In the climbing culture , there is an ongoing dispute about who is a “real climber”, who is a poser, and how the two may be differentiated. The distinction between real climbers and posers is stark in some cases. Most of the folks on reality TV shows about Everest expeditions are posers. Most of the suburbanites dangling from top-ropes at the climbing gym are posers. Yet, even these most benighted dabblers are at constant risk of becoming real climbers. The only thing separating them from real climbers is commitment, and even in the gym or on the snow slope, given time, a moment of commitment will come. Then, provided they don’t simply turn away, the basest poser may get real.
The addiction to commitment is what distinguishes all real climbers. Addiction is normal for humans. By the broadest definition, we are addicted to all sorts of pleasant things, from food to companionship. We are not normally addicted to unpleasant things, like commitment. We tend to see people’s repeated forays into piercing or swimming in frozen lakes as borderline pathological. Nevertheless, some folks are addicted to these things too, and the climber’s addiction to commitment belongs in the same category.
Now, religious types and other defenders of the social order may object to the characterization of commitment as unpleasantness. They are wrong, of course. Commitment presumes change and uncertainty. The psychology literature is clear on the effect of change and uncertainty on a person’s stress level, and the effect is not salutary. What makes commitment in climbing addictive is the same thing that makes other unpleasant things addictive: commitment moves us toward reconciliation of our core contradiction.
The sense that we are conscious undergirds everything we think and do. Many definitions of this essential quality exist, with some of those definitions occupying volumes of text. A simple, adequate definition is possible though. Consciousness is the perception of identity. We say we are conscious when we perceive ourselves as distinct from other perceptual objects. But we can never directly experience our identity, we can only perceive it as we perceive other things inside and outside of us. As we gain experience, we see our identity change, not spontaneously, but by means of interaction with other perceptual objects. We begin to suspect that our identity is contingent on history and relations with other objects, while our consciousness still tells us that our identity is necessarily independent. We have a central contradiction growing in us from the moment we first see ourselves.
Seeking out unpleasant experiences is rebellion against our core contradiction. When we hurt ourselves a little bit, we deny the preciousness of identity, and so relieve a little bit of the tension between what we actually experience and what our consciousness is telling us we experience. The more so when we make a commitment, especially in climbing. To commit to a difficult move or a difficult climb, we have to write off our future and make a dispassionate assessment of our past and the capabilities which our history reflects. We are committing to the climb, and also committing to the notion that our identity is not independent, precious or permanent. The resolution of our essential tension has nothing to do with wholesome exercise or achievement, but it lurks just behind those inviting, pleasant aspects of climbing, waiting to snare the unwary poser and make them a real climber.