Mission 5959 Wrap-Up: Listening to Whispers and the Dragon’s Tongue

Getting to the top is optional, getting back down is mandatory. A lot of people forget about that.
― Ed Viesturs

I’ve read several of Ed Viesturs’ books. He is the first American to summit all 14 8000 metre peaks without supplemental oxygen. It took him several attempts to reach the summit of some of them. I remember reading that he had stopped a summit attempt 150 metres below the top because “it didn’t feel right.” He respected his inner voice/intuition and it had kept him safe over the course of many, many expeditions. I, too, have such a voice. Most recently, it keep me off Everest 2014 and Everest 2015 and for that, I am grateful that I listened.

In my study of Buddhism, I’ve been taught to pay attention to the causes and conditions that bring each moment to fruition. I do my best. Some moments, I can see them clearly; other moments they are too muddled together to tease them apart.

I have had a relationship with PTSD for the past 46 years. Sometimes, it is hibernating quietly, hidden blissfully from my view. Other times, it overwhelms with the fury of a 100 year winter storm. Sometimes, it is my wise teacher and other times, my tormentor. It’s presence in my life ebbs and flows on an unscheduled tide than I neither understand not control and even though, I continue to grow to be the stronger one in the duo, sometimes I’m tripped up by echoes of traumas past.

Most often, it can take up to a week for the causes and conditions (i.e. weather and logistics) to allow a team to gain flight access Mount Logan. My trip, this year, was the exception. We flew in earlier than we were scheduled to and gorgeous weather allowed us unprecedented access to begin climbing. My luggage had arrived late in Whitehorse so I had to fly to the mountain not having had a chance to organize my gear into systems. Systems which help me know exactly where each bit of kit is stored in my backpack so I can access it quickly in case of storm or other emergency. It usually takes a few days to get in a rhythm and have it all sorted. Arriving to base camp around 10 pm, we got the tent up and I rummaged around, trying to find all I would need for a reasonably warm night. It was pretty cold out. Minus 20C or so.

It was a long, very cold, and nightmarish night. One of my worst ever in the mountains. My dragon-like PTSD partner seemed to have awoken after a decade’s long sleep. My heart pounded. Adrenaline coursed through my body like fiery lava spilling me over into restless fear, unsettled exhaustion, and wanting to run. As my practice of Buddhism taught me, I kept my seat. I stayed. I stared down the fiery assault, breathed compassion for the myself and the dragon, in and out and got up the next morning, and carried a load to Camp One. I did the same the second day after a better night.

By the end of the third day, we’d already made our first big carry to Camp Two at 4100 metres. As I skied each of those first three days, I revelled in the glory of the immense landscape I was traversing and thought about the many dreams, wishes, and goals I carried with me as a part of Mission 5959. I read the messages on my skis often and said them over and over again to myself. Anytime, I was moving, the dragon slept as if a child pacified by the rocking of a crib. Anytime, I stopped, it woke. Cried. Curled into a ball. Wished and wanted safety. I did my best to sit, pay attention, meditate, and find some ground amidst the cold, white towers that surrounded us.

After the carry to Camp Two, my inner voice that had kept me safely away from the heights off Everest for the past two disastrous seasons, began to enter the conversation.

“Don’t go back to Camp Two,” it said the first time.

“Why?” I asked back.

The wind, whipped into a frenzy by a ferocious Logan storm, kept me from hearing the answer.

As each gust died away, I heard the repeated whisper, “Don’t go, don’t go, don’t go higher.”

In response, I wrote in my journal, I organized my gear, I sat quietly trying to discern the source and meaning of the quiet words ricocheting in my mind.

“Was this the echoes of dangers past propagated by the newly woken dragon’s presence?” I wondered more than once.

“Could it be the normal anxieties of starting a cold, hard, sufferfest expedition in a remote, cold place? I asked myself over and over again.

“Should I take this message seriously?” I mused.

