Climbing The Grand Teton (And Finding Myself At The Top)

In August 2012, my wife and I went on a road-trip through parts of the American southwest and west: New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, and South Dakota were our most prominent destinations. We camped and hiked in several national parks; I made note of some of those experiences here.  Among the national parks we hiked in was Grand Teton National Park; there, we went on a day hike up to Surprise Lake. The views, as promised, were spectacular; we sat by the shores of an alpine lake and gazed at the surrounding peaks and glacial cirques, awed and humbled by the stunning setting for our well-earned picnic lunch. (My wife, by some measure the more enterprising of the two of us, even partook of what seemed like a bone-chilling dip in the waters of Surprise Lake.)

On the way back to the parking lot, we met climbers returning from their ascent of the Grand Teton. I stopped to ask how their climbing had gone; I was curious and envious in equal measure. I knew the views they must have enjoyed would have been even more spectacular than ours; and of course, mountaineers and climbers have always enthralled me with their feats. The climbers enthusiastically responded; they had made it to the summit in good time, and were now headed back to the parking lot for some well-earned rest. When I enquired further about their experience up on the peak, they replied that it had been a ‘totally doable climb; you’ve got to have a head for exposure, of course.’  On hearing this, I turned to my wife and said, “Yeah, that’s why I’ll never climb the Grand.”

I’m scared of heights and have been for as long as I can remember. Even the mention of exposure up on the mountains was enough to send a little chill through my heart. I wanted to see what the views from the summit of the Grand were like; I knew that up on its ridges and faces, I would encounter a spectacular alpine landscape. But it felt beyond my reach; quite simply, I did not have the mental wherewithal to venture into that domain.

This past August, I climbed the Grand Teton in the company of my guide, Chris Brown, (of Jackson Hole Mountain Guides) and another climber, Kirk Nelson. We ascended via the Pownall-Gilkey route, one made easier by the presence of roped slings on its most challenging pitch. There was some exposure but none of it paralyzed me; I had started to accept my unease at being exposed to precipitous cliffs as an inseparable part of the climbing experience.  When I made it to the summit, I was visibly overcome with emotion; at that moment, the feeling of having managed to work through one of the most persistent fears present in my being was among the most powerful I had experienced in a very long time. For I knew that at that moment, I had, in a manner of speaking, found entrance to a new world, one in which I would not be limited by a fear that would hold me back from venturing forth to explore its offerings. I had not imagined that this task was one I was capable of undertaking, but there, on that summit, I had proof of its successful accomplishment.  It was, as the cliche goes, a transformative experience; I saw myself in a whole new light.

Our self-discovery is not merely a matter of introspection; very often, if not always, it requires acts that change, by active construction, the person we are. And could become.

 

Summits As Virtuous Constraint

This past summer, on July 8th, as noted in a post here, I climbed Long’s Peak in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park. A minute or so after I stepped on to the summit, grabbed a quick sip of water, and removed my helmet, I shook my guide Rob Smith‘s hand, and thanked him profusely. I was close to being ecstatic. I had risen at midnight, picked up Rob at one am, and started hiking by 2AM. On the approach to the base of the North Face–from where we would pick up the Cables Route–I had been half-asleep, somehow willing myself to keep up with Rob as he motored along. As dawn  broke, and as the imposing massif of Long’s rose up above, I was feeling the effects of having gained some 3000 feet of elevation on an empty stomach and little sleep. The climbing and scrambling sections of the North Face were mercifully easier than that long, rock-and-boulder strewn approach march, and of course, they required more attention to technical detail, which induced its own alertness. Along with these physical sensations was a sense of foreboding and anticipation; I was keeping an eye on the weather for I did not want to be disappointed again. I had made plans to climb Long’s in the summer of 2017 and had been thwarted then–before we could even set foot on the trail. Then, the forecast had made Rob and I change our  plans the night before. Since then, my mind, overcome with disappointment, had immediately begun a downward spiral in the course of which I had kept track of all the summits I had been denied by bad weather conditions: Stok Kangri in 2011, Cotopaxi in 2018, Mt. Washington in 2016 and 2017. I had begun to believe I was jinxed in the mountains, that these twists of fortune only happened to those who were insufficiently prepared, who did not belong in the mountains. Doubt had crept into my mind that when my guides had suggested turning back on each of those routes, they had done so because they did not trust me to ascend successfully.

