The Heroism of “Failure”

Gexev1034 In today’s Aspen Times, the editors ran an editorial congratulating Aspen climber and skier Mike Marolt on his recent Everest expedition. The interesting part is that Mike did not summit. He turned around at 28,000 feet on his summit push.

Why congratulate him?! He failed, right?

Well, as the editors point out, and as I’ve written about several times, turning around close to the summit can be a heroic success as well. Often, in fact, deciding to turn around close to your end goal, with the summit in sight, is the harder thing to do, the more valiant decision.

Mike Marolt could certainly have stood on top of Everest a few weeks ago. He could have done it…but he very well might have died on the descent, widowing his wife and orphaning his children. With the dream clearly in view, the summit within reach, Mike dug deep, undoubtedly wrestling with his emotions, instinct, and rational mind, and finally decided to turn around.

I know how that feels. In 1999, on my first Everest expedition – after 17 years of dreaming about climbing the mountain – I, too, turned around 700 feet below the summit. I knew I could make it to the top that day, but wasn’t sure the combination of the weather, our climbing speed, and my physical strength would enable me to get back down. And, let’s keep in mind, you only get a summit certificate for a round trip!

The decision to turn around on May 17, 1999, was the single hardest decision I’ve ever had to make in the mountains.

But, later in the day, as the storms closed in, the snow fell, and our teammates Conrad Anker and Dave Hahn struggled to return to Camp VI,I knew my decision was the right one.

No summit is worth a human life, a toe, a finger, or the pain and suffering of one’s family and friends. The summit is simply a patch of snow, a convenient excuse to begin an endeavor which brings joy, growth, and passion to our lives.

As one of my favorite authors, Robert Pirsig, wrote in Zen & The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:

You climb the
mountain in an equilibrium between restlessness and exhaustion.  Then, when
you are no longer thinking ahead, each footstep isn’t just a means to an
end but a unique event in itself.  This leaf has jagged edges.  This rock
looks loose.  From this place the snow is less visible, even though closer.
These are things you should notice anyway.  To live only for some future
goal is shallow.  It’s the sides of the mountain which sustain live, not
the top.  Here’s where things grow.

So, again, congratulations Mike on a job well done, a decision well made, and here’s to living on to enjoy the mountains another day.

Jake Norton is an Everest climber, guide, photographer, writer, and motivational speaker from Colorado.

Leave a Reply