Saturday, November 3, 2012

Those Glourious Summits

I have been thinking about legacies.
Now when I say "legacy" I mean what defines a person once they're gone; a "legacy" as what a person is known by future generations for. 
I have been reading "In the Shadow of Denali" by mountaineer/photographer/adventurer Jonathan Waterman. 
In his book, Jon Waterman explores several different accounts of people's encounters with North America's highest peak, 20,320 ft. Mt. McKinley (a.k.a. "Denali" native Athabaskan meaning "the High One"). He explores stories of triumph, controversy, and misfortune that transpire on or in the (symbolic) shadow of Alaska's Denali.
Denali (20,320') aka Mt. McKinley
All in all, "In the Shadow of Denali" is an interesting read, but walking away from the book, one story stuck with me; this particular story has to do with a young and ambitious climber by the name of John Mallon Waterman (not the author JON Waterman). Johnny grew up in Connecticut, as a young child he was fascinated with leaning about the Civil War, but by the time Johnny Waterman graduated high-school he had fallen in love with climbing. His entire world, friends, family, and ambition were wrapped up in climbing and mountaineering.
Johnny climbed worldwide in places like Turkey, Greece, the Alps, etc. In the process, completing many climbs up world-famous routes. However, by the time he graduated he had also lost a great many friends in the mountains including his closest climbing partner.
The demise of the near-entirety of his social circle in addition to his parents going through a turbulent divorce rattled the young climber. He began whittling the large number of his expeditions to solo adventures. The more friends he lost, (including his brother Bill), the more he bent his will, energy, and focus to the mountains. After the pain of so much death and estrangement with his divorced parents, Johnny engaged in many solo forays, including a vastly difficult and technical ascent of the South Spur of Alaska's 14,700' Mount Hunter which took him 145 days to finish (completely alone for the duration). This feat has been immortalized today as one of those legendary ascents by a legendary figure.
Mt. Hunter's oft-traveled West Ridge
After years of numerous mountaineering accomplishments, bizarre friendships, years estranged from his father and stepmother, Waterman began to degrade further. He eventually became obsessed with accomplishing winter solo ascent of Denali. After a few weeks of being thwarted in the ascent of his intended route, something broke in Waterman. One day he left a letter in his tent and struck-out for an unclimbed ridge on Denali. This particular ridge was dubbed as "a suicide run" by Reinhold Messner (perhaps the world's best and most innovative climber of all time). It was clear to Johnny Waterman's father, Guy Waterman, that his son had set off not intending to come back. He left his supplies, and set out on a difficult route none could truly conquer. A heavy past and declining career proved too much for the young climber to bear, leaving Johnny without hope or reason to continue.
The Author, JON Waterman happened to be friends with Guy Waterman, JOHNNY Waterman's estranged father. Some sixteen years after the disappearance of Johnny, Jon set out into the Vermont woods to visit the hermit like abode of Guy Waterman and his second wife:
    "During a recent visit – I lost the path to the Waterman's rural property. I thought about Johnny a lot that day. I thought that few people indeed can afford to commit themselves irrevocably to their dreams, and I admired him deeply for that. Like Icarus, Johnny had cut off all the moorings to his loved ones and flew into the alluring white heat of the sun.
    I didn't find Guy until twilight, tending his garden a hundred yards off, under the light of a lantern. When I shouted 'Hello!' he ran towards me clutching the lantern, with ecstasy and surprise shining with childlike joy on his face. When his saffron light finally fell on my face, he was plainly crestfallen, even though it had been years since he had seen me.
    The next morning, Guy paused in front of a woodpile. He looked into my eyes; he tried to smile. Then he apologized about the way he had greeted me the night before. He explained that once in a while he will greet an unidentified visitor out in the dark and think that maybe for just a scant moment that maybe, just maybe, one of his sons has finally come home."
- Jonathan Waterman, 'Lone Wolf (the Other John Waterman),' from "In the Shadow of 
 I suppose what strikes me the most is that at the end of all of Johnny Waterman's feats of skill, endurance, and suffering, his life seemed to amount to naught. He had no one to celebrate with, his friends perished in pursuit of those glourious summits, and He, himself, lost his life, having given up.
Sure, Johnny had left a Legacy. He is remembered. Jon Krakauer, a famous mountaineer, and author of Into Thin Air and Into the Wild, recounts Johnny Waterman's feats of endurance as well as his profound loneliness and ability to cut all familial ties to achieve something great. Based on these similar characteristics, Krakauer even likens Johnny Waterman to Christopher McCandless, the subject of Into the Wild. Krakauer held Waterman's 145 day solo of Mount Hunter as one of the most prolific feats of Alaskan mountaineering.
Yet despite this great feat, and stunning career, all John had left at his end was his accomplishment. In the cold shadow of loneliness, those accomplishments paled in fear, as they were poor insulation from the frozen teeth of despair. In the wake of Johnny's ultimate journey, Johnny's father, (his only surviving family), was a wistful man who wanted no more than his son to come home.

