Climbing Mt. Shuksan winter

Reflecting on the dangers of mountaineering

We’ve all contemplated death I assume. I can’t imagine there’s anyone out there who hasn’t pondered their demise, who wonders how it might happen, and when. Death is a theme that hangs over every patient interaction in the hospital, no matter how benign. Even the patient’s coming in for a broken arm are asked, “If your heart was to stop beating, or your were to stop breathing, would you want us to pound on your chest and put a tube down your throat?” And in my chosen hobbies I am challenged to overcome or navigate around deadly obstacles and hazards all the time. I joked with a friend this past week when we were navigating around avalanche prone slopes, trying to find a way out of blustering cold, near white-out conditions, “I’m gonna pick up golfing when I get back. Or bowling.” But in rock climbing and mountaineering, open ocean sea kayaking, road cycling, mountain biking, etc, there is always the chance of not making it home. In mountaineering and rock climbing there is even an accident report compiling all the accidents and deaths of the year. It comes in pdf format and paperback for some light coffee table reading.

This past week while mountaineering in Washington we were reminded of the nature of our sport constantly by total strangers. “People die up there all the time.” “We pull bodies out of crevasses every year.” “We’re not going to come rescue you if you go back there.” The comments kept coming and we kept proceeding, albeit safely and now grumpy at the obnoxiously demeaning tone of their patriarchal comments.

I don’t know what it is. I don’t know why I look out onto open ocean, and knowing there is a body of land somewhere in the unseen distance, want to paddle a kayak there. When I see a mountain, especially the rocky, gnarly ones like a fang protruding from the earth, I want to climb it. It doesn’t make sense, and I know this. It seems like natural selection would have killed off people like me ages ago. We’ve always been around though and we’re here to stay, despite the rage fueled armchair mountaineers judging every little slip up we make while reading the AAC annual accident report. “He should’ve tied a knot in the end of his rope moron,” they’ll say to themselves with their iPad resting on their growing bellies. It’s useless even attempting to explain my desire for these adventures. Anyone who asks won’t understand unless they feel it themselves.

This past week there were innumerable moments where I had to address the very real possibility of me not making it home. Whether trusting my life with a small nut or cam wedged into a crack, climbing thirty feet unprotected, watching an avalanche slide from under my feet, or hunkering down in a snow cave after nearly walking straight off a 40 foot cornice in white out conditions. Nothing atrocious, nothing obscenely dumb, and nothing coming reasonably close to getting me killed, but all things that make you stop and think.

What was remarkable to me is that now I don’t think about myself when I think about death. Yeah when I’m thinking about decking hard from sixty feet off the ground with no protection between me and the halfway point to the ground, I’m very acutely feeling a visceral fear of danger. But when I drive home from something like that, when I’m laying in bed at night, I know that no longer is it just my life, just my death. I have two little canine girls at home who depend on me. Truthfully anyone who can pour food in a bowl and give belly rubs could substitute for me, but I love them and I want to be there for them. And I have a wonderful girlfriend who I want to continue being with, to experience a future with. These things have given me a very real, tangible purpose and future that I can imagine. It’s no longer the thought that if I die I won’t care because I’ll be dead. I feel like I have a family of my own now, and to miss out on watching that grow and develop brings me a feeling of utter dysphoria.

When I can get up on a rock face and mostly eliminate that reactionary panic attack when faced with a serious fall, it allows me to see what my real priorities are. Oddly enough, rock climbing and mountaineering help me develop my purpose in the rest of my life. It helps sift through the noise, the primeval instincts, and realize what truly means something to me. We’re all going to die, that’s a fact, and the matter of when is unimportant; it’s the what between now and then that matters. In working through that this is my fate, independent of what I do, it’s helping allow me to truly understand what I want my future to be. It’s not some masochistic endeavor, and no I’m not trying to get myself killed, and no I’m not reckless. I’m sifting through the BS that clutters my day to day life, the dumb meaningless angst, to get to the meat of what really matters to me. To me that is exploring new places, being with my friends and family, and hopefully as a future family doc, providing some other people the ability to keep following their passions more ably and for a little longer.

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