Loss of Life on Everest and the Scaling of Summits
BY DAVID S. LEWIS
I had planned to meet Conrad Anker at Langhor Park in Bozeman. We were to shoot photos at the climbing boulder, which he helped install so people might gain the sense of accomplishment that comes with achieving higher ground (he helped raise funds for a boulder to be built in Livingston, too). It was a dark, rainy Thursday morning in April when we spoke on the phone, coming down “like cats and dogs,” he said, and the disheartening weather foreshadowed news of a tragedy.
I sat in my car, in the garage with the engine running, discussing our change of plans—we would meet at Conrad’s home in Bozeman.
“I’m dealing with this Everest mess,” he said, referring to his attempt to get on with his day in the face of—what? I had not heard the news.
Signing off, I googled Everest, and the headline came up immediately: Mount Everest Avalanche Kills 13 Sherpa Guides, the greatest tragedy ever on the world’s highest mountain, and in a matter of minutes I would be meeting up with a man who had scaled that peak three times, the hard way, and who knows the dangers of mountain climbing intimately, having in 1999 lost his friends Alex Lowe and David Bridges in a Tibetan avalanche.
In Bozeman, Conrad and his wife Jenni spoke about the tragedy unfolding, about the Khumbu Icefall where the accident happened, and about those who pass through there knowing the dangers. We need not go into detail here, except to say that both of them know that danger personally, having lost someone dear to them in that avalanche in Tibet (see page 19).
We all face challenges sooner or later. It is the nature of being human. Some (like mountain climbing) we choose intentionally to expand physical and subconscious boundaries, daring to test ourselves; others hit us unexpectedly like a ton of bricks dropped from a third story window, testing our understanding of mortality instead, and the weight can be unbearable.
Deep personal loss is one of the most difficult and painful challen-ges, the pain of separation. It is inwardly sensitizing to interact with people while considering what deep personal challenges they must face, or have in the past (having faced your own), beneath the casual exterior they wear as masks appropriate to social situations (as we wear clothes in public rather than going naked). After all, it couldn’t be just you who faces such trials and that everybody else leads a charmed life. We all lose from time to time, sometimes terribly, so much that getting out of bed and carrying on becomes an achievement. Strange that with the passage of time we are able to stow grievous difficulties into some corner of ourselves, not even aware we are no longer under the weight of them, or grieving, because we have moved into another dimension of self as if the former were a dream.
How is it though that Conrad Anker climbs to the world’s highest and most dangerous summits, while for most of us it’s all we can do to climb out of bed in the morning? I do not know the man well, except to say he’s a likeable and genuine fellow, obviously highly accomplished, and certainly a man like any other with all the ingredients that go into being human; but there was a tell tale sign that spoke volumes, revealed as he presented a video and slide show at Montana’s Rib and Chop House in March, an event that raised money for the Livingston climbing boulder.
On screen, as his team rested somewhere on Mount Meru in the Himalayas (the Hindu confluence of supreme universal existence and the material world), and with his friend and climbing companion suffering from a stroke at his side, Conrad Anker’s being sounded an utterly dejected, exhausted and demoralized tone. The casual mask human beings wear like a pleasing garment had fallen. If there were some trace of hope in it, it was not visible, and such circumstances are hard to imagine, let alone surmounting them and achieving a summit (this scene then was our motivation for arran-ging an interview, see page 9).
In other words, how do you get from here to there, when here is utter desolation, and there is up on that summit (or out of bed)?
Meeting such a challenge has to do with one’s source of strength, a secret, elusive quotient available to human beings that is innate and spiritual, but hidden (that confluence of existence, if we can find it), and related to the degree to which a person craves altitude or succumbs to gravity. All the way up the mountain, gravity pulls. To make matters worse, a low blow strikes when you least expect it, in your tender underbelly. Without that confluence of strength, what can see you through?
As with the climb up Cottonwood Lake in the Crazies, meadows and streams appear that inspire and refresh, cresting a brutally steep ascent, the intermittent tastes of beauty and elation we hope life might offer. Or, as a long time meditator friend says, it’s a matter of perspec-tive. —Altitude helps.
That is, ultimately, we live in dimensions of our choosing. States of mind can eventually be entered like states geographic. Since energy can be neither created nor destroyed, loss comes within a process of renewal. We have a hard time feeling it at the time, surely so, but nothing ever truly dies. —Keep on.