On Being A Conquistador of the Useless


Lionel Terray wrote a memoir titled Conquistadors of the Useless which became an acclaimed bestseller. Shortly after its publication, he died climbing in the Vercors near Grenoble, France in 1965. This dude was a mountain climber legend, he made so many recorded first accents on mountains across the world, and he’s remembered as a hero in France.

He got his start with mountaineering during World War II, where he was engaged in mountain combat with an irregular French force harassing the Germans on the Italian frontier. This was his backyard after all, born at the foot of the Alps and raised in their shadows, he would naturally fight on their shoulders against the Germans. The war won, Terray went on to do what he loved, live in the mountains; make an earning from them as a guide, a ski instructor, and mountaineer.

France, and Europe, emerged shattered and existed in an austere post-war reality, defined by Jean Paul-Sartre’s existentialism and the reality of becoming colonized by corporate America, or as the Europeans saw it, penetration. Writing in 1965, J.J. Servan-Schreiber in The American Challenge, about American corporations doing business in Europe expressed:

Most striking of all is the strategic character of American industrial penetration. One by one, US corporations capture those sectors of the economy most technologically advanced, most adaptable to change, and with the highest growth rates.

J.J. Servan-Schreiber was a leading French political thinker from the left, and he best described the atmosphere in France as well as in Europe. France needed hero’s, especially after an entire generation of young men, shortly after the prior generation of men, were wiped out in another world war. Terray was one of the few in the Post-War Europe who singularly carried the spirit of adventure, thrill of exploration, and saw the possibilities available to those willing to reach for them, and he came to personify this heroic character. He trumped Jean Paul-Sartres existentialism through his feats of mountain climbing. In a post-war world that saw the shrinking of the map, the collapse of distance and time, and the self-destruction of colonial endeavors; Terray came to represent possibilities. His greatest accomplishment, from the many summits he climbed, was climbing Chakrarahu, possibly the hardest peak in the Peruvian Andes and considered unclimbable at the time.

Pointless Selfishness of it All

From this he derives the title of the book. “Conquistadors” is fairly derived from his exploits in Peru, considering that the Spanish set out to conquer the New World, and in that legacy, a Frenchman pursued the conquering of several New World summits; “the Useless” is irony overextended to the point of slapping you in the face with a brick, because what is the point of climbing a mountain to its summit when you just have to come back down (ideally the way you came up)?

I first came across Lionel Terray in 2011 while watching 180° South: Conquerors of the Uselessread excerpts in the WSJ here. I was taken by the idea of immersing self in nature to the point of loosing yourself to it, Wild only furthered that desire, it was all selfishly driven. Speaking to that point, “Conquistador of the Useless” is truly a pointless selfish act.

Think about it, hiking to the top of a mountain basically means you get to the top and then you just come back down to where you started all over gain. What do you gain, besides the work out, maybe a view? There are much easier ways to get a workout in then trying to hike up a mountain. In fact, in regards to the view; once you’ve been up one mountain, what is the difference from climbing up to the summit of any other mountain?

It’s not like you’re accountable to anybody. What’s to stop you from telling people you climbed up to a local summit, when you actually haven’t? In that respect, Terray nailed the whole idea of mountaineering simply with his title. So eloquent, he didn’t even have to write the rest of the book!

Being selfish is important though, maybe even critical, for a persons health. If you shun the sun, you develop vitamin D deficiency; and, worse, SAD- seasonal affective disorder, like my folks did when we were living in Seattle, Washington. A 2007 study from the University of Essex in the U.K., for example, found that a walk in the country reduces depression in 71% of participants. In a 2010 Japanese study of shinrin-yoku (defined as “taking in the forest atmosphere, or forest bathing”), for example, researchers found that elements of the environment, such as the odor of wood, the sound of running stream water, and the scenery of the forest can provide relaxation and reduce stress; those taking part in the study experienced lower levels of cortisol, a lower pulse rate, and lower blood pressure.

There are stats on top of stats regarding nature and health, in fact, there is an area of therapy specifically related to using nature to help people called “eco-therapy.” It was coined by pastoral counselor Howard Clinebell in his 1996 book Ecotherapy.


The Greater Adventures of the Spirit

It seems to me that he had this personality that you wish you could get to know him so that you could learn first hand lessons about the mountains and human spirit. Being out there hiking alone, I often reflect on the pointlessness of my endeavor, but then getting to the top and coming back down I find that its so much the accomplishment but rather my spirit has changed. As I look across the horizon, seeing other summits, I start calculating and desiring to climb on top of that one. Just one more, one more summit and I can name that something that I sense has changed my spirit.

It started with Antelope Butte and Saddleback Butte. At Saddleback Butte the most exciting discovery was a check in bucket along. When I got home from the summit of Saddleback Butte, I figured out that it was the highest peak in the Antelope Valley. I thought, well, what other “highest” peaks are there that I can get under my belt.  After what started out as trying to get out of the house and explore the “neighborhood,” it occurred to me that I had quite a few local peaks to get to the top of.

I read Jack Kerouc saying “[b]ecause in the end, you won’t remember the time you spent working in the office or mowing your lawn. Climb that goddamn mountain.” and off my heart went chasing after that spirit to the top of Willowspring Butte, Red Mountain. Its sort of like the search for the holy grail. Everyone is keen on finding it, getting their hands on it; but what I learned from these pointless hikes is to savor the quest. There is the responsibilities of life, and then there is the responsibility you owe to your spirit. Rock hopping, bush whacked, and lost trails- I savor all of it. Self doubt and cursing, silent monologues and loud yelps of consternation- all of it needs to stew on the hours and miles of hiking to the summit and down.

And getting out into the wilderness, I began to appreciate nature. I won’t be summiting Everest anytime soon, or any other peak over 10,000 feet, but it boils down to loving a place. Getting out in the High Desert helped me develop an appreciation for it. To love a place you must know it first. To know a place you must get out into the place to discover it. Without loving and discovering it you can’t have a desire to protect it.

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