Earlier this week a friend died in a climbing accident. He wasn’t just another regular bloke hanging off vertical walls. He was a master of his game, as badass as they come, yet he died. His safety system had perhaps failed or perhaps the rock upon which he rested came off. We would never know; he was climbing free-solo, risking his life to a level unacceptable to most. It’s the level where there is absolutely no room for error, subjective or objective. It doesn’t matter whether you failed or the mountain failed; ultimately it’s the climber who is lying dead at the bottom. And this incident jolted me out of a falsified dream I have been living through most of my adult life. It wasn’t his death that did this but the possibility that if he hadn’t died; then what?
I am a firm believer of destiny in matter of death. It is already destined by some divine power or yet unexplained scientific phenomenon that our time and date of death is fixed and nothing can change it. What isn’t determined though is the methodology and location; which we can influence by our actions through life. I don’t mind dying at all, either today, tomorrow or in the next twenty years. And if I die upon a mountain then that would be my absolute achievement in a self-fulfilling prophecy. What I do mind though that I am involved in a major accident and I don’t die. What if that day is not my destiny to die, yet I am involved in such a major accident that paralyzes me for the rest of my life or bereft me of any body part, vision, or any major functional organ; or leaves me brain dead. A sorry pitiable vegetable of human form dependent upon others for even a tiny bit of sustenance. Now that’s the kind of life I am absolutely not ready to accept.
Death is destined, accidents are not.
I have taken risks all my life; calculated often, deliberate always and at times completely stepping into the unknown. There has always been a palpitating fear or adrenalin rush, even if remotely and for an instant, the risk has always heightened my sense of existence since only at the verge of risking everything do we realize how much or what we have that is worth risking. Often I have debated at the brink of oblivion if I should take that step, if it was the right step, if it was logical for me to take it; yet each time I realized that at such points in life you don’t need logic but faith and belief and as we all know, faith and belief are matters of the heart. There is no place for logic or hard wired calculation. You feel, you jump, you step... ready to face the music: life or death or accident. Most of the times I lived and didn’t have any major injury.
Yet I have had major accidents in my lifelong pursuit of the vertical world. I have broken bones, been into coma, torn ligaments, suffered concussions, blindness, amnesia, brain death, permanent memory loss, near loss of body parts due freezing, distorted physical dimensions, etc, etc the last major one being in 2009 when I popped my knee while free-soloing a 300m frozen couloir in the godforsaken crags of northern Scotland in the middle of a blazing winter; right during my birthday week. I recovered more or less from each one of these misadventures. But now, as I zip across each day further away and above 50 I discover that my body isn’t able to recover or recuperate as before.
To understand this chain of thoughts within me and to justify in some way I called up my long time friend Willie (name changed), who is one of the finest British climbers of this generation, who stopped climbing at 52 and now runs a bakery shop along with his wife in a beautiful Scottish village in complete anonymity. I can assure you his climbs were and continue to remain among the most audacious and insane of my generation. Yet one fine morning he hung up his climbing gear, bought a run-down bakery and turned it around into a highly delicatessen store. In his last piece in the Alpine journal he had written: I have dedicated my entire life to climbing now it’s time for me to do something else, something different yet equally challenging and risky. For without risk and challenges I cannot survive. Running a delicatessen I guess was right up his risk propensity.
Willie listened to me and said: this had to happen someday my friend, I am glad it has hit you. We, you and I, can still climb Eiger diretissima (a much coveted and seldom climbed route on Eiger North Face, one of the iconic climbs that I and Willie had wanted to do together someday, but never did), but I choose not to. I find it equally beautiful just by appreciating it from afar while sipping my espresso and holding hands of my kids. My friend, climbing and the mountains taught me one thing that life is indeed beautiful and worth taking risk for but the risk has to compensate for what you stand to lose; if you lose. And one day you will surely lose. Now I run my bakery and nearly every day is like climbing a new mountain with no idea what will happen at the end of the day, and it’s so much fun, at least I know that no matter what I will not lose my digits to cold and there’s always a loved one nearby to hold when my time is up, and if not then there’s at least one hot bun or croissant and a piping hot cup of espresso to polish my final hours; and I can tell you my friend they are pretty much the same thing.
