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Bruce Miller suffering on the first ascent of Reinhold Pussycat (V 5.11 A2) on The Minaret,  The Bugaboos, Canada.
Bruce Miller suffering on the first ascent of Reinhold Pussycat (V 5.11 A2) on The Minaret, The Bugaboos, Canada.

The sun’s blaring, the mercury’s rising into the 70s, and I am cowering behind a rock and my jacket, giving a one-handed belay because the other is pulling at my collar to block my windward ear from the blast coming down Eldorado Canyon.

What am I doing out here?

After so many wet weekends this spring, I took a particularly warm, sunny Wednesday off to climb. And I got hammered by the wind in a way that made me wish I’d gone to work instead.

The rope moved; I let out slack, then put my free hand back over my ear. The wind refused to stop. My eyes shut against the sandblasting. I moaned. Literally moaned.

Then laughed at myself for moaning, for hiding unsuccessfully behind the rock, for being out there in the first place.

I find myself in these what-am-I-doing-out-here situations often. They take many shapes: a run or ride squinting against rain; a ski tour that halts at a whumph; a climb where a shoe whizzes past your head (that happened to a friend last weekend — that was more like, what are they doing out here?).

These moments happen when I’m cold, wet, tired, scared, hungry or some combination of those — basically, physically or mentally miserable.

Yet I keep going back for more. And I don’t know why.

Sure, I could come up with a few existential reasons why I’m out doing this. But really, it’s an ongoing question, the why.

I know there’s some meaning — I just don’t know what, exactly, it is. Perfect days? The glory of nature? Peak experiences?

Yes and no — those are great, but they don’t explain why I choose to go out in nasty weather, or do somewhat dangerous things.

Perhaps I can’t answer it because I have the three qualities of a good alpinist, that my friend Kevin reminded me of recently:

1. Ability to suffer

2. Short-term memory

3. I can’t remember the third

OK, I don’t really have the ability to suffer. But I have numbers 2 and 3 down, because a week after that windy day, my initial reaction to another sunny, warm but windy day was, Oooo I should go for a run, or climb, or something.

For my job, I have the opportunity to hear other people’s thoughts on the meaning they find in their outdoor pursuits, and I have yet to hear a fully satisfactory response.

Amy Dombroski, a pro cyclist I interviewed, told me she loves both racing and training because there’s no better feeling than coming home completely and utterly spent. This is where she finds meaning — in giving so much of herself that she can’t even pick up the phone to call in carry-out, because she has not energy to make herself something to eat.

August Jensen, a slackliner I interviewed last week, told me there’s no limit on how much he has to learn on the slackline. The meaning is in the potential for growth.

But it’s more than pushing yourself to utter exhaustion, or unlimited potential to learn. These answers are only part of the why.

Amy doesn’t go out on a five-hour ride in rain and snow just because she likes to be knackered, or because the foothills look pretty. There’s something deeper there, something unspoken, something hovering along that fine line between indomitable spirit and mule-like stubbornness that makes us keep going out there soon after asking ourselves, What am I doing out here?

If you know exactly why you’re out there, congrats. But I’m still looking for it.

For now, that is the why — because there’s something I want to understand better but can’t verbalize, something that’s only be understood by a ridiculous moan into the wind, followed by a laugh, rubbing grit out of my eyes and planning the next trip out so I can once again ask, What am I doing here?

Jenn Fields’ Field Notes column appears in the Colorado Daily every Monday. Check out her blog at fieldnotes.pmpblogs.com.

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