I’m not sure how many books about polar exploring and mountaineering disasters a person who has spent the majority of her life in sub-tropical climates necessarily needs to read. Whatever that number is, I’ve exceeded it. If you’re looking for specifics, my closest estimate is that I’ve read approximately all of them.
Every adventurer who perished of scurvy in search of the Northwest Passage, every doomed polar explorer huddling next to a crevasse while eating his own boots, every mountaineer who’s ever wielded an ice axe on Everest—they have all been my friends, my foes, and my constant companions for the last decade.
I never intended to fall so deeply down the windswept rabbit hole, but sometimes your reading obsessions choose you.
It all started when I picked up a copy of Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air. Having read some of Krakauer’s work previously, I’d shown up for the author, not the topic.
That soon changed.
My fascination with these stories quickly spiraled out of control. There’s something magical about escaping Florida summers—both mentally and physically—by cranking down the A/C, shrugging on a hoodie, and diving into books with titles like In the Land of White Death and Buried in the Sky.
With the winds of Everest howling across the wrinkles of my brain, it was easier to forget that afternoon temperatures had recently soared so high they’d melted the plastic liner of my car’s cup holder.
These books made me forget all that, and I loved them for it. But the more I read, the more erratic my emotional responses became. One minute, I’d be conducting single-armed sweeps across library shelves and leveraging the power of interlibrary loans to get my hands on David Roberts’s Alone on the Ice. The next, I’d find myself in fits of frustration over the nonsensical choices the central figures make: starvation, mutiny, sunk cost fallacy, oxygen deprivation, overconfidence, altitude sickness, mania! I could barely restrain myself from yelling directly into the pages: “Just turn around! No one is making you do this! Go home, kiss your wife, and plant potatoes!”
Nobody listened. Particularly not Laurence Oates, who in March of 1912, walked out of his tent into a blizzard to sacrifice himself for his companions. “I am just going outside,” he told them, pausing at the tent flap, “and may be some time.”
Cut to: me sobbing alone in my Florida apartment under the cold comfort of my air conditioning vent, smothering my shivers with a soft fleece throw.
Into the Blue
What bothered me about many of these stories—particularly the more recent ones—were the motivations of the central figures. Trekking to the South Pole, searching for the Northwest Passage, and attempting to summit Everest were about exploration. But Roald Amundsen had traversed the Northwest Passage by 1905, and by 1911, he’d reached the South Pole. In 1953, Sir Edmund Hilary and Sherpa mountaineer Tenzing Norgay summited Everest.
But people just keep climbing Everest—and why? Because it’s there?
For me, that’s not good enough.
Back to Base
On Everest, there are days no one should even consider leaving base camp. That’s clear to anyone who knows anything about the unpredictable nature of the elements at those elevations. And yet what we can recognize so clearly in the lives of others we sometimes fail to see in ourselves.
Mid-December last year, I contracted Covid-19. While there’s never a convenient time for such a virus, the timing of my illness was especially inauspicious. Having just chosen a new place to live and planned to move in early January, I spent my last few weeks at my then-home curled on my side in a pathetic ball, coughing into a succession of balled-up tissues and obsessively checking my pulse-ox levels to ensure I didn’t have to go to the hospital.
Hard on the heels of a Christmas and New Year’s alone in quarantine, still suffering bone-deep fatigue and a Covid cough, I packed up all my earthly belongings and moved several states away to live in the mountains.
Settled in my cabin, I was determined to bounce back, but my body wouldn’t cooperate. This frustrated me. It wasn’t the way things were supposed to go. Pre-Covid, I’d been fit and healthy. A marathoner, in fact. The kind of person who’s supposed to rally. Who’s trained to push her body through weariness and find a second wind.
“Take your time,” family and friends told me. “It’s okay to rest.” But it wasn’t—not to me. I’d already lost too much time. My entire life had been blown off course, and the only way I’d get back on track was to push harder. To prove I was getting better. That I felt fine. Rest was for the weak, which I clearly wasn’t. Weak people don’t go on six-mile winter hikes, I told myself, strapping on my backpack and tucking wisps of hair under my fleece ear-warming band. This’ll show ‘em!
Show—what? And to whom?
Nobody was asking me to prove anything.
Nobody but me.
Quitting on Everest
I’ll never climb Everest. Never ever. The cost is too high, both physically and financially, and the return too nebulous.
“I see no need to do something so extreme just to prove myself,” I say smugly.
Yet lest I rise too high on my Hindenburg of hubris, the tiny voice in the back of my mind—the honest one that seems to be in cahoots with the Holy Spirit—forces me to acknowledge the truth. I’m prone to creating my own Everests.
While there have been times when pushing myself brought rewarding and satisfying results, there have also been times when I’ve pushed myself in unhealthy ways because I hoped that this one accomplishment might finally prove an esoteric point about my worth, my value, or my perceived strength and determination.
But my worth does not lie in what I do or do not accomplish.
I must learn to stop climbing Everest. To live more purposefully in my present reality. Dig my toes into the soil where I’m rooted right now.
Maybe plant potatoes.
Cover image by Fallon Michael.