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INTRODUCTION -- THE JOURNEY BEGINS
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
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
“Yeah, what’s that?”
“A guanador. My first sighting.” I cannot disguise
my enthusiasm and happiness at my incredible fortune.
“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.