I’ve never really understood the appeal to mountaineering. I’m afraid of heights to begin with, and then throughout my adulthood there seems to have been a Grave Disaster reported out of the Himalayas every 7 years or so. (I didn’t even realise until Sunday that there had been another horrific catastrophe on Everest earlier this year. That’s how commonplace news of these have gotten. They aren’t even NEWS anymore.) In the past I’ve had thoughts along the lines of “what an irresponsible waste of money and effort and lives, not in that order.”
As I grow older, though, I realise more and more that if I can’t see any sense at all in something I don’t understand then perhaps I truly DON’T understand it and it’s time to take a closer look. So I did what I always do in this circumstance. I asked people who did it–none of whom answered because why would you bother, really, with someone who seems hostile–and then I checked book after book out of the library. I’m now on my third book and while I still am at a loss to understand how a man could leave his pregnant wife or young children to do it, I do understand the appeal overall. There’s a mindset of detail and determination and a will to overcome that drives people to conquer difficulty.
Eerily, though, as I read I began to notice something. Climbers–hailed on every inhabited continent as heroes and humans of exceptional character and fortitude–had something in common with me. With me and many of the people I’ve come to know in the last ten years.
Read a climber discussing the problems of living at high altitude and you’ll see painful joints, wracking cough, insomnia, loss of appetite, lack of coordination, severe body aches. Read a climber talking about the dangers of the Death Zone–where oxygen is so limited above 26,000 feet that your brain turns stupid and your blood to sludge–and you see the exact description of someone suffering from anemia.
People who climb mountains are heroes. They are hailed for accomplishment and given corporate endorsements. Yet there are roughly 10 million people in America alone who live with chronic pain from various disorders. We are labeled “Hypochondriacs”, “Narcissists”, “drama queens”, “Malingerers”. One doctor friend always wonders why people show up in his office and are disappointed when they have no serious diagnosis. How do I explain that when you’re climbing a mountain no one else sees you’d at least like someone to admit that you are scaling something other than air.
It’s been interesting to me to see myself through the lens of the climber. They do what they do for a few months and go home. I do this until I die. I probably won’t get on a Wheaties box in this lifetime. But I’m going to give both the climbers AND my fellow sufferers of chronic pain a bit of a pass. We keep climbing. Because it’s there.