Willie made me realize that there are other pleasures and pursuits in life that are equally challenging and risky but without the risk of accidents like upon the mountains. Can I ever be like him, to completely stop climbing and dedicate my time to some other pursuit! That’s something seemingly impossible that only time can tell. But for now it did give me respite that my thoughts were natural and not a show of weakness on my part. No one does the same thing all through life or at the same level. May be it was time for me to try something different.
I have begin to realize more and more that while on the mountain I still match pace with climbers half my age but when I hit horizontal ground I take much longer to recover. I discover aches and pains in parts I didn’t know existed or could be such. I realize what my orthopaedic friends have been telling me over the years; I need to slow down or downsize my climbing goals. I realized that I am not enjoying as much the long rigorous days of foolhardy slobbering through snow and ice and raging blizzards or hauling heavy packs over months at Himalayan scale. I realized I am thinking more of beautiful sunny mountains and exploring the lesser ranges around the world where I can reach a shelter or hot bakery between a week. I am discovering few questions within me, biggest of them being what if I don’t die. I am worried of not dying in an accident that is designed by my own reckless action. I don’t wish to lie in hospitals swathed in bandages or plasters hooked on to life saving system; I don’t want to be on a wheelchair for the rest of my days. I am scared that I may not die so soon, yet I do wish to die in the mountains therefore I must do something so I am able to continue climbing till the last day of my life.
I had always neglected this debate in my mind but the death of my friend finally brought it out clearly. I realize I have responsibilities of passing on my legacy and to those who love me (I had always avoided looking at this) to reciprocate their love and kindness. I have responsibilities to those who followed me and my climbs, I have responsibilities to all the social projects that I have started and must complete. I have responsibilities towards people who believe in me, care about me. I have been living in the most selfish way, since climbing is a selfish pursuit, and to climb at the level where there are no boundaries is to take that selfishness to a level of insanity. Finally above all I have responsibilities to my own self, of leading a healthy and happy life. But the point is that I must continue to climb at the edge, yet reduce the risk of accidents without reducing the prospect of death. I must continue to risk since I am yet to discover myself; I must continue to risk because without risk you cannot achieve your dreams; I must continue to risk since risk is progress and I cannot stay still at the place where I am. And most importantly I must continue to risk because life itself is risk.
If we are not willing to risk then we should not be living at all.
After another self-indulgent debate I came up with the following Ten Commandments that I would try to imply in my climbing from now on (these are exactly the opposite of the guidelines I have followed so far):
Not to attempt a route that I don’t feel absolutely sure of climbing purely from my physical and mental point of view (I may still not climb it due to bad weather)
Not to climb anything free-solo that should not be climbed free-solo
Not to climb without adequate protection and climbing gear
Not to climb with a partner that I am not comfortable or confident of
Not to climb with a complete stranger
Not to climb in zero visibility conditions or extreme hazardous weather (unless it is to retreat to safety)
Not to step into the unknown without thinking through it at least thrice in my mind
Not to neglect safeties and protections where they are available
Not to run down mountains ever
Not to climb an objectively hazardous route
Having decided upon my rules of climbing, I breathed a sigh of satisfaction that hopefully from now on my climbs won’t be that risky anymore. You guys still might see me hanging from places but you can be rest assured that I am taking all precautions and that I am super safe and my pants are surely hooked into something more solid than mere empty air. I will try my best not to risk accidents and injuries by climbing safe and slow, though I know that death, just as before, is sitting right on top of my helmet (which many times I didn’t put on) tempting me to make a subjective mistake.
My advice to all you young climbers out there, take risks by all means but be wise and calm when you decide to take them. Do not ever overlook safety and your own levels of risk propensity. Don’t let someone else with a higher risk appetite convince you to overstep your own; do overstep only when you are absolutely ready. It’s easy to raise your risk-taking capacity by training harder, by equipping better and by telling yourself that ‘I can do it.’ I am sure by the time you have put in few decades of climbing below your belt you would have found your own standards of risk and adventure, life and death and where you wish to be; just like I did after four decades of global gallivanting in search of adventure. But above all, no matter what you do, always follow my age-old dictum; that the main and perhaps only reason to do a climb or anything should be if you are having fun doing it. If you are happy taking risk and having fun even when your heart is about to burst out of fear then by all means go ahead and do step off into the unknown.
Happy climbing my friends, may the RISK be with you.