There is a mindset upon mountaineers and outdoors people. This mindset is one of disdain for the civilized world, and it's a mood that treats the Climb as a transcendent experience. The Climb becomes what one lives for, works to pay for, and trains to be better at.
When I first began immersing myself in the world of mountains, I wholeheartedly adopted this mindset. I (at least attempted) adopted the new persona, for no other reason than my desire to identify with my own newfound world. 
I was fully content to go on my merry way, the surly mountaineer whose sole solace was the hills.
I began my biggest trip in the summer of 2011. I set out with my ethics professor, Terry, and his daughter, Allison on the John Muir Trail. The John Muir Trail (JMT) is a 211 mile trail through the Sierra Nevada mountains. The trail begins in the exquisite Yosemite Valley, up through Tuolomne Meadows, south through Yosemite National Park, John Muir Wilderness, Ansel Adams Wilderness, Devil's Post-pile National Monument, Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Park, following the very spine of the range to the Mount Whitney, at 14,505 ft, the highest peak in the continental United States. 
My trip on the John Muir Trail remains one of the best experiences of my life due to the intense challenge and scintillating victories I experienced along its length. One of these victories was a lesson I learned on an unexpected (and very lonely) detour.
I was around day 14 of 18 into my trip. Unfortunately, my two companions had to tap out earlier in the trip because of an untimely sickness, and I had been hiking with people I had met on the trail. We had hiked through two days of rain and climbed two of major passes on our way south to Whitney. We had just topped out Mather Pass, below which there was a basin leading to 14,058 foot Split Mountain that I had wanted to summit as a side trip, plus I would be able to get cell reception from Split's summit. Therefore, I parted ways with members of my impromptu trail-family below the Pass and struck out across a glacial bowl toward Split's twin summits.
Crossing the bowl marked the first time that I was majorly alone. Even in the mountains along seldom-traveled trails there is a chance you will see someone. I was moving cross-country in the Sierra. The loneliness and homesickness that I was able to bury in the midst of fellowship and tedium reared its head. I questioned my motives for pursuing a side-summit. I began to worry about the possibility of something happening to me. I lambasted myself for my decision to try to climb this summit as I gained a saddle below Split Mountain and saw the very broad and very steep talus field leading to Split's north summit. Exhausted and despondent I began to ask myself why I was doing this. I wanted to keep going. I needed to keep going. Something would not let me stop. Between the loneliness, exertion, and vastness of the task before me I was torn and burnt out.
I did what any reasonable person would do: I sat down and I cried, the weight of stress and difficulty unseen came pouring out.
I realized my decision to try this summit was one originally based out of desire to conquer, or to adopt further the anti-social mountain man persona. I needed to live up to that which I said I would do. I needed to become a certain person.
But why?
I then realized that the reason I needed this accomplishment was due to the fact that I needed to appear a certain way to people. That my seemingly selfish and self-centered pursuit was orchestrated because I loved who it made me become. I was someone better who was better for other people, adored by other people, and inspire other people to greater things. There was a deep part of myself that wanted to be different than other so that I would have value in their eyes, and just as deeply, I needed to affect people.
I needed to matter.
Now the mountaineering was more selfish than not, but I realized then that people are inextricable from their social context. Greatness comes not from the brilliance of an individual alone, but a light which shines brighter in some places than others. I also realized that light is not meant to shine, simply for shining's sake, but to shed light in others darkness.
Thinking about this, I wonder about Johnny Waterman. He was a product of tragic and difficult circumstance, but in the end I ask "What did his legacy amount to?" What legacy and feat is so great that it will always be remembered and never be duplicated? Time is long and our memories are short. Will time and generations reaching into far millennia really remember the deeds of today? Will they remember one lonely individual toiling up a long and snow-crenellated mountain ridge?
I ask, "What did Guy Waterman, Johnny's father remember?" In the end he just wanted his son.
In this, I identified with Johnny Waterman's tragic tale. Where the people in his life vanished from and disappointed him; he turned to carve his name with stone in the pages of time. I realized the greatest legacy is not a name attached to a deed that is remembered all the days. The greatest legacy is the people we have contact with in the every-day. Those people we pray with and people we play with. Those people we bless and those people we curse. Our legacy is the families we leave behind to do their own deeds. What renown outlives a bloodline that endures the generations? What deed outlives an incarnate legacy that may forget a name, but everyday lives out the choices of his or her forebears?
Now, I think pushing ones limits and pursuing goals is a good and healthy thing. Yet there are too many stories of passionate souls given over to the love of sport and danger. There are too many stories of people who have died in pursuit of legacies wrought of folly and misguided zeal. Now I suppose there is truly some benefit to being great, but I fear becoming like those willing to sacrifice relationships or even one's own life.
What goal, pursued in the name of vibrant life, is worth attaining even if that very life is lost in the process?
Rather in the midst of Johnny Waterman's journey, and reflecting on my own, I think that I will decide to choose a long life. I think it to be sad irony to cut ties from my family and friends, set on consuming myself within the heat of the sun. To seek brief, and brilliant greatness that will be a speck totally lost in the overwhelming light of the sun. Rather I will live on in the light of day, flying high only when it is to lead others to a place where they can better see the grandiose world beneath.