Do Not Go Outside to Cry
I recently read an article labeled “Do Not Go Outside to Cry,” expecting it to relate to problems of the outdoor community and mental health. Instead, I read a powerful piece regarding women in the outdoors and how they are treated by their male counterparts and the façade they are forced to display around them. My article is not about that. Rather, I’d like to approach the topic I presumed would be discussed: the outdoors and mental health.
Growing up in Bozeman, Montana, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem had a large influence on my life. I grew up through backpacking, exploring, learning to climb and ski, all just only minutes from my house. How I approach life and how I choose to live was influenced directly from being so involved with the natural environment around me. I learned to observe my surroundings and note minute changes. I learned leadership and confidence, tackling terrain that could be seen as dangerous or risky. The excitement that I had for these outdoor endeavors was ambitious and overfed. Every waking moment was spent obsessing over climbing. I’d wake up early in high school to go climb a couple pitches of ice and get to school in time to do homework before class started, befriending teachers who would let me keep my ice axes behind their desks so I wouldn’t get in trouble for having “weapons” in school. I hoped for track meets to get cancelled so that I could spent the majority of the weekend slogging into Beehive to do an overnight sufferfest up a mixed climb. I grew and matured through this obsession, but only partially.
Now, not that many years later, I don’t get outside nearly as often. I still am driven about climbing, but to a lesser extent. Yes, my job currently involves teaching various climbing topics at the local climbing gym. Yes, I volunteer my free time instructing the same program that I learned how to climb on. Yes, I still have ticklists, watch weather windows, and daydream about projects I haven’t sent yet and ranges I haven’t explored. However, the overall degree to which I spend my time outside has diminished. And I don’t think it is a bad thing. Over the past ten years of my climbing career, I’ve heard news of many friends dying in the mountains. Despite only being twenty-three, it takes two hands to count friends I’ve known that lost their lives pursuing these passions. It has started to weigh on me. Like many I know, grappling with the balance between risk and reward in pursuits that frame our identities is almost unapproachable. It is damn near paradoxical. The loss of friends, of climbing partners, is hard to wrap my head around. Lacking good coping mechanisms, by only knowing climbing and the outdoors, I’ve had a few difficult years being in poor, unhealthy mindsets.
I’m not here to talk about risk and reward component. Rather, I want to discuss how the outdoor community deals with hardship and mental health problems. This past year has been an extremely difficult year for me. Honestly, the past four have contained a certain degree of hardship. Sure, a lot of this can be attributed to the nature of growing up and how life unfolds. I know countless lives are a lot harder than mine. But the way in which I approach these challenges has changed significantly. I used to approach the outdoors with a degree of escapism. I saw going climbing as a means to deal with my problems; the hardship of the mountains allowing me to grow past petty life struggles. The first time I soloed an ice climb was after a high school girlfriend had broken up with me. I was frustrated and upset. Not sure what to do, I decided to push the envelope of risk a little more, forcing myself to stay in the moment. I know that may sound extreme behavior, but it is what I did. And I don’t think I’m alone in using the outdoors for escapism.
The ease of the outdoors is that many of the common sports – climbing, skiing, mountain biking, kayaking – all require acute focus on the present moment to not get injured or die. They give us highs, make us feel strong and successful. When all other thoughts and emotions must be pushed to the side, we feel invincible. In a world so distracted, precise focus can be a powerful drug. Despite this, I think the requirement of staying so presently focused is a detrimental coping mechanism. We get to the crux pitches on climbs, give it everything we have, and regardless of if we send or not we feel fairly great. We feel alive. The precision of the moment makes all the worries of our lives drift away and the present moment feels rad. But then the day is over, we go back to the comforts of the twenty first century, and the high is lost. Once settled back into society, we lust for another high, but that same situation doesn’t give enough, and we look for more risk. Just like a junkie looking for another fix, more risk is required to stay in the moment and escape the issues of the real world.
This behavior – of lurching forward from one risk to another – isn’t health and isn’t sustainable. No number of pitches will fix my low self esteem and low perceived self worth. Steeper lines are not going to magically help me move on from previous relationships. Going outside to cry, to escape from the problems I should tackle head on, is fruitless. Perhaps I’m alone with this view, but I feel as though I see it all around me – friends and peers that don’t strike this balance between real world issues and prancing around the mountains. They view the mountains as a fix-all capable of providing solutions to every problem. I still think that value can be found in sports with high consequence, I’m not saying it should be abandoned all together. But I don’t think it is the solution to everything. I’ve seen people head into avalanche terrain with reckless abandon after fights and break ups, putting themselves and others in higher areas of risk. Adding complicated emotions into environments that don’t give a shit about you is unsustainable. Do not go outside to cry, because shirking emotions has a pressure cooker effect. Running away from emotions can only last for so long before the pressure becomes too much and something cracks. Things cracking in the outdoors can have dangerous effects, loss of life being one of them.
My approach to the ways I appreciate the outdoors has shifted greatly. I look for value less in the lines I ski or the pitches I climb, but the growth I can gain from them and the partnerships I craft along the way. To truly connect with a landscape and be grateful for what it has to offer; flowing through an area delicately, wholesomely. I’ve been lucky to be influenced by people who approach it the same way. People like KT Miller, who has also stepped back from taking larger degrees of risk and reevaluated what gives life importance. I respect her deeply and believe that retrospection on these sports is important. Or people like CJ Carter, who approaches his sports with gratitude for the land for offering itself to these activities and seeks to find what can be learned from them. Going outside to cry is not the solution to our problems. These sports can be rewarding, insightful, but they is not the solution to everything. Adding risk and unstable emotions to dangerous endeavors leads to escapism and neglect of treating problems, a path that is unsustainable and limiting self growth. I don’t have the answers for how to approach these challenges, but do not go outside to cry.