Thursday, May 9, 2019

Between summits

     When I set about to write a book on failure, I wanted to include something about people who got close to their goal yet still missed it. I settled on Mount Everest, because I knew climbers had gotten very near the top of the mountain, within a few hundred feet, yet never attained the summit. 
     Or did, and died on the way back.
     In researching the chapter, I read a lot of books about Everest. And I learned something about mountain climbing: you aren't on the top long. Those who made it to the summit of Everest typically spent 15 minutes, a half hour tops, enjoying the view. Then it was time to hurry back down so as not to die.
     Which meant months of assembling money and equipment and expedition teams, and weeks of slogging through Nepal and setting up base camps. Then days of tortuous effort, up the mountain. All for a few minutes of literal peak experience. Then down you go.
     This seemed valuable for non-mountaineers to keep in mind. You look forward to a certain event—say a big trip somewhere, oh-for-instance South America. And you spend months getting ready. Then a brief time actually on the trip.
     Before you know it, you're back, walking the dog, making dinner, doing your job. Which, even if it is a very cool job—for instance, exploring things that interest you and you feel are important and writing about them in a major metropolitan newspaper so that other people can think about them and maybe feel they are important too—is still a job that must be worked at, and is not as exciting as, oh, watching a glacier collapse. 
     And you scan the horizon, and there's ... more of the same. 
     Which can be, yes, dispiriting, until you remind yourself that peak experiences wouldn't be very peak if they happened all the time. Then they'd become routine, no matter how great they were. 
     Climbing is a skill, as is reaching the peak. But so is waiting, and planning, and trying, and being patient and, often, disappointed. Jiggling the handle of one door, then another, then another, waiting for one to open. One experience is lauded and sought, the other ignored and derided. But they are inexorably linked. Without being really good at waiting, you never reach that mountaintop. One requires the other. Worth bearing in mind.


  1. Complaining or boasting? Either way, I think we're grateful that Neil made it back, safe and sound, ego intact, all faculties recharged, ready to go, and is happily or unhappily delighting us with a daily ration of insight and reason.


    1. Agreed. It has been a great couple of weeks traveling to South America via these wonderful columns.

  2. Thanks for the encouraging post. I’ll soon be wrapping up a year studying in Scotland and it’s been a bit disconcerting being back in Chicago for a few weeks between terms. My old life has been sitting right here waiting for me all along . . . but what did I expect?

    Hopefully more mountaintops await.

  3. I've read that the most happiness-inducing part of travel is the planning and anticipation leading up to it.

  4. A climber can reach the mountaintop, briefly enjoy the view after attaining the summit, return successfully, and then die shortly thereafter. I'm referring, of course, to MLK.


Comments are vetted and posted at the discretion of the proprietor.