This past week has been hard for our family. 3 people were found missing on Mount Hood in Oregon. Two of the three were friends of mine that I have climbed with in the past. Of those two that I knew personally one was found dead while one is still missing. In a time where there is so much hurt and confusion, the inability to help seems unbearable. Upon hearing about the situation, my wife Kami and I instantly thought of driving to Portland or even the mountain. Our goal would be to try and provide support practically and emotionally to friends and the families. Today, I realized I think that my greatest support can be offered in writing my thoughts as a friend and fellow climber of Luke and Katie. This writing is dedicated to the family of Katie, Luke, and Anthony. My hope is that it will provide some comfort and a small respite from the grief you are experiencing.
This past week I was reading a book about K2, the “World’s Most Dangerous Mountain”, by Ed Viesturs. He tells of the “tragedy” that took place in August of 2008 when 13 climbers died in a 36 hour period while attempting to summit the mountain. More interesting than the actual event was the response of the general public. Armchair “experts” who had never spent time in the mountains all had very strong opinions about his very dangerous and seemingly purposeless “sport”. It was interesting reading this book in the dawn of this week’s events. Since Friday there have been so many news articles and comments made about the three climbers. Many critiques and judgments have been made. Some of which even suggest that “they deserve to die” and should be “stuck with the bill” from any rescue attempt. While I do not agree with these viewpoints, I feel like I understand them. As a mountaineer, I have pondered these issues many times sometimes when asked by others, and sometimes just to justify my own actions to myself. In writing this I would like to shed light on my fascination with mountaineering and how my obsession with this “sport” has evolved and survived these questions and critiques. I do this with the hope that it may help surviving family and friends understand and possibly even find purpose in the Mount Hood tragedy.
“Because it is there” are the words that George Mallory used to answer the question “Why do you want to climb Everest?” To most people these three words (considered the most famous words in mountaineering) do not make any sense. In his book “Into Thin Air,” Jon Krakauer describes his experience on the top of Everest in this way:
I hadn’t slept in fifty-seven hours. The only food I’d been able to force down over the preceding three days was a bowl of ramen soup and a handful of peanut M&Ms. Weeks of violent coughing had left me with two separated ribs that made ordinary breathing an excruciating trial. At 29.028 feet up in the troposphere, so little oxygen was reaching my brain that my mental capacity was that of a slow child. Under the circumstances, I was incapable of feeling much of anything except cold and tired.
To most people this condition sounds like hell. To a few of us, it sounds like our haven. My first experience on a glacier above 10,000 feet involved a 60 mph horizontal ice storm in the pitch dark. In that moment I was the most isolated from comfort and safety that I had ever been. I discovered something about myself that day. Something I never would have considered or thought of. In the overwhelming noise of isolation and natural chaos I felt silence and peace. There have been very few times that I can remember being in this state of complete isolation, most of which were for very short periods of time. But it is in the external chaos, it is for me that the peace of the internal and eternal came into focus. To most, this does not make sense. Mountains, ice, storms, and avalanches are dangerous. “Peace” for most comes from a warm room with a fire place and a cup of hot chocolate. While this may represent a peaceful environment it does not bring peace to my deepest being. There is one simple reason for this. For me the biggest area of chaos is not in the outside world, it is within myself. The biggest obstacle have not been in quieting the outside world but it is in quieting “the voices” in my head and the many conflicting feelings in “my soul”.
In all of my travels and experiences nothing has calmed the desires of the flesh for me more than the isolation and exposure that is found in the mountains. Amazingly this peace did not come in spite of the exposure and isolation, it came because of it. Since this realization much of my effort and scheduling is built around getting to the mountains. By definition “exposure” and “isolation” are dangerous things. To an assuming outsider, my actions appear neurotic. But to me, nothing makes more sense. My experiences of meeting God on the mountain have been so life giving that they can can fuel me for months and years by providing perspective, inspiration, and even furthering this desire to encounter the eternal. I am not speaking metaphorically or using exaggeration. This is simply the reality of the worlds that I live in. This is why I prioritize and guard this time.
This has presented some very tough decisions for me in the past. There is a lot of pressure from myself and others to be a “responsible” and “safe” father. This sometimes lies in stark opposition with the feelings that these seemingly “irresponsible” and “dangerous” experiences have made me a better husband and father for my family. I have accepted that there is no easy solution to this conflict. This will always be an on-going process of evaluating and prioritizing for me. In desiring to train my children as responsible and sacrificial it sounds scary to be a martyr for either. In the event of a death it is easier to make quick judgments, but in life these decisions consume me late into many nights.
