You’re Doing It Wrong: Climbers’ Inverse Hierarchy Of Needs

Chilled to the bone, limbs leaden from physical exertion and fighting off cold, trudging down the canyon in bulky boots with pick-laden packs and helmets, we could have been mistaken for miners, or maybe construction workers. But when we rolled into Mouse’s Chocolates in Ouray, Colo., and pulled out our phones to laugh over the funny photos from the day, it was obvious we were nothing so serious—just a bunch of climbers.

As our fingers and toes began to thaw, we started noticing the tender spots on our legs that would eventually turn black and blue, casualties of falling ice chunks and clumsy climbing moves. And I thought: This is pretty absurd.
We work hard at our jobs all week so we can live comfortable lives, have a home, a car, good food to eat. So why do we set aside our relative safety and comfort to get blasted by icy winds, push our bodies to their limits and come home hungry, dirty, sore and exhausted?

Most of us studied Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs at some point, probably in a freshman psychology class. The “Theory of Human Motivation” goes something like this: The most basic needs of a human are physical, like thirst, hunger and sleep. Once you’ve covered those, you can achieve safety and security through employment or accruing resources. After that, you can expand relationships and develop self-esteem or a sense of achievement. Then, when all those lower needs are met, you’re free to focus on creativity, morality and self-actualization. But for some reason, climbers—and most outdoorsy people—throw a wrench in that logic.

For some reason, after we’ve worked so hard to achieve the lower parts of the pyramid, we can’t seem to get into the tip-top self-actualization part without revisiting the very bottom, fundamental levels. On Friday after work, we point our cars up to the mountains for the weekend, gaining elevation and making it hard for ourselves to breathe. We head out on backpacking trips where obtaining water is a serious chore. We shack up in tents or outside near climbing destinations and get up before the sun, depriving ourselves of precious sleep to get an alpine start. And we pass up the healthy, gourmet food we’ve worked so hard to earn, subsisting instead on energy bars, GUs and dehydrated food.

Our hierarchy of needs is jumbled, and somehow our self-actualization has become melded with discomfort. Only a few decades ago, miners were risking life and limb to chip away a decent living from the same canyons we now flock to for recreation. The very act of swinging ice tools feels like folly compared to the people who’ve swung tools for a living, with the concrete purpose of struggling up Maslow’s pyramid.

Some people work hard for important things like food, shelter, safety and esteem, and relish in the comfort and security they achieve. But for some reason, some of us push those things aside and continue to seek some sort of enlightenment through discomfort. Maybe we feel a need to push ourselves to see what we’re really capable of. After all, Maslow said, “What a man can be, he must be.” Maybe we’re actually highly developed people, pushing the limits of what we can be as humans. Or, then again, maybe we’re just conquistadors of the useless.