So when I stepped on the summit, a spell broke. Suddenly, I was reassured that I belonged here. I had been told that ‘Long’s Peak will be still here when you come back next summer’ but I hadn’t taken it to heart. Now, I did.  I had not ‘conquered’ anything, except, of course, for my own doubts and insecurities. And in this state of mind, it had become clear to me too, all over again, that a summit was not a thing to be conquered. Rather, as I saw it in the clear light of that Colorado morning, a summit was a virtuous constraint, one that clarified and organized my life, driving me onwards. The mountains were not a domain in which I went to find success for myself, to find targets to pick off, to rack up ‘kills’ and ‘hits’ and notches on my belt. They were instead, where I could go to accept failure, to reconcile myself to its inevitable presence, in some shape or form, in my life; they would teach me acceptance and forbearance and some measure of stoicism in the face of forces much, much greater than myself. My summit failures had kept on bringing me back to the mountains; they had induced me to train harder, to keep hoping. Yes, I had despaired too, but not entirely. After all, wasn’t I here, in the mountains, all over again?

 

Don’t Know What You Got Till It’s Gone: A Climbing Lesson

This past Saturday, after falling, for the proverbially umpteenth time, off a climbing route at The Cliffs in Long Island City, I walked off, wondering yet again, this time loudly enough for gym staff members to hear me, whether it was worse to have never climbed a route in the first place or to keep failing at a route that you have climbed once before. (In case you were wondering, this was a route I had climbed once but have not been able to top out on since then; clearly, the stars had aligned on the day I had climbed it for the first time.) A young man who works at the gym yelled back at me, “The second one!”

He was right. As Cinderella pointed out a long time ago, all the way back in the long-gone eighties, don’t know what you got till it’s gone. And things get worse when you set off in pursuit again of ‘it,’ all the while possessed by a peculiar sort of anxiety: What if the good news I had allowed myself to believe turns out to have just been a beguiling lie? What if the clouds had merely temporarily lifted, allowing for a glimpse of the promised land, and then closed again, cruelly tantalizing and mocking? As my note about the possibility of the stars aligning on the first ascent indicates, maybe my first ascent was just me ‘getting lucky,’ a ‘fluke’ of sorts that said nothing whatsoever my climbing ability or skills. These repeated failures were confirmation instead, of my true incompetence in climbing, my ‘I-don’t-belong-here’ status; they were exposures of this impostor who had dared venture out and up on these climbing walls with their frustratingly distant, slippery, and small holds.  I was a fool to have ever imagined I could be any good at this; shame on me for having let myself believe such a falsehood.

When climbing a route that has remained elusive, I sense a virtuous effort at play; I can easily ascribe nobility to my striving; I have never succeeded here, but I think I can, so I must keep trying; again and again and again. My perseverance and its accompanying failure acquires its own particular grace. But when I’m climbing a difficult route I have climbed before I am beset, quite easily, by the doubts and anxieties noted above.

A task that is potentially repeatable, and yet non-trivial–like a climb–thus allows us to inspect this interesting variant of anxiety and self-doubt. The positive counterpart to these worries is well-known: if you’ve done it once before, you can do it again. But we all know that not to be true; sometimes we grow slower, less adept, less skilled; we can’t always do it again.

Such anxieties and the variants I make note of here, are not easily conquered. They do, however, confirm the wisdom of the adage of staying in the moment: enjoy each moment (each success on each route) while it lasts; it might not be yours again.

Anger, Melancholia, And Distraction

Anger is a funny business; it’s an unpleasant emotion for those on the receiving end, and very often, in its effects, on those who are possessed by it. And there is no denying that it affords a pleasure of sorts to those consumed by it; it would not have the fatal attraction it does if it did not. That kind of anger, of course, is a righteous anger; we feel ourselves possessed by a sense of rectitude as we rail against those who have offended us; we are in the right, they are in the wrong, and the expression of our anger acts as a kind of confirmation of that ‘fact.’ But anger’s hangover is very often unpleasant, and among its vivid features is a crippling melancholia. We became angry because we had been ‘wounded’ in some shape or fashion, and while the expression of our anger is often a powerful and effective palliative against the pain of that injury, it is almost always a temporary one. What is left in its wake is a complex welter of emotions: we are sad, of course, because the hurt of the injury is still with us; we are fearful too, because we dread the same kind of injury again; our anger might have fatally wounded an important personal relationship or friendship; we might well have ventured out into unknown territory, fueled by anger, trusting it to guide us, but instead find ourselves at an unknown pass, one whose contours we do not know yet to navigate. (I used the word ‘possessed’ above deliberately to indicate a kind of capture or hijacking of the self; to describe a person ‘suffering’ from anger might be equally accurate in terms of describing the sense of being a patient, one helpless in the face of an emotion running wild.)

