Thursday Thought: Ego and Thoughts on the Top
I don't know who said it…Perhaps I did. But, regardless, I try to live by it:
Life is too short for ego.
Perhaps that's why in my life I've tended to gravitate toward, and be friends with, people who, while often quite accomplished, don't brag about their successes. Rather, the people I value most tend to be quite the opposite, downplaying their accomplishments, recognizing the part fortune and hard work played in their lives and, most importantly, always looking ahead with respect and reverence to the next challenge, the next mountain.
As I write this, I think of Marc Webb, my college housemate and friend who recently directed (500) Days of Summer. Marc is as humble as he's always been, and also introspective about the road that led him to success, and the road yet to travel.
In 1963, Willi Unsoeld made the first ascent of the West Ridge of Everest with Tom Hornbein, an ascent that still ranks as one of the greatest in Everest history. Afterward, however, Unsoeld refused to succumb to the pull of ego, sharing this sentiment on various occasions:
You've climbed the highest mountain in the world. What's left? It's all downhill from there. You've got to set your sights on something higher than Everest.
I've been fortunate enough in recent years to get to know Tom Hornbein through my work with the American Mountaineering Museum. Like Willi, Tom would have every reason to be less-than-humble about his life. From Masherbrum in 1960 to the West Ridge in '63, his climbing career is impressive and illustrious. In addition, he served as Professor and Chairman of the Department of Anesthesiology at the University of Washington School of Medicine from 1978 to 1993.
But, Tom is anything but egotistical. I've seen many occasions when Tom has politely conversed with climbers as Museum functions, listening honestly and intently to their stories of triumph and tragedy on Colorado's 14ers or other peaks, never making the slightest mention of his climbs unless asked directly.
And, Tom is a thinker. Climbing, I would venture, was never to Tom about something as simple as standing on top, but rather about a journey of desire and uncertainty, much like the journey of life itself.
His 1963 book Everest: The West Ridge
is, to me, no less impressive, raw, and powerful as the climb it documents. Tom's prose is direct, pensive, and honest, and, at its core, reflects on he and Willi's climb not as one for the record books and soapbox, but a part of the great journey. His last words in the book make up this week's Thursday Thought:
Beneath fatigue lurked the suspicion that the answers I sought were not to be found on a mountain. What possible difference could climbing Everest make? Certainly the mountain hadn't been changed. Even now wind and falling snow would have obliterated most signs of our having been there. Was I any greater for having stood on the highest point on earth? Within the wasted figure that stumbled weary and fearful back toward home there was no question about the answer to that one.
It had been a wonderful dream, but now all that lingered was the memory. The dream was ended.
Everest must join the realities of my existence, commonplace and otherwise. The goal, unattainable, had been attained. Or had it? The questions, many of them, remained. And the answers? It is strange how when a dream is fulfilled there is little left but doubt.
If you want to hear some more of Tom's thoughts and perspectives on Everest, climbing, and life, watch the video interview below from the American Mountaineering Museum's YouTube channel: