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Friday, February 20, 2015

Finding comfort in discomfort

I'm laying here in my new little tent breathing oxygen-depleted air (equivalent to 15,000 feet or 4500m) while I post this latest update.   It is 5:01am local time and I'm wide awake after waking up at 3:50am this morning to shuttle my son to his swim practice.   Oh,  it is 2°F outside and the roads are a little hazardous after a small snowstorm last night.   Why am I telling you these details?   Some people hate discomfort.   They dislike early, cold, and inclement mornings more than any other threat to their comfort.  I love these mornings.  Why?  On those 65°F days when I get to sleep in until 7am and enjoy a peaceful, sunny new day, I appreciate them more by experiencing and remembering these more challenging days. A little deprivation goes a long way for me.   Still, I actually prefer these cold days; I have learned to like them and embrace them.  

Embracing discomfort also affords me a greater sense of luxury in small doses of comfort.   I cannot even fathom what a former POW, for example, must feel when he or she gets to sleep in a newly made bed for the first time and eat a self-selected meal.  These contrasts must be overwhelming and hard to even describe to others.  I'm not saying my experiences are even remotely close to theirs but we can all experience a little pleasure magnification by doing without.

Learning to like discomfort

I recall my formative years where I raced sailboats with my family.   Most of these races were overnight - offering us all little chance of sleep or comfort.  A race would typically start on a Friday afternoon and end on a Sunday morning.   We all had fun in some way or another but to call it fun is a stretch.   It was - to be sure - gratifying to do well as a team but there was something more to these outings.   We had shifts or watches throughout the race; mostly,  we slept or sailed for 4 hours in alternating fashion. Sleep often consisted of crawling down into the soaking wet cabin I foul weather gear and passing out from sheer exhaustion on equally wet sails.  Sailing, similarly,  offered little rest.  If the winds were string,  we changed sails and kept a lookout for other boats and obstructions.  Light winds meant we all battled our eyes and hoped our 4-hour shift would end soon.  We sailed through rain, squalls, doldrums, cold,  heat, and wind....often more than we or our boat could easily manage.   These experiences taught me more than any other about the importance of sacrificing comfort.

If you asked my dad,  brother, cousins, or friends about these races, they might recall different moments or highlights but we all recall the amazing comfort of our own beds on Sunday evening.  What a joy to sleep for 8 hours in a heated or air conditioned room!  Again, the contrast between discomfort and a little comfort got magnified.

How does discomfort relate to climbing?

Climbing - especially high alpine climbing - affords little luxury. Often the little bit of available luxury comes in the form of a piece of cheese or chocolate after a hard day. Cold, damp tents situated in windy, exposed areas make for less-than-ideal sleeping conditions and yet most of us enjoy this activity. Again, finding enjoyment in these situations can be tough but many of us go back to experience the hardship repeatedly.  

Why go back for more?

Many of us climb to re-experience life.  We soon need to feel a little deprivation to fully feel alive and climbing provides that deprivation.  Climbing is an activity that provides few benefits beyond the experience.   Some climbers use summits just as stamp collectors use stamps; they collect them like trophies in a checklist of objectives.  Others capture pictures and sacrifice to get the perfect shot.  Each climb gives the photographer another opportunity to capture the essence of a mountain.  Still others just like being out in the wilderness and "experiencing" nature for the fun or companionship available in the outdoors.  Each of these motives result in the same behavior.  The person goes back for more. I believe after a person gets a taste of the discomfort, that taste becomes a craving.  None of us like to be miserable but we slowly get accustomed to slight discomfort and we soon appreciate the contrast I mentioned previously.  Neither the checklist, picture nor "fun" acts as sufficient motive to endure hardship.   There must be something else and that something might be a need.

Do you need a little discomfort to feel satisfaction with everyday life?  I do.   That need is why I climb, sail, ski, snowboard, hike, swim, run, drink, and work.  I find comfort in discomfort.   How about you?  Post a  comment below with your thoughts.

Thanks for joining me on my adventures.