Friday, April 29, 2005

Signs of Strength

When I read about Krakauer's accounts of Man Vs Nature...I cannot help wondering how would I fare.

What a name! Krakauer. The phonetics of ice and wind and the wild are all there. Is it a coincidence that one of the world's most magnificent mountain ranges sound the same: The Karakorum Himalayas. When you read about his 23 days alone in Alaska, trying to make the summit of Devil's Thumb, he seems to have a quality few men have today: to succeed or die trying. It's the first part that has all the emphasis of course. Who can honestly claim to be this driven?

I find I compare myself to these deeds and find myself coming short, but then I wonder if he would have the same endurance, in say a swimming pool, or on a bicycle. The point is, it is about the same thing, endurance. What is different though, is that on a mountain, much more than on a bicycle, a lapse of concentration can prove fatal. On a mountain everything you do really matters. Perhaps the lesson we learn from the mountain is that this is true everywhere, not just on mountains. The mountains are there for those who neeed a reference check on what is important in life, perhaps they have forgotten who and what really matters to them.

This constant theme of derring-do, especially in the lifts me up. Krakauers account of his dogged assault of Devil's Thumb (he managed to set his tent on fire halfway through the trip)...despite facing death on a few occasions, being overwhelmed by loneliness, fear, and setbacks, he remained until he succeeded...this is especially inspiring as an achievement of exceptional strength, bravery and skill.
I put myself in a similar position and wonder what I would have done. I wonder how I will do attempting something like Mount Everest? Is it about sheer determination, sheer will? Is it about resisting and enduring prolonged misery and suffering? Could I do that? Should I? Would I be doing it as a direct comparison, as an experiment, or for the unadulterated thrill?

I think there is some value, sometimes, in comparing ourselves to others. It helps forge an identity which may not be fully realised. We find our place in the world, we find who and what we are, and also what we are not.

The other way, is the inward journey. This is usually a lonely road, which brings us to the other side, more appreciative of others, less guarded, perhaps, of ourselves.

I also look at McCandless and see that while he had an intellectual superiority (his father was a rocket scientist after all) the fatal weakness that led to tragedy in Alaska was his fear of the water. There are two reasons he died in the wild, and the one is that the waters of the Teklanika River scared him enough to turn back and wait for them to subside. I don't know if I could have survived as long as he had, or as well, but I do know I would have found a way across the raging river. I've swum in icy streams, and icy seas, played in the monstrous rapids of the Zambezi, in the floodwaters of our farm...It may have been difficult, but not too difficult to be done.

One could also argue that McCandless saw no reason to make the crossing, as the whole point of his adventure was communing with nature for an extended length of time, and of course once the river sent him back, he triumphantly celebrated the fact that he'd been in the wilderness for 100 days. He was not complaining, waiting, hoping to cross. I do think, as pointless as this point is, had I come up upon the river, I would have found a way to cross it there and then.
Maybe you get washed away, but as you do, you slowly cross over to the other side. It's strange to see such an admirable fellow whose one weakness is one of my strengths. It's an irony, but possibly a useless one.

I doubt whether I will ever climb Devil's Thumb, or any far less tricky cathedral peak. Being competitive is useful where we ask more of ourselves, where we believe we can be better. It falls flat when we search for something in ourselves that isn't there, or where all that we do is simply to prove others are inferior. If it is for ourselves, and our companions, to have a big heart, to see how far we can all go together, then it may have a useful place in our experience.

I think it was on the slopes of Kilimanjaro that my infatuation for high mountain life, fizzled. I was perched almost 6km in the air, and I didn't care. I didn't need, after that, to go any higher to find that I cared even less! Still, I am intrigued by these desolate places, and it seems the highest places are the most remote. Each landmass has its barren tower. I would like to visit McKinley in Alaska.

It's interesting how most, if not all, of the great adventurers go to great pains to record their experiences (I've recorded my Ironman experience in this blog). It shows a real need to leave a simple life...a temporary abandonment of home comforts for a higher experience, bringing back something from the lonely travails and then the sharing of the experience. Is this to and froe motion, from selfish adventurer, to humble storyteller, an ongoing process of purging the weakness, the selfishness, and the pursuit of knowing our own strenth, place, power and connectedness to those we love?

Instead of comparing ourselves to others, we can take pleasure in our own talents, our own interests, and still enjoy the pursuits of others. Share in the adventures of others when they grab us, go off on our own when they don't. Strength, it seems to me, lies in having an identity, and not needing to hold it up for proof or comparison. It is simply what it is, who we are, and we are loved or not because of this.

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