Climbers and Astronauts
Climbers and Astronauts: Analogies
It is natural to want to draw connections between one's passions.
Having a great interest both in mountaineering and in piloted space
exploration, I have been inspired by several analogies between the two
pursuits to verbalize my thoughts here. I am not an astronaut; I
write from having heard their experiences. You may also find you know
of counter-examples to my generalizations about climbers (by which I
refer to deeply alpine-motivated mountaineers, not to sport-climbers);
indeed, I have written somewhat about my ideals rather than any
Fitness is not the goal, nor a primary requirement or focus of
climbing or astronaut training; both are in fact mostly mental
exercises. But fitness is nevertheless a basic prerequisite without
which you simply can't enter the game.
One finds both climbers and astronauts also often have medical
expertise. Rather than being doctors, members of both groups have learned
as they go. They find themselves mentally in tune with their bodies,
closely aware of their physiology, and thus end up learning about
their own biology.
Astronauts and climbers live above normal human civilizations. "Where most
people see only an imposing barrier of rock, a climber sees a ladder
skyward" [source?]. In analogy, astronauts are said to ride a "ladder of
fire" to their celestial summits.
Climbers travel with a passion. They find commonalities all over the
world -- in geology, in camp, in mountain culture, in unpretentious
humanity. They learn new languages in order to travel to new mountain
lands; they mix with and befriend local and rural cultures; they learn
local histories. They often fall in love with and become devoted to
foreign cultures. They become geographers; they live in international
tent towns; and they spread knowledge and goodwill.
Upon flying in space, astronauts become international ambassadors of
the future, international representatives of all mankind. They too
travel worldwide -- and further -- quickly learning new languages,
inspiring minds of any culture, forging bonds when politics are
building walls. They all become geographers; they live in
international space stations; and they spread knowledge and goodwill.
Climbers live in a world of forces, of gradients, and of careful
calculation. They care about details; they are aware of and endlessly
interested in their environment. All of them are physicists by
experience, and many of them are physicists by training.
Astronauts start with or soon acquire as broad a technical background
as possible. They too have raw physical wonders and calculations
thrust irresistably on their senses and in their minds by the stunning
facts of nature and by the sheer boldness of what they attempt. They are
experts in space science, experimentors in microgravity, and,
increasingly, they were first trained as physicists.
Astronauts are at peace with the world. They do not get ruffled; they
are trained to stay calm amidst crises in which lives and billions of
dollars are at stake. They make everyone feel at ease. They are
Climbers thrive on controlled emergencies. Their skill is in making
rational decisions in the face of extreme conditions, challenges, and
handicaps. Like astronauts, they live closely with others' personal
habits. Their tolerance, diverse experience, and happiness make them
friendly with anyone honest. They are at peace with the world.
Maybe more than any other two populations, climbers and astronauts
know how to work to maximum efficiency in small groups. They are
Life Support System
Climbers live in the most remote and extreme places and conditions on
Earth, surviving in a fragile microcosm of down and goretex, of nylon
and aerospace-grade aluminum. Astronauts also carry a tiny microcosm
of life to the extreme conditions right off the Earth. Their "tent"
has rocket engines attached, and is built for even colder, more
remote, and less oxygenated heights. When they leave it, their EVA's
are done not in down and goretex but in pressurised suits with
gold-plated face masks.
Climbers are one with their equipment. They are inseparable from
their ice axes; their climbing shoes are extensions of their bodies.
Similarly, every second of an astronaut's survival depends on the
correct functioning of the most advanced integrated technologies of
humankind. They practice and repractice every detail of the use of
each of their tools. Travel and survival are impossible without
these extensions of their selves.
For food, climbers and astronauts reconstitute dehydrated meals.
Life support systems can fail. Hazardous environments can kill.
Astronauts and climbers know the possibilities of their death, have
accepted their mortality, and face it often or every day. They have
friends who have died doing what they do.
Climbers develop deep awareness of their environment. They appreciate the
cycle of life; they know instinctively the basic inputs and outputs needed
for the sustenance of human life and provided by its societies. They are
aware of the waste they produce. They see and feel the impact they have,
whereever they are. They appreciate simple living.
Astronauts too bring back a new awareness. They experience life
intensely in a tiny ecosystem. Despite all their anticipation, each one is
still changed, almost suddenly, by the sight of a fragile Earth from above
its atmosphere. Like climbers, they are endlessly fascinated by the
beauty of their Earth and, viewing it from a great height, can almost see
Everything At Once.
I first read the following on the web page of an
accomplished climber, Tuan. I next heard it when Jeff Hoffman, one of
many (physicist) climber-astronauts, read it aloud -- just as he did to the rest
of the crew on STS75 just before deorbiting. This probably inspired
me to write.
You cannot stay on the summit forever; you have to come down
again. So why bother in the first place?
Just this: What is above knows what is below, but what is below
does not know what is above. One climbs, one sees. One
descends, one sees no longer, but one has seen. There is an art
of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what
one saw higher up. When one can no longer see, one can at least
-- Rene Daumal
Barrington-Leigh, drafted September 1996