Back on the Horse
mountain climb? And another one above 20,000' at that! Why? You had
a hard time on Everest in 2003. Haven't you had enough with high altitude?
"What am I doing here?" I asked myself with anger and judgment in my voice. I leaned on my right knee again and coughed so hard my ribs felt as if they were breaking. As I gasped for air, I looked around the cold, white inhuman expanse of snow and ice on the Lhotse face.
My last expedition on Everest in 2003 was hard. No, it was not hard - it was almost impossible. My Guide turned on me just when I needed him. The weather toyed with us like a piece of paper in a field. And my body just said no.
I pushed as hard up as I could but my body kept saying down. I fought. I did not listen. I was stubborn. Also, I listened carefully. I was determined. I was focused. I lived.
As I left the Khumbu that May, my emotions ran the course. "This was probably it", I told myself. A short and ambitious career in mountain climbing that started late and was ending on time. I even wrote that I would probably never return to Everest but that I still wanted to climb. Was I being honest with myself? What had I learned?
You have to want to climb big mountains. It hurts. It is harsh. It tests your very essence. There are a hundred reasons to stop and very few to keep going. If you have one friend and one family member who truly understand, you are lucky.
So what to do?
Something deep inside me cries out for the mountains. When I wake up at night and cannot fall back to sleep I think about those times in my sleeping bag in the tent with the wind howling outside. My nose so cold it hurts to wipe it. My breath visible as I struggle to get air into my lungs. My back aching from the load of the pack I carried that day. Soon I gently fall back asleep in the comfort of living my life.
When I look out my window and see my mountains, I look for peaks and ridges. I look for routes. I look for avalanche danger. I look for climbers. I look for myself. The mountains call out to me like a lighthouse bell to a ship in the fog.
I want to go back. I need to go back.
The year after Everest was a tough year. My job went from the best ever to the worst ever. Changes happened beyond my control. I struggled to stay in the game. Every political, intellectual and vocational skill was tested over and over. Peers became enemies. Old competitors became allies. I became focused on my work quelling any thoughts of high mountains.
But the call was still there. Not having the time, money or desire to go high, I put together a team of eight to attempt Mt. Rainier. A worthy Hill, it is labeled the most difficult montain in the lower 48. My team was not experienced but they wanted it badly.
Spread over many states and two countries we trained and bonded in the virtual world of the Internet. When we came together last July at the foot of the volcano, we were ready. Everyone had put their work in and now it was time to test ourselves.
As I put on my pack and left the safety of the parking lot, my thoughts went to the Lhotse face 14 months ago. What had I learned? How would I do this time? Casting doubts aside, I stepped onto the snow and my essence reminded me of why I was here.
Our team did well. Very well in fact. Everyone made it to the top and back home safely. Confidence swelled, bonds were solidified and seeds were planted.
Yet the call remains deep inside of me. Can I go above 8,000 meters again? Do I have the physical strength? Do I have the mountains Gods with me? Do I have the character? Do I have the desire?
Questions without answers are like maps without legends. It is easy to sit back and wonder. It is hard go looking for answers.
So off I go. Not to the top of the world. Not to 8,000 meters. But to another formable Hill that will provide a hint to my questions.
Aconcagua stands proudly on the edge of the Andes in South America. 22,841 feet high, it is the highest mountain outside the Himalayas. Some routes are simple walks, other are demanding of all mountaineering skills. I will be climbing the Polish Direct route, a nice mix of rock, snow and ice. It is a "technical" climb. My crampons will be on my boots, my ice axe in my hand. My body will be covered in down, my face with wool.
I am not going trying to prove anything to anyone, including myself. I am going to breath the air at 20,000 feet, feel the snow under my boots, see my fellow climbers push themselves and to do my best.
So, I will push myself once again. I will breathe so hard it hurts. My back will ache and my fingers go numb. I will lose weight and the sun will burn my skin.
And I will be home.