The Summit Perspective…
Think for a moment about a big goal or objective you accomplished in your life. Maybe it was a financial goal, a physical, emotional, or spiritual one. Maybe it was buying a new house, getting a new job, securing a new client in business, having children or getting children through college.
Now, what five things stand out in your mind as being most important about reaching that goal, accomplishing that objective. Write those down.
I’m willing to bet that, for most of us, the five things – aside from the basic feeling of accomplishment when reaching the end, standing on the summit – are parts of the journey, things that happened to us while working toward the end goal: lessons we learned about ourselves, about others, about our strengths, weaknesses, our good points and bad ones.
For me, the goal I am thinking of is Everest, the Top of the World.
May 18, 2002, 6:45 AM.
I’m struggling upward with my friend, Karma Rita Sherpa at 28,700 Feet on Everest’s Southeast Ridge. We are breaking trail through a windslab atop 12 inches of fresh snow. We are ahead so I can be in position to get shots for Discovery of our climbing team as they progress upwards.
A slight breeze bites into my face, making my eyes water…and then freezing the tears to my eyelashes. My breathing is labored, evidence of the struggle to take step after step at this altitude. Whew….Whew….Whew….I take a step. Whew….Whew….Whew….I take another step.
Soon, we crest the 28,750 foot South Summit of Everest. I stop in my tracks, breath catching in my throat. It’s the view I have been waiting 20 years to see in person: The shadow of Everest itself stretching to the western horizon as the sun rises behind me to the east. I take a few shots, slip my camera back into the protective cocoon of my down suit, and keep climbing up the final 250 feet of the Southeast Ridge.
At 7:45 AM, Karma and I reach the top. We hoot and holler, give eachother celebratory hugs, and gaze out at the majestic view all around: Makalu, Chomolhunzo, Lhotse, Nuptse, Cho Oyu…Himalayan giants as far as the eye can see. I take some pictures, shake hands again with Karma. In five minutes, we are on our way down into a storm.
Five minutes? Five minutes??!! Twenty years of dreaming about Everest, two failed summit attempts, six weeks of hard work on this expedition…all for five little minutes on top? No, it wasn’t right. The summit had to be more than that. There had to be an epiphany, some sort of life-altering experience. I was temped to turn around and go back up, to look again, this time a bit harder, and find what I missed, that nugget of insight proving the top was more than just a little patch of snow at 29,035 feet.
I didn’t go back that day, but I did the next year. May 30, 2003, found me standing on the Top of the World for my second time, almost 50 years to the day since Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzin Norgay made the first ascent. Again, it was just a patch of snow, not a Shangri La, no enlightenment to be found. The summit was truly one small part of a much greater journey.
And, strangely enough, that thrilled me to no end. It thrilled me because it underscored something I knew all along but was reluctant to believe: the value in climbing lies not in reaching the summit, planting our flag and checking it off our to-do list. The true value, the true joy, lies rather on the sides of the mountain. It lies precisely in the challenges we find ourselves struggling against, the crevasses we have to cross. The growth on our mountains – and thus the value and the joy – occurs on the sides, not on the top. It is on the sides of our peaks that we push ourselves to our limits, reach to new heights, attain the seemingly unattainable and, by doing so, realize just how much we can accomplish in our lives, just how high we can climb.
It is the sides of the mountain which sustain life, not the top, writes Robert Pirsig in "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance". But, of course, without the top, we can’t have the sides.
You, too, have an Everest to climb. Go and climb it. Set your sights on the snowy summit. Point your face into the wind, breath hard, struggle onward, and stand on the top. But remember that your growth, your joy, and your value will be found on the sides.
© 2006 Jake Norton/MountainWorld Productions. All Rights Reserved.