I write about anger and distraction and anxiety here because I suffer from all of them; they are my psychic burdens, my crosses to carry. On one view, anger and distraction both bottom out in a kind of anxiety and fear. As I noted recently, I do not think I will ever rid myself of anxiety; it is a state of being. Because of that, I do not think I will rid myself of anger either. Anger cripples me–not just in personal relationships but in another crucial domain as well; it corrodes and attenuates my ability to do creative work. This failure induces its own melancholia; my sense of self is wrapped up quite strongly in terms of not just my personal relationships and social roles and responsibilities–like being a husband and father and teacher–but also my reading and writing. (I’m loath to describe this activity of mine as ‘scholarship’ and am quite  happy to describe my intellectual status as ‘someone who likes to read and write.’) Reading and writing are well-nigh impossible in the febrile states induced by anger; among the terrible costs of anger this one brings with it an especially heavy burden for me. When I sought out a meditation practice a few years ago, one of my primary motivators was to ‘tame’ or ‘master’ this terrible beast somehow; it remains an ongoing struggle, one not helped by a falling off in my commitment to my meditation ‘sits.’ I write here, of course, as part of a process to try to reintroduce that in my life. More on that attempt anon.

A Good Loss Of (Parental) Self

The parenting life suffers from many disadvantages: reduced hours of sleep, a severely compromised household budget, loss of intimacy with one’s partner, anxiety, the destruction of professional ambitions and drive, the list goes on (and on.) Still, parenting does offer one huge, off-setting benefit: a shitty day can be redeemed by your child’s good day. Or, in other words: on any given day, you can afford to fuck up, so long as your child does well.

The way this works is a familiar trope for most parents; you spend time with your child, engaged with him or her in one of many activities, physical or mental, each with their own learning curve, each possessed of their own particular developmental significance; you notice that during each enterprise, minor and major roadblocks occur, each threatening to derail your child’s onward and upward triumphal march toward greater maturity and accomplishment; you become accustomed to a kind of anxious holding of your breath as your child undertakes each activity; and then, as each is successfully surmounted, you figuratively exhale. In relief. And pride.  Perhaps it’s walking, perhaps it’s talking, perhaps it’s reading or riding a bike; no matter the task, the parent becomes invested, to varying degrees, in the successful ‘completion’ of each, in the successful attainment of each benchmark, real or imaginary.

And so it comes to be. Just as you revise–in response to your child’s presence in your life–your ‘table of values’ pertaining to intellectual and romantic and professional satisfaction and achievement in your lifetime, your notion of ‘a good life,’ a ‘life well lived,’ so do you revise–in response to your child’s onward progress in their life–your micro-and-daily sense of a ‘good day.’ Speaking for myself, a ‘useless’ academic day–which consists of little or no ‘heavy’ or ‘serious’ reading, few words written or drafted–can now be redeemed by the discovery that my daughter has read or written a humble word or two; those ‘minor’ increments seem far more significant than my usual pursuit of an ever-receding, ever-inaccessible intellectual ideal. A day on which I’m possessed of the usual middle-aged anxiety about physical performance or ability is quite easily salvaged by finding out that my ‘little girl’ has accomplished a physical task that seemed intractable until only recently. (For instance, this afternoon, my daughter succeeded in climbing a couple of routes that had thus far proven too difficult for her in our local climbing gym; the elation I experienced on witnessing her wave at me from the top of the climbing wall was a salutary antidote to my sense of physical disrepair following a couple of days of dietary disasters. My mood is still ebullient and will likely remain thus till tomorrow.)

These experiences speak to an ‘alarming’ loss of parental self, of course; but the idea of a wholly autonomous self is already risible for most parents; we are used to welcoming the collapse and implosion of many boundaries formerly held to be sacrosanct. Some losses are good ones.

 

The Academic’s Peculiar Dissonance

The academic state of mind is distinguished, I think, by a peculiar kind of dissonance; the academic is able to entertain two conflicting states of being simultaneously; each informs the other and brings to it its peculiar intensity and torment.

