Ten years ago this month, I boarded a 747 to Nepal to start my two-month Everest expedition. Seeing posts from friends and colleagues who are just arriving now, has given me some pause to reflect on what happened then and everything that has happened since. I still believe that if an ordinary, out-of-shape, middle-age guy can summit Mt. Everest (and without oxygen), anyone can accomplish most anything. But in retrospect, for me, it was also the search for meaning, to give back and ultimately the quest for joy and happiness.
When I came back from Everest however, I can remember it all like it was yesterday. That feeling of freedom; just driving and parking my convertible and walking to the office front door was joyous. The Los Gatos sky was a bright baby-blue, the flowers were more colorful than I had ever seen, and the air just smelled sweet. Life, for a time, seemed great. I had literally reached the peak of human endeavor – and had lived to tell the tale. As a 53-year-old. All I had to do was to summit Vinson Massif in Antarctica the following year and I would have completed my (then) ten-year, Seven Continents Marathons and Summits goal.
It was a few weeks after returning from Kathmandu when a mild sort of depression set in – kind of a “is this all there is?”. I couldn’t really vocalize it in that way just yet; I was too busy happily answering questions about what it was like to summit. This was something that I had planned for years; from setting the original goal to visualizing what it would be like to stand on top. I had got there despite all the hardships, obstacles, and near-death experiences. I had really set a big goal and accomplished it – but not without risk, however.
I know I’m not alone with these thoughts. Vanessa B was a teammate of ours on the Vinson Antarctica Expedition, along with her dad and brother. Their whole family were great rope-mates and we had fun at the Antarctica Base Camp playing football and even running a 10K in the snow. Four years later, Vanessa summitted Mount Everest, along with her dad, and she became one of the youngest women to complete the Seven Summits, all before the age of 30.
I asked her recently how she had managed in the years since Everest and completing her Seven Summits quest; her answers, from a quite different age and place were strikingly similar to the feelings and emotions that I had experienced. Vanessa spoke about searching for joy and happiness and instead finding increased self-confidence, but also this question of “what’s next” and “why am I here”. The answer was not necessarily to stand on top of unfeeling, big mountains; though the adventure bug is still there, but now with more context. She also dedicated her life in the years since her own Personal Everest to helping others, both for income but also for helping to make the world a better place – in her own way. Her words echo what I’ve heard about what other high-achievers have to say about their own descent (from a big life or professional summit) and then the recommitment to fulfilling their further untapped potential to guiding others on their own way up.
How I’ve come to view my life since running out of oxygen below the Hillary Step (and not dying!) is a blessing; a supreme gift that I’ve been given to use wisely. One can’t help but come home from these types of peak experiences and expect to find the meaning of life, let alone, joy and happiness the next day. If you’ve ever come home from a particularly enlightening offsite (in the “before-times”) and feel you’vechanged – and nobody else around you has, it’s kind of like that.
Although of course it’s just an illusion. When I got home, I found bills and action items and trash and relationships to be sorted. In other words, normal life. Part of the reason I felt that low-grade depression in the months that followed, (Vanessa shared the same feelings), were tied up in the questions of not only what was next; but also, the meaning, was it worth the risk and cost? When Tom Petty sings about, “coming down is the hardest part”, he’s not kidding. More deaths occur on Everest (and most mountains) on the descent, not on the way up.
And this is the hardest part to write these ten-years after: To think that I risked not seeing my adult sons accomplish their own big goals, and beautiful granddaughters be born and raised (now three and five), or to have met my beautiful, ever-patient wife and her extended loving family, or the literally thousands of lovely experiences in the past 3500+ days just hurts my heart, and then overwhelms me with gratitude. Yes, I’m glad I was able to summit. If I knew then of what I know now of my life, would I have gone up instead of down at the Hilary Step when my oxygen ran out in the raging storm? I don’t know but I can imagine.
My thoughts and positive energy goes out to all the climbers, Sherpas, guides and crew this climbing season. Please be safe and remember how much you’re loved by those back home, and all that you have to live for upon your return.