Susan E.B. Schwartz - Reader Blog 13


Black Tie Perspective

I’ve been ruminating a lot about perspective.

Recently I attended the New York Section black tie dinner of the American Alpine Club and I find myself continuing to ruminate away.

The guest of honor was Stephen Venables, the mild mannered and droll Brit who is also the first (and only) climber to solo the East/Kangshung Face of Everest. Even more amazingly, I knew that Stephen was part of a small and lightweight team of four who tackled Everest in the most pure style — no radio, supplemental oxygen, or support team — and was forced to bivy on descent at 28,000’. (He would lose several toes to frostbite and teammate Ed Webster ended up losing most of his fingertips after removing his gloves high on the mountain to snap photos.)

Yet to put this in perspective, in his native England, one of Stephen’s best selling books, Ollie, is only secondarily about mountaineering.

Ollie, Stephen’s oldest son, was diagnosed with severe autism at age 2, developed leukemia at age 4, and died of a brain tumor at age 12. (Stephen’s Wikipedia entry notes that he is the father of the only known child in the UK to be diagnosed with both autism and leukaemia.)

Further perspective was provided by the absence of a long time attendee of the New York section dinner, Clif Maloney, who two months ago became the oldest American to summit an 8,000 meter peak. But Clif died without warning in his sleep on the third night down from the top of Cho Oyu. The night that he died, Clif had declared to his guide, “I’m the happiest man on the planet. I’ve just climbed this beautiful mountain.”

And then Clif went to sleep and never woke up.

So here I was, at this fancy black tie dinner, ruminating away on some of the inescapable and painful questions that Stephen Venables and Clif Maloney raise: Is climbing worth the risk? If so, how much risk?

Is climbing worth a few toes? Most of our fingers?

But what if the costs are higher?

What if we lose our life, even if we die with joy and without pain? And what about family and friends left behind? What if Clif had died on descent without summitting? At least now, his family and friends can console themselves that he died doing what he loved…in a state of peace of grace.

And what about making sense of seemingly mundane risks that we face in everyday life…such as risks we take on when becoming a parent? We assume that the biggest one as a parent will be smarty pants teenagers stressing us out over college admissions, pimples, and prom dates.

Some of us climb, I believe, as a way to bring order and control to our personal universe. But climbing also has a way of yanking hard on our chain to remind us that there is a limit to how much we can control.

At some point, no matter how stubborn, talented, or hard working we are,

we step out of our world of personal control. And we enter one of cosmic caprice.

Whether on Everest or Cho Oyu… or autism or cancer.

Read some of Susan E.B. Schwartz's earlier posts: