One or two people, through the course of this thread, have posed the question of why, with so much at stake, do people choose to subject themselves to mountains so frought with peril. Why do we subject ourselves to bitter cold, biting winds, sheer cliff faces, and the possibility of a lonely, cold and painful death?
As an "amateur" mountaineer who has never been much above fourteen thousand feet, and only visted the likes of K2 and Nanga Parbat in my mind's eye, I'm certainly no authority on the matter, but I'll try to answer to the best of my ability, based on my experience and the experiences of the world's great mountaineers that I have only met in my imagination.
The question may seem pretty simple, but the answer is as complex as the personalities of the people who engage in this most dangerous of hobbies. Distilled to the most basic answer, we go because those places are there. For the same reason that we send men hurtling through space, wrapped in little more than a foil can, to leave their footsteps in the eternal dust of the moon's surface. The same reason that men spend months isolated on the barren tundra of the polar ice caps, all so they can set foot on a spot that can only be seen on a compass. The desire to explore and experience new frontiers is an inseperable part of our human nature.
This answer alone is admittedly pretty unsatisfactory. After all, if this is part of human nature, why don't we all engage in these sorts of dangerous activities? Where is the exploration in standing on a summit that hundreds of others have already conquered? To ponder these questions, we enter into the winding maze of the human psyche. Unsurprisingly, this is where the answers get complex.
In my (rather limited) view, there are esentially two goals that all mountaineers aspire to achieve to some extent. The first is to conquer nature. To reach the summit through the worst terrain, weather, and hardship that nature can procure, and to come out the other side alive. Then there is the more nebulous, personal goal of conquering one's self. The confidence and wisdom that comes from persevering to complete a task that seems impossible. I would think that most mountaineers wish to achieve a combination of these two goals.
Although conquering nature is (arguably) a noble goal, and itself a strong motivater in the human condition, it's also a fairly simple goal. To know that nature tried her best to defeat you, but failed. Men have been seeking this goal since the beginning of time.
The conquering of one's self, in contrast, means something different to everyone, so answering for anyone other than myself is difficult or impossible. Personally, standing on the summit of a mountain, looking down to all that lays below, reminds me of the triviality of our daily lives. Like staring into an ant farm watching the insects scurry about, I feel as though I am larger than the daily irritations that consume my generally mundane existance, and how little those brief but inevitable periods of anger and sorrow really mean in the larger context of my life.
I am reminded that there are grander things in this world than my trivial existance. The mountain, and the journey it represents, both reaching the summit and my personal journey through life, is frought with danger and hardship. At the end of that journey, though, lies an experience which transcends the physical and spiritual existance we all share. We all climb our own mountains.