Down from Everest

Here’s an odd fact about me: I hate people climbing Mt. Everest. I think it’s an arrogant and misguided quest that does nothing but harm to the mountain and is a poor prize even for the successful climber.

But I can’t say I don’t get it. The truth is, I do get the idea of setting an outrageously high goal for oneself. I understand risking everything for some deeply personal, symbolic achievement. I know why people want to do things that will bring them face to face with danger and death, in hopes of getting a whole new lease on life at the end of it all.

So maybe it’s no surpise that I was intermittently picturing myself as an Everest climber for a few years. I saw my attempt to bring my dreams to life as a glorious peak I was doggedly trying to climb. And just like a real climber, when I started getting really lofty, I could feel myself getting higher, weaker, sicker. Lacking proper food and sleep and oxygen, I felt I was losing my judgment, my sense of purpose, my energy, and ultimately, my will to go on.

Maybe I’m naturally more cautious than I give myself credit for, but I always kept in mind the fact that most people who die on Everest, die on the way back down. They’ve failed to plan for what happens after the goal is achieved; they’ve given everything they have for that one moment at the top of the world, and with nothing left to give, they never make it home.

Is it a weakness in me that I never went that far? The truth is, I never made the peak. In fact, I never even figured out what the peak was. Somehow, somewhere along the way, I just felt tired, and lost, and ready to retrace my steps and get back to base camp. I even had a dream that I was on a glacier, high on the mountain, I could see people celebrating on the summit above me… and I didn’t care. I wouldn’t have traded places with them for anything in the world.

I turned around and started trudging back home, feeling very glad and grateful to be returning with the only thing that mattered to start with: my life and all that’s wonderful and worthy in it. I knew I had miles to go before I slept, before I could breathe easily, let alone before I could enjoy the plain comforts of home.

I don’t know what real-world timeline all this thinking might correspond to, but by the time I left Discovery Channel last autumn, I felt I was in darkness and danger on the slippery slope back to base. It was a weary trudge, to be honest; I felt lost and lonesome for a lot of it, and I didn’t always step rightly. But I had a much clearer idea of my goal on the way down, than I had on the way back up: I didn’t want to be somebody’s idea of a hero now, I just wanted to be a human. Down I went.

Last night, I was out for a walk and for some reason, my inner Everest movie started to play in my mind. Never having figured out what my peak was, not sure when exactly I had turned around, not knowing where base camp was or how I’d know when I got there… I’d never been sure I’d know when I was home at last, ready to put the journey behind me and move on. But last night I asked myself, and the answer was clear: I am home.

Alive, intact, and glad to have made it back, I feel oddly satisfied. It seems whatever questions I set out to answer have been dealt with somehow. Except for one, a nagging query that buzzes around my brain like a bold bumblebee: just what the hell was that all about?

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