On Denali in May of 1986 I was faced with a classic decision. I was up there with my long-time climbing buddy Ralph, and he’d been stricken with high-altitude cerebral edema or HACE, also known as “mountain sickness,” a very dangerous condition and one that can only be cured by climbing down.
I made the decision on the day we were going to assault the summit that I would not go up but would stay there with him, even though he was being attended to. He couldn’t even manage the classic field-sobriety test: three steps without falling over. This giant of a man, dare I say a father figure, an ultra-marathoner who’d done Boston just a month before this trip to Alaska, with a tooth infection which may have weakened him.
Against all protestations, mostly his, urging me to go anyway, I refused to climb that day, staying with him in high camp while a few of our party made the summit. Some of the other climbers thought it heroic, and Ralph has never forgotten it over all these 33 years, often referring to it as an ultimate act of friendship. I’ve never viewed it that way. Not for one second have I regretted not seeing the top of Denali because I chose to stay with my friend.
I went up there originally to share the experience with him and topping out wouldn’t have been doing that. I’ve thought of this experience often in the years since, remembering the long shadow that mountain has cast over my life and all the lessons the whole experience taught me. I guess in one sense I chose to fail because, ultimately, the desired outcome of mountaineering is to stand on top of a peak. This I did not do. So I didn’t try and fail: I chose not to succeed.
I’ve thought often of what Robert Pirsig said in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance about how life is on the sides of the mountain, not at the top. He recounts in the book how his son Chris was racing towards the top of the peak they were climbing. Pirsig was discussing how just getting to the top isn’t the whole story, not even close to it, but his son was too young to know that.
And I suppose the underlying context for me was the same, though I didn’t know it.
The real trip was my relationship with Ralph and the other climbers and every step I took getting up to that high camp at 17,000 feet. I’m no one’s elite climber, never was, but just like all the elite climbers of the world, I do know what it feels like to be gasping for breath taking even one step at altitude. I know how the bite of ice axes and crampons in the blue ice up there sound like the squawk of gulls and how the mendicant ravens try to steal the stores of food and how the wind feels like a wild animal at night when the sun goes down and how it takes three to four hours to break camp and set it up and how you have to take a shit in full view because everyone has to stay inside a small space marked by wands that have been stuck in the snow to mark the area safe from crevasses.
I know all those things, just like any elite climber does, because internally it feels the same. But I don’t know is what it’s like to stand on top, something you can only do for a few minutes before you need to head down.
Anyway, what I’ve learned about this is that I get to say what success was. I get to reframe it, and I get to say my trip up there was successful, according to my own lights and my own wisdom and my own experience. It’s like when the Apollo 13 disaster was unpacked and was viewed as a “successful failure.” None of those three astronauts got to the moon, because of some error that that happened somewhere, and they ultimately didn’t get to their own version of a summit.
Then, don’t you know, when I start to feel confident about this, just when I think I get to reframe every other part of my life in this way, including career, I hear something like what Sean Connery says to Nick Cage’s character in The Rock. “Your best? Losers always whine about their best. Winners go home and fuck the prom queen.” That idea continues to bite me in the ass, even at age 65, because somewhere, deep down, I still believe success means winning. Period.
Mountains have always been tremendous metaphors for life and using Denali as such a metaphor, one can see more clearly the truth of the etymology of the word career. Take the definition in that most august of lexicons, the Oxford English Dictionary, for example:.
French carrière or racecourse. Spanish carrera meaning “road.” In Latin carrāria (via) indicates a carriage-road, while carrus means “wheeled vehicle” or carriage.
It is also defined as a running course, especially to the course of the sun or a star through the heavens. Another meaning is full speed, impetus, chiefly in phrases like “in full career,’ which was originally a term of horsemanship.
As such it also defines a person’s course or progress through life, or a distinct portion thereof; their rapid and continuous course of action. Finally, it’s defined as the “full swing” of a person’s activity.
There isn’t anything in there about careers arriving anywhere. It’s all about motion, progress, a road, a path, a climb, maybe the hero’s journey. And just maybe it’s about my truncated road up Denali and, of course the varied, but certainly not complete, arc of my career.
With apologies to Sean Connery, I get to say whether I’m a winner or a loser, whether I fucked the prom queen or not.