Pinned to our backs in our tents for the better part of three days as 175 km/hr gusts pummelled our camp, my mind wrestled with these and other questions. It was like watching a Saturday cartoon where the questions and answered wrestled in a swirling ball of animated fur and feathers. At the end of each storm-filled night, I waited with dreaded anticipation of the day’s plan.

“Were we headed up higher or staying put?” I called out of the tent when I heard footsteps in the morning.

On each of the three mornings where the answer was that we were staying put, intense and immense waves of relief washed over me and I proceeded to have a good day reading, putzing, eating, drinking, and navigating the world of expedition tent-boundness.

On the fourth morning, the storm wasn’t quite finished but it had dropped enough to allow us to travel up or down. We were running low on food at Camp One so we soon had to choose one direction or the other. Down to base camp to re-fill or up to Camp Two to continue climbing. When word arrived that we were moving up, most, if not all except me, rejoiced in finally being freed to continue the expedition. I, when hearing the up direction, was immediately buried with a sense of doom and dread and heaviness.

The whisper became more insistent, “DON’T GO, DON”T GO, DON”T GO TO CAMP TWO”, it yelled. I spoke to the guides and expressed some of my doubts and sought out the options. They were kind and understanding and offered words to calm and soothe the ever-louding voice. With that in place, I agreed to make a go for Camp Two. I started to pack. I grew nauseous. I breathed. I packed. I chased the thoughts and tried to catch them to understand their meaning. I thought about Andy who was on the trip at my invite. I thought about all the dreams I was carrying. I packed more. I stepped out from the tent into the wind and took down the tent. I packed my sled. Put on my harness. I helped others pack.

Each new gust of wind magnified the echoing message, “Don’t go, don’t go.”

I moved my gear to the rope. I tied in my sled. I tied in my harness. I clipped in my boots. We started to ski in unison across the flat expanse of the glacier. This time, movement didn’t quell the dragon. It didn’t quell the voice.

Both were screaming, “Don’t go, don’t go.”

I skied with them that way for about an hour hoping the gentle swaying of my arms and rhythmic swinging of my legs might lull the message away so that I would not have to disappoint Andy, my followers, myself. As the last team pulled up beside us and was about to pass, I know this was my last chance to listen to the week-long voice that was urging me to not go higher on the mountain without impacting another teammate.

If I waited any longer to listen and the other rope team went past, I was either locked in to going all the way to Camp Two or asking a teammate to help bring me back to basecamp. Wanting to inconvenience as few other people as possible, I decided, in that fleeting moment to listen. To listen to the voice that has kept me safe on 26 expeditions in the past decade. To listen to the causes and conditions that weren’t quite coming together for me to feel comfortable going higher. To listen to my heart and to my mind. To, for this once, seek safely and comfort instead of adversity. To recognize that although I was physically strong enough, skilled enough, and all packed and ready to go, I didn’t have to. I could have the courage to turn. To listen. To live to climb another day.

Decision made, I was flooded once again with tsunamis of relief. Both Andy and I were in tears as we parted. I wished him the summit and safe return. I turned my back to the mountain, leaving it and the don’t go voice there, and skied back to base camp. I’ll never know what would have happened if I’d continued up, life’s like that. Each day, we navigate thousands of intersections/decisions, some we immediately perceive the impact of, many we do not.

I’m home safe. I’m sad. I’m grieving for the lost climb and for unloved/lost experiences. I’d been dreaming a fairy tale of book-ending an amazing decade of expeditions with Arctic summits, but alas, the dragon showed up and the ending to the story is still being written.

Mission 5959 turned into Mission 4100 and I thank all of those who entrusted their dreams to me to carry as high as I could on the mountain. Dreams don’t always come true…at least on the first go…sometimes needing two, or three, or hundreds of goes. Sometimes dreams shift. They morph. They meld. Sometimes we give up on them. Sometimes they give up on us. Mostly, they are there as beacons asking us to climb high, climb far, and reach for an unknown sky. The summit is just one piece of topography, much like all the others, and I’m grateful for all of your love, care, and compassion as I traverse much of life’s topography climbing, skiing, paddling, and walking towards my dreams.

