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My daughter and her fiancé have been backpacking all over Peru and Bolivia for a month and contrary to what you might suppose, I have not spent a great deal of time worrying about them. Peru, it seems, is a very friendly place with nice, helpful people who are kind to young travelers, of which there must be plenty, since Katie and Steve have met people from all over the world who are doing the same thing they are, traipsing about with everything on their backs having marvelous adventures. I know my daughter is well able to take care of herself and has excellent instincts so I have been happily sharing vicariously in their travels while remaining anxiety-free. Until last weekend that is, when my mountain loving future son-in-law decided to climb 20,089 ft up a mountain. Some of the hostels in which they stay have computer access and Katie keeps me informed of their doings, so I received an email on Thursday in which she informed me that her sweetheart was about to scale a glacial mountain with an unpronounceable name, the top of which was covered in ice and snow. They had made friends with an Australian couple and the two gentlemen decided that this was something they really wanted to do. The ladies wisely declined to accompany them.
Steve is an extremely fit, extraordinarily healthy and robust lover of the outdoors. He and Katie have climbed mountains before, but never to that height or in a situation that required serious equipment, and certainly never on anything that had ice and snow on it. Although Katie would not ever deter him from doing something he had dreamed about doing for years, she was naturally a bit worried about the whole business. We were chatting online when she expressed her concerns. I was upset with his choice of activities for my own reasons.
“Blast him,” I said. “Here I was going along quite nicely not worrying and he has to go and ruin it.”
Katie was admirably loyal to her man. “He isn't climbing a mountain just to yank your anxiety chain, Mom.”
I told him that I didn't care about his motives, all I cared about was the fact that I would have to spend an entire weekend fretting about him and conjuring up all kinds of horrible possibilities in my mind and I wasn't happy about it.
“Yeah, well, welcome to my world,” she sighed.
The fact of the matter is, I understand perfectly his desire to scale the stupid mountain. Frankly, I share his love of mountains and if I were still young I would want to do the same thing. The problem is that I have read numerous books written about climbers who scale the minimum 8,000 meter mountains, like Everest, Denali, and K2, and the margin for tragedy is beyond extreme. On some of those mountains you have a 1 in 4 probability of hideous death. My personal feeling is that climbing giant things covered in ice and snow where there is very little oxygen and frighteningly sudden changes in weather is probably insane. That, of course, may be a matter of opinion, but it just plain fact that it is extraordinarily dangerous. Steve was climbing 6,000 meters, not 8,000 – but how much less danger is in a lousy 2,000 meters? I love my daughter and I love this boy, and I don't want him climbing no stinking glaciers. So sue me.
But there is a part of me, my secret self, that totally gets it and is envious. I get the wanting to climb and I get the wanting to stand at the top of the world. I get the challenge, the struggle, the adrenalin, and the incredible way it must feel to stand on the summit looking out over the planet. On the other hand, the rational me realizes that it is probably supremely stupid to want to go someplace so deadly that no creature on this planet can live there. Seriously.
Katie emailed me on Monday that Steve had reached the summit and returned safe and sound. She also told me that in 4 days he had lost almost 10 pounds and was utterly beaten up and exhausted. The brutal climb, the long descent (which is always harder than the climb up), the extreme elevations, even with oxygen, had sucked more calories out of the boy than he could ever take in. Nothing he had ever done before had prepared him for this mountain and he was drained. He was glad he had done it and said that it was amazing, but he assured my daughter that he would never, ever want to climb anything any higher...ever. She was very happy to hear it.
Steve told her that he wasn't the least bit frightened climbing up, but when they were going down at elevations where the oxygen was wedding veil thin, each step was like wading through jello, and he was clinging to a 60 degree wall of ice by his axe and the crampons attached to his boots, he realized, with absolute clarity, that each moment he spent on that mountain put him that much closer to death, and although it was an extraordinary experience, it was as close as he ever wanted to be.
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