I am in the midst of reading Into Thin Air and, hence, in the midst of dreaming of big challenging things. Things like climbing Everest. A few years ago I read Into the Wild and loved it but, oh gosh, this is even better. If you don't know, Into Thin Air is written by mountaineer and adventure writer, Jon Krakauer about his successful attempt at climbing Everest in 1996 and his witnessing of of the most notorious and deadly storms in history on this highest peak on earth. When I started reading, I spent most of my time trying to wrap my head around why people attempt to conquer this peak, knowing all the dangers involved. I felt for the wives and mothers who spent two months wondering if they would ever see their lovers and husbands again. I wondered how Rob Hall, the guide of Krakauer's tour, could ever leave home to risk his life so blatantly while his wife stayed home carrying his child in her womb. But the more I read, the more a little fire in me burns to experience what these climbers did in 96 and what others like them do every subsequent spring. These mountain climbers, men and women alike, are satisfying urges that have gnawed at them for years. I might be so judgmental as to say that people who are going to devote their lives to such a life threatening cause shouldn't take on the responsibility of having kids that they'll need to be there for day in and day out, though I don't even really want to dabble in what controversy that might cause. But I will never say or believe that there is any reason these people, who feel the call of Everest, should not heed that call. This whole thing makes me think about my conversations with Ben on Ragbrai after Stephen Briggs passed away, in which he speculated at whether it is worth it to participate in something so life-threatening. But these people climb Everest knowing the dangers because, for them, there is no other way. Life is too short not to follow your heart and heed the call of the mountain. Or the open road. Or the stage or the blank page or whatever it is that gnaws at you. That is why Erik shoots films from ice falls and nobody's fears can hold him back. Oh yeah and Erik interviewed Krakauer earlier this year! What an appropriate time to incorporate him in this blog.
I wish I could find the exact quote because it is so good but it could take me hours so I'll paraphrase. At one point, Krakauer explains the difference between mountaineering and other extreme sports like skydiving and driving motorcycles (I know motorcycling is not an extreme sport but it's extreme). While mountaineering brings the same thrill as these things, the difference comes in the spiritual aspect of the climb. There is a rare connection and partnership with the earth (and whatever spiritual being one may believe in) that one feels on a mountain and nowhere else. I have to argue that I can feel a peace with the earth when I'm on a bike and surrounded by open spaces or trees or sunshine or rain. But when I ride I generally do so on a path that is made by humans or on roads with cars or by cornfields that are made to feed cows that will eventually feed me. So I can only imagine the extent to which this peace must intensify on places like everest or k2 or mckinley.
There is a point to all this. The point is that you should read this book. And that it has inspired me to try my hand at a little rock climbing. I have done some in my day but nothing like what I'll need to do to prepare for my Everest expedition. I don't think my bouldering experience in The Gainesville Rock Gym is going to cut it.
What? Did she say Everest expedition? Yes, I did. I found this website www.acethehimalaya.com advertising "Ace Himalaya", an organization that offers 16-day climbing trips from Kathmandu to Everest Base Camp and back. This may seem like a cop-out but it's not. I don't want to potentially become part of such a glaring statistic, one that cites approximately one death for every four climbers who reached the summit of Everest between 1921 and 1996. But these pages have come alive in me and that little fire says I have to at least see this mountain before I die. And if I'm going to pay thousands of dollars to fly across the world to see the damn thing, why not at least set foot on a part of it that is rationally reachable. And, while climbing to base camp is nothing like ascending 3 miles straight up into the troposphere, it is no small feat as far as the atmosphere is concerned. It is nearly 20,000 feet above sea level, higher than Jon Krakauer had ever previously been in his 34 years of climbing. It may take a while to train and to save the money. And the dream may fade when I put this book down and am not reminded daily of how spectacular such and experience would be. But I just hope the dream doesn't die. I sincerely want to do this in my life and would like to make it a priority in the next 17 years. After all, according to Krakauer, I already rank among the climbing elite in which, "getting to the top of any given mountain was considered much less important than how one got there: prestige was earned by tackling the most unforgiving routes with minimal equipment, in the boldest style imaginable. Nobady was admired more than so-called free soloists: visionaries who ascended alone, without rope or hardware."
Obviously I did not ascend alone, my friend Stephen, who had done this before, was on the ground taking the pictures. Obviously this was not a mountain, just a big high cliff along the potomac river. And obviously, I didn't realize how high it was until I got to the top and looked down. Or until every subsequent time I've been by it and been shocked that I did something so dangerous. But in that five minutes that I ascended the cliff, sans rope or harness, I maybe, just maybe, had the potential to be one of these highly-admired free soloists. I was not, however, highly admired by Josh who's first reaction to these pictures was "How could you not have thought to call me to say goodbye?". And I probably won't be admired by my mom who has never seen these pictures before. I won't do it again, or anything more dangerous but I did it and it felt good. And I will climb to base camp and it will feel even better. Who wants to come with me?