Many a time have I set off for a trip and been told my family and friends to “be safe.” This is usually followed by a silent chuckle to myself and the quick thought that most, gerontologist and in fact, hospital all the trips that I take are not “safe.” In truth, there is no such thing as safety, especially in the mountains. The fact of the matter is that there is no such thing as safety…there is only the reduction of risk. Therein lies the rub, which is how to balance adventure and risk…how to survive the pursuit of glory while not being punished by loss of life and limb.
I just got back from a 10 day Wilderness First Responder course in the Sierra. I learned a great deal about how to increase a person’s chance of survival after they experience a multitude of ailments ranging from a pulled hamstring, to an open chest wound, to full on cardiac arrest. But what I really learned are all the ways in which a person’s body can get messed up. One of our instructors was a badass climber named Jessica (who was supposed to climb Keeler Needle with either Shay or Scotty who she met on summitpost), so many of our scenarios involved climbing injuries. Deck falls with compressed spinal chords, aid gear knocking teeth out, falling rocks taking chunks out of skulls, and so on and so forth. We talk about punishment equaling glory, but we consider punishment to be sore muscles, puking, sleepless nights, ice cold hands and feet…in general, things that we recover from. In reality, the lifestyle that we live deposits us upon death’s doorstep every weekend. We trust the friction between rock and metal to save our lives, that our belayer will react in time, that the weather forecast is correct. We trust the earth not to rumble and send the very rock we are suspended on crumbling to the ground, we trust numbers, letters and decimal points, we trust ourselves. These are all things that have betrayed many an ascentionist and will continue to do so. So why do we do what we do? Why do we flirt with forces greater than mankind? I could spend a great deal of time and words telling you why, bu the truth is that if you really have to ask, then you will never know.
To those of you who have risked your very existence to stand atop a mountain, to complete a hard climb, or even a highball boulder problem, you know that Death’s doorstep is made of pure gold. You know that what lies at that doorstep is an ever-clearer picture of yourself. You know that without risk, the blood never really flows through your veins, and without challenge there is no reward.
For the last 2 weeks I have been living in my car in the Buttermilks. Every morning I have woken up to the sight of early morning light bathing the Eastern Sierra in orange alpenglow. Every morning I considered skipping my daily 8-6 class for a chance to play in the mountains. On my day off, I snowshoed about 3/4 of the way up Basin Mountain. At 8am I set off from the farthest point my car could make it in the Buttermilks, and ended up almost at the top of the eastern chute.
I sunk to my waist in fresh powder with every step, I braved the single digit temps, and the possibility that due to the fact I was alone, injury could mean death, but I never let the reduction of risk escape my mind. I vehemently adhered to my plan which was to turn back by 330pm in order to avoid coming down in the dark. Many would say that I voluntarily stepped upon the doorstep of death, but what they do not realize is that our entire existence is spent in front of that door and that death often does not wait for us to knock.
The point of this post is not to scare anyone, nor is it intended to dissuade any of you from pulling harder (I could not do that even if my life depended on it!). This is merely a call for balance. Make sure that you recognize the forces which we go against in order to attain glory. Reduce risk, pull hard, and never forget that failure is a figment of your imagination, and that the dead achieve nothing.
Photos from my trip can be seen here http://mountainroad.smugmug.com/gallery/4014195#233604756