Adventure Stories: The End of Obsession

Mountaineering

, by Charlie Boscoe

Charlie high on the Aigulle du Grépon, Chamonix, France, at the height of the obsessive phase. Photo: Peter Riley.

Not many people are lucky enough to find something that excites them to the point of obsession. It's a unique feeling to be so consumed by something (mountaineering, in my case) that nothing else - relationships, money, or career - is significant. Now that I'm a "normal" person, no longer quite as obsessed with climbing mountains, it's interesting to look back and ponder how that burning, seemingly insatiable desire slowly faded.

I moved to the mountaineering mecca of Chamonix in my early 20s, and on my first day in that famous valley, I camped in Lez Praz beneath the towering spires of Les Drus. Even today, more than 15 years and many mountains later, Les Drus remain just as imposing, impressive, and impenetrable-looking as they did back then, but how I feel about them has changed beyond all recognition. I can vividly remember looking up at those rocky towers and thinking that if I could one day stand on top of them, every sunrise from that day on would be different. No matter where life took me, I felt that if I'd climbed Les Drus, I'd be content - happy that my life had not passed without my having achieved something remarkable. 

Les Drus dominating the view about Les Praz. Photo: Guillaume Baviere

It took me a long time - many years after I climbed the Drus - to realise that achievements will never satisfy anyone with a lust for life and a desire to make the most of it. No summit, no financial success, no one achievement will ever satiate those who want to experience all life has to offer, and we must accept that we will always be seeking challenges. I used to think that if I could just tick that big climb, I'd somehow be satisfied, but the feeling of post-success contentment is brutally short, and the desire for further action soon resurfaces. Decoding why people have different levels and types of motivation is a task far beyond me, but I can at least look back on my own journey and attempt to draw some conclusions. 

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In those early years in Chamonix, I couldn't get enough, and I couldn't even imagine what getting enough might feel like. I was working as a mountaineering expedition leader and spending every free minute climbing and ski mountaineering, meaning that between work and play, I could easily spend 250 days per year in the mountains, bouncing between continents and countries along the way. 

Sunset at the Tashi Labsta Pass, Nepal. Photo: Boscoe Collection

At some stage, however, a funny thing happens to most of us - real life begins to intervene and almost imperceptibly waters down your ability to obsess. It might be a relationship, a job that interests you enough to be worth missing a ski day for, or a new interest sparked by a random conversation - but it's almost impossible to stay laser-focused forever. The change can be gradual, but over a few years, you can find yourself in the previously unimaginable position of caring about something more than your hobby. There's no magic bullet; it just happens because, ultimately, most people decide that life is too rich, the world too big, and people too interesting to restrict themselves to only focusing on one thing.

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The challenge then becomes being content with different achievements, which might seem insignificant compared to what came before. The key here, and to this whole process, is understanding that no achievement is ever going to satisfy you - just do things that interest and motivate you, and don't seek out validation through achievement. It doesn't matter if you won a Superbowl or soloed the Eiger north face - that glow of satisfaction won't last forever, so don't be bitter about it; take pride in what you did, but always keep looking forward.

Matt Livingstone looking forward on the way up La Meije, Ecrins, France. Photo Boscoe Collection

I interviewed a sports psychologist once, and he suggested that his advice to retiring athletes applies to all driven people: "Never think about going FROM something; always think about going TO something." That's great advice because when you make significant changes in your life, even if they're gradual, it's easy to focus on how life used to be. Maybe you climbed mountains, played a professional sport, or were in a successful band, but those past achievements won't keep you satisfied for life - keep striving and accept that it's not about ticking things off a list; it's about enjoying the journey. In many respects, ending your obsessive phase means swapping tangible goals for open-ended, undefinable objectives. Instead of a measured success like a summit or a race win, you aim to be a good parent/spouse/colleague - goals that cannot be defined or measured. Let go of set goals and embrace the life-long challenge of self-improvement. I never imagined that anything could be as satisfying as climbing mountains, but having experienced more of what life has to offer, it’s remarkable what “big” experiences can come from seemingly “small” events. 

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I always remind myself that the happiest people I know are those who savor the details of life, taking enjoyment from a variety of sources rather than just one. I'm still exceptionally happy in the mountains, but that need to achieve set goals has gone - just being challenged and joyful is enough. Through bitter experience, I learned that achievements don't make us happy. I was about to say what made us happy just then, but I realised that my recipe would be different from yours, and that's fine. If I had a recipe that worked for everyone, I'd be a rich man, but sadly - for both you and my bank account - you've got to find your own way.

Camping in British Columbia and enjoying it for the experience, not the achievement. Photo: Boscoe Collection

When you're living that obsessive period, it's hard to imagine life beyond it, but - for most of us - change comes along one day. Don't rush the journey; just accept it for what it is. Take the lucky breaks, shrug off the bad days, and, if you're a driven person, don't expect that drive to disappear anytime soon. The challenges will change, but the desire to learn, grow, and evolve will still be there. Don't resent it; put it to use and enjoy the ride.