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?

 

A Complex Act Of Crying

I’ve written before, unapologetically, on this blog, about my lachrymose tendencies: I cry a lot, and I dig it. One person who has noticed this tendency and commented on it is my daughter. She’s seen ‘the good and the bad’: once, overcome by shame and guilt for having reprimanded her a little too harshly, I broke down in tears as I apologized to her; my daughter, bemused, accepted my apology in silence. Sometimes, my daughter has noticed my voice quiver and break as I’ve tried to read her something which moved me deeply; the most recent occurrence came when I read to her a children’s book on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.–as I began to tell my daughter about the first time I, as a teenager, had experienced the King legend in a televised documentary. I had to stop reading, hand over those duties to my wife, and watch as my daughter heard the rest the book read to her. And, of course, because my daughter and I often listen to music together, my daughter has seen me respond to music with tears. On these occasions, she is convinced that I’m crying because I’m ‘so happy!’

In recent times the song that has served to induce tears in me almost immediately is Chrissie Hynde‘s cover of Bob Dylan‘s ‘I Shall Be Released‘ at the 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration in 1997. (Here is a music video of the  performance; the audio can be found, among other places on Spotify.) No matter what, whenever my daughter and I have sat down some evening–in between dinner and bath and story time–to watch and listen to Chrissie Hynde put her unique and distinctive touch on Dylan’s classic (ably backed up by one of the best house bands of all time – GE Smith and Booker T and the MGs among others), tears spring to my eyes. I’m not sure why; the lyrics are powerful and speak to release, redemption, deliverance, and salvation; it is almost impossible for me to not, at this stage, read so much of the song’s message into a promise of kind directed at my way, at my particular ‘prison’–of the self and its seemingly perennial, unresolvable, crises and challenges. Something in those lyrics–and their singing by Hynde–seemed to offer reassurance, kindly and gently, and with, dare I say it, an existential love for all fellow human sufferers.

So I cry. And my daughter notices. She is both delighted and ever so slightly perplexed; this is her father, a fount of both affection and discipline, a man who struggles at the best of times to find the right balance between gentleness and firmness. She is curious, and so lately, when we play the song, she takes her eyes off the screen to look at me instead; she is waiting for me to cry; and on every occasion, I have ‘come through.’ Now, the song has acquired another dimension for my daughter; she wants to play it so she can see her father cry because he is ‘so happy.’ I don’t have the heart to tell her that my feelings are a little more complicated, and besides, it is true, I’m almost ecstatic as I begin to cry, to feel a little more, and to see my daughter break out in a huge smile.

And so now, if I listen to this song by myself, either on video or audio, I cry again, but something has been added to the song: my daughter’s reaction to it, to my crying. Its emotional texture is richer, more meaningful now; now when I listen to it, I see her turn to gaze into my eyes, looking for the first hint of moisture that will tell her that Papa’s reserve is no more. And I know that years from now, when I listen to this song again, I will cry again, because its lyrics will not just carry their original emotional resonance but also the memory of those days when I used to watch and listen to it with a five-year old girl, now grown older, wiser, and perhaps less inclined to spend such time with her father. That knowledge makes these moments even more powerfully emotionally informed; and yes, even more tear-inducing. A welcome situation.

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.

Learning To Live With The Fear Of Heights

I’m terrified of heights; vertigo, nausea, fear, and anxiety instantly make an appearance as I near an airy ledge of any kind. Cliffs in the wilderness, building balconies, these all induce these effects in me. My fear of heights bothers me; I like hiking, I like mountain views, and the best ones are always up among the regions where my fears are at their most insistent, clamoring for attention, demanding control of my body and brain. I gaze at photos of mountaineers on ridges and summits and ice walls, and I’m thrilled and nauseated alike. I want to be up there, but I know what I will feel: terror. During my boarding school years, in the tenth grade, I took up rock climbing in an effort to try to either master, or co-exist with, this fear. Those motivations were quite conscious; I hoped to move on past the worst aspects of those sensations so I could enjoy the mountains. My rock climbing was elementary but I did achieve a moment of acute insight once while abseiling down a training cliff: my feet slipped momentarily, I swung back hard into the rock face, and panicked. Around me, mists swirled, and below me lurked a seemingly bottomless chasm. As I called for help, my instructor yelled at me to push away from the cliff and continue moving down. I was not going to be rescued. A few seconds later, I came to an overhang, pushed out, and smoothly swung down to the floor to come to rest; I was exhilarated. I had encountered trouble in a scary place, and somehow, I had moved on–despite my fears. I had seen a glimmer of a better place; perhaps by controlled exposure to heights, I could learn to live with my fears well enough to be able to travel to places I wanted to see.