For some people this issue remains very simple. There is a list of activities to perform, places to go, or prices to pay that are simply unacceptable. To these people the degree to which people are willing to chase “experiences” seem foolish. This is seen very overtly in many of the comments made in regards to published news articles.
These are some anonymous samples:
“I can’t believe people can be so stupid as try to climb Mt. hood this time of year.”
“For people to leave Timberline Lodge at 1:30am without GPS navigational devices to ascend Mt. Hood is ABSOLUTELY IDIOTIC”
“I say they asked for trouble by making such an irresponsible decision.”
You will notice many judgmental words used like “stupid,” “idiotic,” “irresponsible,” and “foolish”. While it may be much easier to draw such a simple lines of distinction they are not necessarily accurate. Everyone goes through different routines to reach experiences that they think will help them to escape the mundane. To some this involves spending a week at a place where there is no running water, for others it means going to a place where a different language is spoken, and still to others it means going to a place where they can feel extravagant. Are these commentators willing to call these things “stupid”, “idiotic”, and “irresponsible”? My guess is no. What differentiates these activities from the others? Well the appearance would suggest that some are “dangerous” and could “cost” you your life. While I do not disagree, I think we must be reminded that people give their life for something every day. Not necessarily in a life or death sense, but everyday we wake up for something. For many it is work or school. For others it is relationships. But everyone has inside them a desire for meaning and purpose that we, quite literally, give our lives for. For climbers, this is why we go to the mountains. Usually, there is no money or honor waiting for us at the top but that is that is ok. Because we climb for one simple reason: Whatever it is that we experience in “the mountains” , is worth the risk that it takes for us to get there. When we go there we do not go there for safety. In fact, quite the opposite. So, suggesting it as “idiotic” to not take a gps, a beacon, a propane heater, or any other number of safety or comfort tools would be like asking someone who enjoys the very act of swimming why the don’t just take a boat? It just shows a misunderstanding of goals. For most mountaineers safety is a necessary evil. It is a tool that we use to reach our goals but never the goal itself.
What would it look like to have safety as your goal? If we are going to consider it “stupid”, “idiotic”, or “foolish” to expose your your life to “dangerous” situations then we must also be willing to explain and defend the opposite. Would these commentators it smart or responsible for one to stay at home and guard themselves from any physical or emotional danger? While this sounds extreme, we all have different standards about what we are willing to endure to experience life. Everyday we open ourselves up to the risks. This could come in the form of leaving your house, applying for a job, or being vulnerable in a relationship. What would it look like to make your life about protecting yourself from these “dangers”? It serves as a reminder to me that while protection and safety make great tools they tend to make a very for a very ill-suited purpose. In this sense the reason why Luke, Katie, Anthony and I climb mountains is no different than why many people get a degree, or create art, or take a risk in a relationship.
But in any pursuit there are lines and there is wisdom. In my own pursuit of mountaineering I have a very rigid code that has evolved which I believe protects me from, what I consider, “unnecessary” risk. But to call someone “stupid” for pursuing different goals than my own enters into territory that goes beyond “common sense”. It goes into a realm of philosophy and even spirituality. I know I have seen my own lines change overnight. Even hearing news of Luke’s death brought tears to my eyes and made me wonder if I could ever climb again. Thoughts flooded me of my first times climbing and practices that I would never repeat now. These changes have come with my education but much of it has come as my values and priorities have shifted and matured. I hope in 10 years I will look back with an evolved code of purpose and “safety” based upon more mature priorities.
While I have known both the Nolan and Gullberg families for more than 10 years, and have been to the summit of Mount Hood with both Katie and Luke I will not claim to fully know why each of them climb. But I have an idea, because I know why I climb. And I don’t think that it’s that different from why many people do a lot of other things. At the end of the day we think it is worth it. In my short life I have been to many countries and continents. But I have never met God in any place more consistently than in the mountains. Whether or not they realized it, my guess is that Katie, Luke, and Anthony were on Mount Hood to do the same thing. To that degree I hope they were successful. Because if they were, there can be no greater calling or evaluation for success. It is easy for me to sit in my chair at home and think about what I would do differently and what they could have done differently, but in the end I have one wish for them: that they met God on the Mountain in in all of their moments of Life. And that they will fully meet God in beyond the mountain and the moments in death.
To the Nolans, Gullbergs, and Viettis: Our hopes and prayers are with you. May we keep our eyes to the hills. That is where our Help comes from.
Thanks to Matt H. for helping edit. Sorry for my terrible writing. It’s so much clearer in my head and heart.