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SHREWSBURY, Massachusetts – I’m an armchair mountain climber and it’s all my son’s fault because he introduced me to that sport by giving me a book entitled “Into Thin Air” by Jon Krakauer, about the disastrous scaling of Mt. Everest in 1996. Since then I’ve read of many other encounters with peaks in the Himalayas and elsewhere, as well as pilgrimages and retreats to Hindu and Buddhist sites throughout Asia. It’s interesting, but the one thing I can’t understand is how so many intelligent, educated, seemingly responsible married men or women can desert their families for months on end in the search of adventure or spirituality or whatever it is they’re chasing. I don’t get it.
When George Mallory astutely said “because it’s there” when asked why he was a mountain climber I get it, and when men like the famous author and Trappist monk Thomas Merton spent years in solitude to find grace, or when Henry David Thoreau “went to the woods to live deliberately, and see what it had to teach,” I get that too. They at least were unmarried so no one was adversely affected by their absences.
Books abound on mountain climbing and while most of the expeditions are successful, they’re still fraught with dangers and setbacks due to unforeseen snow storms, avalanches, illnesses, and constant problems with the sherpa guides and porters. Delays of weeks are common, and once a trek to the summit is begun there’s no turning back unless success is deemed impossible, a very rare occurrence due to the amount of preparation, time, and money invested. In one book called “The Snow Leopard,” the author had promised that he’d return in time for his young son’s birthday, but when events on the mountain prevented the climber from getting back in time he just shrugged it off as one of the hazards of climbing. When reading that I wondered how casually his son took the disappointment.
In the ill-fated climb of 1996 mentioned above, one of the fatalities was the head guide of the tour whose young wife, left alone in New Zealand, was pregnant at the time. One of the survivors was a Texas pathologist who suffered severe hypothermia and frostbite, ultimately losing an arm, all fingers, parts of both feet, and his nose. Can you imagine performing autopsies without hands? Nine in all died on that climb, a mere drop in the bucket compared with the hundreds from all over the world who have perished reaching for the sky.
Though hardly as dangerous, there are accounts of people who just left their families to fend for themselves while they went in search of inner peace. A book about the Dalai Lama also mentioned an American woman who left her husband and child to live with the Lama in exile as one of his disciples. It’s inconceivable to me that a mother would do such a thing, and I also found it surprising that the Lama allowed her to stay. In another story, a man left his pregnant wife back in the States while he spent several months at an Ashram in India, searching for tranquility and contentment. What a crock. The guy obviously shirked his duties and his wife was a fool for letting him go. The most ridiculous of all was the tale of a guy who couldn’t afford to travel so he meditated alone in his room for 3 months, only coming out for meals while his family had to observe total silence throughout. If I tried that, my wife would poison me the first night, and rightfully so.
Sure, at times everyone dreams of running away to exotic lands to slay dragons and live carefree but a sense of responsibility always wins out before we get started. It’s not that we’re afraid or lack an adventurous spirit, we’re just not that selfish. Maybe as a youth in my next incarnation I’ll sail to Tahiti or pan for gold in the Yukon or fly to Mars like Buck Rogers, but right now I’m content to climb Everest while sitting in my living room, and then to eat a hot meal when my wife calls. And no… she doesn’t keep quiet either.