Conquering the useless? Far from it.

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By: Laura Keil

While watching the video of Mark and Janelle Smiley and Reiner Thoni climbing the face of Mt. Robson, I had a mini panic attack just sitting in my chair. I can’t imagine what the wind was like up there, but the height gave me vertigo just watching it.
Around the same time Thoni and the Smileys summitted Mt. Robson using a little-used route, a man died trying to ascend the more common route. Another man was uncovered last week near the Columbia Icefields after being swallowed by a glacier for 21 years. Harrowing to say the least.

It makes you think twice when you hear about deaths in the mountains – are these reckless thrill- seekers with a death wish?

I harken back to something Mark Smiley said to me before they did their successful ascent: you wouldn’t put a guy from the 17th century on the freeway and expect him to do well. However, people drive the freeway safely every day. It’s about familiarity and skill.
These are, after all, champion mountaineers with proper gear, not amateur climbers.
But driving serves a purpose, you might say, why put yourself in danger just to climb a mountain? Or 50 of the most dangerous climbs in North America, as the Smileys plan to do.

In the 2010 documentary “180º South: Conquerers of the Useless” outdoor enthusiast Jeff Johnson retraces the steps of Yvon Chouinard (founder of Patagonia) and Doug Tompkins (founder of The North Face), who made a similar journey to the tip of South America 30 years before. Along the way, he reflects on the merits of different conservation techniques. He then tries to summit the mountain Cerro Corcovado, risking his life to climb to the peak.

Did he just conquer another useless peak? Far from it. Summiting a new peak is usually without external reward, but Johnson uses the experience to develop his thinking about the connection between humans and nature.

The Seattle Post Globe wrote “The regard for the planet shown in 180° South comes from the quiet, philosophical nature of the people profiled in the film, who realize there is more adventure in the preservation of nature than in its conquering.”
Whether it’s a solitary pilgrimage, a search for fame, or an inescapable itch to climb and to explore, the reasons for exploring are the reason we evolve – to seek out new ground, test new limits.

It’s also where we get a sense of the power and importance of the natural world – honouring it can be a matter of survival.

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