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The Choss Pile: Why You Should Play Dead

Regular meditation on death is a recipe for a healthy life. The possibility of death in climbing is omnipresent, so climbers are uniquely positioned to come to terms with our mortality.

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deathin climbing
The author, Owen Clarke, literally playing dead. But thinking about death in climbing—and taking those lessons to our daily lives—is what he’s getting at here: “That awareness of the omnipresence of death and that faith in our systems and ourselves is something many of us would be well served to take from the wall and apply to our lives as a whole.” Photo: Courtesy of Owen Clarke.

I’ve been in pain for my entire adult life. Since I was 15, actually. The doctors aren’t sure what’s wrong, but I have some sort of chronic autoimmune disorder, similar to fibromyalgia or multiple sclerosis. I have peripheral neuropathy and widespread myofascial pain among other symptoms (and yes, I have tried CBD). It’s not something that comes up often in my writing, but I find myself wanting to mention it here, as an avenue into a discussion about death.

My health has led me to think about death and what it means perhaps more often than the average person, because I’ve wanted to die at many points in my life. Not definitively, in the manner of someone who puts a gun in their mouth, but abstractly, in my mind. I used to envision dozens of deaths for myself, dreaming about the sensation of fading away, not having to feel pain anymore.

Talking about death is always tricky, because we all believe different things about what happens after we die. Yet whether you believe in nothing, an afterlife, or something else, we can all agree that death represents the end of our existence on this planet, at least in the bodies we now inhabit.

[Also Read Thoughts On Death, And Last Words]

Unless you’re free soloing, high-altitude mountaineering or reckless, climbing isn’t a particularly dangerous sport. Yet we are afforded a clear view of our mortality when we climb. On the wall we see everything keeping us alive. It’s all right in front of us. Our harness, our knots, our rope, our anchors. Our careful management of these systems is what separates us from plummeting tens or hundreds of feet to the ground.

As a result, climbing grants us a unique perspective on death, one that many in the modern world never get to experience. We are constantly reminded of how close we are to death at any one point, and as part of the climbing process we learn to overcome that fear, trust our systems and ourselves, and keep moving upwards.

Good climbers are good mortals, in that way, even if we don’t often realize it. That awareness of the omnipresence of death in climbing and that faith in our systems and ourselves is something many of us would be well served to take from the wall and apply to our lives as a whole.

There was a point after I graduated college when I realized it was unlikely I’d ever be completely free of pain. It would simply be a part of my life. I do my best to manage it, and it’s certainly still a daily struggle. Maybe one day I will be cured, who knows. But once I accepted that my pain would be with me forever, or told myself that, the pain stopped bothering me as much. I also stopped having those spells where I wanted to die.

I’m no free soloist, but one of the draws of the practice, as I understand it, is the necessity of maintaining complete control. It’s intoxicating. If you make a mistake, you die. There is no second chance, no rope to catch your fall. Once you accept that and move past it, the wall becomes bliss, for some. Each move becomes a thing of exquisite beauty, each gradual motion upwards more meaningful.

I think some of us have sunk so deep into our cushy 21st century existences that we’ve forgotten that life is similar to a free solo. We don’t have a rope. Whether we want to recognize it or not, death could be just around the corner, whether in the form of a lunatic with nuclear launch codes or a poorly understood virus or a puddle of water at the top of the stairs (which almost took me out this morning).

[Also Read My Epic: A Brush With Death – Surviving an 800-Foot Fall on Mount Stuart]

When we start reminding ourselves of that knowledge each day and really, really believing it, our lives become more vivid and more meaningful in the same way that a single 5.8 free solo sticks in your head more than a dozen pitches of roped, bolted climbing.

I almost started writing this piece with the title “Why You Should Free Solo,” before realizing that was stupid. Nothing against free soloing, but if you have to put yourself on the edge to see the edge, you’ve missed the point. The edge is always there.

The real challenge is being able to wake up in a soft cozy bed in a nice apartment and slip on your slippers and make some coffee at the beginning of a perfectly normal, average day and say to yourself, “I could die any moment.” Then actually believe it, then accept it, then live like it’s the truth.

At the end of the line, the only common experience we’re going to share is death (I guess you could count birth, but I don’t remember mine and I don’t particularly care to). Death is coming. When I remember that, I find myself making better decisions, responding to difficulties and obstacles more effectively, and enjoying myself more and more each day. Next time you’re on the wall (or lying in your cozy bed) think about it.

Then, of course, keep climbing.

The Choss Pile is published every Thursday.

Owen Clarke, 23, is a climber and writer currently based in a hotel in Colorado. He also writes for The Outdoor Journal. He enjoys Southern sandstone and fish tacos, and is afraid of heights. 

Follow him on Instagram at @opops13.