Mountain climbers fascinate me, especially solo climbers, who pit themselves against nature with minimal equipment and support. When I watch them climb, I see individuals who face brutal conditions and survive, even thrive and feed off the triumph of overcoming them. They pursue goals that may seem meaningless to many of us, by working their way up sheer walls of rock and ice, simply to do it first, to stand on some peak above the world around them. They suffer cold and heat, facing exhaustion and a litany of injuries, small and large, but press on, pause, and go back for more. They tell us, I think, that we don’t have to live without fear so much as embrace the edge it brings, and that we can burrow into the process and make it the goal as much as the peak itself. In many ways, they embody memento mori to me, in their willingness to face discomfort and death because today and its small wins are beautiful, and tomorrow is not guaranteed.
They fascinate me, but I find those lessons hard to internalize as I expect that many of you do. We resent the struggle and want to get to the finish line. We forget to look around at the wonder of where we are at because we forget that it may be all we have. We lose sight of the idea that what we do and where we are today are what matter because here, now, is what we have in our grasp. So on my last flight, I watched The Alpinist, a documentary about a talented young climber, Marc-André Leclerc. I watched him find joy in the mountains. I watched him take enormous risks and come out on top until one day, he didn’t. Then I watched the people who love him continue their lives, even taking on the same dangers he did because he would have been happy and proud to see it.
What I do, what most of us do, isn’t quite on the same knife edge. There are parallels, though, in the battles we do fight, and I’m thinking about them this morning as I stand on a much tamer mountainside, with my family of choice, and enjoy this incredible Monday morning. Tomorrow, I return to the rest of my life and the small and large battles there, but today, life is beautiful and that’s enough. I’ll leave you with some lines that struck me from The Alpinist, and hope you find a similar moment today.
“I don’t want to sound grim or fatalistic, but it’s, you know, undeniable that every time you go to the mountains, it could be your last time. So all these things that you love, you have to appreciate. Whatever dinner you’d want to possibly be your last dinner, you have to eat it. ‘Cause you’re going to the mountains.” -Marc-André Leclerc
“The whole game is very simple. We go somewhere we should not go. Where our own instinct is telling us, ‘do not go there.’ Many things can happen. We can fall. The storm can take us away. We know that we could die up there. But still we go there. We try to make real our dreams, our visions.” – Reinhold Messner
“The actual achievement doesn’t really change your life like you think it might when you’re building up to it, but what you’re left with is the journey that got you to that point. And if you have this big journey where you had to figure a lot of stuff out, you had to plan, and it was more immersive, and then you’re somewhere really beautiful for a long time, and then had to work really hard and overcome some kind of mental barrier, you’re left with so much more of a story or like a memory and an experience, and that’s what I find is the most important.” – Marc-André Leclerc
“If you fall and die, everyone thinks you’re an idiot…if you succeed, then everyone celebrates you as a big hero. But the reality is that you’re the same person either way.” – Alex Honnold
“What is it that you would do if you were able to overcome the things you see as limitations or the things you’re afraid of. What would you do?” – Michelle Kuipers (Marc-André’s mother)