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Everest 2003: Charlie Wittmack
Dispatch 17


(Transcribed from a satellite phone voice message received Monday, April 14, 2003, 11:28 PM CDT) 

A Mother’s Day reflection - “How do we tell our mothers that we are going to climb Mt. Everest?” 

Dr. Huss arrived at Base Camp two days ago and I stopped in to say hello yesterday morning. After catching up on current events, I asked him if Brian O’Connor arrived, and if so, may I have an introduction?  Brian, it turned out was not as anxious to meet me.  The story began several months ago, half a world away.

Last November I attended a lecture at the Chevy Chase Club in Washington, D.C. with my aunt. The speaker was Dr. Michael Wiedman, of the Harvard Medical School’s Department of Ophthalmology. Dr. Wiedman, an Everest vet, was speaking on high altitude physiology and the predictive benefit of retinal hemorrhaging on high altitude edema.  After the lecture I went to introduce myself, and after discussing the lecture, I realized that Dr. Wiedman was sitting next to Supreme Court Justice, Sandra Day O’Connor.

As coincidence would have it, I had just learned that Justice O’Connor’s son, Brian, was also planning a climb of Mt. Everest as at that time we were negotiating to become members of the same team.  Thinking that this may be my golden opportunity to fast-track from a D.C. legal assistant to a seat on the high court, I introduced myself and said “Justice O’Conner, I understand that your son, Brian, is also planning a climb of Mt. Everest and it appears we may be climbing on the same team.”

Those present acted in great surprise, including Dr. Wiedman.  “Perhaps, Justice O’Connor’s modesty prevented her from sharing her son’s plans,” I thought.

Yesterday, after finally meeting Brian, I shared this story with him. “So you’re the one that told my mom that I was going to climb Mt. Everest,” he responded.  “Oh, no!” I thought.  After clearing my throat I realized that I had broken the cardinal rule, “Never, ever, discuss an expedition with another climber’s mother!”

As it turned out, my conversation with Justice O’Connor was the first news that she heard of her son’s plans. As my clerkship vanished before my eyes, I withdrew from the dining tent and went to consider my falling, in solitude.

“Why do climbers struggle so much with telling their mothers about their expedition,” I wondered.

I laughed as I considered my own life and the reputation I had duly won among my climbing partners.  In planning my various expeditions, as the routes increased in severity and scope, someone, usually Clint, would ask, “So have you told your mother, yet?” They all knew that to be the final, most important negotiation only after which visas, air tickets, immunizations were to be obtained.

In the annals of mountaineering history the presence of mothers is awkwardly absent. How did Reinhold Messner’s mother respond to his plans to be the first to attempt Everest without Oxygen?  What about all those historic journals.  We hear plenty of the girl friends but nothing of dear ole mom. Perhaps we know as climbers that mothers are like the Heel of Achilles, the one weakness in the impenetrable armor that allows us to reach so far in the pursuit of odd dreams.  

So today I thank my mother, who in this case was not the last to know. I fact, she was near the first. Always to be found in the front row of any lecture, with a tear in her eye by the close.  It was only two weeks before the departure that the tear turned to a smile and she that nodded in agreement. I knew it was time to take off.

(Tomorrow we begin our longest acclimatization climb on the mountain as we hope to reach Camp Three while spending ten days in the high camps.)

Dispatches

 





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