Over the years, this insight faded; I left my boarding school in the hills, returned to the plains, graduated from school and college, migrated; I’d gone back to my old ways. I continued to hike in the mountains, but I never took up any kind of climbing again. I remained scared of the heights.

Sometime last year, I began resolving to push myself back to the heights, to train, formally and informally, to get back to trying to ‘master’ those old fears of mine. I took a climbing course in New Hampshire, and an ice climbing course in the Catskills; neither of those classes involved exposure to great heights, but I hoped to start learning those skills and techniques which would let me make a foray to places where I would encounter them. I also hoped to start pushing myself to, er, ‘expose’ myself to, exposure.

This past week’s hike to Mt. Yamnuska–while ostensibly an elementary recreational jaunt, one that thousands of local teenagers pull off every year–thus constituted an integral part of this strategy; the tiny cabled ‘via ferrata‘ section on its approach had filled me with much trepidation when I had first read about it, and so it made eminent sense to attempt it. Online guides said it was not for the ‘faint of heart’; I thought I recognized myself, the very faint of heart. The evening before the hike, I was suddenly struck with fear and doubt; What if I slipped? What if I fell? What if I looked down?

On the day of the hike, the cabled section finally made its appearance; one hiking partner went first, and I followed next. Because the cable is strung tight, it affords a comfortably secure grip as the ledge is traversed; there was one tricky section where the slack in the cable sent me alarmingly into open air. I hung on, slid my hands across, as I hung on tight and moved on. There was some genuine fear in there for a second, but it subsided. A second later, I was done. The summit was a short scramble away. (Interestingly enough, because you have to concentrate on your grip and the placement of your feet, there is little time to think about the exposure behind and below; a very useful lesson.)

I feel faintly ridiculous as I write these words; all I had done was walk across a short section of a cliff ledge, all the while hanging on to a cable. But these sorts of things add up, I suppose, and I can only hope they continue to. I don’t think I’ll ever ‘master’ my fear of heights, but perhaps I’ll learn to live with them in a way that will allow me access to those regions up among the clouds that do so much to lift my spirits.

Perfect Strangers: Seeing And Hearing Ourselves

Here is a familiar phenomenon: we hear an audio recording of ourselves and are surprised and perplexed to find out we are listening to a stranger; we are used to hearing our voices from the ‘inside’; but when we hear a recording, we do so from the ‘outside.’ The timbre and tone of our voice is unfamiliar; we suddenly realize that the impact we imagine our words to have, the physical presence we think we command with our pronouncements, differs from that which we imagined it to be. Despite understanding the physics of this acoustic phenomena, it retains some of its mystery, continuing to imbue our daily conversations with an air of strangeness. A related phenomenon is finding out that you have an ‘accent’; soon after I arrived in the US some thirty years ago, I was informed of this fact, and it surprised me to no end. Where was it? I couldn’t hear it; I didn’t know what it was, even though I knew Americans spoke English in a manner quite distinct from mine.

