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Will and Suffering

I have had a change of tack in 2010. My projects have been geared towards encouraging others to take on challenges. I have sought out ideas that would be accessible to most people with half a brain, half a set of lungs, and enough oomph to get on and do stuff. It’s been a rewarding project.

But right now I am itching to test myself again. To take on something that daunts me and scares the crap out of me. A project that requires training till I puke, that breaks my nerve and forces me to pull myself together and stiffen nerve, sinew and spirit.

When moods like this come along there is no better mentor than Mark Twight. Here then is Will and Suffering, an essay by Mark Twight.

“When a person trains once, nothing happens. When a person forces himself to do a thing a hundred or a thousand times, then he certainly has developed in more ways than physical. Is it raining? That doesn’t matter. Am I tired? That doesn’t matter, either. Then willpower will be no problem.”
Emil Zatopek

The difference between a good alpinist and a great one is will. The great climber exercises the discipline required to know himself. He trains to be stronger than he thinks necessary. On a route he eats to sustain energy levels even if it makes him gag, and he drinks regularly to stay hydrated. He stops in the middle of a pitch to pull his hood up if the spindrift gets bad instead of waiting to reach the belay, and he stays dry because of it. He maintains the discipline needed to melt enough ice each night to fill the bottles, and sweeps snow out of the tent instead of letting it melt. He doesn’t care if his partner’s pack weighs less. He wakes up and starts the stove when the alarm goes off. The great climber recognizes when he’s having a bad day and admits it to his partner, then he relinquishes leads where he might slow the team and follows as fast as he can. He does all the cooking that night. A strong-willed climber will fast for a day or two without complaint to wait out bad weather.

Where does this strong will and hardness come from? It derives from recognizing desires and goals and then enduring whatever it takes to fulfill them. A strong will grows from suffering successfully and being rewarded for it. Does a strong will come from years of multi-hour training runs or do those runs result from a dominating will? There is no right answer because will and action feed one another.

Suffering provides the opportunity to exercise will and to develop grit. Replace recreational climbing with specific training to develop confidence. Climb on local crags in weather conditions far worse than any you would intentionally confront in the high mountains. Austrian climber Herman Buhl carried snowballs in his hands to develop his tolerance (psychological) and increase capillarization (physical). He climbed on his local crags all winter long, even in storm conditions, and rode his bike for hundreds of kilometers on the way to the mountains for training. It paid off, of course, when he climbed alone to the summit of Nanga Parbat.

The mind and body adapt to both comfort and deprivation. The difficult experiences of mountaineering may appear irrational and risky from the comfort of the armchair, but learning to deal with them is essential. Relish the challenge of overcoming difficulties that would crush ordinary men.

Michael Gilbert and Scott Backes got soaked to the bone climbing The Waterfall Pitch on the north face of the Eiger. When they stopped for the night at the Brittle Ledges, they discovered their sleeping bags had been drenched as well, Michael asked, “What are we going to do now?” Scott replied, “We’re going to suffer.” And they did. But it was a little thing compared to the suffering experienced intentionally and otherwise during the evolution of alpinism.

Learn to suffer.

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  1. It doesn’t get much more inspirational than that!

  2. I´m certainly not as gung-ho as you are, Alastair, when it comes to suffering..but bicycle touring has taught me a thing or two about suffering in silence and just getting on with the pedaling. Comfort can be a dangerous addiction, that´s one thing I´m certain of.

  3. Never really understood the train-’til-you-puke thing. Doesn’t that mean you’ve overdone it? How about training ’til you almost puke – then you get fit AND learn to recognise how much your body can take before you waste a few hundred calories!



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