The trouble with happiness


“I think it’s so foolish for people to want to be happy. Happy is so momentary–you’re happy for an instant and then you start thinking again. Interest is the most important thing in life; happiness is temporary, but interest is continuous.”

― Georgia O’Keeffe

Tentatively, Pete weights the V-thread he’s just made in a two-foot-square patch of ice, the only patch solid enough to trust in the eight metres of ice we’ve both just climbed. Lowering, he strips the ice screws from below and joins me at the belay. We look up a final time, photograph the pitch in our minds, and descend. Already our thoughts are fixed on a single thing: when will we get another chance?
From the glacier, vast and featureless and giving nothing to measure or gain perspective from, the pitch we just failed to climb had looked short and easy. We’d expected an ice step a few moves long, making the novice error of assuming that mountains are as small as they look. Instead we found overhung sweeps of icicle insanity, too hard to be a reasonable proposition with the lightweight rack we’re carrying. We both got as close as we dared though, both let the idea of climbing a pitch like that in a place like this get under our skin. I, less skilled on ice, was ready to admit defeat. An ice filled winter has made Pete ready, however, and he accepts the challenge, he votes to carry the gauntlet. We will be back.
We ski slowly back to our tent, turning to look, enjoying what is now a sunny morning. A week and a half in Alaska and this is our first bright day. Hopefully it won’t be the last.

It took months to plan this trip, to make it happen. Expeditions are like that; even when the line to be climbed is unknown, the climb itself begins months before crampons touch snow. The will to be there, to keep going, to struggle onward and upward is seeded and seated for a long time beforehand. Some people can’t stand the planning, but I love it. Searching for maps, looking on Google Earth for any possible beta, reading reports and booking transport; it’s all part of the process and I lap it up gladly. It comes with its own special stress, of course; we found out last minute that we’d have to change our objective, and almost failed to get to our range at all, but it all came together in the end. Even with such worries, the chosen stress of working towards an objective has a different nature than that of daily life. It feels somehow worth it.

Pete wearing the gauntlet
Pete wearing the gauntlet

A few stormy days later we wake before sunrise, glad we retreated, glad we didn’t have to descend from high in a blizzard. This time we’re armed with a large rack, food for more than a day, and a burning will born out of having tasted the unknowable, the unseeable. We follow footsteps blown to a blur and all of a sudden the days that passed seem distant. Pete wears the gauntlet well and when the time is right I wear it too, rising together and knowing and seeing. We’re right that we can and we do, until all that remains is to come down, which we do too; slowly, painstakingly, gladly.
Back on the flat we gorge and drink and talk in our palace of a tent, and within days or perhaps hours we peer towards the mountain once again. Joy, so transitory, has passed. But interest, the eternal, remains and makes itself well known. For what little we have seen, a mass remains undiscovered, and we wonder at what else we might find. But unknown it will stay: good weather is illusive in the Revelation mountains and to climb two routes in three weeks seems a bit of a big ask.
But we couldn’t ask for more.

It would be a lie to say that I didn’t value the whispers of happiness that were met along the way, but the true reward was coloured otherwise. It was gratifying to climb our route but all the while the mountain stayed itself, uncaring stone subject of awe and aspiration that it is, a summit a symbol; of completion and little else. It doesn’t always go as it did, but uncompleted climbs aren’t necessarily unsuccessful. In climbing or otherwise, true success can be measured in the journey, the reward hides in the tale.
If climbing was just brief moments stood shivering on summits we probably wouldn’t bother, but climbing is discovery and so we do. We discover that the world holds far more unknown than we could ever begin to uncover. We discover that sometimes we can, and that sometimes we can’t. But most of all we discover that being interested in something and pursuing that interest breeds more of it, and that therein lies purpose in itself.
Storm or sun I want to be in the mountains, peering around corners that hide small truths, always searching for bigger corners. Whether I reach the top or not means a lot less to me than seeing what lies in the middle. I am interested in what lies ahead, and that is reason enough to go there.

“Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant, there is no such thing. Making your unknown known is the important thing–and keeping the unknown always beyond you.”

― Georgia O’Keeffe

The line of 'The hoar of Babylon'. A streak of known in a mass of unknowable.
The line of ‘The hoar of Babylon’. A streak of known in a mass of unknowable.

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