Life at the Summit

By Beacon Staff

Mark Jenkins, a writer for National Geographic, stopped by campus the other day to talk to students about climbing Mount Everest.

I’m fascinated by stories of Everest, though I know I’ll never have any business on the summit. I once made it to the top of Mount Whitney — at 14,505 feet it’s the highest point in the lower 48. Whitney is a challenge, but the climbing on Everest doesn’t begin until you’re a good 3,000 feet higher than that Sierra summit. South base camp in Nepal is 17,598 feet, and mountaineers targeting Everest still have a month of climbing ahead of them.

Above 26,000 feet climbers enter the Dead Zone, a matrix of thin air and cold so severe it’s inhospitable to human life. Adventurers voluntarily entering this “inhospitable matrix” transfix our collective gaze almost in the way of a train wreck. There’s plenty of gore on Everest: Jenkins’ presentation included photos of the frozen bodies climbers have to step over as they approach the summit. But there’s more to Everest than just our species’ particular fascination with the macabre.

There is a celebration of achievement also at play here. It’s kind of like the “reality” cooking shows where contestants are given some oddball basket of ingredients and an unreasonable deadline to whip something up. Sure, we get a bit of a thrill watching some sap as their Brown Betty overcooks into a leaden, inedible piece of floor tile. But we’re also there to see the dude who beats insurmountable odds and pulls something of grace from the caldron.

I suppose if you spend a month climbing to an elevation where you are essentially dying for as long as you linger, and then return home with all your digits intact, that’s about as graceful as it gets.

Something else Jenkins said stuck with me, something that in a way had nothing to do with Everest. It was his response when asked if he ever intended to climb Everest again. “No,” he replied, unless the ascent was the result of an assignment too good to pass up. Jenkins confessed to his own reflection on the ultimate inhospitable matrix, the one that gets us all in the end, and said there’s a finite number of climbs he has left in him. Given a choice, he’d pass on another Everest summit to pursue other, less crowded, but more technically challenging peaks.

I was reminded recently of the heady hubris of youth when a former professor and mentor died, leading me to get back in contact with some college friends I’d lost track of decades ago. One pal, Jay, reminded me of a pact we’d made: One day I’d be elected president and name him my Secretary of State. We’d even penciled in the year of our successful campaign: 2012.

Maybe it’s a good thing Jay and I got side tracked.

I got another dose last weekend when I watched another old friend coach his team to a state basketball title. I’d been close to Keith about 20 years ago, when he first started coaching at Stevensville and I was a cub sports reporter. The future looked bright. Keith was a good coach and an affable guy who took Stevi to the championship game his first year. It was easy to imagine that titles would follow.

He made it back to the championship game plenty of times, but when I saw him at the MetraPark he still didn’t have a championship on his 22-year coaching résumé. We chatted before the game and Keith told me he was retiring when this, his final title game, was over.

We have only been in occasional contact in the years since I moved on. Still, seeing the look on his face when the opposing coach conceded, clearing his bench in the final minute, made me as happy as if our last chat had been yesterday.

When we are young we see peaks to conquer, like the Himalayas, extending beyond the horizon. At some point you recognize you’ll only get to the top of a few of them, so you better take it all in when you get there.

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