But it is not just in the aural dimension that this perplexity arises: sometimes we observe a video recording of ourselves and find that we are strangers at home again. Our body language seems awkward, not as smooth as we hoped it be; our gestures not as practiced; our facial expressions seem to convey too much, too little; the emotions that we thought we were conveying are not the ones that are seemingly being transmitted by our bodies. As a teacher, used to ‘performing’ for ‘audiences’ of students, I am often disconcerted by my awareness of this gap in perceptions; I have never seen a video of myself teaching, though I have one of a conference presentation I made a few years ago; the viewing experience was, to put it mildly, jarring. I have never been able to view that twenty-minute video in its entirety; I switch it off after a few minutes, unable to reconcile myself to the presence of that stranger up on stage, pacing back and forth, his hands sometimes in his pocket, sometimes adjusting his eyeglasses, sometimes pointing at the projection screen.

We are used to being ‘misperceived’ because of language, of course; we write letters and essays and find ourselves unable to convey in untangled form the straight lines of the emotions and thoughts we entertain; we complain, voluminously, of how language renders us inarticulate; we seek refuge in terms like ‘ineffable’; some even invoke Nietzsche and say ‘whatever we have words for is already dead in our hearts; and so on. But we had imagined that there was at least one dimension in which we would be seen and heard clearly; and the audio and video recording tells us that even that comfort is denied us.

There is the ‘outside me,’ the one the world sees and hears, and there is the ‘inside me.’ We imagine ourselves to be physically ‘transparent,’ clearly visible to all, but we seem to always don a mask, one we cannot remove. We realize that our selves are personas, masks we use to navigate our way through this world, but we had imagined that was because we were selective in what we let ‘out’; but even that reminds us of the gap between what we sense from the ‘inside’ and what the world views from the ‘outside.’ Strangers in a strange land, indeed.

The Joys Of Crying

I cry easily; so I cry a lot. Many, many things set me off: movies, songs, talking about my parents, a sportsman’s death, showing my daughter music videos of songs that I listened to as a teenager, Saturn V liftoffs, the misfortune of others in the world’s ‘disaster zones,’ witnessing random acts of kindness on the subway, a busker hitting all the right notes, political disaster–the list goes on, and it doesn’t seem to settle into a coherent pattern. Nostalgia features prominently here; as does a new-found vulnerability and fearfulness made vividly manifest after my daughter’s entry into this world. I’m an immigrant and adult orphan, so memories are especially precious; and I suspect they color my perception of most things I encounter on my daily journeys through work and parenting and the usual reading and writing. (A beautiful turn of phrase, a fictional character’s terrible, tragic fate can also get the tear glands working overtime.)

As I wrote here a while ago:

I’ve become a better, not worse, crier over the years. Growing up hasn’t made me cry less, now that I’m all ‘grown-up’ and a really big boy. Au contraire, I cry–roughly defined as ‘tears in the eyes’ or ‘lumps in the throat which leave me incapable of speech’ even if not ‘sobbing’–more. There is more to cry about now, more to get the tear glands working overtime: more memories, more days gone by, more nostalgia, more regrets, more friends gone, never to return, more evidence of this world’s implacable indifference to our hopes and desires–for ourselves and ours. I cry in company–sometimes, when I’m trying to tell a story and realize I cannot proceed; I cry when I’m alone. I cry on my couch when watching a movie. And just to make sure I’m a genuine New Yorker, I’ve cried on the subway.

Truth is, crying feels good. It is actually intensely pleasurable; to cry is to feel alive, powerfully so. I am not jaded and cynical, impervious to things that should hurt or feel good; crying tells me I’m still capable of powerful emotional responses, that I have not become blasé to this world’s offerings.  Crying slows things down; for its duration, there is an intense concentration on the engendered emotion. All else falls away; in a world of eternal distraction, in which time has sped up, where all is a whirl, crying is a blessing.

But crying isn’t just a reaction to an external event or stimulus; it’s an act of communication with oneself. Crying is informative, a message from self to self. It tells me what hurts, what feels good, what I remember, who I miss, what got under my skin, and stayed there. It informs others too, of course, about who I am, but that is not its most important function. That honor is reserved for the self-knowledge it makes possible, the picture it completes of me, the reminder it provides that I’m many things and many people, spread out over time and space, still trying to hang together.