By Todd Wilkinson EBS ENVIRONMENTAL COLUMNIST
What drives extreme athletes or, sometimes, any outdoor-oriented person, to court the perilous edge? Why do some engage in potentially self-cancelling acts of derring-do?
What ethical and moral obligations do people have to loved ones, should they become survivors? How much pressure are sponsored athletes under to keep pushing the envelope, and what kind of toll does it take on them psychologically?
Why do we have such a weird voyeuristic fascination with desiring to witness people doing extraordinary things and perhaps perishing right in front of us?
These are not obtuse existential questions. They are examined in a new “New Yorker” profile of two Bozeman friends titled “Survivor’s Guilt in the Mountains: Alpinists are intimately familiar with death and grief. A therapist thinks he can address the unique needs of these elite athletes.”
The piece is written by former Bozeman resident Nick Paumgarten. The story could just as well be featuring heroes and tragic figures in any mountain community or town where extreme sports are venerated.
Paumgarten tracks the career of famed mountaineer Conrad Anker and his pal, the local Bozeman psychotherapist Timothy Tate. Tate relates to the world as a sort of modern mystic and he’s bestowed with a nickname by Anker. The moniker is “Gandalf,” as in the fictional wizard from J. R. R. Tokien’s “The Lord of the Rings.”
At least part of the background for Paumgarten’s investigation began with a series of pieces Tate had written for Bozeman-based “Mountain Journal” as part of his column, Community Psyche. Tate’s writings dealt with the trauma of athletes being lost to the mountains, and the grief and search for meaning that settles in hard.
Tate often invites readers to reflect on the ultimate personal inquiry: for what purpose are we here? When we head into the wilderness is it to lose ourselves or find ourselves?
Amid communities where the social persona is all about being “forever young,” with steady perpetual streams of 20-somethings to sow their wild oats, and with a higher percentage of middle-aged Peter Pans, public discourse and introspection is often pushed aside.
Be the best, the fastest, the most death-defying performer possible; do it for catharsis, for ego or death wish; do it because you think it’s important or for legacy or for shattering limits and boundaries, or for an impetus only you can understand and appreciate.
Paumgarten has not produced his long riff to judge. He delves into the topes of adventure as seen or interpreted through the eyes of globally-iconic alpinist Anker and friend Tate, whose writings in “Mountain Journal” helped earn him a gig as a counselor to some of the most talented people in outdoor sport sponsored by The North Face.
Anker’s feats are legendary, exhilarating and they’ve led him to attend more memorials for fallen comrades than most could bear.
His story is the kind of stuff ready made for a Hollywood biopic. And if I may acknowledge a bias here, Anker is fundamentally a good caring person, a consummate introvert, a valued neighbor, a person who thinks deep about the problems of the world. And, as a physical specimen, he’s taken himself into the highest rafters of the planet.
Tate has been his confidante and blood brother. He’s had a therapy practice in downtown Bozeman for decades and he admits to being a “shamanistic seeker.” He is rapt with Carl Jungian’s theory of the archetype, and tales of the quest to find the holy grail and ancient religions, be they indigenous or druid. He is, in the truest sense, a character.
His columns in “Mountain Journal” are popular with readers. They call attention to not only the bright lights of illumination that come with living in outdoor-oriented towns where a premium is placed on spectacular gestures of athletic hedonism, but there are the downsides, the dark side, the shadows and the sometimes wailing pain of self-destruction.
I don’t want to give too much away about the Paumgarten piece except to say his goal wasn’t to perpetuate a cult of hero worship. He lays threadbare the human trajectory of soaring high and falling back again to earth.
For some, it will be a hard and cursing read, viewed as an attack on fun hog culture. For others, it’s an insightful glimpse into the compulsions of outdoor rock stars who seem larger than life.
With Anker and friends, Paumgarten has protagonists who are wrestling with the big questions, with the same ones we do—how do we confront our own mortality, what’s the value of love and leaving behind more than we’ve taken or squandered? Tate has his own interpretations. Is he really Bozeman’s version of Gandalf?
Todd Wilkinson is the founder of Bozeman-based “Mountain Journal” and is a correspondent for “National Geographic.” He’s also the author of “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek” about famous Jackson Hole grizzly bear 399.