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14 Responses to Mission 5959 Wrap-Up: Listening to Whispers and the Dragon’s Tongue

  1. Les Barbour says:

    TA-just read your wrap-up. A hard call to make but the right one. That voice inside is one you should never ignore no matter what could have been. You’re safe and that’s what matters…Les

    • TA Loeffler says:

      Thanks Les! I have made the commitment to listen to that voice…and it’s worked so far…even if it doesn’t always get me to the top…it does get me climbing again.

  2. Shelagh says:

    While you may understandably feel sad for what might have been, the fact that you felt such overwhelming relief when you made the difficult decision says to me that it was the right one. I truly admire you for that….I know it wasn’t an easy choice. Glad you are home safely!

    • TA Loeffler says:

      Thanks Shelagh…not an easy choice and now the relief has given way to grief and sadness…but I still do remember the profound relief…because I made the choice I did, I can always go back and try again…TA sometimes stands for try again.

  3. Sarah says:

    How brave of you to turn back! When I listen to That Voice, I never know what might have happened–maybe nothing!–but I know for sure that when I don’t, it ain’t good. Let’s see, there was the time I got mugged in Philadelphia, had my car rear-ended in a hit and run, broke my arm in a motorcycle accident . . . . I could go on. Yet I still find it difficult to back off! IMHO you chose the better path.

  4. Jill Upton says:

    That you share your vulnerability is just so admirable, TA. It is such an endearing quality. The longer I “know” you, the more admiration I have for you. You are an outstanding human being! Great writing skill too.

  5. Denise says:

    It takes great courage to listen to the voice, my friend. You’re an inspiration in so many ways, TA, but your humanness is, perhaps, most inspiring of all. xx

    • TA Loeffler says:

      Thanks Denise…the team summitted on Saturday and I am simultaneously thrilled for them and sad for me…good thing Buddhism taught me how 🙂 I’ll never know what would have happened if I stayed…the mountain is there…will continue to be there and I can follow my heart/mind there again if the I am so moved

  6. Lisa M says:

    As always TA not matter the summits or travels back to base camp you always carry yourself in such a positive and inspiring way that it helps others get through their challenges in life. I always want to thank you for that TA. The people who look up to you and share your dreams will always be here. Keep on keeping on. 🙂

  7. Georgina Short says:

    TA,
    If I was a skilled writer like you – I could write you something brilliant here in very few words. Instead, you will have to settle for my heartfelt message of love and respect.

    You have many talents (far too many to list) and one of your best may be your ability to listen!!! Good for you to listen and have the courage to accept your inner voice.

    When you said, “I have made the commitment to listen to that voice…and it’s worked so far…even if it doesn’t always get me to the top…it does get me climbing again …”

    My friend, you need to redefine your definition of “Top”. You’re an inspiration in so many ways!
    Welcome Home ~ Take care,
    Georgina

    • TA Loeffler says:

      Thanks Georgina…lovely to hear from you. I appreciate your support of my listening. It’s kept me safe in many situations and I value getting home from any adventure much more than the “top” wherever that is. It turns out that my team made the top and I’m thrilled for them. They worked hard, stayed safe, and climbed very quickly. I’m sad for all the experiences I missed but not sad for missing the top. I counted up my country high points yesterday and saw that I’d been to the high points of 11 countries and had tried to reach the tops of 7 others…there are so many things that stop mountaineers from getting to the summit: weather, avalanches, crevasses, route-finding, lack of time, lack of access, group dynamics, health, etc…so that I always try to go into any climb with the aim of enjoying and experiencing each moment and that the summit is icing on the top…I’m sure you’ve had many times where listening to your inner voice gave direction and kept you safe…thanks again for writing.

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