I was asked by an undergraduate theatre student who is studying the idea of summiting Everest as performance to answer some questions for an end of semester paper. Given time is easily filled right now with tasks, I thought I would “time deepen” by both answering the student’s questions and create a blog post. My answers to the questions are below.
- What differences are there between the idea of climbing Everest and the reality of climbing Everest?
The differences can be both few and many. Initially, many of my ideas about climbing Everest were shaped by reading climbing narratives, watching documentaries, and talking to climbers who’d been there. Now, my ideas are informed by my experiences of climbing it in the past. Ideas of climbing Everest include hard, arduous, dangerous climbing; the beautiful, stark, white and blue experience of the high altitude world; the absolutely humbling and soul-denuding effects of hypoxia on the mind, spirit, and body; the deep, rich, dark loam of a peering into and above life’s meaning and journey; and finally, well not really finally because I continuously seek the words to express what Everest means, …an almost universal metaphor/analogy for challenge, struggle, odyssey, and overcoming.
- What do you feel is the greatest risk, besides physical harm, in climbing Everest? The greatest reward?
Besides physical harm, there is risk of mental and spiritual harm as well as the potential for great mental and spiritual growth. Much like the promises of investing in the stock market, sometimes with the greatest risk, comes the greatest reward. Everest humbles. Everest, like sky burial, strips you back to the bare gleaming bones of your existence. It cuts you open and splays you about the glacier rubble and shards of ice. It asks much, rather it demands much. Both of our inner lives and outer lives. The greatest risk is not being able to endure the humbling; to leave the mountain shattered and broken rather than deeply and forever changed/enriched by having braved its slopes. The greatest reward is surviving the humbling; leaving the mountain elevated with a greater sense of strength, power, and purpose. Of seeing the view and knowing what to climb, figuratively or literally, next.
- Could you detail your “rehearsal process”? That is, could you outline the training you have done for a summit attempt?
I try to rehearse much of the climb. I live at sea level so some creativity is in order. I pull tires up our most iconic hill. Why? Because the tire makes me work very hard physically. It strengths my body. It also strengthens my mind by demanding I rehearse patience. The tires double the time it takes me to climb the hill. I can’t get their fast. Nothing on Everest is fast. It requires great patience and great perseverance. I practice the technical skills I need. I practice clipping and unclipping my ascender with large mitts. I rehearse which pocket I will use for lip balm. I practice eating. Drinking. Peeing. I practice urinating with a pee funnel because to mess up and spill urine inside my down suit might cost me the climb. I rehearse being uncomfortable and staying in that discomfort. As Buddhists say, I practice “Holding my seat.” I visualize myself climbing the Lhotse Face, dressing for a summit attempt, pushing through adversity, asking for help, being slow, wanting to quit and choosing to keep taking step by step.
- Do you have any particular rituals you perform before you climb or good luck charms you carry with you?
I always put my left boot on first. This ritual starting with my hockey skates and continues with my climbing gear. Left boot first. It relaxes me and puts me into a focus of preparation. I always climb with both the protection cords and card given to me by Lama Geshe during pre-climb blessings. Again, these are reminders of /invitations to mindfulness and being present in each moment. I carry a small string of prayer flags that I first carried to the summit of Mt. Elbrus and every peak since. I carried them to honour my dad and still do. I take a kata (blessing scarf) as well for protection, blessing, and safe journey. On Himalayan climbs, I visit the puja alter, burn juniper and circle it three times before climbing.
- What changes about you once you’ve summited a mountain? What do you think summiting Everest changes about you?
Everything changes and nothing changes. Each experience we have, whether on a mountain or not, changes us. We are propelled towards junctions and turns and dead ends almost in every moment. Standing on the summit invites us to capture that moment into memory, to cherish the journey of getting there, of revelling in the view and wonder of what we see from such a height. I am usually filled with a sense of accomplishment, of gratitude, and of humility when I’ve been privileged to stand atop of a peak (both mountainous ones and other kinds of peak experiences as well). I’m not sure how summiting Everest will change me-I’ll have to get back to you on that but my hope in making the attempt is that I emerge from the experience enhanced, inspired, and eager to share what I learned and saw and celebrating in getting there.