I feel like an anomaly, raised on a flat piece of prairie when I have a climber buried deep in my spirit. Rocks — pebbles to boulders and great towering peaks of granite attract me. As a young girl, I found my greatest thrills climbing the Couteau Hills around Clearwater Lake through the summer and the small curves at Eagle Creek the rest of the year.
Since, I feed my spirit with stories of other climbers and great climbs; and been fortunate to draw from an extensive library on the subject put together by my brother, who did roam from the flat prairie to the top of mountains around the world. Recently, he lent me Ed Viesturs autobiography No Shortcut to the Top. A high-attitude climber, Ed was the 5th person to climb all 2800s the 14 tallest mountains in the world without supplemental oxygen.
Ed, who also grew up in central United States not a lot of mountains) had his interest piqued, as a young man, by reading Annapurna by Maurice Herzag, who describes the first summitting of a 2800 by a French team in 1950. Lured by the exciting account, yet, with no experience in high mountain climbing, Ed spent the next ten years honing his craft by guiding amateur climbers in the Mt. Rannier area and creatively attaching to international teams who had permits in place to attempt the bigger forays on Everest and others. He’d been climbing for several years and had conquered six of the 2800s before he set a goal to summit all fourteen.
Now you wonder why I am going on about climbing while I sit in a hospital bed 5:30 am unable to sleep for all the noise around me. I clearly see Ed and I had equally meaningful goals on which to focus. Over the next ten years Ed met his, but with many setbacks. Often his summits were cut short at the last stage because of other climbers who would not survive getting down without his help. Sometimes dangerous snow conditions on that last tantalizing slope meant he had to turn back. Often the effort of planning, putting together the perfect team, obtaining the correct permits, finding sponsors, stockpiling equipment and sending it around the world, setting up base camp and auxiliary camp sites for the last push and a safe descent, ended in a failed attempt. A challenge for the next try. Dealing with a chronic disease that seems intent on putting many obstacles in my way provides similar preparedness and flexibility. Above all it requires knowing the end goal–good health and determining to take every step you can to get there.
Though Annapurna was the first 28er Ed dreamed about it became the last he summitted. His attempt of the north face solo in 2000 and was turned back 350 feet short of the final peak. He tried the east ridge in 2002, ran short of time and chose getting down safely to the glory of the summit. For an hour in 2005 he stood on top of Annapurna and looked across the Himalayas and Napal at other the towering peaks in he had stood upon. Ed does not say he conquers a mountain, rather, he believes the mountain decides if it will let you succeed. This philosophy is now applied to my health care, as I no longer feel bullying and pushing my body to perform will bring me success. I listen and work with my body at what it tells me it needs.
Now a keynote speaker much in demand, Ed shares his philosophy and what kept him alive when so many others died. In all his climbs he is one of the few who did not lose fingers or toes to frostbite. “Getting up is optional. Getting down is mandatory,” he tells his fascinated listeners. This is his bed rock motto. If he does not reach the summit by his designated time he turns back, refusing to be caught up in the euphoria that take so many other climbers past their final bit of energy so they freeze to death on the mountain with no strength left to descend. He turns short of his goal, knowing retreat and lessons learned this time is a higher guarantee of success the next.
The last line of Herzag’s book is, “There are other Annapurnas in the lives of men.” Ed Viesturs builds on this theme as he talks to corporate executives striving to grow their companies, a group of young people searching for their place in the world, a ward of cancer patients fighting to meet their goal of remission and survivor. I relate, having gone through the first of several Annapurna’s in my life. Granted some, where forty years ago. Today I make my climb again as Crohn’s attacks my body. I am certain, like Ed, I will be turned back at times by treatments that don’t work. I can take only one step at a time, focused and fully aware of the dangers around me. I may settle for never quite reaching my summit or find the glory of looking down with elation on the world of good health spread below me. Acceptance is one of the hardest and best lessons I’ve learned.
I do know, like Ed, my wins are short spurts of focused energy supported by a great team of health care workers, family and friends. And I feel I have an advantage over many facing their own Annapurna for the first time, for I know I have found the strength, endurance, resilience and will to make successful climbs in the past. Thank you, Ed, for the exciting descriptions of your attempts, failures and successes.
Getting up is optional. We have little control over the disease attacking our body, but the belief at some point our body will decide we are worthy of victory. Getting down is mandatory. We do have control over when we make that all important turn – challenge the mountain and possibly die or get down so you can try again. Going down Is creating a different lifestyle for myself, it can be even better if I discard my tunnel vision on a fixed route and try the one that looks best this time around. Ed doesn’t talk of challenging the mountain and beating it. He builds a relationship with the mountain and lives by its rules. May you all recognize and manage your own climb on Annapurna. It can become the best learning experience of your life.