Thursday Thought: Climbing, Kids, & The Mountaineer’s Will

I'm often asked if having children – I now have two – has changed my climbing in any way. And, I think it is often assumed that I either (a) no longer climb or (b) have deeply limited my climbing. 

The answer is no on both accounts. For starters, I have always been a conservative climber, most likely as a result of my guiding background. I've never considered dying in the mountains as an option, even though I know logically that it is indeed a possibility. Nonetheless, I always approach my climbs and expeditions with a conservative attitude and the essential perspective that the mountain will be here another day…the important thing is that I will be here to climb it another day.

While I have no desire or intention of ever dying in the mountains (Jim Whittaker once famously wrote: If you're ever killed mountain climbing, then all that you've worked for is gone.), I do know it is always a lurking possibility. Risk is as ever-present in the hills as rain, wind, and snow. But, risk is ever-present in our lives as a whole. I truly believe I have an equal chance of losing my life while driving on Interstate 25 in Denver as I do while climbing the high peaks. And, while I again do not want my life to end in the mountains, I guess I'd prefer that to becoming a good ornament on a semi while driving to the mall.

At any rate, what I'm getting at is that having children has not made me take more or less risk in my life, but rather to be sure I continue living my life, and living it fully. My kids have made me more certain than ever that I must pursue that in life which pushes me, enthralls me, and gives me the inspiration and passion to do more, to live more, to experience more. As William Arthur Ward wrote in To Risk:

To laugh is to risk appearing a fool,
To weep is to risk appearing sentimental.
To reach out to another is to risk involvement,
To expose feelings is to risk exposing your true self.
To place your ideas and dreams before a crowd is to risk their loss.
To love is to risk not being loved in return,
To live is to risk dying,
To hope is to risk despair,
To try is to risk failure.
But risks must be taken because the greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing.
The person who risks nothing, does nothing, has nothing, is nothing.
He may avoid suffering and sorrow,
But he cannot learn, feel, change, grow or live.
Chained by his servitude he is a slave who has forfeited all freedom.
Only a person who risks is free.
The pessimist complains about the wind;
The optimist expects it to change;
And the realist adjusts the sails.

If I pass on anything to my children, I want to pass on to them the knowledge that life is to be lived, embraced, and loved. That they should pursue their passions, and live with compassion. That they should be intriguing and intrigued. That they should maintain a sense of adventure and wonder in all that they do. And, that risk is inherent in living a full and true life.

So, today's Thursday Thought touches on what I want to show and pass on to my children. I hope I will have many more years to do so…The Mountaineer's Will by Paul S. Williams:

Having disposed of my material possessions, I now turn to those items I hold in great esteem but which are without material value in this life. To all of my children I leave the most important things of my life: The sparkle of sunlight on the snow in the cool sunlight of the early morning after a new snowfall, the blue of ice in a serac poised against the blue sky, the clean firm grip of good rock, the music of a tiny stream in an alpine meadow, the smell of heather in bloom, the graceful tilted head of an avalanche lily, the clink of pitons and carabiners, singing of a primus in darkness at high camp, the flicker of flashlights in the pre-dawn climb, and the indescribable beauty of an Alpine dawn from high on a mountain. The feel of comradeship as the team moves swiftly up the face, the moments when fingers of fear clench at your insides on exposure, and perhaps moments of terror, the knowledge that life and death are sure, swift, and true.

But above all, I leave to you my beloved children, those few short moments of attainment and peace on the summit, secure in the knowledge that you have conquered not the mountain so much as yourself. Those few moments in the sunlight you share with God, who has written his signature all about you as you sit in the magnificent cathedral in the sky created by God, for God, and which we mortals share but a brief time. Where you must accept the ultimate truth that we have but one end to our short life, before you descend again the burdens of the world, to shoulder the cross of responsibility to the family.

I know not whether or not you, my children, will follow in my steps to the Alpine world, and yet, knowing all too vividly the mountain dangers, I also fear that you will. But whether you go to the high places or view them from afar off as the sunset paints a crimson glory across and as the light slips from the mountain meadow, remember the restless spirit of your father amid the moss and heather seeking ever his eternal rest with God.

And, for extra credit, another wonderful series of thoughts by Rudyard Kipling from his poem If, which I first wrote about on this blog when our daughter, Lila, was born in 2007:

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or, being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with wornout tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breath a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on";

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings – nor lose the common touch;
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run –
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And – which is more – you'll be a Man my son!

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

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