It was a hard fought summit. I was only a step below the needle point. And I stopped. No human had stepped upon this summit before though many had tried, few even perished in the attempt. It had taken my team over four weeks of sheer hell to reach where we were. As usual I was leading the pack of the first summit team. Frozen walls of ice, tumbled down into oblivion all around us. They were so steep that I could lean out and see all the way to the bottom of the wall around 1600m below. I had been dreaming of this summit for many years, since I had first set my eyes upon it from a neighbouring summit. Since then I had been dreaming that one day I would step upon the crown of this majestic peak, spearing into the blue sky like a silent sentinel. Yet I stopped only a step below.
I didn’t wish to go any further. I didn’t wish to step upon this elusive summit, of which I have been dreaming for so many years. It was strange. All my anxiety, excitement, agony, everything suddenly evaporated at that moment. Suddenly, with no apparent reason, I had no more desire to be the first human to be there. I wanted to retreat and go down. I relayed my decision to my second in command who stood few meters below me. He gasped and gaped. He presumed I must have completely lost my mind. I told him to continue with the rest of the three climbers and get the summit shots, while I would abseil down by myself. My team created history and those who stood atop received the highest accolades in the climbing world. I was only mentioned as the leader of this pioneering expedition.
For many years thereafter I myself couldn’t explain the rationality of it all. Why would I, right at the verge of success and glory, would give it up and go down peacefully. It never bothered me thereafter that I allowed personal success to literally slip through my fingers. I had reached a place where no human had reached before and I was at peace with that, having satisfied my own sense of accomplishments and I didn’t wish to go any further, not even one step that would take me to the very summit. It’s akin to running a marathon in record time and then just one step before the finishing tape, to stop and retreat allowing others to go ahead. Totally insane, everybody opined of that day. People always knew that I was crazy but they all said that on that day I actually lost it.
For long I didn’t try to analyze my action or tried to recall what thoughts did actually go through my mind at that moment. Just allowed it to blend into the history of my climbing career. Just like any other climb, with seemingly little to ponder about. As a matter of fact, even today as I am writing about that day, I can’t find a reason for my actions. But someone I spoke to today, triggered this thought.
And today, after a gap of nearly 20 years I can only theorize some rationality, for I am sure there was one as I know that I hadn’t lost it though I continue to be as crazy as I always was.
Firstly, I feel that right at that point, suddenly the mountain spoke to me and asked me to go down; she said: this far and no more for you. You must go down. Others can continue. And as always I obeyed the mountain without hesitation. I descended. Why would the mountain do that I have no idea, since the day was glorious, weather perfect and there were no objective hazards at all. In fact on that day and the next, everyone who summitted, came back without any problems at all.
Secondly I think since for me the destination (the true summit) wasn’t prized at all as I prized the journey, and what a journey it had been. I had nearly cracked my skull and broken my neck in a crazy 30 m fall pendulum during this expedition. And right from the word go we have had crazy conditions. Crevasses, avalanches, ice falls, collapsing seracs, falling ice and rocks, poor mixed conditions, incessant snow and zero visibility and the unrelenting slope of ice and rock, you name it, this climb had it. So I guess by the time I reached there, my desire had been quenched and I sought nothing further.
Finally at a very fundamental level, I think I didn’t wish to complete this journey by actually stepping upon the summit. When I am asked (and I am asked often) which has been my most challenging and memorable climbs, I always mention the ones where I failed (in a normal manner of speaking) to summit. To me these climbs are still incomplete journeys and hence more exciting as I do not know nor can I tell with certainty how they would have ended had I continued. It is the element of unknown and a journey that is incomplete, therefore offering me infinite possibilities to ponder, which makes it more memorable. So was the case with this climb. Since I would never return to this mountain, it would always remain incomplete and an enigma.
In a manner of speaking this climb hasn’t ended for me yet and I would continue to climb it all my life. Since the question will always remain, what if! Now if that isn’t a good reason to not climb a mountain then what else it could it be.
Call me crazy or insane I have my own reasons to do or not to do something. But my highest quest has always been a never ending journey, where I am always reaching nearer and nearer yet never quite reaching.
Happy climbing and never ending journeys my friends!