Guest Column: Clouded Ambition: The Difference Between Living and Dying In The Mountains by Thomas Pollard

Pictures©Thomas Pollard

Suddenly, a burst of wind picked me up and dropped me back down on the snow and rock.  Struggling with zero oxygen flow, at least my instincts told me to reach for the old fixed lines of previous years’ expeditions.  I slid downward a few feet until the rope went tight.  Feelings of frustration overwhelmed me.

“Ahhhhhhhhh!”  I smashed my ice axe into the ice and rock.  With cold indifference, the wind answered and froze my beard.

After a few minutes I stood up and continued upward, the oxygen mask dangling at my neck.  Nothing was going to stop me from taking part in this search.  But, again, a burst of wind knocked me off balance. 

“Time to think.”  But, there wasn’t much happening in there. 

Does the team even know where I am?  I mumbled.

My thoughts flowed like sludge.  I fiddled ineptly with the oxygen apparatus. I looked up longingly to the top of the mountain.  I asked for a sign. 

“God, What now?” 

Suddenly, before my eyes, appeared a beautiful and calming image of my eighteen month old son, Will.  He smiled a peaceful smile.  I reached out to touch him.  It was then that I remembered my promise: Two months earlier I stood over the crib of my sleeping son and swore that I would take no foolish chances on the mountain.

Barely turning to look up again, I prepared to head back down to Camp Five. I’d be sipping hot tea in Advanced Base Camp later that afternoon.  Suddenly, I was able to enjoy the most spectacular views of nearby Cho Oyu, Pumori and even Advanced Base Camp thousands of feet below.  As it turned out, a few hours later Conrad Anker made his historic discovery of the great George Leigh Mallory.   I had to wait fifteen dreadful days for my chance to visit him myself.

Many climbers on Everest and the other 8,000 meter peaks encounter danger far worse than my situation.     However, for those obsessed with the summit, the greatest danger lies within.

At about 24,500 feet on Everest’s North-Northeast Ridge is the body of a climber who died there in 1997.  Going against the urging of those heading down to lower camps before a storm, he pushed ahead.  Reportedly, he spoke only of the summit.  Laboring up the fixed lines above the North Col he sat down to rest.  He never got up again.  When I saw him in 1999 a gorak sat on his skull.  I said a prayer of thanks to him for reminding me that I, too, could succumb to the lure of the mountain.

The greatest rewards in life hold some level of risk: be it financial, emotional, personal or physical.  The idea of making it to the summit of Everest somehow culminates in a sickening turning point.  Despite the obvious signs that death awaits them, as well as the urging of others, they climb upward like zombies.  An oxygen-deprived brain has made them temporarily insane.  And now, their bodies litter the mountain.  If you want some names, just read one of the dozens of books that resulted from the 1996 tragedy.

Our level of ambition, matched against how much risk we are willing to take, helps determine the significance of that goal in our lives.  Everest, for many including myself, holds a high level of significance.  Risks must be taken to summit it.  But, where do we draw the line?

Pete Athans, in discussing death in the mountains, says people refuse to face the reality of their own death.  “…their unwillingness to accept (death’s) inevitability clouds their decisions. Further, western culture has… an extremely narrow vision of success. Western goal-oriented behavior is a remarkable motivator but can lead an individual down a path that inevitably leads to greater goals and the potential for greater achievement. This is wonderful for the golf course and the boardroom, but in the mountaineering high-altitude environment may lead to death or serious injury.”  

Athans knows how difficult it is to turn around.  He’s done it seven times on Everest.  He says that a decision to turn back is easier for someone with a greater sense of security in his/her own identity, even if turning back might make them appear diminished in the eyes of peers.

Maybe the meditation student in search of enlightenment can serve as a good example. Attachment to the desired goal can be your downfall.  By turning away from the summit we show far greater strength.  Non-attachment to the desired goal is a guideline to live by. 

But, let us not misunderstand the lesson: Non-attachment to the desired goal!   It does not mean that we should pursue our goals without focus and determination.  What it does mean is that our health and prosperity doesn’t rely on making it to the top.  Sometimes turning around brings us closer to the goal than fighting our way through a futile situation.

The difference between success and failure on a mountain like Everest – or the difference between living and dying – is rooted in an innate ability to assess the risks at hand.  As it would happen, Everest rewards those willing to take a risk.  But, for those like me who have yet to touch the summit, the greatest reward will have to come from the sense of self that turning around can bring. 

Somewhere up there, lost in the frozen heights of Everest’s vast north face, is another who gave his life, Sandy Irvine.  We found his partner Mallory in 1999.  Clearly the ambition to summit cost them their lives. 

Was it worth it?  Every time I look into the eyes of my son I know in my heart the answer is a resounding no.

Thomas Pollard 4/23/2001

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