“Write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” – Ernest Hemingway
Most writing, especially that by mountaineers, fails to follow this simple mantra. The essence of an experience is often lost somewhere between the rampant self-delusion, passive-aggressive posturing and bleeding need for external reinforcement. That’s why the question of “why we climb” is often impossible to answer. I’m not trying to point fingers. I am as guilty as any, if not a chief offender.
My goal for this blog post is to write one true sentence. And then another. And then maybe a couple more.
Sam and I leave tomorrow for a week in the Pacific Northwest. I’m more nervous than I’ve ever been before a climbing trip. Neither of the routes we’re planning is particularly harrowing, but compared with my past resume, they’ll rank among the toughest of my life. The difference between those previous endeavors and the present is that I now have something to lose. For the first time, I’m truly happy — happy enough to have an eye toward the future.
I have the love and support of a woman who makes me smile every hour of every day, even when she’s being purposely difficult; a dog that makes me feel like the center of a universe; dozens of great friends who could keep me partying eight nights a week if I let them; a relationship with my parents that’s finally starting to make me feel like a respectable adult; two great jobs and a million other positive influences.
I used to climb to fill a hole in my being. I craved respect. I needed to prove to myself and others what I was worth. I wanted girls to swoon over me and men to want to be me. It’s a harsh self-critique, but it’s real. A few true sentences. I suspect I’m far from the only climber who’s had such a mindset.
I don’t need that anymore. Somewhere over the past year, I moved past it. I view life through a new filter.
The deaths of those six climbers on Liberty Ridge in early June hit home like never before. I found myself reading all about them, browsing their Facebook pages, peering through a partially cracked window into the world they left behind. They not only lost their lives, but shattered dozens that surrounded them. For what?
Death in climbing has touched me more than most. I’ve seen what it does to families, and I’ve personally experienced the heartbreak of lost friends. Loved ones can display incredible strength, picking up the pieces and stitching their wounds as best they can, but no one can fully recover from such trauma. The thought of my family going through that makes me sick.
The Adams Glacier, and to a lesser extent the Kautz Glacier, include sections where we’ll be sticking our necks out. No matter the skill or speed we possess, if a block of ice breaks away at the wrong time, it’s curtains. For months I’ve struggled with this thought. If that’s the case, why bother at all? What draws the human spirit to deadly challenges?
Life contains a surplus of everyday joys: season finales, family get-togethers, boozy weekends, promotions, vacations, kisses, hugs, laughs. I can’t speak for anyone but myself, but forays into the mountains amplify the feelings associated with these wonderful moments a hundredfold. It’s like taking an old black-and-white photograph and colorizing it. From atop a lofty mountain summit, especially one that was hard-won, you view not only the endless countryside but also the depths of the human experience. You can see forever, including inward.
I’m nervous. It’s a familiar feeling that will fall away as soon as Sam and I are tied into a rope, staring up the 5,000-foot icefall that is the Adams Glacier. With every swing of the ax, kick of the feet and friendly joke, the world will become more colorful.
We are prepared, we are able and — I’ve failed to mention through all this — extremely excited. It’s going to be the trip of a lifetime. Something to tell the grandkids about. Feeling a little anxious isn’t a bad thing; it’s when you get too cocky that you get into trouble. Time to go to work.