Mountaineering or Marathon Swimming?

I previously alluded to a “spiritual bond between mountaineers and open-water swimmers,” in describing Jen Schumacher’s back-to-back Mt. Whitney/Lake Tahoe adventures. To illustrate what I mean, consider the following book quotations. Do they refer to mountaineering or marathon swimming? I’ve redacted any clues that would make it obvious.

Mountaineering or marathon swimming?

There were many, many fine reasons not to… but attempting to [climb Mt. X/swim Channel Y] is an intrinsically irrational act—a triumph of desire over sensibility. Any person who would seriously consider it is almost by definition beyond the sway of reasoned argument.

Mountaineering or marathon swimming?

By this time [so-and-so] was a full-time professional [climber/swimmer]. Like most of his peers, he sought funding from corporate sponsors to pay for his expensive [climbs/swims]. And he was savvy enough to understand that the more attention he got from the news media, the easier it would be to coax corporations to open their checkbooks. As it happened, he proved to be extremely adept at getting his name into print and his mug on the telly. “Yeah… he always did have a bit of a flair for publicity.”

Mountaineering or marathon swimming?

To continue receiving sponsorship from companies… a [climber/swimmer] has to keep upping the ante. The next [climb/swim] has to be harder and more spectacular than the last. It becomes an ever-tightening spiral; eventually you’re not up to the challenge anymore.

Mountaineering or marathon swimming?

The possibility of danger serves merely to sharpen his awareness and control. And perhaps this is the rationale of all risky sports: You deliberately raise the ante of effort and concentration in order, as it were, to clear your mind of trivialities.

Mountaineering or marathon swimming?

[Climbing/swimming], she understood, was an essential expression of some odd, immutable aspect of my personality that I could no sooner alter than change the color of my eyes.

Mountaineering or marathon swimming?

[Mt. X/Channel Y] has always been a magnet for kooks, publicity seekers, hopeless romantics, and others with a shaky hold on reality.

Mountaineering or marathon swimming?

She’s interested in publicity. If she had to do it anonymously I don’t think she’d be [climbing/swimming].

Mountaineering or marathon swimming?

The ratio of misery to pleasure was greater by an order of magnitude than any other [mountain/swim]; I quickly came to understand that [climbing Mt. X/swimming Channel Y] was primarily about enduring pain. And in subjecting ourselves to…toil, tedium, and suffering, it struck me that most of us were probably seeking, above all else, something like a state of grace.

Mountaineering or marathon swimming?

Unfortunately, the sort of individual who is programmed to ignore personal distress and keep pushing… is frequently programmed to disregard signs of grave and imminent danger as well.

Mountaineering or marathon swimming?

This is an activity that idealizes risk-taking; the sport’s most celebrated figures have always been those who stick their necks out the farthest and manage to get away with it. [Climbers/swimmers], as a species, are simply not distinguished by an excess of prudence.

Mountaineering or marathon swimming?

If [so-and-so] wanted to be considered among the world’s truly great [climbers/swimmers], he would need to shift his focus to [steeper/longer], very difficult, previously [unclimbed/unswum] routes.

As it turns out, each of these quotations are about mountaineering. In fact, they’re all from the same book: Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, about a disastrous 1996 Mt. Everest expedition. (Great book, by the way.)

But they very well could have been written about marathon swimming, yes??

19 thoughts on “Mountaineering or Marathon Swimming?”

  1. Love it and you know I agree. Next we should put together a list of mountain climbing books that are just as useful for swimming, Joe Simpson, Chris Bonington, Jon Krakauer. I also love the links with polar expeditions, particuarly Cherry Garrard’s “Worst journey in the World”, Adrian Caesar’s “The White”, etc. or from any Irish person’s point of view, any book on Shackelton or Tom Crean.

  2. I agree with the other comments. There are a great many similarities in these two disciplines. I know this from personal experience with each. I am still working to conquer some psychological stress with open water swimming, and just this past summer I realized I still have some with mountain climbing, too.

  3. To be great, you have to be a bit crazy. There is such a thing as too crazy, or at least not the right kind of crazy. There is very specific screw that has to be loose to be good at this sport, but there are also very specific screws that still have to be tight for you to live through it.

    1. Reminds me of Alex Meyer’s comments in that recent NYT article:

      “My philosophy is, you have to have the right screw loose to be a good endurance athlete,” he said. “You look at the best ones, they’re crazy.”

      “There’s something beautiful about man at his absolute breaking point. It hurts and it hurts and you keep pushing. Your body says no but your mind says yes… It’s like a feeling of euphoria.”

      1. It’s possible Mallory Mead refers to the Nutso gene (technical term). Wonderful article in New Yorker of some weeks past: 2 things distinguishing modern humans from Neanderthals are working in groups and the Nutso gene. Example: how many modern humans took it into their heads to jump into a craft and sail over the horizon before one lived to tell the tale? They were nuts!
        The Neanderthals did not cross large bodies of water, though they were very successful and rapidly colonized a lot of land.

        1. In many ways I can measure my life by the height of my stack of unread New Yorkers. At the moment I am hopelessly behind; but this one sounds excellent (and vaguely Gladwellian?) so I will look for it.

          1. Yes, I think that’s it. I found it fascinating. Neanderthals get short shrift, but they were hugely successful. On the go, ate everything (which allowed them to occupy quite varied niches), and knew the ancestors of modern humans, The Nutso gene idea seems spot on.

  4. I climbed mountains long before I swam long distances. (At least on mountains you can sit down, have a snack, take a nap.) The ability to keep going through tedium (the long view) is important to both, as is recognizing the possibility that something strange and wonderful may happen en route.
    Dave Barra – A vote for hopeless romantic (in the nicest possible way: 8 Bridges is the most romantic of swims!).
    Evan, are you plunging on Jan. 1? We are promised air temp in the 40s, a vast improvement over last year’s roughly zero. Perhaps we should drag in a palm tree to set the scene properly.

    1. Love this comment, thanks VB. Air temp in the 40s?! Positively balmy! Sounds a lovely Sunday at the Point. Wish I could attend.

  5. Evan,

    I’ve had a modest amount of experience as a mountaineer and marathon swimmer, and each time I start writing a comment on the question of similarities between the two it turns out to be an essay. Let me summarize: the most important elements of both sports are nearly identical. If you want a full explanation you’ll have to buy my eBook. I’m hoping to make enough money from sales of the book to swim the Cook Strait or climb Mt Vinson. Maybe both.

    1. Bob, I was hoping you would comment on this, as I know you have a background in mountaineering. An eBook sounds like a swell idea – you’ll have a customer in me!

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