Last weekend I saw the film “Everest” to fuel my fascination with the fact that a handful of humans – mostly male – want to scale the tallest mountain in the world. A mere 4,000 people have reached the top since Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay first scaled Everest in 1953.
I have often fantasized about following in their footsteps. You know, spend six weeks getting to base camp and getting acclimatized. Then another two weeks, slowly but surely, making my way to Camp 2, Camp 3, and then Camp 4. Eventually entering the “Death Zone” en route to 29,000 feet – heights at which the human body cannot acclimatize. That final grueling, half-mile journey taking eight to 12 hours.
If I survived the experience, I’d join the ranks of the super elite. You don’t need a badge or medal for your accomplishment because regular folks can sense when someone in their midst has climbed Mount Everest. There’s a telltale swagger when you’ve breathed rarified air – especially among those who summited without the aid of oxygen tanks.
If I died, my frozen body probably would remain at the top of the world for time immemorial. Helicopters can’t fly that high; other climbers are preoccupied with getting their own selves down. The face of Everest would be a pretty impressive final resting spot, although it is a horrendous way to go.
When Mountaineer George Mallory was asked why he’d set his sights on Everest, he notoriously answered, “Because it’s there.” Mallory died during his third attempt to summit in 1924. Yet we’ve been quoting him ever since to explain the inexplicable desire to do really daring things.
Do I want to climb as high as the cruising altitude of many airline flights simply because Everest is there? Many people attempt remarkable things – run the New York City marathon, walk the Appalachian trail – in honor of their 50th year around the sun and my landmark birthday is on the horizon.
But after seeing “Everest,” the movie – based on catastrophic events on the mountain in 1996 – I’ve decided to sit this one out.
The bottom line is that I’m scaling back on fear-conquering events. I’m not even sure how I’ve survived a whole half-century considering some the rocky choices of my twenties. Among them, a wild weekend in Dar-Es-Salaam, Tanzania with a Turkish mobster who looked like George Michael. I was a Peace Corps volunteer in those days, without running water or electricity. Maybe that’s good enough to earn some swagger.
Besides, there are practical issues standing between the summit and me. Starting with acrophobia. Yeas ago, I visited a climbing wall where I lost my mojo as well as my footing. I swung off the wall mid-ascent – safe thanks to my ropes – and for a brief moment felt as if I were dangling off the face of Everest. My friend down below laughed out loud at my screams before composing herself long enough to say, “Nancy, just step down, you are 6 inches off the floor.”
Then, there’s my predisposition to altitude sickness, which I discovered while walking in the foothills outside Kathmandu, Nepal back in 1989. That afternoon, I took a rickshaw to the doctor and told him that I was dying. He laughed and gave me a pill. I was better by happy hour the next day. But those wretched, retching 24 hours were akin to morning sickness on steroids.
Even if I could overcome my physical limitations, the actual costs associated with scaling Everest are insurmountable. When my son was born 11 years ago, I started putting $25 a month into a college fund. At this point, I have enough saved to either send him to an Ivy League school for a semester, or cough up the Nepalese permit fees for stepping foot on Everest.
Climbing the tallest mountain in the world has turned into rich man’s sport with total costs in the $100,000 range. Paying an adventure company to go the distance is the new mid-life crisis sports car. But I’m happy just putzing around chilly Burlington, Vermont in my 2012 Mazda 5 – a mini-minivan. I am so done with trying to be cool.
Maybe that’s the crux of the issue for me. Being a parent means scaling emotional peaks and valleys for an entire lifetime. And being a woman means that you have the capacity to grow a person inside your bodies for 9 months. .
Raising a human being tests the limits of your capabilities beyond what the tallest mountain in the world can offer. You can’t top that.