At one end of its affective and emotional spectrum lies the well-known impostor syndrome: the academic worries that he or she is a fraud, unsuited to the rigorous demands of the profession that their life’s choices have brought them to; they are besides themselves with anxiety that one day they will be ‘found out’ or worse, that they will go through the rest of their lives living out this charade, one in which they have managed to somehow convince others–by a toxic combination of lies and artifice and outright dishonesty–that they are purveyors of knowledge, skilled and educated beyond the imaginings of most. They are shocked and surprised and intimidated by the blustering displays of knowledge that their fellow academics subject them to; they examine their own achievements and find them wanting in every dimension when compared with those of their colleagues and other contemporaries; they find that academic life, rather than providing for occasions in which their knowledge will be on display instead provides one forum after the other in which they find out just how much they don’t know; they enter a bookstore and retreat, intimidated by the talents on display; they are convinced their ability will never match up to all those who seem to effortlessly master domains of knowledge they themselves can only nibble at.

At the other end of the spectrum lies what I will call the ‘frustrated and unrecognized genius syndrome’: the academic is convinced that the world has failed to adequately recognize his unique and distinctive talents and knowledge, all the while paying obeisance and elevating to the highest reaches of their profession charlatans of all stripes. They look on with barely contained frustration and anger as accolades and recognition are funneled and channeled to those they consider unworthy; they consider themselves cheated by the vagaries of the fortunes of the academic world; their books and articles are unread, unremarked, uncited, falling stillborn from the press to be embalmed on the dusty shelves of libraries, while those of utter nincompoops are elevated to the status of icons; they look back on their intellectual careers and remark on its many contingent occurrences that could have, with a slight twist or two, catapulted them into those very zones whose air they yearn to breathe. They are always on the cusp of ‘making it’; but they never do; and they remain convinced that if only the chips had fallen in the right way, they would be where those they consider unworthy reside instead. Fate and fortune have been cruel; accursed is this world and its ways. A prophet is never recognized in his day and age.

This is an uncomfortable state of affairs at best; it afflicts students and professors alike. It infects the life of the mind with its own distinctive anxieties and neuroses; it may account for some of the depressing statistics pertaining to mental health in the profession.

Hug an academic today. Or not.

The Indifferent ‘Pain Of The World’

In All the Pretty Horses (Vintage International, New York, 1993, pp. 256-257), Cormac McCarthy writes:

He imagined the pain of the world to be like some formless parasitic being seeking out the warmth of human souls wherein to incubate and he thought he knew what made one liable to its visitations. What he had not known was that it was mindless and so had no way to know the limits of those souls and what he feared was that there might be no limits.

The ‘pain of the world’–its irreducible melancholia and absurdity, its indifference to our fortunes and loves and fears–can indeed feel like a malevolent being, a beast of a kind, one that may, if provoked, swat us about with a terrible malignity.  Here, in these impressions, we find archaic traces of an older imagination of ours; the formless fears of the child’s world have congealed into a seemingly solid mass, serving now as foundations for our anxious adult being. It is unsurprising that we have found ways to pay obeisance to this beast through prayer and fervent wishing and day dreaming and fantasy and incantations and magic and potions; we hope to pass unnoticed through its gauntlet, afraid to set astir the slumbering beast and provoke its attentions and wrath. As John Grady Cole, McCarthy’s character, notes, we fear two things especially about this beast: we suspect ourselves to be particularly vulnerable to its depredations, a particularly attractive prey for this predator; we fear we sport a bull’s eye on our backs, a scarlet letter that marks us out as an offender to be dealt with harshly; we fear there may be no limits to its appetites; we sense that lightning might strike not once, not twice, but without no constraint whatsoever; perhaps we ain’t seen nothin’ yet, and much more misfortune awaits us around the corner on life’s roads.

In our darkest moments we attribute a malevolent intelligence to this beast, but we know the worst eventuality of all would be a mindless beast, one whose ignorance of us and our capacity to tolerate pain could cause us to plumb unimaginable depths, to experience pain whose qualities defy description. (The fears of these sorts of mental chasms are expressed quite beautifully in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ mournful poem ‘No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief.’) McCarthy also seems to suggest the possibility of a presumption of ‘too much’ knowledge on Cole’s part–a la Oedipus, a possible arrogant claim to know the ways and means and methods and mind of the beast; but as McCarthy goes on to note, there is no mind here to be known, no rationale to be assessed, no strategy or tactic to be evaluated; there is merely being and man, caught up in its becoming. It is this irrelevance of man and his capacities and attributes to the working of this beast which is Cole’s deepest fear; it is ours too, the root and ground of the absurdist existentialist vision.