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 sociologic study.


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.

The Heavens

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 universally likeable.

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 leaders.

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.

Going Home

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 still know.

-- Rene Daumal

Christopher Barrington-Leigh, drafted September 1996