new. Part of this is because I want to capture the memory. This is also my way of planting a flag. Been there, done that, and I have the picture to prove it.

While I set goals to improve on certain climbs, I also like to find new and and interesting challenges to tackle. My recent foray to the highest mountain in South Carolina was for that reason. I knew it was there and I knew it was difficult. That meant I wanted to climb it.

Fortunately I have access to a lot of different mountain areas. So far I have mostly climbed in North and South Carolina. At some point I will venture further other climbs in the Southeast. I’ve even thought about making a trip back to California someday to try out some of their mountains. The possibilities are endless.

The Thrill of the Descent

Perhaps the best part of the climb is the descent that follows. At first I was tentative when descending a mountain, but have since come to love it. Nothing feels better than screaming down a mountain, banking around tight corners with the wind in your face and the sun above your head.

If I could do nothing but descend mountains, I probably would, but that’s an impossibility. What goes up must come down and vice versa. The descent won’t happen without the climb.

Is it worth it to grunt up a steep mountain for an hour in order to descend for 15 minutes? If you ask me, absolutely, unequivocally, yes!

14 responses to “Why Climb?

  • Matt

    What a fantastic entry! It’s hard to describe the sense of accomplishment that comes from conquering a tough climb and then basking in the speed of the descent.

    • aaronwest

      Thanks, Matt. I enjoyed writing this one. You reminded me of another aspect I didn’t think of. There is nothing like the feeling when you reach the apex of a brutal climb! You are at the same time exhausted, beat-up, thrilled and elated!

  • thomas clayton

    Aaron, great quote from many years ago, “If you never confront climbs, you’re missing the essence of the sport. With ascents comes adversity. Without adversity, there’s no challenge. Without challenge, no improvement, no sense of accomplishment, no deep down joy”. – Betsy King

  • Noah Hawk

    Why do we climb? Because we can climb faster, longer, higher and further than the next guy. And every time we do it, we do it better! Assault on Mitchell, locked and loaded!

  • Frank Burns

    Why we (cyclists) climb long steep mountain passes is a very difficult question to answer. I tried to address the issue on a cycling trip to Tenerife in the Canary Islands: http://frankburns.wordpress.com/2011/12/27/tenerife-the-enjoyment-of-pain/

    • aaronwest

      That was a great read. Thanks for sharing it, Frank! That’s a lot of climbing mileage in a short amount of time, which I’m sure was absolutely beautiful! So given how difficult it was, was the experience worth all the hard work?

  • Theresa @ActiveEggplant

    I get a little pang of jealousy every time I read one of your posts about a great climb (or two). I didn’t start cycling until I moved to FL and here in South FL, the only “hills” we’ve got to climb are bridges – which don’t really count for much in the grand scheme of things!

    • aaronwest

      I get a little jealous when I see you riding on some gorgeous beach, so we’re even. 🙂
      You might consider doing some of the climbing rides in Georgia or Alabama. I imagine they aren’t a terribly long drive for you. I have heard that there is a little bit of climbing in the panhandle.

  • Gerry Patterson

    Like you brought out in this post, there isn’t one golden reason why we climb (or even ride a bike for that matter) and probably everyone has their own list.

    Let’s me clear, too, climbing a steep hill could be absolute torture for some (the overweight and/or unfit). I led a group up Mont Ventoux last year where most of the group reached the top with complete elation, but one never made it very far from the bottom. Climbing something long and steep is a confirmation of your training and discipline (or freakish genetics!).

    But it’s also everything you mentioned above.

    • aaronwest

      Thanks for the comment, Gerry. To be honest, this was just the tip of the iceberg. I could probably write thousands of words on why I like to climb, as I’m sure you and others could. A serious climb like Mont Ventoux is a serious test of your abilities and fitness. Most in the world would not even think about contemplating it, much less succeed.

      I’m sure it was a tough day for the person who was defeated on the climb, but it also serves as motivation to succeed the next time. I have failed a couple climbs and made sure to come back and show them who is boss.

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