Saturday, March 8, 2014


INTRODUCTION -- THE JOURNEY BEGINS "Grandpa, please write a book about your climbs in the Andes. I would like to read about your adventures." Why climb mountains? Well, why any inspiration? Why did the early explorers sail the vastness of the oceans? Why did we explore the moon? Is it not in touching the unknown that we find our true selves? CHAPTER 1 -- NEVADO OJOS DEL SALADO, CHILE: GHOSTS OF THE CONQUISTADORS When James crosses the top of a rock the size of a small car, the monster shudders ever so slightly but remains in place. I know this because I stand directly underneath him, some twenty feet below, and for seconds I freeze to the spot not knowing what I should do, pee or flee. ---- I see the summit now and know we are almost there. “Judy, what are you doing here?” I halt in puzzlement. Judy? What? I turn to confront what must be a new addition to our climbing team. “What’d you say?” James points to a nearby boulder. “That’s my sister sitting on that rock. What’s she doing here?” My altitude haze disappears in an instant. James is hallucinating! CHAPTER 2 -- MONTE PISSIS, ARGENTINA: HIGH WINDS FROM TARTARUS I am not afraid. I know this because I am certain not to see another sunrise, and this bestows a measure of stoic calm. ---- Our world is a vast manuscript, and those who do not travel read but a sheet. CHAPTER 3 -- LLULLAILLACO, CHILE: A CASE OF MISTAKEN IDENTITY The sky here is absent those silver needles that weave our world together. ---- Altitude has a perfidious way of robbing me of my mental abilities when I don’t even know my pocket is being picked. CHAPTER 4 -- CLOSING THE CIRCLE ON LLULLAILLACO, CHILE Still, at times my actions come too close to being carelessly haphazard about it, as a drunk is careless, acting as though I have no regard for life, not understanding in an hour what any sane person knows in a minute. ---- As for the missing miner, is his body still out there somewhere? Most likely. Perhaps he became lost and, at the end of his strength, sank to the earth and cloaked himself in dreams and snow. An entire, unknown world died with him. Who could know his failures, his fears, his loves, his deepest thoughts, his triumphs? CHAPTER 5 -- NEVADO TRES CRUCES, CHILE: THE CRACKING OF THE WILL I do not believe in miracles. Yet, my solo life in the mountains has been one extended miracle, for I have survived some dangerous moments among them. This is necessary bravado. I must believe fervently in myself or I shall perish amongst the high peaks. ---- I try again to make that first step forward. But my leg lacks life, and repeated attempts at movement meet repeated resistance. It is immovable, as a sturdy tree rooted in the earth is immovable. The summit is mine. The weather promises success. The moment is propitious. I try again. I order it to move! But my leg remains firmly in place. I’m unable to control the most basic of human functions. CHAPTER 6 -- INTERLUDE: CLIENTS Today I believe he was the luckiest of men that day. This incident closed out my guiding career. I found leading others on a big mountain too stressful. And who needs that kind of tension at 57 years of age? CHAPTER 7: MONTE PISSIS, ARGENTINA: THE HAND OF GOD Perhaps this is not the place for me, a place where I shall have to pay for the things I’ve done as well as for the things I haven’t done, a crazy kind of place turned upside down where they kill you as a criminal or they kill you as a saint. ---- It’s a whiteout! The word itself is enough to strike sheer, unadulterated terror in the heart and soul of any high altitude climber. Of all the words in all the dictionaries in all the libraries in all the world, this is the most dreaded, the most feared, the most frightening for me, and I suppress a momentary urge to pass water. ---- It remains for me to marvel that I still breathe. And I reflect that we either live and die by accident or we live and die by plan. Some say that we shall never know and that we are like small bugs that children kill on a summer afternoon. But some say, to the contrary, that even the sparrow does not fly without a gentle push from the Hand of God. CHAPTER 8 -- LLULLAILLACO, CHILE: HOW DID THOSE GUYS DO IT, ANYWAY? I’m the only one to have ever seen these exact stones and probably the only one who ever will. The real proof of their existence is my viewing them, for this grants them life. If man is the measure of all things, then they do not exist to the rest of mankind. ---- My body slumps next to them, weary beyond the knowing, exulting as an explorer entranced by an unexpected discovery exults. I wonder, how did those guys do it, anyway? How could they do it, without stoves, warm clothes, sturdy tents, without plastic boots, warm socks, warm gloves, without freeze-dried meals, dark glasses, warm sleeping bags, and without . . . . cigarettes? CHAPTER 9 -- TRES CRUCES, CHILE: CLIMBING WITH FRIENDS “I saw the most amazing thing and have a photo to prove it.” “Yeah, what’s that?” “A guanador. My first sighting.” I cannot disguise my enthusiasm and happiness at my incredible fortune. “A what?” “A guanador. They’re a cross between a guanaco and a condor. They’re very shy, so to get a picture is quite a feat. They’re akin to the jackalopes out in Arizona. You know, seldom seen, and then only on postcards.” Chuck looks at Dan for several seconds. It takes time until things sink in, since their headaches are a distraction; still, they eventually manage wan smiles. “Bob, if you have pictures of this creature in that camera of yours, you’d better protect it from me the rest of the trip. It’s priceless!” ---- In an existential way, I feel the mountain’s pleasure at my return. My presence here lends a price to the sand, a value known only to the mountain and to me. CHAPTER 10 --TRES CRUCES, CHILE: THE LAST CLIMB The passersby know nothing of my coming climb or of my previous forays upon their sacred peaks and would have given them scant recognition if they had known. To move among these strangers with the wonderful knowledge of my Andean intent fills me with a vague pride. I seem a lonesome sentinel guarding a favored treasure, though the treasure seems valuable only to me. ---- Welcome to old age, macho man! ---- They say that when one dreams it can last but seconds. But in those seconds one can live a lifetime. We can live and we can dream, and who is to say which is the greater reality, the one we know or the one we imagine? REFLECTIONS: THE JOURNEY ENDS My climbs made me interesting to myself. Solo mountaineering made me different from others and satisfied my desire for uniqueness from the ordinary living of the rest of my life. My understanding was that I needed this individuality more than I needed friends. ---- So for me, death holds no terror. And this knowledge, learned during my time amongst the great peaks, permitted me to see that it is better to attain the truth of self by not locating it while seeking it than by deciding not to seek it and never finding it.

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