As I write this, I am one week out from leaving Denver and heading to Anchorage, Alaska. From there, weather permitting, I’m one more day away from landing on the Kahiltna Glacier and beginning my 13,000 foot ascent (~7000’ to ~20,000’) up the highest mountain in North America.
Also as I write this, there are 1033 climbers registered to attempt Denali in 2015. Currently 430 climbers are on the mountain; 177 of those1033 climbers have completed their climbing activities for the season. A whopping 12 have made the summit. That’s a success rate of 7 percent. Now, it’s early in the season, and typically Denali sees about a 50 percent success rate; so I expect those numbers to improve. However, the weather has been unusually cold – even for 20,000’ high near the Arctic Circle. Windchills on the summit have been approaching (and sometimes passing) -50 degrees. Today’s windchill will be around -25 degrees, and I personally know of at least two teams heading to the summit, as it is still a better weather window than they’ve had in a while.
I must admit that upon learning the climbing and weather statistics, I got a bit nervous.
But, despite it all, in a week I will board a plane and head towards the Arctic Circle. And a day later, I will climb aboard yet another plane and land on a “runway” pocked with crevasses so that I can punish my body by hauling myself and my body weight, again, worth of food, fuel, and gear for three weeks in an attempt to gain more vertical than one would gain climbing Everest.
Speaking of Everest, George Mallory, when asked why he choose to climb the mountain either famously or apocryphally (depending upon who you ask) said, “Because it’s there.” Jon Krakauer in his book Into Thin Air, I think, likened the interminable suffering of climbing a mountain like Everest to an act of devotion or penance or pilgrimage, stating, “…it struck me that most of us were probably seeking, above all else, something like a state of grace.”
While I subscribe to something more of the later than the former in my personal sentiments, the truth is that climbing is not done only for reasons to be celebrated. The more I ponder the question, “Why do I climb?” the more I am led to what was probably always the inevitable conclusion: that the answer is as complex as I am; the answer is filled with my own most ennobling traits as well as my most inglorious longings. It seems that climbing, as with any microcosm of life, is a representation of the human experience, both the good and the bad. In the end, I find that climbing is the entirety of my human experience condensed down into a most assuring (or unnerving) finite length of time. It is in this confrontation with self, and the internal battle between our finest and our worst selves, that I grow from climbing.
While it is tempting to write a sycophantic defense of climbing, any such endeavor would be disingenuous. I climb because as I plan the climb, execute the climb, and learn from the climb, the demons of my nature are so close to the angels. There is selfishness in it, yet there is also some difficult-to-qualify benefits; and it is not just me who seems to see it; after all, my wife is letting me take on this Denali endeavor.
When climbing, the world is at once incredibly expansive and exceptionally reductionist. The size of the mountain, the impersonal destructiveness of nature, and the inability to mitigate all of the risk combine to remind you of just how small and insignificant you are. At the same time, an incredible clarity of focus sets in as, literally, your life depends upon it. Your challenge and your environment are enormous. However, your world can be reduced to the roughly six square feet your body currently occupies as you consider this hand hold and that foothold, or this placement of your ice ax, or that snow perch to kick in your crampon. Mountaineers are said to need to ‘ask the mountain for permission to climb, and must listen intently to the answer.’ To me, this is why: the power of the mountain and your insignificance compared to it, coupled with the incredible focus you place on areas of snow, ice, and rock that are often less than a square inch, are a form of conversation between you and the mountain. Each movement is an asking of permission. Each stretch to climb higher assumes you listened intently to the reply.
So in this sense, I commune with the mountain, engaged in a conversation about my abilities and shortcomings. This “conversation with nature” makes me feel as if I’m a part of something much larger than myself. While this is, of course, literally true, it is the spiritual fulfillment of actively engaging nature that calls to me.
I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the investment I make in – simply – the views. I’m constantly astounded by the scenery. There is a bit of an explorer’s passion in me, and while I know that I probably have not stepped a foot on any new ground in Colorado or my other excursions, I am keenly aware that I’m witnessing vistas that relatively few people have enjoyed. Most people don’t climb. Therefore, most people haven’t been located in the places I’ve been to see some of the things I’ve seen. As I get older, I find more and more that the experiences I gather provide the most profound meaning in my life. And knowing that some of my experiences are rather rare is incredibly enriching.
Of course, there is an element of pride in seeking this rarity. I don’t find anything particularly dangerous about pride. A person should take pride in his or her endeavors. However, pride can easily devolve into vanity. My internal struggle to take, on the positive side, pride of ownership in my own life while avoiding the negative vanity and accompanying feelings of exceptionalism, also contributes to my personal growth.
Still, there is no need to go climbing to learn these lessons. I think it is from this reality that Lionel Terray – even while actively shaping the first forays into the world of extreme altitude alpinism – noted he and his cadre were “Conquistadors of the Useless.” I’m not curing cancer, ending hunger, or brokering peace, no matter how hard I try to rationalize my sojourns into the mountains.
I started this post discussing the sobering statistics currently coming from Denali and the unease and – admittedly – the fear that has created. Maybe most of my growth through climbing comes from my confrontation with fear. As Sir Edmund Hillary said, “It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.”
With pack dangling out over the void as I build an anchor to relieve the fatigue that is often as much mental and emotional as it is physical, I force myself to concentrate.
I don’t believe you ever truly overcome fear. I think you either use that energy to industrious purpose or you allow that energy to create chaos around you. This is a rare form of training: practicing the skill of harnessing fear into a productive path rather than letting it become a barrier between you and your goal.
I can recall my most fearful moments have not been while moving on the mountain route at all, but rather in camp. In those instances when my camp is cut off from the outside world by the most difficult portion of the route, that is when I have felt the most fear. It is one thing to have the crux of the route in front of you, between you and the summit. There is always the possibility that it will prove to be too much, too difficult. You can always turn around. However, in these instances when I am separated from the rest of the world by the crux, that the hardest part of the climb must be done in reverse in order for me to get home, in those moments I have truly experienced fear. And it is these moments that push me to harness fear. I replay the route in my head, over and over, devising the plan that will get me to safety. And I learn something about myself.
It is this battle with fear, I think, that has maybe produced the only truly worthy outcome I have been able to find from all this climbing business. Colorado author Marilyn Ferguson perhaps best boiled it down to its essence: “Ultimately we know deeply that the other side of every fear is freedom.”
More to come from Denali.
And until next time, climb high and climb safely,